By Clara Blair
“Well?” she asked softly and eagerly, looking from one of us to the other.
“Well what, Bertie?” Josef replied, gently placing his hand on mine.
“I knew it!” Berta whispered breathlessly. “You have fallen in love. I’ve been looking for the signs ever since you two met. I have never seen it before, you know. Only read about it in books and heard about it from Grandma Mina. Oh, Gott in Himmel! This is wonderful, and awful, too. So many complications! So many obstacles to overcome! My dears…”
“Berta!” Josef whispered, putting a finger to her lips to quiet her. “Please, have you gone mad? The whole household will hear you!”
“You’re right, little brother. I will control myself. But I’m right, aren’t I? Tati?” Berta looked at me and I could not help but smile and nod. She placed both her hands over her mouth and looked absolutely radiant. Berta’s delicate beauty had somehow ignited because of Josef and me.
“Are we that obvious?” I asked her. “We’ve only just admitted the possibility to ourselves and you are already planning the wedding! Please, Berta, we’re not ready to make an announcement. We met only this morning!” I looked at Josef and saw a whole prism of emotions on his face – pleasure, concern, embarrassment, and tender affection for his sister.
“I never could keep secrets from you, Bertie. You usually know my mind before I do, and you know my heart, too. But we must be cautious. Papa will not be pleased. And if he is displeased, Mama will be, and so will Carl and Franz. Moscow is far away. We must not wear out Tati’s welcome before we know what we’re going to do about this.” Josef turned to me: “More coffee, Miss Lelko?”
“The von Oesternwalds,” Berta announced lightly, “are hosting a grand ball at their country house again this year to celebrate their daughter’s birthday. I think I would like to go this year, if you two will come with me. Gretchen has been trying to lure me to one of her parties ever since we both started wearing long skirts. I think you would enjoy her company, Tati. And I would like to see you and Josef dance. That’s something we don’t do enough of in our family – dance.”
We sat around the table quietly, the three of us holding hands as if at a séance. When the maids came to clear the coffee things, we retired to the parlor and played cards until it was time to go to bed. I realized that I had found in Berta the sister I had always wished for. And she was right – this would not be easy.
As much as I love horses, I was relieved to be off Horus and had to take extra care to make myself presentable for lunch. He was a fine horse, but simply too big and too willful for me. I was, many would agree, due for a lesson in humility, and Horus would certainly give it to me if I were not careful.
Berta was waiting for me in the dining room, eager to talk.
“Gretchen is just about your size, and she has gathered quite a collection of gowns,” Berta announced. “I’ve known her forever, and I’m sure she will be glad to lend you something beautiful – especially if that will get me to dress up and come to her party.”
While Josef and I had been riding, Berta had arranged to take me to visit her friend Gretchen. The von Oesternwald manor was not far away, and Gretchen’s mother had tea ready for us when we arrived. Their home was as informal as the von Willensky’s was tense. In this home, there would be dancing.
Over fruit and cookies, we chattered lightly about dresses and hair, about horses and travel. Gretchen had been taken to Paris and Vienna as a birthday gift two years earlier, and was interested in everything I could tell her about Moscow. She was indeed just about my size, with chestnut brown curls and gentle brown eyes. Her short, upturned nose may not have fit the standard for feminine beauty, but she was a lively and kind young woman, really quite pretty.
“Berta, I have chosen gowns for many occasions,” Gretchen said, “but never for someone with such beautiful red hair! And those eyes! Tati, forgive me, but your hair and eyes are so exotic that no one will care what dress you are wearing. You could probably wear your culottes and no one would notice.”
All three of us laughed and she continued, “But I have an apricot silk that I think would be stunning on you. Mama bought it for me in Paris and I never wore it. I generally prefer darker colors for myself. The dress I will wear to the party is a deep wine red – the color of garnets. Berta and I can easily alter the apricot dress for you. Take it in just a bit. Change the sleeves a little and maybe adjust the neckline to show more decolette. Add some simple gold jewelry and you’ll be so beautiful even I will be envious of you.”
