The train eased to a stop, and Aksinya felt a gentle hand touch her arm. Natalya whispered, “We have arrived, mistress.”
Aksinya yawned and stretched. She smoothed her dress and cleared her throat. She whispered to the window, “What now?”
Asmodeus yanked open the door to their compartment. He touched Aksinya’s small trunk, “There is a gown I wish you to wear.” He opened his chest.
Natalya moved quickly and blocked his access to the open trunk, “Which gown would you like me to dress the Countess in?” Natalya slowly dug through the clothing until Asmodeus stuck out his hand. Natalya held up a wonderful dress that was once Aksinya’s mother’s. It was one of the first, Natalya had fitted to her. Nearly invisible crosses marked its shoulders, collar, and hem.
Aksinya glanced thankfully at Natalya. Though Natalya didn’t fully comprehend the dangerous game Aksinya was playing with the demon, she followed through exactly, perfectly with each of Aksinya’s directives. Aksinya believed the demon might not be able to touch the dresses once the crosses were in place. She hoped she was right. She didn’t think Natalya’s work was unprofitable, but still, she wondered what affect, if any, the crosses might have on the creature.
The demon shook his finger at the dress, “Lady Natalya, please attire the Countess in this gown and apply this jewelry to her.” He held up a pearl necklace and earrings that belonged to Aksinya’s mother. He pulled out a fancy satin hat that matched the gown, “She shall wear this also.”
Aksinya was drowsy, and she didn’t have the energy to complain. The demon closed the compartment door. Aksinya stepped out of her traveling dress and then into the gown. It was finely made of green satin with lace in a formal court pattern. The colors of Aksinya’s house were worked into the lace and the dress. It was thin and too light for the season. The top fit Aksinya much too loosely for the design of the gown, but that was because she didn’t possess the physical endowments of her mother or her sister.
Just as Lady Natalya finished dressing Aksinya, the demon pulled open the door again, “Countess, lady, if you will follow me, I have everything prepared for you.
Aksinya raised her eyebrow, but she stood. She stumbled and Natalya steadied her, “Thank you, Lady Natalya.”
The lady smiled. She placed the wonderful green hat with a slight black veil on Aksinya’s head. It masked her poorly cut hair. Natalya picked up her sewing and the dress she was working on. Asmodeus reached out to take them both from her. He touched the shoulder of the dress and his expression changed. He almost dropped it.
Aksinya took a startled breath.
Natalya yanked the gown away from the demon’s hand, “Only I handle the Countess’ clothing. It is my duty.” She stopped a moment to tuck the dress away with the sewing. The demon grasped the sewing case and it disappeared with the small trunk into his chest.
Aksinya slowly let the air out of her lungs.
Asmodeus turned toward her, “Is there something wrong, Countess.”
Aksinya shook her head.
The demon smiled slyly but continued out of the compartment. The ladies followed him.
They exited the train near the locomotive and immediately an open landau carriage with a pair of white horses pulled up to the platform. Natalya laid Aksinya’s heavy mink cloak over her shoulders. Aksinya pulled it close, and Natalya tied the clasp under Aksinya’s chin. Natalya pulled her own black woolen cloak over her shoulders. She buried her nose in the thick fabric for a moment, smiled in a very reassured way then tied the clasp.
Asmodeus pointed with his open hand. The landau driver was overdressed in fine aristocratic livery. He helped Aksinya then Natalya up into the carriage. He put out his hand to Asmodeus, but Asmodeus instead made a gesture toward the driver’s seat. The driver climbed up to his seat and the demon took a place across from the ladies. He faced the rear.
When the driver was in his place, Asmodeus put up his hand and spoke in perfect German, “Proceed driver.”
The driver responded, also in German, “Yes, sir.”
After they exited the station, they were quickly surrounded by tall buildings. The freezing air stunk of coal fires and manure. Aksinya could taste the gritty coal dust in the back of her throat. When they were well away from the station, Aksinya asked, “Where are we going, demon?”
“You should be able to guess, Countess.”
Aksinya glared at him, “You planned this trip. I had no part in it.”
