Aksinya woke with a terrible headache. She had waited up late with the hope that Asmodeus would make an appearance. She wanted to ask him many questions, but the demon didn’t interrupt her that evening. That, in itself worried her more than anything.
She and Natalya attended a late Mass with the Freiherr and Freifrau Bockmann. Aksinya was ill, but hid it well until the end. Natalya rushed her out of the nave just in time.
Because of the work at Grossbock to clean up the house following the Advent party, Aksinya and Natalya returned to Sacré Coeur early before dinner.
As usual, during dinner, Aksinya sat next to Natalya. Aksinya had barely spoken a word since the party. One of the young women, Frieda Trauen, across the table, finally plucked up enough courage to ask, “How was your Aunt and Uncle’s party last night. It is always the event of the season.”
Natalya smiled brightly.
Aksinya shrugged her shoulders and slouched a centimeter lower.
“Did you dance?” the girl continued.
Aksinya sighed, “There was dancing, but no one asked me.”
Fraulein Trauen face displayed amazement. She turned toward Natalya, “Surely someone asked you to dance, Lady Natalya.”
Natalya smiled and raised her shoulders, “They were mostly older men and married.”
“The young ones come later in the evening. I heard the toast of the town were there. Don’t tell me that the Countess scared them off.”
Aksinya smiled a little smile, “They did seem afraid to approach me. That is, except one.”
All the faces at the table turned toward her. The question they didn’t speak was evident in their features. Finally, Fraulein Trauen asked breathlessly for them all, “Who was it?”
“Ernst von Taaffe. Do you know the name?”
“Who doesn’t in Wien? His father is the Graf von Taaffe. That would be a good match for you.” She looked down, then back to Aksinya, “And he didn’t ask you to dance?”
“He said it was too late, and I had drunk too much wine anyway. What do you know of him?”
All the young ladies sat up straight. Fraulein Trauen sat the straightest, “Too much wine. You should be more careful. You don’t want to let the young men slip through your fingers and neither do you wish to get within their grasp.”
All the ladies nodded almost as one.
Aksinya’s voice dripped with sarcasm, “I quite understand your meaning. So I ask you again, a little more clearly, what is the reputation of this Ernst von Taaffe.”
Diedre Vogt pressed her lips together, “I have not heard anything untoward about him, but he is considered a little mysterious.”
Fraulein Trauen pronounced, “He is studious and serious.”
Anna Pfaff cried out, “I’ve seen him many times at the ballet and the symphony.”
Fraulein Trauen sniffed, “The ballet does him no good, but the symphony means his intentions may be pure.”
Aksinya laughed, “Are any man’s intentions pure?”
Fraulein Trauen blushed, “Certainly there are men of honor and standing who would not compromise themselves or others.”
Aksinya sat back in her chair, “So you think he is an honorable man?”
Fraulein Pfaff giggled, “I haven’t heard anything untoward about him either. He isn’t known to be a gambler or a womanizer.”
Aksinya laughed, “Then his only bad trait is he likes to attend the ballet.”
Fraulein Trauen rolled her eyes, “It isn’t that he likes to attend the ballet. It is what he casts his gaze upon at the ballet.”
Aksinya smiled more broadly, “So if he asks me to the ballet, should I watch his eyes to see where they are gazing?”
Fraulein Trauen colored again, “I believe you are making fun of me.”
“I’m sorry. I am not. I simply want to gain the measure of the man.”
Fraulein Pfaff was breathless, “Do you think he will ask you to the ballet?”
“He said as much.”
Natalya bit her lip, “Mistress, this is the first time I have heard of this man.”
Aksinya put her hand on Natalya’s. She looked straight into her eyes, “I’m sorry, Lady Natalya. I didn’t mean to keep this a secret from you. My meeting with Herr von Taaffe occurred so suddenly Saturday night, and I was in no shape to converse that evening.”
Fraulein Trauen lifted her chin, “Because you had drunk so much.”
Aksinya turned her head toward the lady, “Because I had too much wine to drink.”
Fraulein Trauen slitted her eyes, “A young woman should always be careful and decorous.”
Lady Natalya had been following the conversation in German fairly well, “My mistress was both careful and decorous. I just had to help her up the stairs to bed.”
Fraulein Pfaff puffed out her cheeks, “You should be more careful than that. It is as Fraulein Trauen says, Ernst von Taaffe would be a good match for you.”
Fraulein Vogt put up her chin, “Such connections are meaningless now. My father told me, during the next session, the new Austrian Parliament intends to ban the aristocracy.”