We went upstairs to her room and spread out the lovely gowns, preening and giggling like little girls playing dress-up. Gretchen was right. Apricot was a good color for me, and a very little bit of sewing would make it fit perfectly. We agreed to shorten the sleeves and deepen the neckline, but I had to insist on a little lace to be respectable. “After all,” I said, “even Moscow is not Paris.”
It would be two weeks until the party, and Berta assured me that was more than enough time to transform the dress. “And there are plenty of horses you haven’t ridden yet,” she laughed.
Berta spoke with her parents and I wrote to mine. I had become Berta’s good friend and now Gretchen’s, and there were no obstacles to my staying with the von Willensky family until after the party. Two weeks seems like a very short time, but Josef and I had very few doubts.
The days and nights passed with pleasant activity and delicious leisure. Telling stories, riding horses, fussing with hair and dresses for the party. One by one, Josef introduced me to the horses, but I kept coming back to Kismet. Although Berta never cared for riding, I talked her into wearing a pair of my culottes and coming with Josef and me for a ride into the countryside and a picnic. She discovered that what she had found unpleasant was not being on horseback, but the dreadful sidesaddle.
“Tati,” she said with delight, “if nothing else, your visit has given me the gift of riding!”
But the day before Gretchen’s party, Berta became very withdrawn, spending most of the time in her room. Josef and I tried to persuade her to take a picnic lunch with us, but she said – distractedly – “No, my dears, I have too much to think about today.”
She kept to herself that evening and had breakfast in her room the next day. Worried, I knocked at her door to ask her down for lunch, and she greeted me as if nothing unusual had happened. At her suggestion, Josef and I joined her for lunch in the garden, where she once again was full of enthusiasm for Gretchen’s party.
My apricot silk dress was perfect. Berta and Gretchen had worked wonders with their needles and finally refused to include my bit of lace for modesty. I would be, they reminded me, among friends. I wore my hair up, with curls and ringlets cascading down my neck in the French fashion, and Berta lent me a huge pair of dangling gold earrings.
When Berta came down the stairs to join Josef and me, I was speechless. She looked absolutely splendid. It was more than the effect of the pale gold gown, which matched her hair so perfectly and brought out the golden flecks in her pale gray eyes. Or the creamy pearls that circled her slender neck and flowed in tiny showers from her ears, emphasizing her glowing skin. Or her thick, flowing hair that was pulled back, the ends twisted into ropes of gold that draped over her shoulders.
The real difference was in Berta herself – she had become regal, possessed of a serenity and grace I’d never seen before in my mild-mannered, self-effacing friend. This was not the gray-clad, retiring spinster who rejoiced only in her brother’s new romance. Tonight Berta was a woman who knew her power. I felt stunned by her opulence, and Josef could find nothing to say until we were settled, just the three of us, in the carriage.
“Sister,” he said, “you look magnificent tonight. I only hope you won’t inspire a duel!”
“Josef,” she answered, “don’t be silly. Robert will be there tonight, and none of the local boys would challenge a Frenchman.”
“Who is Robert?” I blurted, like an excited child.
Berta laughed softly and said, “Robert is a great secret. Only Gretchen knows about him. And our grandmother in Paris.”
“Mina?” Josef asked. “What’s going on, Berta?”
“Can’t I have secrets, little brother? God knows I don’t have much else. Would you, if you were a woman, be satisfied with the choices our father has laid out for me? You’re not happy with the choices he’s given you.
“I met Robert at Gretchen’s party three years ago, and I’ve been corresponding with him ever since, with help from Gretchen and Grandma Mina. Papa would never allow it, so he doesn’t know. Neither do Mama or Carl or Franz. I did not tell you because I didn’t want Papa to blame you if he found out. I learned only yesterday that Robert will definitely be at the von Oesternwald’s tonight. I’ve been struggling all day not to become hysterical. This may be the most important night of my life.”