“The answer should be simple, especially for you. I told you, you could not remain in . There was too much danger for you. I also told you I would convey you to a safe place where you could find relatives who would take you in.”
“So where are we going?”
“You don’t remember?”
“This isn’t a game.”
“But it is, Countess. It is a great game.” The demon leaned closer to her, “We are enroute to your Uncle’s house. He is a Freiherr of the Austrian realm… and within the aristocracy of not much account. A Freiherr is a baron in Russian.
Aksinya crossed her arms and returned in German, “I understand very well what a Freiherr is.”
The demon continued without a pause, “His name is Freiherr Herman Bockmann. He is your mother’s brother.”
Aksinya’s response was tart, “I know precisely who he is.”
“So everything comes back to you now.”
Aksinya glared, “I understood from the beginning.”
“I know you did. Your uncle will love to take care of you. He will be pleased to invite a real Russian countess into his home and society.”
“I don’t like him, and I will not do as you ask.”
“Why don’t you like him? He is upright in his life and his business. Too upright for my tastes, but he is driven by the idea of nobility and aristocracy. He is tempted to it in much the same way you are tempted to touch yourself.”
Aksinya glanced at the lady at her side, “Zatknis'11, idiot demon. Natalya…”
“The Lady Natalya hears what I wish her to hear.”
Aksinya leaned back and put her hand under her chin. She looked out the side of the carriage.
“Listen very carefully to me, Countess.”
“Whatever your Uncle proposes, you will accept it.”
“And if I don’t?”
“You have already faced that before,” the demon smiled.
“I doubt you will take my clothing off of me in front of my uncle. I don’t think you will harm my servant before him. What do I have to fear from you?”
“If you use your mind, I believe you can imagine many ways that I might make your life miserable. Chiefly, your Uncle thinks of himself as moving in the highest strata of culture, society, and nobility. He is absorbed by it. He celebrates within the church because it separates the common from their betters. What if his niece were reveled as an ugly and common girl who is involved in sorcery? What do you think would happen to his place in society? A countess from Russian is one thing. A countess can be a pathetic being, deserving of pity and love. This specific countess who was chased from her home and lands by the communists and Bolsheviks is especially deserving of pity. Her family was murdered as she watched. On the other hand, an ugly girl who practices sorcery and might have used her curses to escape while she left her family alone to die, is one deserving of only rebuke and punishment.”
Aksinya was breathless, “You would reveal yourself…”
“Perhaps, but I am a demon. My position in society is meaningless. To your uncle, his position is everything. The shock might kill him. It would certainly ruin him…and you.”
Aksinya wouldn’t look at the demon, “I won’t promise you anything.”
The demon smiled, “…but you will do as I ask. That’s the answer I wanted from you…”
They traveled a long way through the chilly streets crowded with overhanging buildings and thick with people. The people appeared dispirited and disheveled. Along with beggars, many demobilized, shabbily-dressed soldiers wandered the streets. The chill slowly seeped into Aksinya’s bones. Eventually, the people thinned and the streets widened. They gave way to more open parks, wooded areas, and estates. The air cleared slightly of the smell of burning coal and horse droppings. The buildings still sat next to the cobblestone streets and close enough to each other for easy visiting without carriages or horses. Still, the afternoon callers took their carriages visiting—that was the style. They eventually came to a magnificent house whose façade was stone and glass. Heavy colonnades gave it a classical feel, but the yellow brick and stone made it seem very modern for the times. When they pulled up to the front, a servant came running. They arrived late for an afternoon call but early for dinner.
Aksinya’s cheeks were rosy and she was freezing. She was angry, but her anger didn’t seem to warm her at all. She just felt cross and sad, very sad.
The servant who greeted them was dressed like their driver in the classic Austrian livery used for attending aristocracy. It was slightly over the top for a house in , certainly much more than anyone would expect or normally aspire to in war torn . Immediately, Aksinya realized everything the demon said about her uncle was true. She knew it before, but this reminder cast all her childish memories and knowledge in focus. The servant offered his hand first to Aksinya, and she climbed from the open landau. The servant’s hand was cold. He must have been waiting outside for a long time. Aksinya addressed him, “Where you expecting us?”
