Near Kiev, Russian Ukraine. August 9th, 1914. As she had taken stock in her room on Friday night, after her interview with Dr. Luterek in the library, the world had seemed a very bitter place to Natalie. Konrad was determined to pursue her against her will, though he seemed to show little knowledge of, or interest in, what sort of person she was, other than a woman that he found attractive in the week before he went off to war, and all those who should know her, who had seemed to care for her, were misunderstanding her as a result. Sara and Lena imagined that she was a heroine out of a Gothic romance, the orphan governess suddenly catching the eye of the handsome master. And Dr. and Madame Luterek envisioned her as the interloping climber who would ensnare their son and keep him from the brilliant match they hoped him one day to make. How could she bear it if this went on?
And yet even as she painted this dark picture of her situation, and felt some comforting pity for herself, she realized that it would not go on, at least not like this. On Monday morning, Konrad would leave to join his regiment in Poland. She had only to get through two days. After that, while things might not be the same as if none of this had happened, they could at least return to some form of normality. And surely, once Konrad was back among other women, the governess who had so unaccountably failed to welcome his advances would be forgotten.
With this more comforting realization she had found the peace to go to bed, and the next day she had spent in relative happiness with Mrs. Sowka, talking and sewing in the housekeeper’s room, and helping her in her work. Konrad did not know where to look for her, and the other young people were so busy enjoying their last days with their older brother that they did not notice Natalie’s absence until dinner time, and which point Natalie complained of a headache and went to bed early.
Sunday was a day of goodbyes. Konrad would be leaving early the next morning. Madame Luterek took the impending separation the hardest, and any unexpected thing could cause the tears to well up in her eyes. She sat in the downstairs sitting room, with Konrad beside her, and alternated in her conversation between memories of her favorite son’s past, and worries about his future. No amount of the young cavalry officer’s optimism could calm her maternal fears, and even his sisters had taken on an unusual solemnity.
The family seemed occupied enough in this way that Natalie felt she could take a long walk without fear of being accosted, thus leaving the family to their goodbyes. The sky was a deep blue, with steel gray clouds and a taste of thunder in the air, but it seemed too warm and too breezy, and the rest of the sky too clear, to fear rain in any serious way. After walking through the French-style formal gardens, and then out along the peasant track, between fields, to the stream, she found a dirt road that ran along the stream and walked along it, sometimes under the shade of trees that grew along the river, sometimes in the warm summer sun of afternoon.
The afternoon was so beautiful that the first rumble of thunder caught her by surprise. The wind was at her back, and as she turned and looked the way she had come, she saw that the sky towards the dacha had become much darker than the blue sky ahead. There was a new freshness in the air, a breath of cool that came with the next gust of wind was was quickly followed by another, louder rumble of thunder.
She had no umbrella, and her wide brimmed summer hat would be of little protection against any kind of down pour. She began to hurry back down the path. The wind was gusting more frequently. As the first fat drops began to fall she tried to break into a fun, but she had only gone a few dozen strides when her boot came down on a loose rock and turned her ankle painfully. It was not a sprain but enough to retain a throbbing pain. Already the rain was coming down more steadily and she must be at least two miles from the house. She slowed to a brisk walk to avoid twisting her ankle again, and lifted her skirts up to keep the hem from dragging in the mud. Already there were several brown splashes on the dark gray wool, and as she slogged down the path she was already picturing the careful washing which it would take to try to get them out.
The stream was lined with low, scrubby trees, but none that gave anything like shelter from the rain, and so she kept walking. If she was going to be soaked anyway she might as well get closer to the house while she did so. Perhaps hurrying straight back, she could reach the house in twenty minutes.
Her gaze was down on the path in front of her, looking for firm footing and avoiding the discomfort of having the rain blow into her face, and so the words, in a voice she did not want to hear, caught her by surprise.
“Here you are! Enjoying your afternoon walk, little governess? May I join you?”