The ladies across the table nodded sagely. Aksinya sunk a little lower in her seat. Natalya looked puzzled.
Fraulein Trauen smiled slyly, “Then there is no reason you should be careful or decorous, and then little reason for Ernst von Taaffe to not entertain us also.”
Aksinya scowled, “I understand your meaning there too. You mean I would not be able to attract Ernst von Taaffe except that I am a countess.”
Fraulein Trauen bit her lip. She looked down her nose at Aksinya, “It is usually not polite…”
“…to say what is unspoken, but true.” Aksinya finished for her.
Fraulein Trauen rose up an inch from her seat. She slowly sat back down and let out her breath.
Aksinya didn’t move an inch, “That serves you well, Fraulein Trauen. Self control is a very important trait in a young woman.”
Fraulein Trauen sniffed.
Aksinya gave a small smile, “It is a trait that I do not possess in the least.” She turned to Natalya, “Lady Natalya are you ready to retire for the evening?”
Fraulein Trauen’s lips were tight, “Retreat, you mean.”
“I concede the field to you, Fraulein Trauen. I cannot hold it with my virtue or my beauty.” She stood.
Natalya and Aksinya returned to their house across the street. When they left the dining room, Sister Margarethe joined them at the door. Aksinya didn’t acknowledge the nun, but Natalya gave her a greeting in German.
They went across the street and Natalya unlocked the door. The house was warm—much warmer than the school or dormitory. A coal fire burned in the fireplace. Two novice nuns, dressed in black and white, came to the foyer to greet them. They removed Aksinya, Natalya, and Sister Margarethe’s cloaks and saw them up to their rooms. They made sure the coal fires and the gaslights were lit, then curtsied and returned to the lower floor. At her door, Aksinya took Natalya’s arm, “Sister Margarethe, would you please bring us tea?”
Aksinya glanced at the nun then pulled Natalya into her room and closed the door. Aksinya placed Natalya in front of an overstuffed chair in the sitting room. She moved hurriedly to the other chair before Natalya could move and pulled it close. She sat quickly knowing Natalya would only sit after her. Natalya sat almost as quickly and leaned expectantly toward Aksinya. Aksinya sucked on her lower lip, “Nata, I do apologize that you were not the first to know about Ernst von Taaffe.”
Natalya smiled, “I realize you did not purposefully keep the information from me.”
Aksinya held the sides of her head, “I was in no condition last night to explain anything to anyone.”
“Tell me about him.” Natalya reached out her hands.
Aksinya grasped them, “He was an interesting man.” Her brow creased, “And he has my book.”
Natalya’s eyes widened, “He has your book.” Natalya sat up a little, “Does he…does he…?”
“Yes, he knows it all. He was the one who tried to help at the Golden Adler.”
“Then he was the gentleman who carried you back to the house?”
“Did he see you…you know, did he see you…?”
“He saw me make the great enchantment.”
Natalya hung her head, “I didn’t get to see it—I wish I had.”
“Hush, don’t say such things. It always embarrasses me. It is not something I am proud of.”
“I am proud of you, Countess…Aksinya.”
Aksinya glanced down, “No one else would be.”
“What about this young man?”
Aksinya made a face, “He praised me for it.”
Natalya tried to hide her smile, “Then, like me, he would be proud of you too.”
“He did, but I don’t want that. He wants to court me. He said he was infatuated with me.”
“For a man to appreciate you for who and what you are seems a very great thing to me. Will you allow him to court you?”
“He won’t give me back my book until I do.”
Natalya laughed, “Then you will only allow him to court you because he has your book?”
Aksinya glanced down, “He promised me another book too.”
Natalya was incredulous, “The only reason you will court him is for a couple of books?”
Aksinya turned her a foul look.
“Aksinya, what about the man. He said he is infatuated with you. He likes you for who you are. What does a moldy book have to do with anything?”
“You are cruel, Nata. Why would I want a man? What would I do with him? I can do something with a book.”
“A book of sorcery. The thing you seem to hate the most.”
“I do hate it.”
“But you are so wonderful at it.”
“It is a wasted skill.”
“But you are so skilled at it. In any case, this young man likes you. He is the son of an aristocrat. You need to determine if he will become the Graf. If so he will be equal to you in rank and therefore a balanced union.”
“What if I don’t seek any union?”
Natalya’s mouth opened and closed, finally she squeaked out, “Of course you want a union. You must find a man to marry—a man who is close to your rank. That will bring honor to your family and to the nobility.”
