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I didn’t want to attend the dance master’s ball that night. If my sisters hadn’t insisted, I never would have met the greatest poet in Russia, and my life might have taken a different course altogether.
Admission to the ball cost five rubles each, and Mother had made a grand show of dispensing the needed coin. While my sisters spritzed one another with the lavender-scented perfume our aunt procured on a recent trip to France, I cast a longing look at the mahogany writing table, blemished with age, in the opposite corner of our sitting room. There I kept my leather-bound notebook, feather quill, and embossed inkwell atop red linen embroidered with curving black arabesques. Though always in need of a sturdy book to prop a broken leg in place, this table was my favorite spot in the house and certainly preferable to the bedroom I shared with my sisters. Over the winter holidays, I had reviewed my French translations and an essay on the history of Russian poetry. I wished to spend the evening engrossed in that work.
Instead, I was expected to make myself pretty and amicable for the benefit of strangers, gentlemen I would not even truly see. My vision compromised by shortsightedness, I could hope to gain no more than fuzzy impressions of their faces from a distance, and would need to wait until they drew near in order to determine whether or not they were handsome. Tonight, my spectacles remained safely encased in their fabric cover on the writing table. Mother might allow for a fashionably discreet lorgnette at the ballet, but the last time I tried to wear spectacles outside the house, she told me I looked like a man and threatened to grind the lenses under the heel of her boot.
Ekaterina and Azya pushed in front of me, leaned in closer to our looking glass, and pinched their cheeks to make them glow. Mother sat before the dying fire in the hearth, perched in her favorite armchair—generously proportioned rosewood with worn floral cushions frayed at the edges. The quivering shadows made her high cheekbones appear even more severe than usual. Though busy mending a pair of stockings, she caught me gazing at my writing table. I turned away quickly, as though I’d been caught staring at a clandestine lover like some swooning girl in a gothic romance.
Slowly, Mother set her yarn back in her wicker sewing basket and rose to her full height. Dressed in gloomy black from head to foot, with her hair pulled under an old bonnet, she towered over us. When she wasn’t speaking, she appeared more a statue than a living being. She approached the looking glass where my sisters and I had gathered.
“I trust you will be on your best behavior.” Mother reached out to adjust my cream-colored cambric gown, revealing more of my décolletage. I was sixteen, hardly a spinster, but the need for a husband had been made clear since I had my first monthly cycle three years earlier. “And I trust you will display every courtesy to the gentlemen present.”
I caught Mother’s judgmental eye in the mirror before I realized I’d been biting my lower lip, a habit I had tried and failed to break. I forced a smile.
“Natalya still looks grim as a constipated granny.” Ekaterina’s rectangular face had an honest, salt-of-the-earth quality that might have been appealing had she a more pleasant manner.
“This will cheer Natalya … and attract an eligible gentleman!” Giggling, Azya waved a tiara crafted of faux gold in the air. Her merry pink face flushed with pride, she placed it over my hair, centering it on my forehead. Her wide-spaced, light brown eyes were tender as she worked. “Like Venus herself.”
I moved closer to the looking glass, squinting to better see my reflection, the pale contours of my face and the glint of gold against my dark auburn hair, which had been pulled back into a loose bun with curls framing my face.
“Quite suitable,” Mother said in her husky voice. “You should thank your sister for her generosity. She could have kept the bauble for herself.”
“Or given it to me.” I couldn’t quite see Ekaterina’s expression, but her tone sounded surly enough.
“Jealousy is hardly becoming,” Mother warned my sister. “Now off with you.”
We headed in a line to the foyer, where our pelisses hung neatly on hooks by the door. Outside, it was snowing, and I would have much preferred an overcoat, as men wore. We would freeze, but I supposed this small sacrifice well worth the charming picture we would create in our snug, fur-lined garments.
Our three brothers, ranging in age from thirteen to twenty, lined up by the door, pretending to be footmen. As we approached the gabled entranceway, their ruddy features took on garishly pompous expressions. The eldest, Dmitry, played the charade best, but then God had granted him a handsome face and blond hair, an anomaly in our family, and he did most everything best. Our middle brother, Ivan, was also well formed, though his pale forehead loomed too prominently even in the dull lamp light. Little Sergey, long since deemed the runt of the litter, had already gone plump, though sweet-faced enough if you could tolerate his habit of holding one hand to his mouth and blowing hard into it to imitate the sound of an old man passing wind. As I stepped around him, Sergey’s eyes crossed and I stuck out my tongue. Unfortunately, while my sisters had remembered to lift their gowns above their ankles, I neglected to do so and stumbled over my own feet.
