By Clara Blair
I was born in Moscow in 1855 to Emeraude-Marie Romanov and Daniel Shlomo Lelko. From early childhood I learned the value and cost of love. Both my parents were disowned by their families – she for “consorting with a Jew” and he for loving a woman who was not a Jew. They became each other’s family, and they were blessed with the strength, courage and talent to make a far more satisfying life together than either could have had, had they obeyed their families.
An only child, I grew up pampered by my parents and by their many kind and generous friends. My mother was soft-spoken but strong. She was also beautiful, had the voice of a nightingale and the vision of an artist. She was my father’s true companion, looking never back to what she had given up but always forward to what they would accomplish together. While she could have been a performer or painted for commissions, she chose to make her life her art. Joy filled our home, peace and security in the knowledge of my parents’ mutual devotion and fidelity.
My father was a truly gifted musician. Whether with reed, strings or piano, he could flood a listener’s soul with beauty. Cast out from the Jewish community, he was accepted by others because of his talent and gentle wit. We lived well in a spacious house in the city, a gift from one of his patrons.
Emeraude had flaxen hair and violet-blue eyes, wore pastel colors and lace. Even when I was grown up, she had kept her willowy figure. She loved to work in our garden, and her kitchen produced feasts the Czar himself would have praised whether she was entertaining my father’s patrons, friends and neighbors, or just the three of us. She wore around her neck a golden chain from which she had removed a cross when she left her parents’ house. The cross she gave to her brother’s wife, who remained her steadfast friend.
Papa had bright auburn hair, as I did when I was young, and the same moss-green eyes. He was a well-educated man, far more intelligent than many of the wealthy he worked for. Perhaps this is just a loving daughter’s opinion, but Papa seemed comfortable in any company and always made others feel comfortable as well. This was a gift of his that my mother taught me is the truest form of courtesy, the essence of good manners. He was always kind, generous and fair.
Because of the unique social position my parents had earned, I was raised almost like a nobleman’s daughter. I learned needlework and, of course, the piano. I was also happy working in the garden with my mother and climbing trees with the stable boys, but my parents hired tutors so I would learn mathematics, history and science. I can’t remember a time when I did not know how to read and write, and I grew up speaking French and Russian at home. In spite of himself, Papa taught me bits of Yiddish, mostly exclamations of dismay and words I should not use before company.
I learned to ride horses when I was very, very young. Some of Papa’s wealthy friends were amazed that I showed no fear, and it amused them to watch little Tati, with her flaming hair, riding a pony as if I had been born on one. As I grew, the horses became larger, too. Some of the ladies were slightly scandalized when they realized that a fifteen-year-old girl was riding astride like a boy, but attempts to make me change to a sidesaddle were abandoned when I somehow kept falling off. Propriety was not so important, after all, for “Lelko’s little girl.” It was not as if I were destined to be a lady.
Mama designed special riding garb for me – a split skirt that the French call culottes. They were quite satisfactory, though not as practical as the trousers I could wear while I was a child, and the ladies reluctantly approved. No one could have known what an important role horses would play in my life.
Our home was a wonderful place filled with art, music and conversation. Among my parents’ friends were poets, writers, painters, musicians and intellectuals who reveled in the mutual respect and curiosity that were part of the very air we breathed. The privileges of “Lelko’s little girl” were also enjoyed by Lelko’s friends. Mama and Papa created an atmosphere around them that encouraged questions and debate. Books were everywhere. Life was filled with possibilities. The ideal of freedom was tempered only with the importance of accepting the consequences of one’s actions.
It was heaven for a girl who hungered to know “why.” I had a remarkably happy childhood, and it was supposed – I guess – that I would one day find a suitable mate among the children of our friends. But that was not what happened.
After I’ve told you how idyllic my childhood was, how compassionate and understanding my parents were, you must wonder that I could have left them as I did. Looking back over all these years, I can only conclude that they taught me too well to follow my heart.
The trouble began, if I could identify its beginning in relationship to the early part of my life, with a horse. There is a saying you’ve probably heard: “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Good advice, perhaps, but I would not have done anything differently.