“Dear Bertie,” Josef said softly, “I want you to be happy. If this Robert turns out to be a cad, I’ll horsewhip him all the way back to France!”
“I’m not worried about Robert, or you. Just Papa and our brothers,” she sighed.
A string quartet and a pianist were playing softly at the front of the hall, beyond the sumptuous buffet, and waiters were keeping wine glasses and beer tankards full. Beautifully dressed people were engaged in conversation – some sitting and some standing – and many couples were dancing.
When Gretchen saw us, she rushed over, bestowed loving hugs, and introduced us to her beau, Anton Marcus von Lichtenstein. He was a tall young man with blond hair and blue eyes, and he seemed totally mesmerized by our Gretchen, who glowed in her garnets and red silk.
“Robert is here,” she hurriedly whispered to Berta, and glanced over her shoulder to a place near the musicians.
Berta was transfixed. “My God, I had forgotten how handsome he is!” she murmured.
RobertA dark-haired man with piercing blue eyes made his way across the dance floor to join us. He had fair skin and an aquiline nose, was dressed like a gentleman but had a workman’s hands. He greeted us with a courtly bow and introduced himself.
“I am Robert Paul Roman, a friend of our hostess’s family. I am very pleased to meet all of you.”
Proper introductions, immediately reduced to first names, were made all around our little circle, and Robert offered his hand to Berta.
“Will you honor me with this dance, fair lady?” he asked.
“Most certainly, dear sir,” she replied softly, and they danced off into the crowd.
Josef released his breath in a low sound that was not quite a whistle. “Dear Saints and Angels, Gretchen!” he exclaimed softly. “What have we here?”
“As far as I know,” she replied, “it’s exactly what it looks like. Both of them have been waiting for this reunion for three years, Josef. Your Grandma Mina has been keeping an eye on him in Paris, and it seems that he has been as faithful to Berta as she has been to him.
“Brace yourself, my friend. I don’t think he intends to return to Paris without her. I just hope your father doesn’t suffer a brain hemorrhage when he finds out.”
Josef shook his head and said ruefully, “Maybe he’ll just capitulate when he finds out about Tati and me. But there will be a great explosion, no doubt about that. If we were near the Alps, I’d fear an avalanche!”
“You and Tati!” Gretchen gasped. “This is too good to be true! I thank God every day that my parents have no objection to Anton, nor his to me. I’ve dreamed of a double wedding, but the baron is not likely to allow that.”
“The baron,” Josef replied, “is not likely to allow anything at all. And Mama is so docile and religious, it’s hard to believe she’s Grandma Mina’s daughter. Carl and Franz are very much like our father, but sometimes they are unpredictable. This is going to be very interesting, indeed. But I love Tati, and it’s obvious that Berta loves Robert. The only thing certain right now is that we will marry. And we’ll need our friends to stand by us.”
“You know I love Berta like a sister, Josef. I have already defied the baron by acting as a go-between for Berta and Robert. My parents are much more modern than yours.” Gretchen added, “Titles and class distinctions mean little to them. I really don’t think they’d mind if Anton had to work for a living, as long as we love each other.”
Meanwhile the musicians kept playing waltzes and polkas and light classical music. A few couples, including Josef and me, attempted a minuet and almost got it right until we started laughing at ourselves.
When the musicians paused to rest, the six of us filled our plates from the buffet and took a table together. Berta was glowing, and not just from dancing. Robert was no longer so solemn, and soon he and Josef were joined by Anton in talking about horses.
We three girls chattered about gowns and food, how lovely the music was, everything except what was at the top of our minds – our men.
Finally I could stand it no longer. “Berta,” I asked softly, “do you have any other secrets Josef and I should know about?”
Gretchen blanched, but Berta laughed and said, “No, my dear, now I am transparent.”
“You are luminous, my friend,” I said.