Aksinya shook her head, “Nata, my family is dead. In , the nobility will soon be dead. You heard Fraulein Vogt this evening, the Austrian Parliament intends to outlaw the aristocracy in . There is no purpose in making a good match anymore.”
“But, Aksinya, there is still a purpose in marrying a good man.”
Aksinya mumbled, “He isn’t a good man. He is a man who desires sorcery.”
“Then he is just like you. What is wrong with that? I desire sorcery. You…you…”
“Say it Nata. Go ahead. I know what you are going to say.”
“Very well, Aksinya. Though I desire it, you will not properly teach me.”
A knock came from the door. Aksinya jumped. Natalya turned toward the sound, “You may enter, sister.”
Sister Margarethe opened the door and brought in the tea service. Natalya pointed to the tea table. Sister Margarethe placed it on the top. Natalya pointed again, “Sister, you may pour.”
Sister Margarethe poured the tea.
Aksinya sat quietly in her chair.
Natalya picked up her cup, “Thank you, Sister Margarethe, we have everything we need. I’ll put the Countess to bed.”
Sister Margarethe curtsied and stepped back to the door.
Natalya called at her back, “I’ll prepare the Countess for school tomorrow. If you could please see to our breakfast?”
“Yes, Lady, I shall tell the novice sisters.”
Sister Margarethe closed the door.
Natalya waited a moment, “When will you teach me sorcery?”
Aksinya stared at her, “Nata, I don’t ever intend to teach it to you. It does me no good and only causes me to suffer. If you only knew…”
“I do not know. I only see the good you do. I don’t understand why you won’t do this for me.”
Aksinya let out a breath and glanced down, “I have already begun to teach you Latin, but I do not intend to teach you sorcery.”
“Why Latin? What is the purpose of it?”
Aksinya mumbled again, “It is the words.”
“I’m sorry Aksinya. I couldn’t understand you.”
“I said, it is the words. Sorcery can be accomplished in Latin or Greek. Latin is more common. The words and the sounds are critical. They must be said precisely. If they are spoken incorrectly, at best, the enchantment will not work, at the worst, it will injure you. The first step is to learn the language of sorcery.”
“Why Latin or Greek?”
“Although I have heard that sorcery has been successful in other languages, I have no evidence of it. The documents of the church were first in Greek and next in Latin. Those have been the languages of sorcery since then.”
“What of Hebrew?”
“There is a possibility of sorcery in Hebrew, but I don’t know the language, and I have never seen any books. The books are necessary.”
“Why necessary? You have made enchantments without your books.”
“If a single piece of the enchantment is wrong or incorrectly done, it won’t succeed. The books give explicit directions to make it work. If you forget, or if you make a mistake, your life or your health can be forfeit.”
“But you do it so easily.”
Aksinya took Natalya’s hands, “Listen closely to me, Nata. I spent nearly every free moment of my childhood studying sorcery. I had no friends. I had no one, so I read the books. I collected the items. I practiced everything over and over until I perfected it. When I began, I quickly discovered the danger. My fingers were covered with wounds. I have scars on my body from every failed enchantment.”
Natalya’s voice was low, “I have scars on my body and nothing to show for it.”
“I am happy to have you for my friend. I will do anything to keep that including teaching you sorcery, but I suspect I will not be able to let you ever do it. I will be too afraid to allow you to harm yourself.”
Nata stood, “It is late, Aksinya. Let me prepare you for bed.”
Natalya took Aksinya’s arms and lifted her up from the chair. Aksinya passively stood and Natalya began to remove her clothing.
Strangely, the demon didn’t visit Aksinya this night either.
In the morning, Aksinya and Natalya walked to Sacré Coeur with Sister Margarethe in tow. They attended chapel and classes. When they returned that evening, one of the novice sisters brought Aksinya a sealed envelope. She curtsied as she handed it to her, “Countess, this afternoon a letter was delivered to the door.”
Aksinya took the envelope and went up to her rooms. Natalya and Sister Margarethe followed her.
Natalya blocked Sister Margarethe at the door, “Please prepare tea for us, Sister.”
Sister Margarethe didn’t move for a moment, she appeared as though she was not going to leave then she bobbed her head, “Yes, Lady Natalya.”
Aksinya stood under the gaslight near the fireplace with a preoccupied expression on her face.
Natalya shut the door, “I can’t read German well yet, but that seems to be from your young man.”
Aksinya didn’t turn toward her, “It is from Ernst von Taaffe and addressed to me.”
