The invitations from Ernst continued every week. During that time, Aksinya and Natalya had an unwelcome break from school for Christmas and New Years. It was unwelcome because Natalya wanted to study and Aksinya liked the privacy of her own house—the Freiherr and Freifrau insisted they stay at Grossbock during the holiday. Ernst came to collect Aksinya and Natalya at Grossbock for their outings. Occasionally he ate dinner with them. During the holidays, he escorted Aksinya to dinner and a concert, opera, ballet, or a play every other day. The Freiherr and Freifrau encouraged Aksinya, and Aksinya was certain her aunt and uncle encouraged Ernst. She had her own suspicions that Asmodeus also encouraged him. She hadn’t seen Asmodeus for a while and that worried her very much. Natalya simply went along with Aksinya and carefully watched Ernst.
Aksinya made it her practice not to drink as much as she had the night of Die Zauberflöte. She still enjoyed the wine and Champagne Ernst served her, but she was just a little more cautious. She loved to drink but she did not enjoy the aftermath, and she wasn’t certain of what she did or told Natalya in the privacy of her room when she was not sober.
Ernst invited Aksinya, Natalya, and the Bockmanns to the Graff von Taaffe’s New Years dance and party. Because of the distance to the estate, they were invited to remain over until the next day and brought their small trunks and nightwear. They rode in the Bockmann’s coupe for more than two hours into the country until they arrived at the Graff von Taaffe’s estate. The way to the house from the main road was down a long tree-lined carriage path. Aksinya would have continued to read her German novel except that Natalya pointed out their approach to the house. They caught occasional glimpses from the enclosed cab of the great house as they cut back and forth in the gentle climb to the mansion.
The house was large and very old. From a distance, it looked like a schloß, but had a little more modern appearance close up. That is, on closer observation, it appeared to be from the eighteenth century, which it was, rather than from the fourteenth century, which it wasn’t. The front was stone with a generous fresco of marble, and all three floors displayed a similar exterior. The access to the heavy oaken front door was from a set of modern marble steps, but in contrast, the lower floor showed tiny windows and the top floor a crenulated roofline. Aksinya could spot the iron roofing that poked above the tops of the decorative crenulations. The second floor windows were larger and more numerous, but still gave an impression of medieval depth, and the top floor windows were the largest, but the thickness of the stone facade prevented any visibility into them. Tall constructions at either end of the face of the mansion appeared like towers, but they were encompassed at the walls and not separate structures.
The mansion reminded Aksinya a little of her house in . The outline and much of the ornamentation were similar. In , however, the purpose was protection and defense. Her house had been defended many times in the past by the Counts Golitsyna. She, on the other hand, had abandoned it instead of defending it with her life. She shook her head. She wondered why that thought had suddenly stolen into her mind. The von Taaffe estate, on the other hand, gave no impression that it had ever been defended against any real foe.
Aksinya was not enraptured with the idea of visiting Ernst’s family or his father’s estate. Still Ernst was pleasant. She certainly didn’t want her aunt and uncle gumming up all her time with the young man. She wondered mostly why he would invite her and her aunt and uncle to this affair tonight.
When their coupe arrived at front of the house, Ernst ran out and stopped at the carriage door before the vehicle came to a complete stop. He was dressed formally in dark tails, but didn’t have on his top hat. He yanked open the door before the doorman or the driver could. Aunt Brunhilda grasped Aksinya’s arm and pulled her up. She whispered with a smile, “Greet him first. He’s looking for you.”
Aksinya came to the door, and Ernst put out his hand. Aksinya allowed him to help her from the coupe. She was dressed in a light blue gown that had silver highlights sewn into the fabric. The gown flowed gently over her body. The top was high with a straight collar that accentuated her very thin body and small bosom. Her hat was a small square of blue lace with a very light veil that only reached as long as her bangs. Like always, Natalya had chosen the clothing for her. Aksinya had not closed her long mink cloak and that framed her body and the dress. Ernst stared at her for a moment then he put his lips close to her gloved hand and bowed deeply over it. His warm breath swirled with small clouds in the cold air, “Countess Golitsyna, welcome to Steinholtz.” He raised his head and gazed in her eyes with such a strange and fervent expression, she blushed.