For my eighteenth birthday, one of Papa’s patrons – a duke, I believe – decided to make a gift to me of my very own riding horse. “Lelko’s girl,” no longer so little, would have her very own thoroughbred mare from no less than the finest stables in eastern Europe. He presented me with letters of credit and introduction to Carl Eduard Josef Albrecht Baron von Willensky, whose horses were known for their soundness, strength, grace and presence.
Spoiled as I was, I was dumbstruck by the generosity of the gift. But Papa sided with his great friend and said to me, “Tati, don’t be rude. Accept this lovely gift and make this kind man happy.”
And so it was that I traveled alone by rail and coach from Moscow to Vilnius. The duke had arranged first-class accommodations for me, and the soft leather seats and fine wood paneling made the coaches seem like drawing rooms on wheels. But the trip was a long one and tiring. I was not used to sitting still for very long, and there was not much to do besides read and watch the scenery. I chatted with some of the ladies in the dining car and avoided the uninvited attentions of several men who were also traveling alone.
Fortunately there was much to see as the train passed from the familiar woodlands surrounding Moscow to the more open spaces of Lithuania. I had never seen so many farms and fields as the forests, cut back for the railroad easements, gave way to open agricultural land and rolling meadows dotted with cattle and horses.
When we finally arrived in Vilnius, I was struck by the size and age of the city, but there was no time to explore it, for I was met at the station by representatives of the von Willensky family and brought to visit their country house and stables. At eighteen I was a grown woman and had, superficially at least, the sophistication and self-possession of many noblewomen twice my age. The Lelko family was considered above reproach in the circles we occupied in Moscow, and my singular arrival was accepted as the way “city people” allowed their unmarried daughters liberty that was not the norm around Vilnius.
It was a short and comfortable ride to the von Willensky’s country house, but the carriage driver and footman spoke only German. I was treated with respect but unable to ask questions. When we reached the great house, I was relieved to be greeted in Russian. The manor and stables were large, substantial structures of wood and stone. A deep porch sheltered the front of the house, and there I first met the baron, his wife and their daughter.
The baron was a very impressive man, the kind I doubt would have bowed to the Czar. A click of his Prussian leather boots would have had to suffice. Just about everything that had to do with horses in Russia at the time was heavily influenced by the Prussians and other Germans who were renowned for raising the finest, best-trained dogs and horses. His great moustache failed to detract from the effect of his dark brown eyes – so dark I found it difficult to discern the iris. He was tall and broad but not at all fat or soft. He seemed to me like a mountain, and his deep voice rumbled heavily accented Russian as he welcomed me to his home. His wife was almost as formidable as he, but remained quiet and diffident in her husband’s presence. She said little as she directed household servants to take my travel cases to a guest room. Their daughter appeared delicate, unlike her parents, and greeted me softly in French.
Dinner was served late that first evening, in my honor it seemed. Slabs of beef, great bowls of potatoes and basins of spicy-sweet red cabbage were served with chilled tankards of beer. Dessert included an amazing chocolate torte and preserved cherries in syrup served with cups of strong dark coffee and sweet cream for those who wanted it. Only the baron’s youngest son, Josef, was absent from the table. The two older ones, Carl and Franz, looked like younger versions of their father and behaved like obedient children in his presence. Their sister, Berta, was a slender young woman with pale hair and eyes, for whom Mama would have prescribed fresh air, sunshine and dancing.
Next morning I awoke early, dressed for the stables in one of my culottes and went downstairs for breakfast. The baroness set a hearty table. The baron, Carl and Franz were finishing their coffee when I arrived. Cook brought me a plate of cheese, eggs and dark bread that was more than I could finish, along with a tempting array of preserved berries. I was drinking coffee and pushing the last of the eggs around my plate when I was joined by Berta, who instructed the cook to bring her tea and toast with a bit of applesauce.
Although Berta was several years older than I, her life had been extremely sheltered compared to mine. Her father determined where she could go and with whom. Most of the books in the house were religious or had to do with horses and general agriculture. Berta enjoyed needlework but dreaded the required piano lessons. Because of her father’s status and attitudes, she had few friends and confidants. She feared that one day he would arrange a marriage for her and she would spend her whole life bound by duty and obedience, just as her mother had.