The man bowed. “Yes, Countess, since your telegram last evening.”
Aksinya’s brow rose.
Natalya took her place next to Aksinya. The demon followed. As he passed Aksinya, he whispered, “The telegram I sent yesterday. You uncle is expecting you for dinner.”
Aksinya didn’t say a word. The servant bowed, “If you will please follow me.”
They followed the man, and behind them, Aksinya heard the landau drive away. The sound of the horses’ hooves was loud on the cobbled drive.
They made their way up the marble steps up to the large front door. The servant opened the great oaken portal and let them in.
They entered a wonderful and huge marble and statue lined entry that overlooked an enormous open ballroom. They stood in an unenclosed foyer bordered before them by a wide set of stairs that led down to the floor of the ballroom. On the other side of the ballroom, twin marble stairways led to the second floor. The stairways climbed into each other and joined then separated again and continued to the upper floor.
When Aksinya, Natalya, Asmodeus, and the servant entered, a host of maids descended on them. They took Aksinya’s fur and Natalya’s cloak. Aksinya then spotted a very well dressed man and a woman who had descended, unnoticed, to the center of the house’s converging stairways. Asmodeus stepped forward and called in a loud voice. His breath formed clouds in the frosty air, “May I announce, the Countess Aksinya Andreiovna Golitsyna and her lady-in-waiting, the Lady Natalya Alexandrovna Obolenska.”
The man and woman made their way slowly down the steps. The moment Aksinya’s cloak had come off, she began to shiver. She had not eaten, and she was cold. The enormous room was chilly. She wondered automatically if the demon had anything to do with her sudden discomfort. He turned to her that moment and grinned. Aksinya caught a whiff of sulfur. She scowled back at him. She impatiently watched her uncle and aunt make their way to them. She certainly would not move. She was too cold, and she knew how these things worked. She had lived in this type of society all her life. It was a painful reminder of the life she thought she had left when her family died.
Her uncle and aunt finally made their way to the ballroom floor and stepped slowly across the ballroom. They made their way to the wide foyer steps and then up them. Her uncle stood before her and grasped her hand. His face was thin and well lined. Still, it seemed as jovial as Aksinya remembered it. She always thought he endeavored to convey a haughty appearance of aristocracy, but that attempt was constantly overwhelmed by his gentle features. He sported a wide mustache and a pointed beard. He put the unnecessary monocle, this time, in his left eye. He routinely forgot which eye was supposed to require it. This evening, he wore a fine woolen suit with coat and tails. He went to his left knee and touched her white-gloved hand with his lips. He spoke in German, “Countess, I am your uncle, Freiherr Herman Bockmann, and this is your aunt, the Freifrau Brunhilda Bockmann. I hope you remember us. I welcome you to our home, our estate here at Grossbock.” He stood and Aksinya’s aunt stepped forward. Aksinya had remembered her name was Brunhilda. Aksinya always thought that was so funny when she was a child. Freifrau Bockmann was tall and stout. She had a well endowed bosom and clothing that was just a little too small for her. Aksinya remembered her mother’s words about Aunt Brunhilda, “That her sister-in-law was always one season and one size out of style.” Aksinya couldn’t help but smile at the remembrance. Indeed, Aunt Brunhilda wore a silk dress of a bright summer hue. Yet, she wore it with grace. Aunt Brunhilda looked well in anything.
Aunt Brunhilda took her hand and curtsied to the floor, “Welcome to Grossbock, Countess.” She glanced up and smiled, “I am so glad you came to us.”
Aksinya was shivering. For some reason, the thought of her mother within the presence of her uncle and aunt affected her. She couldn’t speak.
Aunt Brunhilda stared at her, “What’s wrong, Countess?”
Still Aksinya still didn’t speak.
Aunt Brunhilda stood and put her arms around Aksinya, “You don’t need to fear anything while you are here.” She pushed back a little, “You are freezing. Are you well?”
Natalya stepped forward. She spoke in Russian, “My mistress is cold and hungry. She does not speak German well. Could you show us to a place where she can warm herself?”