The doorman and driver helped the Freiherr and Freifrau from the coupe and then Natalya. Finally, without moving his eyes from Aksinya, Ernst turned partially toward the Freiherr and Freifrau, “Good evening Freiherr and Freifrau Bockmann.” After a moment, Ernst managed to drag his eyes from Aksinya and to the Freiherr. He gave a slight bow to the nobleman, and then took Freifrau Bockmann’s hand and bowed over it.
A man who looked like an older copy of Ernst descended the marble steps from the house. He was dressed in very conservative formal tails. His top hat sat jauntily on his head. A great smile filled his features. He laughed, “Ernst, the Freiherr and the Freifrau I know. Please introduce me to your friend.”
Ernst offered his arm to Aksinya and walked her to the gentleman, “Father, this is the Countess Aksinya Andreiovna Golitsyna. Countess, this is my father, the Graf Franz von Taaffe.”
Aksinya proffered her gloved hand, and The Graf took it and bowed over it. When he raised his head, his eyes twinkled, “Good evening, Countess and welcome to Steinholtz. My son has truly chosen to court a treasure.”
Aksinya blushed at that too.
The Graf reluctantly, Aksinya thought, released her hand and turned toward her aunt and uncle. The Freiherr gave slight bow and the Freifrau a curtsy. Graf von Taaffe grasped the Freiherr’s hand and pumped it up and down. He bowed over Freifrau Bockmann’s hand.
Aksinya reached behind her and pulled Natalya forward. Lady Natalya made a low curtsy. Aksinya put out her hand, “Graf von Taaffe, this is my lady-in-waiting, the Lady Natalya Alexandrovna Obolenska.”
Graf von Taaffe bowed over Natalya’s hand, “I have heard about your good friend also, Countess Golitsyna. You are also welcome, Lady Obolenska. That is a name of Russian nobility, is it not?”
Aksinya answered for Natalya, “The Lady Natalya is a member of the court.”
Graf von Taaffe turned his smile back to Aksinya, “Is that so? Then we are all well met.”
Aksinya continued, “You may address her as the Lady Natalya.”
Graf von Taaffe grinned at Aksinya, “I do understand the formality of the Russian court, but you may address me as Franz if you wish, Countess.”
“I have not given Ernst the favor of that informality with me, yet, sir. I am a little old fashioned in my thinking. I hope you don’t mind.”
The Graf seemed even more pleased, “I understand completely, Countess. Very well, it is cold outside, and I understand your delicate nature. Please, let us retire to the ballroom. There are refreshments, and I’m certain, my guests would like to make your acquaintance.” The Graf extended his arm toward Aksinya. She took it. Ernst frowned and gave his arm to Natalya. They made their way into the house with the Graf von Taaffe and the Countess Golitsyna in the lead.
The interior of the mansion was similar to the outside. The floor was set stone, and very old. Martial emblems and weapons decorated the walls. The foyer was large and the walls were very thick. Heavy tapestries attempted to contain the chill from the outside, but they only helped increase the temperature a little. Inside, with the Graf’s help, a footman took Aksinya’s cloak. They made their way up a long stone staircase to the next floor. That opened to a long room which ran over half the length of the front of the house. At the far end of the ballroom, a string quartet played gentle waltz music. Against the inside wall were two large fireplaces filled with roaring wood fires. The floors here were also stone, but thick oriental rugs covered them. The temperature was also much more to Aksinya’s liking, but a persistent draft touched the room with a slight chill.
Five other very well dressed couples conversed in the room. When the new arrivals entered, they all turned toward the Graf and his visitors. Graf von Taaffe pulled Aksinya gently ahead of him, “Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present to you, the Countess Aksinya Andreiovna Golitsyna.” Everyone made a deep bow or curtsy. The Graf continued, “My son, Ernst is courting the Countess.”
A quiet mummer ran through the ballroom.
Graf von Taaffe smiled, “I will introduce the Countess to each of you when it is convenient for her.”
Aksinya blushed again, “Please continue, I will be pleased to make your acquaintance.”
The entire room made an obeisance to her again.
The Graf laughed and gestured Ernst forward. He placed Aksinya’s hand on Ernst’s arm and announced to the group, “Accompanying the Countess is her aunt and uncle, my friends, the Freiherr and Freifrau Bockmann. You all are acquainted with them already. And also, the Countess’s lady-in-waiting, a member of the Russian court, the Lady Natalya Alexandrovna Obolenska.”