Aksinya just stood with the envelope. She turned it over in her hands.
Natalya grasped it from her, “Mistress, you must read it.”
Aksinya’s face was distraught, “If it from him, what will I do?”
Natalya squinted at the return address, “It is certainly from him. You must see what his invitation is then you can decide.”
“I am afraid.”
“Afraid? You have never shown fear of anything before.”
“I am afraid of this temptation.”
Natalya cleanly opened the seal and removed the letter inside. She glanced at it, “It is in German. I can’t read it to you, so you must. Or would you rather have Sister Margarethe read Ernst von Taaffe’s letter for you.”
Aksinya sighed and took the proffered letter. She shook it open it and read it out loud. “It says:
Ernst Franz von Taaffe
15 December 1918
Dearest Lady Golitsyna
You enchanted me from the first moment I heard your name spoken. I was honored to come to your help when you were in need. Thank you for hearing me out at your honorable uncle and aunt’s party. As I discussed with you then, I would like to make your further acquaintance this week. Would you please save time for me this Thursday evening? I would be delighted to escort you to dinner and to the ballet. I will come for you at six. I can assure you, I will be a pleasant companion. I would be pleased if you would not concern yourself about your possession. I will keep it safe for you. If it is the only reason you will take time for me, then that is reason enough. I will send my servant tomorrow to receive your answer.
Ernst Franz von Taaffe, heir to Graf von Taaffe
Aksinya sighed again, “What am I to answer?”
Natalya touched Aksinya’s hand, “You shall pen a response tonight. In it you will tell Herr Taaffe that you will gladly receive him. I shall chaperone you, of course.”
“But, I’m not sure I want to receive him.”
“What could it hurt you? And, you will secure the return of your book.”
“What if I am tempted by this young man?”
Natalya laughed, “That is the point, Countess. Just because you are tempted does not mean you will act on it.”
Aksinya trembled, “You don’t understand me at all, Nata.”
“Perhaps I do understand you better than you imagine. I shall be there with you. I will not let you be compromised—this I promise you.” Natalya, took Aksinya by the shoulders and pushed her to the desk in her sitting room. She pressed Aksinya into the chair and placed a quill pen into her hand, “Now, write a response to him in German and read it back to me. If you try to get out of this, I shall tell Sister Margarethe.”
Natalya’s resolve crumbled, “I will never betray your trust, Countess, but I insist you accept this nobleman’s attentions. His approach is honorable and acceptable.”
“Honorable and acceptable,” Aksinya mumbled. “But why me? Why should he be infatuated with me?”
“Who understands the ways of love in a man’s heart?”
“If it is simply temptation?”
“I cannot tempt any man. I am small and ugly. My hair is short. My bosom is like a girl’s. What could he want from me—that is other than sorcery.”
“Isn’t that enough?”
Aksinya didn’t respond. She began to pen a response. It was pleasant, but not too pleasant. She was happy that Natalya could not read German, and she certainly didn’t read it back verbatim to her lady-in-waiting.
On Thursday, a landau carriage drove up to the front door of Aksinya’s house. The convertible roof was up and the side flaps were tied tightly shut against the cold. The two dark horses blew out great puffs of frosty breath when the driver brought them to a halt. The driver jumped to the street and opened the flap on the house side. Ernst von Taaffe stepped out the landau and walked to the door. He held a small bouquet of flowers in one hand. He knocked on the carved cedar door himself.
Sister Margarethe opened the door to him, “Good evening.”
Ernst pushed past her into the house. He pulled off his top hat, “Good evening, Sister.” He glanced at her for only a moment, “I’m here to pick up that wonderful Lady, the Countess of Golitsyna.” He juggled the top hat and the small bouquet for a moment then handed her his card, “Will you please tell her that Ernst von Taaffe is here to attend her.”
Sister Margarethe took the card then her hand stole to her cheek, “You are here to pick up the Countess?”
“Yes, I am expected. I have an appointment.” He smiled.
Sister Margarethe backed toward the end of the room. As an afterthought, she called back to Ernst, “Please make yourself… comfortable. I shall return presently.”
Aksinya and Natalya almost ran into Sister Margarethe on the stairs. Sister Margarethe pressed her lips together, “A man is here.” She could barely get out the words. Then her eyes finally focused on Aksinya and Sister Margarethe let out a tiny squeak, “You were expecting him?”
“Of course,” Aksinya pushed past the Sister.
Natalya paused a moment beside Sister Margarethe. She smiled and nodded then she continued after her mistress.
