Authors: Eva Ibbotson
A COUNTESS BELOW STAIRS
If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”
A division of The Hearst Corporation 1350 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10019
Copyright s1981 by Eva Ibbotson
Published by arrangement with Curtis Brown Associates, Inc. Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 82-90473 ISBN: 0-380-61374-3
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First Avon Books Printing: November 1982
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In the fabled, glittering world that was St Petersburg before the First World War there lived, in an ice-blue palace overlooking the river Neva, a family on whom the gods seemed to have lavished their gifts with an almost comical abundance.
Count and Countess Grazinsky possessed - in addition to the eighty-roomed palace on the Admiralty Quay with its Tintorettos and Titians, its Scythian gold under glass in the library, its ballroom illuminated by a hundred Bohemian chandeliers - an estate in the Crimea, another on the Don and a hunting lodge in Poland which the countess, who was not of an enquiring turn of mind, had never even seen. The count, who was aide de camp to the tsar also owned a paper mill in Finland, a coal mine in the Urals and an oil refinery in Sarkahan. His wife, a reluctant lady of the bedchamber to the tsarina, whom she detested, could count among her jewels the diamond and sapphire pendant which Potemkin had designed for Catherine the Great and had inherited, in her own right, shares in the Trans-Siberian Railway and a block of offices in Kiev. The countess’ dresses were made in Paris, her shoes in London and though she could presumably have put on her own stockings, she had never in her life been called upon to do so.
But the real treasure of the Grazinsky household with its winter garden rampant with hibiscus and passion flowers, its liveried footmen and scurrying maids, was a tiny, dark-haired, bird-thin little girl, their daughter, Anna. On this button-sized countess, with her dusky, duckling-feather hair, her look of being about to devour life in all its glory like a ravenous fledgling, her adoring father showered the diminutives which come so readily to Russian lips: ‘Little Soul’, of course, ‘Doushenka, loveliest of endearments but, more often, ‘Little Candle’ or ‘Little Star’, paying tribute to a strange, incandescent quality in this child who so totally lacked her mother’s blonde, voluptuous beauty and her father’s traditional good looks.
Like most members of the St Petersburg nobility, the Grazinskys were cultured, cosmopolitan and multilingual. The count and countess spoke French to each other. Russian was for servants, children and the act of love; English and German they used only when it was unavoidable. By the time she was five years old, Anna had had three governesses: Madame Leblanc, who combined the face of a Notre Dame gargoyle with a most beautiful speaking voice, Fraulein Schneider, a devout and placid Lutheran from Hamburg - and Miss Winifred Pinfold from Putney, London.
It was the last of these, a gaunt and angular spinster with whose nose one could have cut cheese, that Anna inexplicably chose to worship, enduring at the hands of the Englishwoman not only the cold baths and scrubbings with Pears soap and the wrenching open of the sealed bedroom windows, but that ultimate martyrdom, the afternoon walk.
‘Very bracing,’ Miss Pinfold would comment, steering the tiny, fur-trussed countess, rigid in her three layers of cashmere, her padded capok lining, her sable coat and felt valenki along the icy quays and gigantic squares of the city which Peter the Great had chosen to raise from the salt marshes and swamp-infested islands of the Gulf of Finland in the worst climate in the world.
‘Not at all like the dear Thames,’ Miss Pinfold would remark, watching a party of Lapps encamped on the solid white wastes of the Neva - and receiving, on the scimitar of her crimsoned nose, a shower of snow from an overhanging caryatid.
It was during these Siberian walks that Anna would meet other children who shared her exalted martyrdom: pint-sized princelings, diminutive countesses, muffled bankers’ daughters clinging like clumps of moss to the granite boulders of their English governesses. Her adored Cousin Sergei, for example, three years older than Anna, his face between the earmuffs of his shapka, pale with impending frostbite and outraged manhood as he trudged behind his intrepid Miss King along the interminable, blood-red facade of the Winter Palace; or the blue-eyed, dimpled Kira Satayev, hardly bigger than the ermine muff in which she tried to warm her puffball of a nose.
- Yet it was during those arctic afternoon excursions that Anna, piecing together the few remarks that the wind-buffeted Miss Pinfold allowed herself, became possessed of a country of little, sun-lit fields and parks that were for ever green. A patchwork country, flower-filled and gentle, in which a smiling queen stood on street comers bestowing roses which miraculously grew on pins upon a grateful populace … A country without winter or anarchists whose name was England.
Anna grew and nothing was too good for her. When she was seven her father gave her, on her nameday, a white and golden boat with a tasselled crimson canopy in which four liveried oarsmen rowed her on picnics to the islands. Each Christmas, one of Faberge’s craftsmen fashioned for her an exquisite beast so small that she could palm it in her muff: a springing leopard of lapis lazuli, a jade gazelle with shining ruby eyes … To draw her sledge through the park of Grazbaya, their estate on the Don, the count conjured up two silken-haired Siberian yaks.
‘You spoil her,’ said Miss Pinfold, worrying, to the count.
‘I may spoil her,’ the tall, blond-bearded count would reply, ‘but is she spoilt?’
And the strange thing was that Anna wasn’t. The little girl, wobbling on a pile of cushions on the fully-extended piano stool to practise her études, gyrating obediently with her Cousin Sergei to the beat of a polonaise at dancing class or reciting Les Malheurs de Sophy to Mademoiselle Leblanc, showed no sign whatsoever of selfishness or pride. It was as though her mother’s cosseting, the fussing of the servants, her father’s limitless adoration, produced in her only a kind of surprised humility. Miss Pinfold, watching her charge hawk-eyed, had to admit herself defeated. If ever there was such a thing as natural goodness it existed in this child.