It was difficult to find the words to answer her. I was a guest in her father’s house. Daughters of even the most pious and class-conscious Russians had more personal freedom than Berta had. I told her about the museums I had visited, the concerts and the poetry readings. Then she asked me whether it was true that my parents had married for love against their parents’ wishes. Had they really been disinherited and shunned? How could they live and be happy cut off from their families?
French is a language of subtlety, and I spoke softly to her of my life and the home my parents had made together. Keeping watch on the two doorways so that no one would surprise us in this dangerous conversation, Berta told me my story filled her with admiration and fear. She envied my courage and freedom – two things I had always taken for granted – and hoped that I would always be so fortunate. Even joining a convent and submitting to the order of religious life seemed preferable to being given in marriage to a man like her father.
At last two of the kitchen maids came noisily into the dining room to clear the table, joking loudly in German – I think they were used to announcing their arrival this way to avoid walking in on awkward conversations.
Berta gave me a quick kiss on the cheek and went back up the stairs. I found my coat and went out to visit the stables and begin the rest of my life.
I could see several of the baron’s horses grazing in a fenced pasture in the distance, and several mares and foals were standing in the paddock adjoining the stables. What intrigued me more were the soft whinnies and nickering from within the stalls.
Men’s and boys’ voices rose and fell in what sounded like good-natured banter as they washed and brushed the horses. I listened from just inside the stable’s main door and wished I could speak German well enough to join them. My hushed conversation with Berta at breakfast had been very frustrating. Would everyone here think I should behave as she did? I was not one of them – I was Tatiana Lelko, come from Moscow to buy a horse. They might think me unbecomingly forward and too worldly, but I would not waste the duke’s money.
I walked to the nearest stall and peered through the gate to see if a horse was inside. I saw a full mane the color of sable and a great brown eye every bit as intimidating as the baron’s. Much to my disgust, I jumped back with a small cry, calling attention to my presence in the stable. A young man and two boys came out of one of the far stalls, surprised to see a female visitor. The boys grinned and the man began to speak gruffly to me in German. I took a step toward him and addressed him firmly in French.
“Good morning,” I said, “I am Tatiana Emeraude Lelko. I have come from Moscow to select a riding horse from the baron’s stable. Would you be so kind as to show me some of the horses that are for sale?”
He motioned the boys to go back to mucking out the stalls and began to talk to me in excellent French. “Miss Lelko, I have been told about you. They say you are an experienced rider, but I don’t think Globus there is the horse for you. He is a very aggressive stallion, and he is mine.”
“I am not interested in some docile creature,” I replied. “My father’s friend sent me here to find a horse with spirit and stamina, the kind of animal the baron’s stable is famous for. I am not afraid of horses.”
It became very quiet in the stable as the man and I glared at each other. He had to know that I was not afraid of him, either. As I watched him, a change came over his face and the scowl was replaced by a broad smile.
“Where are my manners!” he exclaimed. “Miss Lelko, I am Josef, the baron’s youngest son. I work with the horses. Hans and Gus are my helpers, two of my father’s employees.”
The boys peered around the gate of the stall, eyes wide as they listened to their master speak French in the stable, and to a woman. He began to offer me his hand, thought better of it remembering what his hand had been doing, and attempted to click his boots as his father did. This maneuver did not produce the desired effect because his boots were quite caked with mud and manure.
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance,” I managed to say before our laughter sent Hans and Gus ducking behind the gate, noisily resuming their chores.
“Let me go back to the house and make myself presentable, Miss Lelko,” he said. “Then I will be honored to show you the von Willensky horses.”
We walked back to the house in an awkward silence, and I sat on the porch with Berta while her brother went upstairs to transform himself from a stable boy into a baron’s son.
“He’s quite different from the other two,” Berta said softly – Berta said everything softly. “He reads books and listens to music. Carl and Franz are very interested in helping father manage the business of the stables, but Josef likes being with the horses. Our brothers don’t understand why he bothered to learn French and study the arts if he wants to work alongside the hired help, but that’s the way my little brother is.”