Aksinya stepped into the parlor, and Ernst dropped both his hat and the flowers. Aksinya wore a dark blue dress made entirely of satin. The fabric shown brilliantly. Each twinkle of the gaslights reflected in it and blazed. It was an older noble cut, but certainly not out of style for visiting a tsar. The bodice was covered with brocade—a blue on blue whose design was so intricate, Ernst’s eyes could not discern its entirety in the dim light of the room. Aksinya’s long gloves were white with accents of blue lace, and a mist of lace floated upward from the bodice to cover her shoulders. That was also matched by the lace of the small veiled cap that covered her short hair.
Ernst could only beam when he saw her. He recovered the flowers and dropped to his left knee, “Countess, you are ravishing.” He held out the bouquet, “Please accept this small gift.”
Aksinya took the flowers. She knew it was no small gift. In the middle of winter such a bouquet of fresh flowers was very dear. It was made of a single red rose surrounded by lilacs and edelweiss. She brought them close to her nose. They smelled very pleasant. She smiled behind the bouquet, “Aren’t you being a little presumptive in presenting me with a red rose?”
“Not at all, you accepted it, didn’t you?”
“So I did, Herr von Taaffe.”
Ernst stood and put out his arm, “If you please, Countess. My landau awaits you.”
Sister Margarethe loudly cleared her throat behind them.
Aksinya half turned, “Ernst von Taaffe, I am pleased to introduce Sister Margarethe. She looks after the Lady Natalya and me.”
Ernst turned his head only a fraction of an inch, “Will she accompany us?”
Aksinya shook her head, “Not on this occasion. And I can’t forget my best friend and confidant, the Lady Natalya Alexandrovna Obolenska. She will accompany me.” Aksinya didn’t turn this time, “Sister Margarethe, the Lady Natalya and I will be going out for the evening with Herr von Taaffe. We will return after the ballet. Please bring our cloaks.”
Sister Margarethe curtsied, “I am very pleased to meet you Herr Taaffe. Do not keep my charges out too late. They must both attend chapel and early classes.” She exited the room for a moment and returned with the cloaks.
When Sister Margarethe approached Aksinya, Natalya stopped her, “That is the wrong cloak for the Countess. Please bring the mink one.”
Sister Margarethe pressed her lips together, but she went back for the heavy mink cloak. When Sister Margarethe returned, Natalya took the cloak from her and placed it over Aksinya’s shoulders. She took a deep breath, smiled, and tied the cloak at Aksinya’s neck.
Sister Margarethe placed Natalya’s black woolen cloak over her shoulders. Natalya stepped toward Aksinya before the nun could fasten the cloak. She buried her face in the fabric and slowly tied it at her neck herself.
Aksinya eyed Ernst’s proffered arm dubiously. Then she placed two gloved fingers on his forearm. Ernst covered her fingers and forced her hand against his arm. He smiled at her, “I wouldn’t want you to stumble.” He led her to the door. Sister Margarethe just had time to get to the portal and open it so he and Aksinya could exit into the freezing evening. Natalya nodded as she passed the nun, but she didn’t say a word, and she turned her head away from the sister to hide her smile.
The horses and driver turned their heads toward Aksinya and Ernst as they exited the house. Aksinya still held the wonderful bouquet in her free hand.
The driver immediately leapt down from the landau. He uncovered his head, bowed, and presented his arm to Aksinya. She placed her gloved fingers on his arm and stepped into the carriage. Herr Taaffe aided from the other side. Both of them handed Natalya into the carriage.
Inside, Aksinya sat facing forward and Natalya took the seat across from her. Ernst entered and sat next to Aksinya. When they were all settled, he tapped on the front of the carriage and the horses started slowly and gently increased their speed.
Almost immediately, Ernst slouched in his seat so he partially faced Aksinya. He laughed, “You have made me a very happy man, dear lady.”
Aksinya frowned, “How have I made you so happy?”
“Why, you accepted my invitation and are now accompanying me.”
Aksinya turned toward him, “I want you to return my book.”
“You aren’t in any way pleased to be escorted by me?”
Aksinya returned her head to the front. She didn’t say anything.
“Ha, I take that to mean, you are not completely displeased that I am your escort.”
“I am not entirely displeased, but I do wish my book returned.”
“If I return your book will you promise to go out with me again?”
“I will take your request under consideration.”
“Then I will take into consideration the return of your book. I want to court you. I am in love with you, and I wish to tempt you on every occasion to come with me to dinner and entertainment.”