When Anna was eight years old, the gods tilted their cornucopia over the Grazinskys once again and, in the spring of 1907, the countess gave birth to a son whom they christened Peter. The baby was enchanting: blue-eyed, blond as butter, firmly and delectably fat. The count and countess, who had longed for a son, were ecstatic, friends and relations flocked to congratulate and Old Niannka, the ferocious Georgian wet nurse with her leather pouch containing the mummified index finger of St Nino, filled the house with her mumbling jubilation.
Seeing this. Miss Pinfold moved closer to the Countess Anna, as did Mademoiselle Leblanc and Fraulein Schneider and the phalanx of tutors and grooms and servants who surrounded the little girl, waiting for jealousy and tantrums.
They waited in vain. To Anna, the baby was a miracle of which she never tired. She had to be plucked from his side at bedtime and would be found in her nightdress at dawn, kneeling beside the cot and telling the baby long and complex stories to which he listened eagerly, his head pressed against the wooden bars.
Love begets love. As he grew, Petya followed his sister everywhere and his cry of: ‘Wait for me, Annoushka!’ in lisping Russian, entreating English or fragmented French echoed through the birch forests round Grazbaya, along the tamarisk-fringed beaches of the Crimea, through the rich, dark rooms of the palace in Petersburg. And Anna did wait for him. She was to do so always.
As she moved from the idyll of her childhood into adolescence, Anna, still looking like an incandescent fledgling, only ran harder at the glory that was life. She fell in love with her handsome Cousin Sergei, with the blind piano tuner who tended the count’s Bechsteins, with Chaliapin who came to sing gypsy songs in his dark and smoky voice after the opera. She became a Tolstoyan, renouncing meat, finery and the anticipated pleasures of the flesh. It was a bad time for the Grazinskys, as Anna hobbled round the palace in brown worsted and a pair of unspeakable birch bark shoes said to have been made by the Great Man himself in the year before he died. Fortunately, before her feet sustained permanent damage, Diaghilev brought his dancers back from their triumphant tour of Europe and Anna, who for years had hung out of her parents’ blue and silver box at the Maryinsky being the doomed Swan Queen or mad Giselle, now took up with passion the cause of the rogue impresario and the dazzling, modern ballets which stuffy St Petersburg had condemned out of hand.
‘Oh, how beautiful it is! Chto za krassota! was Anna’s cry during these years: of the glistening dome of St Isaacs soaring above the mist, of a Raphael Madonna in the Hermitage, a cobweb, a remarkably improper negligé in a shop window on the Nevsky Prospekt.
There seemed no reason why this fabled life should ever end. In 1913 Russia was prosperous and busy with the celebrations to mark three hundred years of Romanov rule. In the spring of that year, Anna, holding down her wriggling brother Petya, attended a Thanksgiving Service in Kazan Cathedral in the presence of the tear and tsarina, the pretty grand duchesses and the frail little tsarevitch, miraculously recovered from a serious illness. A few days later, she helped her mother dress for the great costume ball in the Salles de la Noblesse…
‘It’ll be your turn soon, mylenka,’ said the pleasure-loving countess as she fastened the famous Grazinsky emeralds over her old boyar dress of wine-dark velvet and set the sun-shaped, golden kokoshnik on her abundant hair. For, of course, she had planned Anna’s debut for years, knew to the last hair of their well-born heads the young men she would permit to address, and ultimately espouse, her daughter.
There was just one more year of picnics in the birch forests round Grazbaya, of skating parties and theatricals with Sergei, now in his last year at the exclusive Corps des Pages, and pretty, frivolous Kira and a host of friends.
And then the archduke with the face of an ill-tempered bullfrog and the charming wife who had so dearly and unaccountably loved him, were assassinated at Sarajevo. To the Russians, accustomed to losing tsars and grand dukes time and time again in this way, it seemed just another in an endless succession of political murders. But this time the glittering toy that was the talk of war slipped from the hands of the politicians… and a world ended.
Overnight, meek, devoted Fraulein Schneider became ‘the enemy’ and had to be escorted to the Warsaw Station under guard. Mademoiselle Leblanc, who had aged parents, also left to return to France. Miss Pinfold stayed.
‘God keep you safe, my Little Star,’ the count whispered to Anna, holding her close. ‘Look after your mother and your brother,’ - and rode away down the Nevsky, looking unutterably splendid in his uniform of the Chevalier Guards. Three months later, he lay dead in a swamp-infested Prussian forest, and the flame that had burnt in his daughter since her birth, flickered and died.
They carried on. The countess, aged by ten years, organized soup kitchens and equipped a fleet of ambulances at her own expense. Although Anna was too young to enrol officially as a nurse, she spent each day at the Georguievski Hospital, rolling bandages and making dressings. As the shortages and hardship grew worse, Miss Pinfold increasingly took over the housekeeping, organizing the queues for bread, the foraging for fuel.
When the revolution came and the Bolsheviks seized power from the moderates, the Grazinskys fared badly. They had been too close to the court and, with no one to advise them, they tarried too long in the two rooms of their looted palace which the authorities allowed them to use. It was only when Petya was stoned on the way home from school that they finally acted and joined the stream of refugees fleeing northwards through Finland, east to Vladivostock, south to the Black Sea and Turkey.
The Grazinskys went south. They had entrusted the bulk of their jewels to Niannka, the count’s Georgian wet nurse, who was sent ahead with a king’s ransom in pearls, emeralds and rubies hidden in her shabby luggage.
The old woman never arrived at their rendezvous. They waited as long as they dared, unable to believe that she had betrayed them, but were eventually compelled to travel wearily on. In March 1919 they reached Sebastapol, where Miss Pinfold retired behind a palm tree to fish, from the pocket of her green chilprufe knickers, their last remaining jewel, the Orlov diamond, and persuaded the captain of a Greek trawler to take them to Constantinople.