“He certainly is not afraid to get dirty,” I remarked, thinking of the joys I shared with Mama in all those earthy hours in her garden. “My father preferred his music and books. Myself, I want all of it.”
“It must be wonderful to want everything and have some hope of getting it,” Berta replied. She looked away for a moment so I could not see her face. We were silent for a while, and then Josef reemerged from the house, freshly shaved, hands scrubbed clean, and dressed for riding.
“Forgive me for taking your visitor, Bertie,” he said to her. “But the lady has come to see our horses, and see them she shall.” He kissed her forehead gently and led me back to the stables.
“I’m afraid we have no ladies’ saddles, but I doubt that will be a problem for you,” he said with a smile that showed bright, clean teeth. Despite the humor in his voice, I sensed a challenge, just a hint of wolfishness about him.
“If by ladies’ saddles you mean those wretched side-saddles, that is no problem at all,” I replied. “I’ve been riding astride since I was a child. But I don’t think I could stay on a man’s saddle made for your father.”
“Few can,” he laughed. “No, we have some saddles with short trees that should be comfortable for you. I noticed your riding skirt – very sensible.”
I was trying to find the right words to ask him why I should not be sensible, when we arrived at the main stable door.
“Most of the horses are in the pasture now,” he said. “Globus is alone in the paddock, in solitary splendor.” His obvious pride in the stallion was boyish. “We have to keep close track of the mares he mates with to avoid inbreeding. Globus is not the only stallion we have here, but I think he is one of the finest horses I have ever known.”
As we walked through the stable to the paddock, Josef asked me whether I was looking for a mare or a gelding. I did not object to his exclusion of stallions because I knew they could be unpredictable and often demanded more physical strength to control them than I possessed. Seeing Globus in the light of day confirmed that.
In the half-light of the stall, Globus was impressive. But in the morning sunshine he was magnificent. He was huge for a horse that was not a draught animal, and I had been used to the fine-boned Polish Arabians my father’s friends kept. Globus was a Hanoverian stallion that stood more than seventeen hands high and was well-proportioned. His coat was deep sable, almost black, and his luxuriant mane and tail gleamed like burnished ebony. His eyes, though, still reminded me of the baron’s.
“He is wonderful,” I said softly. “Do you ride him often?”
“Let’s find a mount for you,” Josef replied, “and we’ll go riding together after lunch.”
Surveying the animals in the pasture was exhilarating. The von Willensky stables did seem to have only wonderful horses. Josef asked me again whether I preferred a mare or a gelding, and I told him it depended on the qualities of the individual horse.
“Then I will select three for your consideration,” he said. “I will have Hans and Gus bring the candidates in from the pasture to the paddock, and you can examine them. I will be very happy to tell you all I know about their personalities, their health and their bloodlines.”
I returned to the porch of the main house to visit with Berta until lunchtime, and Josef went off in search of Hans and Gus to select the horses. I found Berta sitting where we had left her, needlework in her lap but her gaze somewhere far off.
The baron and his wife had gone into the city with Carl and Franz, so Berta played hostess for our lunch. When Josef returned from the stables, cook brought us cold pickled herring in sour cream with freshly sliced onions and a pungent horseradish sauce, pickled beets and fragrant dark bread, still warm from the morning baking, accompanied by fresh sweet butter from their dairy. A spiced apple compote with raisins finished the meal and we lingered over coffee and tea, talking of poetry and music. Although I was eager to examine the horses, I reluctantly left Berta on the porch and accompanied Josef to the paddock.
Cosimo was almost as tall as Globus, but not nearly as massive. “He doesn’t always remember he’s a gelding,” Josef laughed as Hans struggled to keep the horse still. “Lots of spirit, that one. Papa brought him in from Italy and was furious when he saw the horse was no longer the stallion he’d admired in Turin. It is very unfortunate that he was gelded. Papa nearly wept for the horses Cosimo could have sired. Because of language difficulties and the legal systems involved, the lawsuit will never be settled, but Cosimo is a fine horse – a challenge for even an experienced rider.”
The big horse finally pulled free of poor Hans and trotted over to some tasty clover.
