Chapter Three introduces another new character, Natalie, whom I think readers will find interesting.
On the Vienna-Warsaw Railway, Russian Poland. June 29th, 1914 Outside the train’s window, the passing countryside slowed. Natalie leaned closer to the glass and watched. A peasant led a pair of oxen down the road which ran parallel to the railway embankment. He did not look up, but one of his beasts briefly raised its head and for a moment liquid brown eyes seemed to meet hers with a knowing gaze before the train left them behind. The first houses of a village rolled by, then shops and public buildings which slowed as she heard the metallic squeal of the brakes and felt herself pressed back into her seat.
The platform slid into view, and then with a slight bump the train came to rest. The whistle sounded. Steam poured by the window. An army officer and a lady with a wide-brimmed hat got off the train, followed by a porter carrying suitcases. Looking off the to right, down the platform, she could see a crowd of people with cardboard suitcases and parcels done up in string milling about as they pushed towards the third class carriage doors. Above it all hung a sign, the station name painted in large Cyrillic characters. For a moment they were spidery abstractions, utterly foreign and devoid of meaning. Then the scratches resolved themselves into letters and the unfamiliar name sounded itself out in her mind.
This, more than anything, impressed upon her the sense of being far from the convent school where she had spent her last fourteen years. Cyrillic letters had, until now, been relegated to the pages of books. The train began to pick up speed again, the platform vanished behind, and soon there were fields and trees outside the window again, but Natalie’s mind was back in old Sister Maria-Grigori’s room. There, as a girl, she had filled her exercise books with the cyrillic characters of Russian and the Latin ones of Polish while Sister Maria drank strong tea from the samovar and taught her in heavily accented French. In later years, as Sister’s eyesight failed, Natalie had spent their daily hour together reading aloud Russian novels to her and then answering the questions Sister asked in French to see if she had understood the story.
Now, here she was, in a first class railway carriage rumbling across Russian Poland. Was this the sort of train that Anna had confronted in the long, low-roofed station of the Nizhni Novgorod Railway? But no, that was far to the east near Moscow.
Reflecting on how strange it was that she thought of the land that was her home in terms of fiction, she tried to recall her last long trip along this railroad. She had been six years old when Nianka -- old Nianka, crabby Nianka, too busy to be tender except when she kissed her little Natalka goodnight almost like a mother might have -- escorted her to the convent and what was to become her life. Try as she could, however, she could remember no more than storybook images from before she came to the convent school. Nianka, of course, and the pea vines curling up the trellis in the garden, and the little brook that ran through the woods behind the house. There was a favorite window with a deep sill, where she had spent many hours with Lalka, her doll, tucked away between the curtains inside and the garden without, making up stories in which the two of them were brave adventurers who were never scolded or put to bed. But she could recall no definite impressions of her native country, and despite her daily lessons with Sister Maria-Grigori, her Russian and Polish, though adequate, were schoolroom languages less comfortable than the French she’d spoken with the other girls.
The small marks of difference -- the daily lessons with the old Polish sister; her beloved Lalka, whose painted wooden head was so different from the porcelain dolls that several of the other girls had -- seemed of little import to her life until the day that she was called into the formal sitting room in which the convent received guests. This time, however, there was no rich woman being shown the products of the charitable school to which she was thinking of giving money.
Reverend Mother was there alone, sitting behind the tea service. She gestured Natalie towards a seat opposite her and Natalie obediently sat down. Reverend Mother poured a cup of tea and handed it to her.
Tea service was the ritual which brought order to all worldly changes, good and bad, just as the singing of the Office brought order to the convent’s sacred world. If a girl’s relative had died, she was given tea and then told of her loss. If a girl was offered a job or a chance to live with a relative, she likewise was told over tea. Never having heard that she had relatives or prospects, Natalie could not imagine why she had been thus summoned.
Deselecting Patricians & Intellectuals
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