The group bowed to the Freiherr, Freifrau, and Natalya.
The Graf nodded to Ernst, “Come Ernst let us introduce the Countess.” With Natalya directly behind them, the Graf led Aksinya around to each of his friends and holders. They were mostly lower nobility and some politicians from the local area. None were as high as a Freiherr in rank.
When the introductions were finished, Aksinya had only a few moments to stand at one of the fireplaces beside Ernst while he engaged in conversation with his father’s guests. Aksinya didn’t speak much to them. She didn’t have time to become comfortable before a house servant came around to announce that dinner was served.
They entered a large dining room and Ernst escorted Aksinya to the seat next to the head of the table. It was the seat usually reserved for the lady of the house. Ernst sat beside her and the Graf von Taaffe at the head. Natalya was seated by the Graf next to Ernst. Across from Aksinya sat her uncle and next to him, her aunt.
As soon as the first course of wine and appetizer was served, the Graf asked her, “I understand you are attending the gymnasium at Sacré Coeur.”
Aksinya touched her lips with her napkin, “My lady-in-waiting and I.”
“Yes, you made the acquaintance of my son there?”
“Through my aunt and uncle…”
“Yes, through your aunt and uncle. Your uncle is a very good friend of mine. Do you intend to continue your studies?”
“I would like to.”
“I understand you are as fond as my son of the ballet, opera, and theater.”
Aksinya tasted a bite of the appetizer. It was a small piece of hart in a light wine sauce. She took a sip of wine before she answered, “Yes, although I am still getting used to comedy. In , not so many of the stories end without tragic consequences.”
The Graf laughed, “I thought we Austrians were dour.”
“I have not found Ernst dour at all.”
“That is good. Are you pleased with him?”
“He is pleasant to me.”
“Good. I intend for him to take over the business from me. Perhaps you can encourage him in this direction. He can’t continue to spend his life in frivolity.”
“Father,” Ernst complained.
“Now, Ernst, I simply state the obvious. Although I understand very well why you might want to spend every evening entertaining the Countess, I do wish you to be as serious as she is about your future.”
A servant removed the appetizer plates and another served the soup. Aksinya’s glass was filled with a new wine that was a little sweeter than the first.
Aksinya took a small spoonful of the soup, it was a delicate consume of partridge and spices. She sipped her wine again and glanced over her glass at the Graf, “I would not wish Ernst to become dour.”
The Graf smiled, “Dour by working? How should he support a family otherwise?”
“I have spoken to him about this. In , my father was always busy with the affairs of our county. I would expect Ernst to do the same.”
“Well said and good advice to him.” He turned toward Ernst, “Has this wise woman been so candid with you?”
“Yes, father,” Ernst’s voice sounded slightly strained.
“Then you should listen to her, and not become dour. What, dear Countess, do you think a young nobleman should be about? That is, to prepare his way in the world?”
Ernst scowled, “Father, this is much too candid a conversation for the table.”
“What do you think, Countess?”
“What do you wish Ernst to do to prepare himself? He told me he was in the military during the war.”
Graf von Taaffe frowned a little, “He was.”
“Were you not proud of him? I was.”
The Graf’s smile returned, “We have not been a military family for a long while. I was also proud of him, but I feared for his life. I could not stand to think I would lose him too.”
Aksinya’s face displayed her curiosity.
The Graf continued, “I lost his mother, and I do not wish to lose him. To me that is unthinkable.”
“Perhaps a little frivolity is owed to a man who is willing to protect that which he believes is important.”
The Graf puffed out his chest, “Well said, Countess. And well turned.” He raised his glass to Ernst, “Ernst, you have chosen well.”
Aksinya raised her glass and took a sip of wine, “?”
“Why, he has chosen to court you, Countess. If you are willing to defend and to admonish him, this is a very welcome thing to me. His mother would have done the same.”
Aksinya blushed, “You attribute too much to me, I think.”
The Graf only continued to smile.
The servants brought out the fish course next. Ernst was unusually silent. The main course followed the fish. Then the salad was followed by the cheese. Afterward, the Graf stood, “The gentlemen shall retire to the smoking room, and the ladies may retire to the parlor for dessert.”
Ernst and his father led the men from the table. Aksinya followed a servant and the ladies to the parlor. The women spoke with Aksinya and that part of the evening was very pleasant to her. After a while, the men returned to the parlor and the Graf led Ernst to Aksinya, “Countess, would you come to the ballroom. I have promised my guests a dance, and I hoped you would dance with my son.”