Gus looped Boris’s reins over the fencepost and went to help Hans retrieve Cosimo. Boris was dark with a blaze of white on his face and white feet, but he seemed too timid – not tame but afraid. “Why does he act like that?” I asked Josef.
“This one has been ill-treated. I did not mean for the boys to bring him to you. I asked for Horus, a white Arabian that one of Papa’s friends has been considering. Unless he has been sold, I’ll have Hans get him for you.”
“Wait,” I replied. “The mare has been watching me. Tell me about her.”
The dappled gray Shagya Arabian was watching me as if waiting for a signal. She had been untethered in the paddock and approached me at the fence with much curiosity. She was a sturdy little horse, built for endurance. She leaned her nose over the fence and snuffled gently for the sugar cubes I offered her.
“Now there’s one ready to be spoiled,” Josef observed. “She’s a new arrival here. Don’t be fooled by her size or her apparent gentleness. She’s fast and she’s stubborn.”
“She also looks very sound and healthy, not broken and nervous like poor Boris,” I replied, stroking her face. “Kismet is a Turkish name, isn’t it? Fate?”
“I’m still trying to sort out her bloodlines,” Josef said. “Papá usually buys only horses with impeccable pedigrees, but this one seemed so special to me that I convinced him to buy her from the Romany who pass through here several times each year. She has never been bred, and she’s about two years old. I suspect some of her ancestors were from Asia. She is healthy and strong.”
“I would like to ride her, Josef,” I said. “She seems to want me to.”
“Very well, Miss Lelko,” he started.
“Tatiana, Josef, please. My friends call me Tati.”
“Very well, Tati,” he replied. “I will have Hans and Gus saddle her and Globus. Then we will ride.”
Soon we were astride our mounts and started side by side to put them through their paces. First a gentle walk, then a slow trot and a brisk canter, and finally a full-out gallop on the carefully kept bridle paths surrounding the manor. Because of Globus’s longer stride, Josef was soon ahead of me.
I found myself admiring the musculature and grace of the great dark stallion, then realized that I was also admiring the body of the man who was riding him. All these years later, I can still recall the blush blossoming on my face and the heat rising in other parts of my body as I watched Josef.
As the child of open-minded artists, I had heard much discussion of love and passion in my parents’ home. The workings of the human body were no mystery to me. But never before had I felt such a rush of yearning for a real person as opposed to a young girl’s fantasy. I had enjoyed the attention of suitors, I had been kissed, I had even had the occasion to slap the face of a young man who tried to make unwelcome advances. But I remained a virgin by choice, old-fashioned enough to want to save myself for my wedding night. I firmly believed it was a matter of self-respect, not prudishness.
Some would say that my arousal was one reason why respectable women rode the abominable sidesaddle, if they rode at all. But I believe I would have experienced the same feelings about Josef if I had been watching him ride while I sat on the porch sipping tea with his sister.
When he and I were young, my Josef had thick hair the color of rich, sandy loam brushed with gold. He was not as physically imposing as his father and brothers, but neither was he a gangly youth. Had he been much shorter, I might have said he had a dancer’s body. He was too tall for that, though, and was broad-shouldered and well-muscled. Perhaps he would have had narrow hips if he had not spent so much time on horseback. His face was broad and open, with a generous mouth and a straight nose of just the right proportions. His hazel eyes burned with intelligence. To me, he was magnificent.
Riding the dappled gray mare for the first time, I was confused and challenged by my situation. There I was, trying to concentrate on the performance of an expensive new horse and being tremendously distracted by the physicality of a young man riding just ahead of me – a man I had just met that day!
Tatiana, you’re a fool, I thought to myself. You don’t even know him. He may have a fiancee. Think about the horse! Kismet – fate….
While Globus’s long legs kept Josef ahead of me in the slower paces, the gallop gave Kismet the opportunity to show off. Riding her was easy, as if she could read my mind. After we began to gallop, I let her show me what she could do and we left Josef and Globus in our dust! Finally, when I could no longer see them behind us, I slowed her to a walk and dismounted under a tree near a little brook.
She and I had both earned a rest, and I let her graze while I sat against a fir tree waiting for “the men” to show up.
