This was a very fun installment to write, though I feel bad for what poor Natalie had to go through.
The next installment will be up on Monday.
Near Kiev, Russian Ukraine. August 5th, 1914. The next day came, warm and sunny. The windows of the summer house were open, and through them came the smell of dew and warming earth and grass. It was the sort of day for which, long afterwards, the summer of 1914 was remembered. Far away, along the Meuse River in Belgium, German troops rushed forward in dense waves against the forts surrounding the city of Liege and were met with rifle and machine gun fire from the Belgian troops defending their small country. Such sights and sounds were unimaginable still at the Luterek’s dacha. Here were the sounds of larks singing and insects humming among the trees rather than shrapnel buzzing through the air.
Lena burst into her eldest brother’s room while it was still early, demanding that he come down to breakfast and see them all, and so rather than sleeping until late morning as might have been his wont after two days on trains and a late night discussing the military and diplomatic situation with his father and brother in the library, while dipping into the doctor’s stash of fine cigars, Konrad came down to breakfast with the family, looking handsome though slightly diminished in a civilian hunting suit of English tweed.
“Oh, you’re not going to go hunting and leave all of us, are you?” Lena asked, as soon as she saw her brother’s outfit.
“I don’t know,” Konrad replied, pouring himself a cup of tea and sitting down at the table next to her. “What sort of activities would you have me stay for? Is it to be a tea party with your dolls?”
Lena stuck her tongue out at him. “Father says we can take the pony cart. I want to pack a big picnic hamper and go for a ramble through the countryside.”
“A ramble is it?” Konrad looked around the table at the other young people.
Borys was reading the newspaper. Sara was spreading jam on her toast while trying to look indifferent to the day’s activities and thus more mature than her boisterous younger sister. Natalie was watching these reactions when she felt Konrad’s gaze upon her. She briefly met his eyes, then felt flustered and looked away. Immediately she was angry with herself for doing so.
The night before, having retreated to the solitude of her room, she had demanded of herself why why had immediately felt abashed at his compliment and his kiss on her hand. She was a lady. Gentlemen kissed ladies’ hands and paid them compliments. Why had she immediately felt in the wrong to receive these attentions from Lieutenant Konrad in front of his family? Certainly, there had been the constant warnings of the nuns: “Be on your guard against men who seek to compromise your virtue. You see in your own lives what lies before a woman who falls thus, and her child.”
Yet she must not flatter herself that he had any such grave intentions. He was a handsome young man from a good family, an officer, surely he paid such attentions to many women and meant little enough by it. Perhaps, indeed, that, rather than the warnings of her youth, was what embarrassed her: that he paid her attention merely as an amusement and not because of anything that she was, other than a woman who caught his eye for a moment. But whatever the reason, she would not allow these feelings to make her act in a way that called attention to her discomfort.
Lena had been describing her plans for the day to everyone. “And when we get back, I know Cook is making a special dinner since it’s your first one here. And then--”
“You’re very quiet, Mademoiselle Nowakówna,” Konrad interrupted. “Are you coming on this proposed ramble through the countryside?”
Natalie followed her resolution and smiled back at him calmly. “Oh, I suppose. Where the girls, I go.”
“Then I am sure we shall all have a good time,” he replied.
The preparations took some time, but at last the young people all set off. Borys drove the pony cart, with the big, wicker picnic basket loaded with china, table cloths, blankets, and food and drink, and the girls walked alongside. Konrad rode one of the rented hunters, sometimes riding calmly alongside, sometimes cantering off in some direction or other, to jump a fence and then circle back, or simply to enjoy the satisfaction of speed on a good animal.
They chose a grassy field near a stream for this picnic place. Berry bushes grew along the stream, and while Natalie worked at laying out the blankets and then the china and food on them, Sara and Lena took of their shoes and stockings and waded up and down the stream picking tins full of berries, sampling many as they went along. Their talk and occasional splashes formed a sort of half-heard background mingling with the noises of the stream itself -- not distinct enough to be understood yet enough to break the solitude and make it clear that people were nearby.
“Would you like a fire to heat the kettle over?” Konrad asked.
There were no trees nearby and they had not thought to bring firewood. “I think we’ll have to do without,” Natalie said. “There’s no wood.”
“No wood yet, little governess,” Konrad said. “These two knights errant will go questing for you.”
“Really, it’s no trouble. We don’t need to have hot tea.”
“Oh, but I insist. We must do something to make ourselves useful to you, and you seem to have everything here so well in hand.” He smiled and gave her an exaggerated bow. “We shall return with our firewood or on it.” He swung into the saddle with the grace of long practice. “Come on, Borys. I shall lead my squadron on reconnoitre and find out enemy where he lies. You bring the baggage train.” He indicated the pony cart. “Once I have defeated our foe you can bring back the spoils of war.”