Aksinya stood and took Ernst’s arm. She was a little wobbly from the wine. She glanced at him, “I would be pleased to dance.”
In the ballroom, the Graf made a motion toward the sting quartet, and they began to play a waltz. Ernst clasped Aksinya’s hand and led her into the dance. He didn’t say anything and didn’t look at Aksinya at first. She asked him, “Are you embarrassed about your father’s comments at dinner?”
Ernst frowned, “Am I that obvious?”
She laughed, “Yes.”
“Do you understand his meaning?”
“Yes, I think I do. This is why you brought me, isn’t it? Your father sees me as a potential candidate for your bride.”
“Yes, it is that obvious?”
“It was that obvious from the beginning.”
“Yes… And what are your feelings?”
“Feelings have little to do with it.”
Ernst stopped cold, “Wha…what do you mean?”
Aksinya pursed her lips, “Everyone is staring.”
Ernst led off again, “Everyone is staring at you.”
“You are absolutely gorgeous in that dress. If you didn’t wish to be stared at, you shouldn’t wear such beautiful clothing. Didn’t you realize?”
Aksinya tossed her head, “Natalya chose my dress. I leave such things to her. If you wished perfection in decorum and dress you should be interested in her.”
“But I am not interested in her. I am interested only in you.”
“Only because of what I am…”
Ernst pulled her a little closer, “This is not the place to speak about such things.”
“Come, we will converse in private.”
Aksinya pressed her lips together again, “Not without my chaperone.”
Ernst glanced at her. He hesitated a moment, “Very well.” He led Aksinya to where Natalya sat. Aksinya made a sign to Natalya. Ernst held to Aksinya’s fingers on his arm and took her back toward the parlor. He led her through the room and to the entrance to a smaller sunroom on the other side. The music from the ballroom still sifted to them. He touched the back of a chair and glanced at Natalya, “I wish to speak privately with the Countess. Would you sit here by the door? You can still observe us though the opening.”
Natalya glanced at Aksinya. Aksinya nodded to her. Natalya sat in the chair, and Ernst led Aksinya to the end of the sunroom. The small room was like an enclosed balcony. The outer wall was glass and overlooked a courtyard within the interior of the building. A low stone wall stood at the end as though the balcony had once been open, but the glass had been added later. He rested against the edge and held Aksinya’s hands. She pulled her hands from his and leaned on the top of the wall. The top was unfinished stone with some crumbling mortar in between. She picked at the loose pieces of it, “What did you wish to say to me that you couldn’t say in the ballroom?”
“The reason I am so interested in you.”
Aksinya toyed with the mortar, “I was about to tell you… you are interested only because of the sorcery. I understand that.”
He stared out at the darkened courtyard, “It isn’t the sorcery.”
Aksinya picked at the mortar a little more fiercely, “It has always been about the sorcery.”
“Why are you trying to tell me how I feel about you?”
“It is obvious. It is because of the sorcery. Isn’t that what you told me before?”
Ernst grabbed her hands and made her look at him, “It is obvious that I love you.”
Aksinya tried to pull her hands out of his and turned her face away, “It is obvious because of the sorcery. Don’t bring in such ideas as love.”
“I’m telling you, Aksinya. It isn’t the sorcery. I love you.”
“You…you used my name.”
“Sorry, I’m telling you, it isn’t the sorcery. It never was the sorcery. That was just an excuse I used to get close to you.”
“You said you were trying to accomplish sorcery, and you wanted me to teach you.”
“You said my courtier told you about me.”
“I heard about you from your uncle. He pointed me to your courtier. I don’t know why the subject of sorcery came up with him. I have been studying it. I have been completely unsuccessful. I know I can’t really do it. It requires a faith in the world I don’t have.”
“So you took my book just to get me to go to the ballet with you.”
“Your courtier said there was no other way to convince you. I wanted to get to know you. You are an astonishing person. In my mind, you are a perfect woman.”
Aksinya mumbled, “Ha, you know nothing about me.”
“But I do know a lot about you now. Everything I know, I love.” Ernst pulled Aksinya closer to him, “Listen to me Aksinya. I want you to be mine.”
She trembled and tried to pull away, “What do you mean by that?”