The musicians returned to their instruments, and Robert whisked Berta away onto the dance floor before I could say more. Then Josef took my hand, Anton took Gretchen’s, and we joined the dancers.
That evening was like something from a fairy tale. Unlike in Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream," there was no confusion or doubt among the lovers: Berta and Robert, Josef and I, even Gretchen and Anton -- true love was in the air as we danced and laughed and made plans together. We were filled with a priceless innocence and happiness we wished could last forever.
Berta invited Gretchen and Anton to a special luncheon the next day, when she would introduce Robert to her family. Full of joy and wine, we agreed it would be a good idea. And so it was decided. The fare would be simple, the luncheon informal, the mood celebratory.
We left Robert at the von Oesternwald's, giving him and Berta time for a private farewell, then rode back to the von Willensky manor in alternating dreamy silence and manic chatter. We spoke in French, hoping the coachman would not listen.
By the time we reached the gate, Josef had become subdued, worried about his father's reaction to Berta's announcement.
"Be happy for me, brother," Berta murmured. "No matter what Papa says or does, I have made my choice and am prepared to pay the price for it. I am not a child and will not be treated like one. Be happy for me."
He noticed, but did not mention, the yellow ribbon in her hair.
The baron spent the morning as usual with Carl and Franz in his study, reviewing the operation of the stables and other land holdings. Josef, however, directed Hans and Gus from the porch of the manor house and did not work with the horses.
Berta consulted with her mother about the menu, place settings and seating arrangements. I just tried to keep my mouth shut and stay out of the way. This was Berta's day, and I did not want my apprehension to spoil it for her.
At just noon, the von Oesternwald carriage arrived with Gretchen, Anton and Robert. The driver was invited to eat with Hans and Gus, and our guests were welcomed into the dining room.
Cook had prepared roast pork with prune dressing, spaetzel, cabbage and carrots. Dark beer and fresh rye bread and butter complemented the meal. Dessert would be a gooseberry pie. It was simple and fragrant and good.
In the baron's house, conversation was saved for after the main part of the meal, over coffee and pie. Gretchen introduced Anton as her fiance, and Robert as an old friend of her family who happened to be in town. Cook's efforts were enjoyed with gusto. Her spaetzel were extraordinarily tender.
As Cook's helpers cleared the table for dessert, the baron loosened his belt and lit a cigar. While the coffee was being poured, he congratulated Anton on his engagement to Gretchen and extended his best wishes to her and her family. Halfway through the pie, he turned his attention to Robert.
"How long have you known the von Oesternwalds?" the baron asked, narrowing his dark eyes. "Your name sounds Tsigane and your accent sounds French, though many French have lived in the shadow of the Czar for a long time."
"I am French," said Robert. "I was born in Paris and have traveled across Europe studying veterinary medicine. I speak several languages well enough to get by, but you are right, sir -- my accent can be heard in most of them.
"I first met the von Oesternwalds about three years ago, when their son Otto asked me to look at one of his dogs. The whole family made me feel welcome, and I am very grateful for their friendship."
"Hmmm," rumbled the baron around his gooseberry pie. "I still wonder what brings us together at my table today. I would expect the von Oesternwalds to announce Gretchen's engagement to Anton at a celebration in their home. My daughter is behaving unusually lately. Is it because of you, sir?"
Time seemed to stop. As my father would have said, "You could have heard a mouse fart in the attic."
FireworksRobert stood and addressed the baron: "Sir, I have come to claim your daughter's hand in marriage. She has given her consent, and we would like to have your blessing."
"My blessing?!" The baron exploded from his chair as if to lunge at Robert. Josef and Anton rose to flank their friend. "You come into my home as a guest at my table -- a stranger, a foreigner, a tradesman -- and expect to marry my daughter?! You are an insolent fool!"
The baron's face turned red and he spat as he spoke, waving his arms and stamping his right foot loudly on the oak floor.