Aksinya turned her head toward the outside of the landau. There was no window, only an opening that was covered with a leather flap. She scowled but didn’t look back at him, “I wish the return of my book. What reason could you have to love me or even want my attention?”
“My father isn’t opposed. I admit, I haven’t had much experience with women or love, but only a woman of equal rank would please him. He desires to meet you, but I’m holding that off a bit.”
Aksinya’s voice had a tinge of sarcasm in it, “Why would you do that?”
“Because I don’t think you are too keen on the idea yet.”
“Still, your father’s approval shouldn’t be enough to excite your ardor.”
“Excite my ardor,” Ernst smiled, “You have no idea. I find you dazzling…”
“Because of sorcery?”
He laughed, “Because I am ensorcelled or because you are a sorceress. Does your lady-in –waiting know?”
“Of course she knows. I wouldn’t have brought it up otherwise.”
“Have you ensorcelled me?”
Aksinya snorted, “Do I act as if I wished such a thing?”
“You are mistaken if you believe I have ensorcelled you.” She turned toward him and her eyes widened. She said a couple of Latin words and leaned back with a sigh.
“Am I ensorcelled?”
“I didn’t think so.” He took a deep breath, “The scent of your enchantment is very strong. You are absolutely magnificent.”
Aksinya scooted closer to the other corner of the landau.
“What is wrong, Countess? Are you angry because I said you were magnificent or because I praised your sorcery?”
Aksinya made a noncommittal sound.
“What can I do to gain your affection or at least your attention?”
“First, say nothing about sorcery. I do not wish to speak about it. Such things do not please me. If you cannot enjoy me without sorcery being a part of it, then you should return me to my house.”
Ernst bowed, “I shall say nothing else about it—unless you, dear lady bring up the subject.”
Aksinya felt her cheeks burning, “Very, well.”
“What is second?”
She looked back at the blank side and mumbled, “Second, you must accept me for who I am, and not for who you think I am.”
Ernst sat a little straighter, “I assure you, I am captivated by you and you alone. It is every bit of you and not a singular piece.”
Natalya spoke up, “How do you know so much about my mistress? How could you?”
Ernst’s smile came through his voice, “I discovered the Countess through her courtier, Herr Aznabaev, but I know Freiherr Bockmann very well. He is a great friend of my father’s. After Herr Aznabaev made me aware of the Countess, I approached Freiherr Bockmann and asked that he allow me to woo her.”
Aksinya turned toward him, “You didn’t?”
“I did. Didn’t you find it odd that no one invited you to dance at your uncle’s Advent party? Your uncle let the word get around that I had asked for an exclusive bid to woo. He and your aunt even kept the interested at bay so I could have the chance to speak to you alone.”
“You waited until the Lady Natalya…”
He laughed, “I did. Herr Aznabaev even advised me how to get by the Sister who watches over you.”
Aksinya mumbled, “Does he advise you about everything?”
The landau rolled to a slow stop.
Ernst’s voice changed slightly, “Here we are. This is my favorite restaurant, the Palais Coburg Hotel Residenz. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I do.”
They heard the driver climb from his perch, and the leather flap on the right side raised. Bright light filled the landau. Ernst stepped out first and lifted his hand to Aksinya. She shaded her eyes with the hand that held her flowers as she grasped his proffered hand and exited the carriage. Ernst guided her foot to the step and helped her down. He placed her gloved hand on his arm and held it there. The driver helped Natalya from the landau.
The hotel was sparkling white marble in two grand floors. It was brilliantly lit by bright new electric light bulbs. The yellow of the bulbs made the marble shine like aged stone. The building was designed in a classical style with rounded arches below and triangular ones above. Its roof was flat with a balustrade and ornamental steps above that. Colonnades encircled the front entry on both levels, and wonderful, but half hidden marble statues perched at the top of the roofline. The center sculpture looked like the Austrian Eagle, but Aksinya couldn’t tell in the evening light. The statues seemed like the muses or graces, but there were too many of them. She didn’t get a chance to count them before Ernst escorted her between the row of bowing doormen into the building. As they entered, Ernst leaned toward Aksinya, “They only just started to light it like this. It was so dreary during the war.”
They entered the main foyer. There, the floor was blue stone gilded with elegant designs. The walls were white plaster ornamented with raised golden scrollwork. They were greeted at the very end of the foyer by an open fireplace filled with a bright wood fire. Above it was a large mirror. The foyer was slightly congested with the evening dinner crowd. The moment Aksinya glanced in the mirror, she thought she caught a glimpse of Asmodeus. She picked up a whiff of sulfur. She almost turned around, but stopped herself at the last moment. When she looked again, he was gone—so she wasn’t certain if that had been her imagination.