“You must be more careful, Natalya,” Mother intoned. “And stop squinting or you’ll be wrinkled before your time. All of you, take care you are home by midnight. You wouldn’t want to upset your father.”
Ekaterina and I exchanged looks. For all our disagreements, we united in our poor opinion of our father. How I wished Mother would stop talking about him as though he were still an active presence in our home. One of Ekaterina’s supposed friends had made a catty remark about seeing my father stumble home from a tavern in the Arbat, vomiting on the street as the girl’s family passed by on a sled. To Ekaterina’s credit, she had lunged at the girl and I held her back. When one of our brothers got into a scuffle, Mother’s anger was the raw material of legend and I could only imagine how she might react if one of her girls came home with a blackened eye.
Azya gave a nervous glance in our direction, her face clouded with worry. “We will, Mother.”
“Your behavior in public is a reflection on our family, and your success in society an important step toward securing your futures. Be kind to the gentlemen. After all, one of them might wish to make you his wife.”
Sergey sputtered at that. I tried to kick him, but he was out of reach.
Mother returned to her armchair. Her lazy brown tabby had sprawled on the faded Persian rug before the hearth, hind feet twitching in a dream. She bent down to stroke the cat’s fat stomach and I considered the once proud animal’s willingness to submit to such degradation. As terrified as I felt about going to this ball—and how much I dreaded being evaluated like fresh fruit at a market—staying here forever under Mother’s thumb, soul slowly crushed, would be far worse.
“I shall expect a full report in the morning,” Mother said. “Take advantage of this moment and your beauty. Make your family proud.”
* * *
I’ve heard it said the Christmas season is a magical time in the countryside, with all manner of opportunity for fortune-telling and mischief with comely boys. Living in Moscow, I had not yet experienced such pleasures. Despite my reservations, I hoped the dance master’s ball might mark a change in direction of what often felt like a dull and hopelessly domesticated life.
When my sisters and I entered the ballroom of the mansion, I remembered to hitch my dress to make it easier to walk across the smoothly polished floor. I tried to picture myself as a ballerina gracefully taking the stage, though I knew I’d never have made it as such without my spectacles. “Your face is your fortune, Natalya,” Mother often told me. “That and your figure. Perhaps you have not been blessed with the ability to determine this for yourself, so trust me on the matter.”
I focused on the exquisite surroundings nearest my line of sight, drawing in the woodland scent of pine boughs and holly mingled with the heavy aromas of melting wax, French perfume, and hair pomade. Gilt candelabras lined long side tables heaped with iced sherbets, jewel-toned sugar plums, and delicate Viennese pastries dolloped with frothy cream. A tingling sensation teased the back of my shoulders, and I felt alive with the possibilities of the night. I tapped the modest heels of my satin slippers to the lively tune of a mazurka. On the dance floor, underneath a banner emblazoned with the imperial double-headed eagle, gentlemen lifted their ladies from the floor and turned them with brisk and powerful steps.
All schoolgirls practiced this popular dance with one another, though I had once thought such lessons a waste of time. Now, I nervously eyed the row of men to the side of the floor, turning their heads this way and that, trying to look blasé as they evaluated potential partners, and felt grateful for the instruction. As we made our way farther inside, several heads swiveled. My face grew warm and yet I confess I enjoyed the attention.
Azya looped her arm around mine and stood taller so she could whisper in my ear. “The men are all dressed in elegant brocade evening coats and have the shapeliest legs in their breeches. The women’s dresses are wonderful confections as well, so colorful they make us seem like simple country maids.” She covered her mouth as she emitted a nervous snicker. “We must convince Mother to spend more on our gowns. Oh, but the mansion is decorated so beautifully for Christmas, Natalya! Can you see the tree on the other end of the ballroom?”
I squinted and made out a green pine. Glowing candles in copper holders were fastened to its branches, along with dangling silver trinkets, beaded garlands, and fragile glass balls.
“A tree like the Protestants have in the Prussian lands?” Ekaterina’s head bobbed in distress. “Inappropriate for an Orthodox celebration, if you ask me.”
“Oh hush,” I told her, irritated. “Since when do you care what Protestants do in their lands? I think the tree looks pretty.”
Ekaterina’s cheeks flushed pink. Too pink. I wondered if she hadn’t snuck some rouge from an apothecary.
“And you need to stop acting like her crutch.” Ekaterina turned to Azya. “What would Mother say if she heard you whispering to Natalya like some foreign trickster begging for kopeks? Do you want everyone to know our sister is blind as a mole?”
“I only want her to enjoy the night,” Azya whispered fiercely.