As I sat there, perspiring, it occurred to me that I had given Josef ample opportunity to contemplate my derriere once I passed him on Kismet. Well, there was nothing to be done for it. I was a guest in his parents’ home, with connections to Russian aristocrats. I was not used to feeling like the ingenue in a silly novel. I was not used to feeling foolish and confused by a man.
Kismet whinnied and I looked up to see Josef and Globus come into view around the last curve in the path.
“I trust you are sitting on the ground by your own choice,” Josef said with gentle sarcasm. “You and Kismet seemed on very good terms when you passed us back there.”
“We decided to wait for you,” I responded. “We agreed that had we known we’d be traveling so far we would have brought a picnic basket.”
“My apologies, Tati,” he smiled as he dismounted and continued, “but we’ve come so far around the paths that we’re now just a short distance from the house.”
Globus walked slowly over to the brook for a drink of water, and Josef sat down by the tree, very close to me. I felt myself blush again at the smell of fresh sweat and horse. Was Josef aware of the lavender that scented my clothes and the rose water I had splashed on myself that morning? Seldom at a loss for words, I could think of nothing to say as time seemed to stretch endlessly at the base of that tree.
Josef leaned over and gently kissed me on the cheek. I started to raise my hand to slap him, but my hand went slowly to his face and pulled him closer. I kissed him on the mouth and he drew me into a soft embrace. I burned like fire and melted like spring snow as we held each other quietly, comfortably, making no demands as the warm afternoon sun sank behind the trees. Lying there together, fully clothed, I felt as though I had loved him forever.
It was difficult to end our silent encounter, but the sun kept going down, Cook was busy in the kitchen and, of course, soon many people would begin wondering where we were. Neither of us was ready to make explanations.
Josef stood first, offered me his hand to help me rise, and whistled softly to the horses. Globus and Kismet had not wandered far and walked to us with no further urging.
“Tati,” Josef said, still holding my hand, “I don’t know what to say, except that I’m not sorry and I think I’ve fallen in love with you. But this is happening too quickly. I do not want to take advantage of you. Gossip here can be quite vicious.”
“I am no stranger to gossip,” I replied, disengaging my hand to brush off my clothes. “Some things do happen quickly, though. I think I’ve fallen in love with you, too. But you’re right – we must be cautious.”
We mounted our horses and started toward the stables.
“How long will you be staying here? I may have been too hasty in recommending horses for you,”
Josef said ruefully. “Moscow is much too far away.”
“Well,” I replied, “I haven’t ridden Cosimo or Boris yet, and Horus may still be available.”
Josef laughed. “Today is Friday, so we will probably be having fried fish, potato salad and cole slaw for dinner. Are you hungry, Tati?”
We went on to the house, where we went directly to our rooms to freshen up and change for dinner. As Josef had predicted, the main course was fish –fillets dipped in white bread crumbs and sauteed to a crispy gold with delicate white meat inside. The salads were exceptionally good, as were the ever-present beer, dark bread and creamy butter. For dessert, I think the cook had outdone herself with strawberry pie and whipped cream. There was not much conversation at the table until dessert and coffee were served.
The baron, adding sugar and cream to his coffee, seemed about to speak when Berta asked, “How was your ride this afternoon, Tati? Did my brother find a good horse for you?”
“They all look wonderful, Berta,” I replied, “but I tried the dappled gray mare today. She is a pretty thing and has amazing energy. There are several others I would like to try, though. Baron, your son mentioned an Arabian named Horus. Is he still available, or has someone already spoken for him?”
“Ah, Horus!” the baron exclaimed, warming to this subject. “He is a fine and impressive one. No, I have not yet been made an offer for him. He is a very spirited horse, one that I would not usually recommend for a young lady.”
Here he paused for a sip of coffee and a forkful of pie. “But since you were able to control that gray Romany mare, you may find Horus a suitable mount. Josef shall arrange for you to ride Horus tomorrow.”
The baron then returned his attention to coffee and pie, as did Carl and Franz. When those three were done, they retired to the baron’s study for cigars and brandy, and the baroness excused herself to consult with Cook for the next day’s meals. The kitchen maids cleared the table of plates, leaving Berta, Josef and me to linger over our coffee.