Ernst flipped off his hat and motioned to the majordomo. The man came running, “Good evening, Herr von Taaffe.”
“Good evening, Herr Leichter.” He paused a moment to pull Aksinya forward a step, “This is the Countess Aksinya Andreiovna Golitsyna. She and her lady-in-waiting are my special guests tonight.”
“Yes, Herr von Taaffe. I’m glad you alerted us about her Ladyship’s arrival.” The majordomo bowed very low. The foyer became immediately silent. When the majordomo stood straight again, he spoke very loudly, “Countess Golitsyna and Herr von Taaffe please follow me. Your usual accommodations have been prepared for you and the countess.”
As Aksinya and Ernst stepped beside Herr Leichter, people on either side of them bowed and curtsied toward Aksinya. She held her head high.
Ernst smiled at her and whispered, “I must say, you are ravishing and appear every bit a Russian Countess.”
Aksinya didn’t look at him, “But I am a Russian Countess.”
Herr Leichter led them to a room at the far end of the lower floor. The walls were salmon colored and the carved wooden ceiling was frescoed with a beautiful painting. A great chandelier hung from its center. On the wall was a large oil of a woman in a white lace wedding dress. The oak doors were carved, and the floor was a wonderful wooden mosaic. Inside the room was a long table set for three. Two places were set at one end and the other a little further down from them. A grand piano sat in one corner of the room. Gas lamps and candles were lit and provided all the illumination here not electricity like the rest of the building. Wood fires were lit in two opposing fireplaces. Immediately, when they entered, the pianist began to play a gentle waltz melody.
Herr Leichter led them to the head of the table. A maid stood there. She curtsied to Aksinya. Herr Leichter grinned, “Countess, would you like to remove your cloak?”
Aksinya nodded. The maid untied the clasp and Ernst helped Aksinya slip out of it. Aksinya removed her long gloves and handed them to the maid. She noticed wryly, her rich blue gown clashed with the decorations in the room. The maid took the bouquet in one hand and the coat over her arm and moved to a corner. She stood there almost unmoving the rest of the evening until just before they left.
Ernst sat Aksinya at the head and then Natalya at the setting a little further down. Another maid took Natalya’s cloak and gloves and Ernst’s top hat, gloves, and top coat and handed them to the maid who held Aksinya’s mink and bouquet. As soon as Ernst sat in the chair to the side of Aksinya, three waiters brought lavers and towels for them to rinse and dry their hands.
They disappeared for a moment then almost immediately returned with the appetizer and wine. The wine was a slightly dry Riesling. The appetizer, a tiny filet of roebuck encircled with bacon and topped with krauter butter. Ernst stated off-hand, “I asked for the night’s special dinner. I think you will like it. If you don’t, they will prepare you anything you wish—you just have to ask.”
Aksinya took a bite of the steak, “This is very nice. Please ask them to continue.”
Ernst gave a small bow at his seat.
Aksinya slowly savored the food. She asked, “So Herr von Taaffe…”
“Won’t you call me, Ernst?”
Aksinya pursed her lips, “Don’t you think that is a little familiar?”
“I will continue to address you as Lady or Countess, but you may call me Ernst.”
“That is still too familiar, but I shall do so only because I am polite and you asked. I do not address my lady-in-waiting by her given name in public.”
Ernst glanced at Natalya and his brow rose.
“In any case, Ernst, am I to understand that you didn’t participate in the war?”
“Ah, but I did, Countess. I marched off with the first wave and served honorably until my father caught me. At his insistence, the Army sent me back and assigned me as an adjutant to a General in Wien. I would still be there except for the end of the war and the reduction of the military. They didn’t need a half Graf who was a lieutenant at full pay. So I am back to my old habits.”
“And what are those?”
“In general, I read. I study Latin. You understand why. I go to breakfast, luncheon, and dinner at my favorite restaurants in Wien. I visit my friends and my father’s friends. It is a pleasant existence.”
Aksinya pressed her lips together again.
“A nobleman should be about a nobleman’s business…”
“And what is that?”
“Managing his estate. Keeping his horses and property. What about your people? Who holds court over them and judges their problems?”
Ernst laughed, “The aristocracy in is much different than you imagine. My estate is not made up of lands and people. Although my father does have some property, and I keep a house here in town, our family’s wealth is in stocks and bonds. We hold industrial agreements and own factories.”