“I want you to marry me.” He pulled her close again and put his lips on hers. Aksinya allowed him to kiss her. She sunk into his embrace. They stood there for what seemed like to Aksinya for a long time. Slowly he let her go, and she settled back with her feet solidly on the ground.
Natalya rushed from the other room. She grabbed Aksinya by the arm and tried to pull her away from Ernst, “Get back Ernst von Taaffe. I know impropriety when I see it. That was much too forward. Let her go.” She punched at the young man.
Ernst let go of Aksinya’s hands, and she fell back a step. She stared at Ernst with dawning realization, “You…you kissed me.”
“Mistress, you should have slapped him. Otherwise, he will be encouraged…”
Aksinya closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath, “No, Natalya. I wish to speak with him further.”
“I will stand right here between you.”
“No,” Akisnya’s voice softened, “No, please, Lady Natalya. Just let me speak with him a moment more. I shall stand away from him, and he shall not touch me again.”
“Only if he promises...”
Ernst growled, “I will promise for now.”
Aksinya pleaded, “You see, Lady Natalya, he promised. Allow me to speak to him for a little longer after that you and I will retire for the evening.”
Natalya scowled at Ernst. She glanced at Aksinya from the sides of her eyes, “Very well, mistress. But he must stand on one side of the room and you on the other. I shall be watching.” She pointed at Ernst, “If you make a single move toward her, sir, I shall scream for her aunt and uncle and tell them everything.”
Ernst moved to the end of the enclosed balcony, “Lady Natalya, you need not fear. I will not attempt to molest your mistress again.”
Natalya glanced at Aksinya. Aksinya hastily moved to the other end of the balcony. They waited for Natalya to return to her seat.
Aksinya bent forward a little toward Ernst. She whispered and tried to get her voice to carry to him, “You…you kissed me.”
Ernst kept his voice low, “I have wanted to kiss you for a long time.”
She touched her lips, “Why?”
“Because I love you.”
“What will you gain by loving me?”
Ernst smiled, “I desire you. That is all. I love you. Do you love me?”
“I…I don’t know.”
“Then I’m sorry I was so forward, but I’m not sorry I kissed you. I would hope to continue to woo you. I want you to marry me.” He pulled a small box from his coat pocket, “I have a ring for you. I would like to give it to you tonight.”
“For me? Then you are serious?”
“Why would you think I wasn’t serious?”
“What about your father, and his wish for you to join his business?”
“I told him tonight that I would join the firm. I made arrangements with him to begin to work the following Monday. I will still be able to escort you to dinner and the opera on Wednesday. Didn’t you understand me? Even if you will not make up your mind tonight, I will continue to see you and entertain you. I will pursue you until your answer is yes. You have no other suitors?”
Aksinya shook her head.
“You don’t have another lover?”
Aksinya shook her head.
Ernst’s voice softened, “Then there are no others ahead of me. I have no competition.”
“But I have never imagined someone loving me before.”
Ernst shook his head, “Why should a man not love you. You are beautiful and intelligent. Your deportment and social skills are excellent. You enjoy all the past times I enjoy. Why should I not want to share my life with you?”
Aksinya stared out into the darkness and whispered, “This is a temptation to me. It is surely a temptation.” She spoke more loudly, “Did Anatov Aznabaev put you up to this?”
“Your courtier? I haven’t seen him in a long time.”
“Have you been engaging in sorcery?”
Ernst put up his hand, “Not since I met you. I realized then, I could not achieve any of it. I told you already, I don’t have the skills or the power to do it. I want to give you this ring.”
Aksinya raised her eyes to his, “I’m not sure of what I will answer to you. I’m not certain if I love you.”
“Isn’t it enough if I love you? I swear I will give you everything in my power.”
Aksinya cried, “Do not swear. Do not swear anything to me. Don’t use those words around me. Don’t you realize how dangerous that is?”
“Dangerous to swear what I am truly willing to do? I do swear it. I swear to Aksinya that I love her, will do anything I can for her, and will marry her.”
Aksinya pressed her hands over her ears, “Don’t swear. It is enough to say you will do it, but do not swear it.”
“Will you accept my ring?”
“I cannot—not yet.”
“Will you accept my love?”
“I must think on this—it is too difficult for me to decide right now. My mind is in turmoil.”
“Will you allow me to continue to court you?”