“She’ll enjoy it.” Ekaterina jutted her prominent chin at the tiara. “With that bauble on her head, the gentlemen will mistake her for some sort of countess. And what does that make us? Her daft ladies-in-waiting?”
“Still preoccupied with the tiara?” I hissed, touching the gold circlet on my forehead. Even I had seen in the looking glass that it flattered my hair, whereas it would have been lost in Ekaterina’s mousy mess of curls. “How would you like it if I threw it at you?”
“You couldn’t hit me if you tried, you blind bat.”
“I can see well enough to hit your giant jaw.”
“You try throwing that thing at me and I’ll pop you in the nose.”
“Ladies, I trust you are all behaving? Your mother asked me to serve as your chaperone and I do want to be able to tell her how admirably you conducted yourselves this evening.”
At the sound of the refined female voice, we pivoted in unison and curtsied. Mother’s half-sister and Ekaterina’s namesake, Aunt Katya, was nearing fifty years of age, but her features retained a softness our mother’s lacked. Her hair was still jet black and her lips so full and rosy that a gentleman young enough to be her son stopped to give her a bold wink. Over the years, Aunt Katya’s looks had served her well; she had a seemingly endless supply of dramatic gowns and expensive jewels to show for her success at court and wore a peacock-blue ball gown with puffed sleeves and richly embroidered gold floral designs at the hem of her full skirt.
“Now, enough of that. Mind your manners.” Aunt Katya tapped the base of her lace-and-gauze fan gently against Azya’s bare shoulder, thin and vulnerable in her slim gown. My sister winced. “I’m sure the gentlemen want the favor of seeing your lovely faces. No kitten fights.”
Azya and Ekaterina quickly righted themselves and searched the room for potential dance partners. I wished I could convince Azya to walk with me to the tree. I wanted to see the decorations up close and gave not one whit if the tradition came from the Protestants. Even without my spectacles, I could tell the tree was divine.
Aunt Katya must have caught my wistful gaze, because she inclined her head toward mine, so close I could smell the fresh powder on her face and the rosewater she dabbed behind her ears. “I don’t wish to alarm you, niece, but I spot a gentleman making an advance. I expect you will attend to him with both the dignity and generosity your mother might expect.”
I opened my mouth and then shut it abruptly, unsure how to respond to my aunt. With as much grace as I could manage, I turned.
A heavyset man with a mop of thick hair and side whiskers approached. His movements had a clumsy charm about them, like a trained circus bear. He would likely make an enjoyable dance partner, though he was a grown man in his early forties, at least, and I doubted my conversation sufficiently sophisticated to hold his attention. Besides, when I looked at him my heart did not skip a beat, flutter, jump in my chest, nor come to a standstill … all of which were reactions I had read in novels when the heroine met the man she was meant to marry. If this gentleman was somehow destined to be my first romantic suitor, I felt disappointed at my heart’s lack of response.
“Mademoiselle,” he said with a gallant if inelegantly executed bow. “We haven’t formally met. My name is Fyodor Tolstoy. I have the honor of friendship with your older brothers, Ivan and Dmitry. They said their sisters might attend. Based on your brothers’ description, I am guessing you are ‘little’ Natalya.”
“Not quite so little anymore, I suppose.” I was nearly as tall as this Tolstoy fellow.
“May I have the pleasure of this dance?” he asked, offering his hand.
My heart beat furiously. We would now take our place among the couples already on the dance floor and my aunt would watch our every step for impropriety. I already felt Ekaterina’s contemptuous glare: the audacity of her younger sister, attracting a partner before she did, and an attractive one at that. I anticipated she would spend the rest of the evening complaining.
No matter what happened next, vexing Ekaterina made the entire night worthwhile.
I placed my hand on Tolstoy’s shoulder and waited for him to lead.
Deftly, he steered me around the circle of waltzing dancers. Despite his size, he was light on his feet, easy to follow, and spoke freely as the orchestra played. “I don’t believe I have seen you at a public ball before.” He had switched to French, like any ambitious Russian.
“This is my first ball, monsieur.” I replied in Russian, not yet comfortable enough with my spoken French to attempt anything beyond the simple monsieur. My mouth felt as though Ekaterina had stuffed it with cotton to make me hush.
He returned to our native tongue. “I thought not. I would have remembered you.” At that, he gave a wolfish grin, but his words seemed practiced and I sensed it was the sort of compliment he might pay to any young woman. I wasn’t flattered, but remained intrigued. His clear voice had a flat cadence to it, as though he had traveled abroad and picked up some remnant of a foreign tongue.
Desperate for something to say, I ventured: “I detect a hint of an accent.”
“Oh you noticed? I spent some time abroad in Russian America.”