They both glanced at Natalya. Aunt Brunhilda spoke, “We don’t understand Russian.”
Aksinya tried to smile. She addressed them in German, “It is as my lady-in-waiting said. I’m cold and hungry. I’m sorry my German is so poor.”
Freiherr Bockmann stepped to Aksinya’s side, “Tut tut, I understand you very well. Please step into the family study.”
Aunt Brunhilda took Aksinya’s arm, “Are you certain you are not ill, Countess?”
Aksinya shook her head.
Aunt Brunhilda drew Aksinya with her and they all headed to the right and toward a hallway beneath the stairs. Her aunt pulled her close, “When we heard the news about your family we feared that no one had survived. After we received your telegram, we were so relieved.”
Aksinya turned a stricken face to her, “You were relieved about me?”
“You are a lovely child. We feel your hurt. It was such a great loss to our family.”
“It was my greatest loss. I wanted to die too.”
Asmodeus lifted his hand and made a sign to her.
Aunt Brunhilda pressed her lips together, “You poor child.”
Aksinya turned her face away from the demon, “I wanted to die. I’m sorry I didn’t die.”
Her aunt pulled her closer, “We are so glad you did not die too. We want you to be happy here.”
“Can I be happy anywhere? My mother and father, my sister and brother are all dead. I wanted them to live.”
Aunt Brunhilda cleared her throat, “You poor dear.” Aunt Brunhilda guided Aksinya into a large room with an enormous fireplace. In it, a hot wood and coal fire roared.
Aksinya felt drawn to it. She moved to the fire like a moth to a flame. Aunt Brunhilda pulled her back before she could step into the coals. She held tightly to Aksinya. The Freiherr drew a chair close and Aunt Brunhilda pushed Aksinya into it. Aksinya closed her eyes. The heat clasped her in its grasp, and a slight smile stole onto her lips. She raised her arm, “Thank you, Aunt, Uncle.”
Her uncle and aunt pulled their chairs close to her on either side. Her aunt held her hand. The Freiherr sat and a look of concern crossed his face. After a while he clasped his chin, “When you feel better, we can go to dinner. Would you like something now?”
Aksinya shook her head.
“I’ll bring you a glass of wine.” The Freiherr stepped to the sideboard. He selected a bottle and filled a glass. He took it and held it near Aksinya’s hand, “Please, Countess, drink this. It will warm you and make you feel better.”
Aksinya took the glass in her shaking hand and tasted the dark brown aperitif. The sherry was very fine and rich. She sipped on it while her aunt patted her other hand.
In a while, Aksinya sat a little straighter. Aunt Brunhilda squeezed her fingers, “Do you feel better, Countess.”
“Yes. Thank you, Aunt Brunhilda. I have not felt myself for a long time.”
“You were always a sensitive child.” Aunt Brunhilda touched Aksinya’s face then moved her hand a little higher and touched the tips of her hair, “Dear child, what happened to your hair?”
Aksinya took a deep breath, “I lost it with my family.”
“Did you cut it off yourself?”
Aksinya hung her head.
“Yes. It looks like you did. You poor girl.” Her aunt took Aksinya’s hand and held it against her face, “Tomorrow, I promise, my beautician will trim your hair and make it look much better.”
“But I don’t want to trim it. I don’t want to…to… forget…”
“We will not forget. Your mother and father were great friends as well as relations of ours.”
Aksinya could feel the eyes of the demon on her, “Thank you, but I don’t wish to cut it—I insist.”
“Then, would you let me style it for you? If you won’t have it trimmed, we shall make the most of it.”
A servant came to the door and rang a small bell.
Aksinya’s uncle stood, “Dinner is ready. Come, Countess, you must eat with us and then sleep. Tomorrow, we will discuss what we shall do.”
They entered the family dining room to a very long and formal dinner. Natalya quite properly served Aksinya at her shoulder, but Aksinya didn’t seem to notice. Aksinya nodded off a couple of times before dessert. Aunt Brunhilda finally called an end to the dinner, and she herself led the sleepy Aksinya and Natalya to a room on the second floor. It was the best room in the house. Natalya undressed Aksinya and put her to bed. Then she went down to the kitchen to eat her supper. She returned to Aksinya’s room and went to sleep in the attached servant’s chamber. She left the door to her room wide open so she could hear any sound Aksinya might make during the night.