Aksinya sighed, “Will you kiss me again?”
“I will, but only if the Lady Natalya will not scream.”
Aksinya turned a little toward Natalya, “Lady Natalya, I wish to allow Ernst to kiss me again. Will you please let him?”
“Kiss him? You should hit him.”
“I wish to kiss him. Please allow me. I shall not ask for more than one tonight, but I would like to kiss him once more.”
Natalya’s anger was evident on her face, “I shall turn around for ten seconds. By the time I have counted to ten, I expect you to be at my side. If you are not, I shall certainly yell for your aunt and uncle.”
“Thank you, Lady Natalya.” Aksinya didn’t wait to see if Natalya turned, she ran to Ernst and put her arms around his neck. She clumsily brought her lips to his and lingered there in a measured kiss. He put his arms around her and held her tightly. They parted at eight seconds and Aksinya ran to Natalya’s side. Natalya noted Aksinya beside her with an impatient nod and began walking. Aksinya glanced back at Ernst. His eyes lingered on her. They did not leave her the entire time until she lost sight of him when she exited the parlor.
They both returned to the ballroom. Until they entered the rooms Graf von Taaffe’s servants provided them, Natalya did not speak to Aksinya again that evening. She stuck close to Aksinya for the rest of the event. After Ernst rejoined the party, he did not let Aksinya out of his sight. Natalya watched Ernst with frosty eyes.
Aksinya sat beside the large fireplace closest to the dining room and outside the draft that blew constantly through the long room. She drank and stewed. She would not engage anyone in conversation for very long, but that didn’t matter, the party was winding down and the couples were primarily interested in dancing.
Near midnight, Graf von Taaffe stepped to Aksinya’s side, “Countess, would you honor me with this dance?”
“Why not?” Aksinya’s words were only a little slurred. Her Russian accent cut through the German. Aksinya had feigned weariness to fend off the other invitations she received that evening. She wished Ernst would ask her to dance again. She knew she could not beg off this offer from her host. She stood a little shakily.
The Graf took her hand in his and placed his arm around her back. He led her into the waltz, “I didn’t notice your Russian accent before, Countess.”
Aksinya tried unsuccessfully to pronounce her German words as she usually did, “I was not drunk before.”
“Drunk? You seem very steady on your feet for being drunk.”
“I’m used to it. I’m sorry, I should have said, I had drunk too much wine before and not that I was drunk.”
The Graf smiled, “I have happy news for you. I hoped you had as happy news for me.”
His smile slipped a little, “Yes, I understand. I didn’t see the ring on your finger. Then your answer to my son was not an affirmative?”
“I have not given him my answer yet.”
Graf von Taaffe’s smile widened again, “He told me he would begin to train to take over the business. I think he is completely serious about you.”
“He said as much. He said he loves me.”
“Indeed, he has never, to my knowledge, told a woman that before.”
“That makes me happy. I would have liked to have kissed him a little longer.”
“Why didn’t you?”
Aksinya made a face and an unmistakable gesture of her head toward Natalya.
“Your chaperone. I understand. I would very much like you to accept my son as your husband. You would be very good for him.”
Aksinya raised her eyes to the Graf’s and cocked her head.
“We don’t have many young women, even in the aristocracy, whose presence brightens a room like yours. You are an absolute treasure to the nobility.”
“You may laugh at me, but you move and act like a princess, and I have seen many princesses. Most of them couldn’t hold a candle to you.”
“You laugh again?”
“Sir, my face is plain and my body is boyish. I indulge too much, and I…” She continued in a mumble, “I have other faults not so visible.”
“Yet, by walking into a room you captivate it. By simply existing, you capture the attention of everyone around you.”
“If I were not a Countess, I would be nothing.”
The Graf raised her hand to his lips, “If you were a washerwoman, I believe you might have captivated my Ernst. Whatever you did, it ensorcelled his heart, and I can easily see why he is fascinated by you.”
Aksinya pushed back from him, “Temptation. I am a temptation.”
“Yes, you are, and I’m glad your eyes are at least on my Ernst.” The Graf let go of her hand and stepped back. The music ended, “Thank you for the dance, Countess. Even drunk, you are a wonderful partner.” He bowed.
Aksinya gave a slight curtsy, “Now, Franz, you may not leave me here.”
“Why not, Countess?”
“I will be unable to make it back to my seat without your help.”