“And your people?”
“No one looks to us.”
“That is sad, you have so little purpose.”
The waiters poured them another glass of wine. This was just a little sweeter than the last. They removed the plates and utensils and exchanged them for a spoon and a small bowl of soup. The size of the spoon was petite and matched to the size of Aksinya’s mouth. She was very pleased with it. The soup pleased her as well. It was a buttery consume of some kind of squash and little bits of bacon. The wine matched it well.
After he had taken a couple of spoonfuls, Ernst dabbed his lips, “I told you a little about me. Now, I would like to know something about you.”
Aksinya leaned a little over the table.
Natalya cleared her throat and made a sign with her fingers.
Aksinya scowled and sat up straight, “Why would you want to know about me? I am nothing.”
“Ah, but you are not nothing. You are a Countess from and a very intelligent woman.”
Aksinya lifted her chin, “Then I will tell you, I am perhaps more worthless than you. My family and people were everything to me. Now, my family is dead, and I abandoned my people. How am I supposed to be a countess when I have no one to look to me?”
“Indeed,” Ernst smiled, “I am willing to apply for that position.”
Aksinya snarled, “Don’t make fun of me.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. How did you escape alive from ? Your aunt and uncle told me a little.”
“My father knew the Bolsheviks would visit our estate. He chose to confront them. He thought he could talk to them, negotiate with them.”
“He was wrong?”
“He died because he was wrong. My mother, sister, brother all died with him because he was wrong.”
“I was at the guesthouse.” She took a deep breath, “I didn’t trust them.” She glanced up, “The Bolsheviks. I knew it wouldn’t work out well. I was so afraid my family would die. Afterward, I escaped with the Lady Natalya to Wien.”
Ernst put his hand over hers. His eyes bore into hers, “There is much more to this than you are telling me.”
Aksinya pulled away her hand, “And I will not tell you any more.”
The waiters appeared to take away the soup and serve the fish. They brought out a fish knife and a small fork. They placed a small trout fillet before each of them. It was covered with a cream sauce. Aksinya turned a little away from Ernst and took a bite.
Ernst ate a forkful of the tender fish himself. He wiped his lips, “Countess, there are many more events that touch this world and right now.”
Aksinya whispered, “None is more important than my sorrow.”
Ernst made a serious face, “That may be true, but the end of the war has placed a great burden on the Austrian and German people. You see the beggars in the street even in this freezing weather. The usual restaurants can barely keep their doors open. We have coffee and tea—they drink hot barely water. And I see little improvement in the future. For example, the treaty of in itself may cause suffering for all of us.”
“What is this treaty of ?”
“It is the agreement the allies forced on to conclude the war.”
“Is it onerous?”
“It is indeed onerous. It calls for reparations the German people will never be able to afford. Their aristocracy is in collapse. It is not yet certain who will lead them forward.”
“A man who is noble, forthright, and courageous must lead them.”
“I would that there was such a man. I expect they will be led by an egotistical commoner and fool. The people there have rejected their nobility.”
“And I understand your people here have decided to reject your nobility too.”
“Ah, so you have heard?”
“It is true. The parliament intends to dissolve the aristocracy.”
“If you hold no true fealty, then there is no purpose for an aristocracy in .”
Ernst smiled, “There you have found us out, Countess. We have no reason to exist, and the parliament will erase even the slight nobility left us.”
“Nobility is not a question of birth, but rather how a man carries himself.”
“What did you say?”
“It is something my father often reminded me.”
The waiters brought the main meat course. It was wiener schnitzel with puffy potato croquettes in a demi glace sauce. Aksinya was delighted. Although she and Ernst made a few additional remarks about the meal, their conversation after that wasn’t very remarkable. They completed their dinner with a salad, a cheese course, and a desert. The courses were a little larger than those at Sacré Coeur, but much smaller than those before the war. Desert was an apple strudel with whipped cream. The whipped cream was not sweet, but the desert more than made up for it.
When they finished eating, Ernst stood and helped Aksinya and Natalya out of their seats. The maid who held their coats and gloves came to them. She assisted Aksinya first with hers and then Natalya, finally Herr von Taaffe. With a deep curtsy, she reverently handed Aksinya her bouquet. They had been placed in water the whole time and still were fresh. Ernst led them both back out of the Palais Coburg Hotel Residenz and helped them into his landau. The carriage headed off down the cold and damp streets of Wien.