Josef interrupted him, saying, "I must be a fool too, Papa. I intend to marry Tatiana and this is as good a time as any to tell you.
"This is your fault, woman!" the baron bellowed at his wife. "Your daughter, at least, you should have raised to be obedient!"
"Papa, please!" cried the baroness, clutching his left arm. "Remember the doctor said you must control your temper!" He pulled his arm free and struck her with the back of his hand.
Josef lept to her side, catching her as she fell. She pulled away from him. "No! You have done enough already!" she cried. Franz stepped around his father and tried to comfort his mother as Josef withdrew. Carl confronted the baron face to face.
"Papa, Franz and I have been loyal and obedient sons to you, but we will not tolerate your striking our mother! There is a line you must not cross, sir. Whatever Josef and Berta have chosen to do, you must not take out your displeasure on Mama."
Trembling with rage, the baron sat down heavily in his chair. Everyone else resumed their places at the table in silence. The air was thick with tension, fear, and the smells of food no longer wanted.
The scene was beyond awkward. Anton was pale and Gretchen cried sofly into her lace-trimmed handkerchief.
Finally, the baron spoke in cold, measured tones: "If you wish to leave, then leave. Take what is yours. You are dead to me. Discuss with Carl and Franz what you want to take with you. They will be fair to you and to me. All of your clothing, books, personal items. Frauelein Lelko came here to buy a horse. Let her choose one, besides my youngest son, and pay for it. Josef, there are some horses you have a claim on. Any others, anything else you need, talk with your brothers.
"Berta, now that you have finally decided what you want in your life, I hope for your sake that you know what you are doing. Whatever happens, neither you nor Josef can come back here.
"Frauelein von Oesternwald, give my best regards to your parents.
"Herr von Liechtenstein, be sure you know what you are getting into. Guten Tag."
With that, the baron stalked from the room, leaving a stunned silence in his wake. The baroness took one last sorrowful look at her two youngest children and then followed him meekly.
Carl was the first to recover his voice.
Abruptly, he sat up straight, looked at each of us, shook his head slowly and smiled grimly, sadly.
“Well,” he breathed softly, “we have a lot of planning to do. I doubt whether any of you but Monsieur Roman has done much planning for this decision you’ve made.”
Carl held up his hand as Josef opened his mouth to protest. “I am not your enemy. If I were, I could hardly have planned more trouble for you than you’ve brought down upon yourself.”
He stepped out from behind the other side of the table and stood before Josef and Berta.
“Did it ever occur to either of you to discuss your plans with me or Franz?” Carl asked. “Did you really think I am so much the Baron’s creature that I could not be trusted? I have spent my life trying to enjoy life without running into opposition from him. Perhaps I could have helped you.”
He leaned back and looked at us, resting his hands on the table behind him, and there seemed to be honest regret in his voice. “But there’s no point in blaming you. We all had the amazing example of our mother’s subservient attitude. I just wish we could have kept this from being such an open rebellion, with burned bridges for everyone.
“You will want to leave soon, I suppose. And you should marry before you leave town if you are serious, as I believe you are. The Catholic priest will not marry you for fear of the Baron’s wrath, but perhaps the old retired Lutheran pastor would?” Carl looked questioningly at Gretchen, who nodded slowly through her tears.
And so it came to pass that I became Frau von Willensky and Berta became Frau Roman in the old pastor’s study at Holy Saviour Lutheran Church, with Gretchen and Carl as our official witnesses.
The Young Girl Who Ran Away with Her Lover could not have foreseen the long, dusty hours riding in a wagon along rutted roads, not knowing where or when the next stop would be. She could not have been prepared for the embarrassing realities of communal living, with tents for walls and intimacy an illusion for weeks at a time.
Nor could she have understood the near ecstasy of falling into a small bed in a simple inn to do nothing with her lover but sleep after days of travel. And she would have dismissed as make-believe the delights of making love under the stars with noisy abandon within earshot of other couples similarly occupied.