The Graf von Taaffe turned a trifle to the side and signaled Ernst. Ernst rushed to them. The Graf took Aksinya’s hand and put it in Ernst’s, “Please Ernst, escort the Countess and her lady-in-waiting to their rooms. The Countess might stumble.” He winked at his son.
As Aksinya and Ernst started toward the stone stairs that climbed to the third floor, Natalya joined them. She scowled a little at Ernst. Ernst signaled and two women servants took their places. One led them at the front and the other followed. They went up the stairs and entered a long hallway. At the first room on the right, the leading servant opened the door. The two maids went inside and lit the gas lamps and the candles. They checked and refreshed the coal fires. Aksinya held to Ernst at the door until they were finished. When everything in the room was ready, they both curtsied to Aksinya, Ernst, and Natalya.
Ernst gave Aksinya’s hand to Natalya, “Lady Natalya, I give the charge of the Countess to you.”
“She has always been my charge, Herr von Taaffe.”
Ernst ignored her, “Good evening and sleep well, Aksinya. I will speak to you in the morning that is before you depart with your uncle and aunt.”
Aksinya smiled at Ernst. As Natalya dragged her through the door, Aksinya replied, “I shall sleep late and awake with a terrible headache, but I will speak to you by and by.”
Natalya shut the door.
The two maids came to them and immediately began to remove Aksinya’s clothing. Aksinya required the help of all three. They put her into a hot bath. Natalya stood half undressed in the center of the sitting room and directed them. The maids readied the nightclothes Natalya instructed them to get out of the small trunk they had brought on the coupe. The footmen had delivered it to the room earlier. While Aksinya bathed—with the door open, so Natalya could keep an eye on her, Natalya had the maids set out Aksinya’s and her clothing for the morrow. The maids pressed their gowns and hung them. By then, it was time to wrestle Aksinya out of the bath and put her nightgown on her. While Aksinya lay on her bed, the maids helped Natalya out of her clothing and into her nightgown. They had already warmed the beds and checked the coals again.
At the end, Natalya had them lay Aksinya under the covers, but they propped her up on the pillows so Natalya could brush her hair. Natalya finally closed the door on the two of them. Natalya took her brush and sat on the side of the bed. She began to brush Aksinya’s hair. Aksinya’s eyes were closed, but Natalya knew she wasn’t sleeping. Aksinya didn’t open her eyes, she stretched her hands out in front of her. Her voice was only slurred a little, but her accent wasn’t evident because she spoke Russian, “Nata, no man has ever told me that he loves me.”
Natalya gave a fierce tug on Aksinya’s hair.
“What was that for? Be more gentle, Nata.”
“You have a lot to learn mistress.”
“Aksinya. I am Aksinya.”
“Yes, Aksinya. You still have a lot to learn.”
“About men. The first thing they tell is that they love you before…before…”
Aksinya’s head lolled, “Before what?”
“Before they take you to bed—then all their love is forgotten.”
“How do you know?”
“The number of times…”
“Number of times. You haven’t?”
Natalya tugged a little harder against Aksinya’s hair.
“Nata, please be more gentle. I’m listening to you. You are only fifteen.”
Natalya’s voice was very hard, “I hate them. They promised to take me away. They promised to rescue me. All they wanted was my body.”
“And you gave it to them?”
Natalya took a deep breath, “To be free from the beatings and hatred, I would give away anything.” She began to brush Aksinya’s hair again, this time much more gently, “You were the only one who would rescue me, Cou…Aksinya. You gave me new life. You don’t know how important that was to me. I would have done anything to be free from what that household did to me. But only you really did anything. The others took me and gave me nothing back.”
“Ernst isn’t like that…”
“They all are like that. He will tire of you, just as they tired of me.”
“They? I am so sorry, Natalya.”
“I am not sorry. I am only sorry that you did not come sooner. I would die for you. I will protect you from this man.”
“But, I’m not sure I want to be protected. I think I might like him. I am tempted by his love.” Aksinya giggled, “And I left the party before midnight.” Her voice trailed off, “Will the new year even come if I’m not there...?”
Natalya continued to brush Aksinya’s hair. She didn’t say anything more that evening.
Finally Natalya left Aksinya alone. With the thought of Ernst’s kisses in her mind, Aksinya tried to pleasure herself, but her body was too drunk to respond properly, and she kept falling asleep.