“America!” I knew nothing of America except snippets in poorly written textbooks, which focused on the unruliness of government by the people and vague insinuations another revolution would occur, and that the cocky republicans who had overthrown their king would soon endure their own set of trials. “Is America as wild as one would expect?”
Tolstoy let out a boisterous laugh, but no one turned to look. Men could laugh as loudly as they pleased, while Mother would flay me alive for such a display. “Oh, I daresay more so. I spent my time there on the Aleutian Islands. Dumped by my fellow sailors after traveling with them all along the western coast, the heartless bastards.” At that, he seemed to remember he was talking to a lady. His back stiffened and the tone of his voice formalized. “Do you know where these islands are located, mademoiselle? The Alaskan Peninsula? Have you heard of this place?”
“I have,” I informed him, grateful it was the truth. Why did men assume women had nothing better to occupy their thoughts than gowns and balls and future husbands? Of course we considered such matters closely, but only because our futures depended on them. Our interests often extended beyond such practical affairs. “Do you intend to return one day?”
“I’ve seen enough of the place for one lifetime, thank you very much. I had to find my own way across the sea and then all through Siberia to get home in the end. But make it back, I did. Ever since then my chums have referred to me as the American.”
“I would like to hear more of your travels, Monsieur Tolstoy. Or perhaps I should say Mr. Tolstoy, since you are the American.” I smiled, pleased with my sudden burst of wit.
“I would like to share more of my adventures, but that wouldn’t be fair to my friend.”
I slanted my head, confused. “Friend?”
“I confess, I had an ulterior motive for asking you to dance. You see, I am here with a fine fellow quite taken with you at first sight. Truth be told, I have never seen him in such a state. He wanted to approach you himself, but his nerves got the better of him. He called you Venus and Madonna wrapped in one enchanting package.”
The reality of my presence could not possibly compare favorably to such a majestic fantasy. Still, after such a compliment, I already deemed Tolstoy’s shy friend a clever fellow. “Why will he not speak to me then?”
“He asked that I seek your acquaintance first and then ask your opinion of him. He fears you will not feel as taken with him as he with you, and that would only break his heart. You see, he has a most tender heart. The soul of a poet, one might say. As his friend, it is my duty to protect his ego.”
Now this was the sort of romantic game playing that occurred in novels and I intended to make the most of it. “So who is this mysterious and tenderhearted chap?” I cast a furtive glance around the room. “Might I have the pleasure of at least knowing his name? Or is the strategy that you will show him to me first?”
As the music came to a halt, Tolstoy the American slowed his steps and steered me toward the beautiful tree. Closer now, I saw fruit-shaped marzipans and robins spun from sugar affixed to the branches. I caught a glimpse of black curls, and then spotted the tips of polished boots behind the tree and beneath the lowest bough. This must be Tolstoy’s friend, then. I felt as though I might burst from the agony of anticipation, but had no wish to ruin this moment of revelation. “Your friend is shy. I feel I must slow my steps so I don’t startle him and cause him to take to the sky like a skittish bird.”
“Oh, ordinarily he’s not shy at all. He adores being the center of attention, but I have never seen him take to a woman as he did when he saw you this evening. He clasped my shoulder, asked me to speak to you immediately, and then ran to hide.” Tolstoy raised his voice. “Why, he’s hidden himself so well he can’t possibly expect you to get a good look at him. I have never seen a fellow behave so foolishly over a woman.”
I managed a laugh and decided not to mention that in order to see his friend without the aid of my spectacles, I would need to get very close indeed. “He adores attention? In what sense? Does he tell humorous tales at parties?”
“He enjoys it when someone asks him to read one of his works aloud.”
“Works?” Intrigued, I thought of my writing table at home and my notebooks. One of them was devoted to Russian poets, a small but talented group. I had felt keenly patriotic when I started this modest history of our poetry. “Is your friend a poet, then?”
“Actually, yes. It is even possible you have heard of him.”
At that moment, Tolstoy’s friend stepped out from behind the tree, and I drew in a swift breath. The black curls and side whiskers. The dark face and intense, searching look in his eyes. Thinking of what Azya had said about the men’s legs earlier—how shapely they looked in breeches—I glanced down. His muscular calves were swathed in tight black boots. In my mind, I saw him as he appeared in his author’s portrait: a loose blouse unbuttoned at the neck and his chin thoughtfully posed in one hand with a quill raised high in the other, as though he were about to be endowed with divine inspiration.
And then, the world shifted beneath my feet and my heart skipped a beat, just as the novelists promised.
Tolstoy leaned in close to me. “Perhaps you have heard of Alexander Pushkin?”
Copyright © 2017 by Jennifer Laam