In the morning, Natalya drew Aksinya a bath, and helped Aksinya into it. When Natalya returned to the main bedroom, she found Aksinya’s small trunk with a note on it. Crisp Russian handwriting described one of the wonderful gowns she had fitted to Aksinya. Natalya searched through the trunk and pulled out the gown. It was a light parchment color with lace all around. The dress was both formal and yet wonderfully intimate. It was made of light silk and fine silk lace covered it.
Natalya retrieved Aksinya from the bath and dried her off. When Natalya dressed Aksinya in the gown, it fit her shape wonderfully. It was loose, but fit Aksinya tightly. It did not draw attention to Aksinya’s lack of bosom, but rather accentuated her slight and girlish figure. It made her slim hips look feminine and stylish. Natalya would have liked to see Aksinya wear it to a grand social affair. She knew it would show off her mistress’ best features, although it did make her appear younger than she was. As she settled the dress on Aksinya’s slim figure, Natalya fingered the crosses she had sewed into the fabric and wondered why Aksinya had made her put them there. At the last, Natalya placed a small square silk and lace cap on Aksinya’s head. She pinned the cap and then Aksinya’s hair and pulled her bangs into a stylish part across her forehead.
Aksinya took a glance at herself in the mirror, something she rarely did and smiled. Natalya smiled behind her. Aksinya’s appearance was almost radiant.
When they came down to breakfast, Aunt Brunhilda greeted them. She took one look at Aksinya and her mouth turned up into a large smile. She grasped Aksinya’s hands, “You look ravishing this morning. Who did your hair?”
Aksinya glanced at Natalya.
Aunt Brunhilda grinned at the lady, “You made her look marvelous.” She turned back to Aksinya, “I remember, countess, your hair was so beautiful. I hope you will grow it out again. I know the style today among the youth is for short hair, but my heart longs to see it like it once was.”
Aksinya gave her a strange look that Aunt Brunhilda didn’t know how to interpret. Aunt Brunhilda still held one of Aksinya’s hands and led her into the family breakfast room. Aksinya’s uncle stood when she entered and helped seat her and then Aunt Brunhilda. Aksinya noticed his monocle was in his right eye this morning. They served her bread, meat, and cheese. Her aunt and uncle had coffee. Aksinya ate a soft boiled egg and tea. Natalya attended her.
After breakfast, Uncle Herman put down his napkin, “Countess, would you please join us in the family parlor so we can discuss your future?”
Aksinya touched her lips with her napkin and laid it at her place. She nodded.
Before they entered the parlor, Asmodeus suddenly joined them. No one seemed surprised although Aksinya and Natalya, both with a startled glance, noticed his appearance more than Aksinya’s aunt or uncle.
The fire was still burning in the great fireplace, but it was mostly coals with only a light sprinkling of flames. Aunt Brunhilda led Aksinya to a chair and sat her. She took a seat in the chair beside her and held her hand.
The Freiherr stood. He stepped to the fireplace and lit a cigarette. He took a puff and turned around, “You don’t know how pleased we are that you came to us and that you are now safe here with us.” He flicked some ash from his cigarette into the coals, “When we heard about your family, I had the priest make a high Mass in their honor. At the time, we thought you had died with them.” He gave her a crooked smile, “We were glad someone survived and that you survived. You being who you are, after all.”
Aksinya lowered her eyes, “Thank you.”
“Your Aunt and I have discussed this since we heard you were coming.” He smiled again, “You are not quite seventeen, am I correct?”
“I am eighteen, Uncle.”
“How much education have you received?”
“None except from our family’s priest and my governess.”
“In the past that might have been sufficient for a young lady. Today, it is woefully deficient. As I remember, you have always been very keen on learning.”
Aksinya tried to appear disinterested, but in spite of herself, she nodded and leaned forward expectantly.
“Yes, I see I am right. Your German is much better than you led us to believe last night. I see you understand me very well.” His eyes crinkled, “You learned it from your mother, I know. And I know you speak French and can read Greek.”
“What do you think about the idea of an education?”
Aksinya smiled, “What did you have in mind, Uncle?”
“There is an excellent gymnasium in this city.”
Aunt Brunhilda laughed, “I went to it myself.”
“What is a gymnasium?”
“It is a school for students who will go on to a university.”
“To a university? Could I attend a university—is it allowed for women?”
Aunt Brunhilda put her hands together, “Yes, it is very possible for you to go on to a university.”
“I would gladly attend, but for what purpose?”
The Freiherr stood straight and tossed the butt of his cigarette in the coals, “Ha, the world we once knew well is changing. The future will belong to men and women who have grasped an education, and who have an aristocratic pedigree. The people will need someone to lead them. This is what we wish for you. It is certainly what your father and mother would have desired.”
“I’m not so sure. You tempt me...”
Asmodeus cleared his throat.
Her uncle grinned, “I want to tempt you. I want you to follow this course, and I think you are well fitted to succeed. You always were a studious child.”
Aksinya sighed, “What exactly do you propose, Uncle?”
Aunt Brunhilda clasped Aksinya’s left hand with both of hers. “We wish to enroll you in my old school, Sacré Coeur. It is a school, a gymnasium, for girls here in Wien. The church runs it, and it is connected with a convent of the same name. I know it is something you have never experienced before, but I believe you will blossom in it.”
Aksinya stared at her aunt. Then she turned her stare at the demon. Asmodeus’ face was covered with a scowl. He stood, “Freiherr, I’m not sure the Countess should be placed in this kind of environment. She is a very sensitive young woman who is not used to being among so many people.”
The Freiherr immediately warmed to his argument, “The Countess would have her lady-in-waiting to take care of her. She would be boarded in the style of a princess. She would possess the highest rank of anyone in Sacré Coeur.”
The demon didn’t back down, “But the Countess isn’t used to being away from her family.“
Aunt Brunhilda clasped Aksinya’s fingers a little tighter, “We are her family now. She may come stay with us at Grossbock on the weekends. She will certainly go to church with us and dine with us, and she may bring as many of her friends as she likes for the weekend.”
Asmodeus straightened, “Is all this certain?”
The Freiherr stuck out his chest, “It is a surety and a promise.”
“Do you swear?”
Freiherr Herman Bockmann’s eyebrows rose, “Yes, I guess. I do swear.”
Asmodeus bowed, “Good. Then the Countess shall attend Sacré Coeur. Should we visit the school tomorrow?”
Aksinya’s brows lowered, “Don’t I have a say?”
Her aunt and uncle stared at her.
Asmodeus’ look was dangerous, “Yes, Countess, of course you have a say.” The demon’s voice dripped with menace, “What do you wish? It is your choice, after all.” He glared at her.
Aksinya returned his gaze. Then after a moment, she lowered her head, “I shall go to Sacré Coeur on a trial basis. If I am not happy there, I shall not continue.“
Aunt Brunhilda shook Aksinya’s hand, “What a wonderful answer.”
Her uncle lit another cigarette, “Yes, very wise. It shall be on a trial basis. We shall see how all of us like it. I would rather have you here all the time with us, Countess, but I am willing to give you up during the week for your own improvement and education.”
Aksinya mumbled under her breath then she glanced up, “I will attend on a trial basis only if my lady-in-waiting may attend too.” Aksinya continued before anyone could respond, “The Lady Natalya is incredibly bright and educated. She would succeed very well in such an environment.”
The Freiherr glanced at Natalya then back at Aksinya, “Certainly, I don’t see any reason why the Lady Natalya cannot attend with you. Her primary job must be your care, but she may attend and study with you.”
Aksinya bowed her head, “Thank you.”
“You are very welcome,” Aunt Brunhilda smiled and stood. Now, let us ladies retire to my sitting room where I will inform you both, all about Sacré Coeur. ”
Reluctantly Aksinya stood. Natalya bounced up. They followed Aunt Brunhilda to the second floor and her sitting room.