Monday, July 11, 2011

Nadine The Princess - The Death of Irene The Snow Flower - A Woman’s Revenge

Nadine The Princess
Adapted from a story by Nora Ryeman

It was between the lights. I was looking down the dingy street from behind the curtains of my little window at the postman who was working his way slowly from side to side delivering his messages of hope and fear, and was wondering whether I was among those to whom he bore tidings of joy or sorrow. I had few correspondents, and no expectations, and so it was with surprise that I saw him ultimately turn in at our little garden gate and place a letter in our box.

I was not long in breaking the seal, and it was with real delight and surprise that I discovered that it was from my old schoolfellow, the generous and sometimes extravagant Maura. It ran thus:

“Why have you hidden away from your friends so long? Was it pride, self-styled dignity? Never mind, I have found you out at last, and I want you to join our house-party here. We have some interesting people with us of whom you can make pencil sketches and pen pictures (they call them cameos or thumbnails, do they not?). Amongst them are the beautiful Princess Milontine, who wrote, ‘Over the Steppes,’ and the famous Russian General, Loris Trakoff.

“The change will do you good. Name the day and time of your arrival, and I will meet you at the station. There are surprises in store for you, but you must come if you would realise them.
“Your affectionate MAURA.”

I put by the missive, and meditated over the pros and cons. My wardrobe would need replenishing, and I had none too much money to spend. I could manage this, however, but there arose another question.
I was a worker–would it do me harm to disport myself in the flowery mead with the butterflies? Should I feel a distaste for the bread earned by labour and pain after the honey placed, effortless, on my plate?

So much for the cons. The pros were these:

Black, being most inexpensive in a smoky town, was my wear, relieved by a few touches of blue. And I should not go as a butterfly, but as a quiet worker in my dark things. I need only buy a new walking costume, and a fresh dinner dress. The costume difficulty was disposed of. Then again, I had been without a day’s change for five years; and here was the prospect of one I should enjoy. The pros had the victory, I went.
I arrived at the station in the gloaming, when twilight veiled the everlasting hills, and found two figures waiting on the narrow platform.

One of these had a fresh, fair, bonnie face, framed in hair of a golden brown, and I knew her for Maura Merle, my old schoolfellow, the lady of Whichello Towers. The other was darker, taller, and the very dark blue eyes had a pensive expression, she could have posed as a study for Milton’s Il Pensoroso, and I did not recognise her for an instant, and then I exclaimed: “Not–not ‘Stella.”

“Yes, ‘Stella,” said Maura. Our own beautiful Estella and the miser’s heiress came forward and kissed my first surprise away. As she did so I noticed that she was wearing the beautiful coral set which had wrought the tragedy of her school days.

We had naturally much to say to each other, and as we walked towards Whichello Towers together, Maura said:

“You have worked and suffered, Gloria, since we were last together. You look thoughtful, are graver, and there are violet circles under your eyes, which used to be so merry.”

“Yes,” I said, “I’ve had to fight the battle of life for myself since I left school, but it makes the more welcome this reunion with my old schoolfellows.”

“Speaking of them,” interposed Maura, “we have Princess Milontine staying with us–little Irene’s sister–I left her doing the honours on my behalf when I came to meet you.”

This then was the second surprise in store for me. Neither of my companions had the slightest idea how great a surprise it was.

Naturally, we had much to talk of during our walk up to the Towers, Miss Melford had passed away, and one or two of my old companions had followed her across the border. Irene was, of course, one of them, but I took the news of her death as though I had not heard it before.

I had not heard of Miss Melford’s death previously, and the angel of memory came down and troubled the waters of my soul, so I was silent for a time.

The silence was broken by Maura, saying:

“There is something painful, if not tragical, connected with Irene’s death, of which the princess refuses to speak; so the subject is never mentioned to her.” And then, as if to change the subject, she added, “I have named my little daughter Cordelia after Miss Melford, but we call her Corrie.”

As she spoke we came in sight of The Towers–a large, four-winged mansion, with pepper box turrets, oriel windows, a square lawn, and many tree-lined walks.

“Home,” said Maura, and in a few minutes I found myself in the large warm hall, bright with firelight, and sweet with autumn flowers.

Standing by a table, and turning over the leaves of a book, stood a graceful woman in fawn and cream, who turned round upon our entrance, saying:

“There is tea on the way, you will take some?”

“Thank you, princess, yes, directly we come down,” said Maura, and then she added: “See, I have brought an old friend to see you, Gloria, Princess Milontine.”

The foreign lady held out her hand, and as I took it I found myself almost involuntarily murmuring, “Nadine.” For the dark pathetic eyes of the Russian princess were those of the mysterious foreigner who had lodged in Cherry-Tree Avenue. She kissed me (foreign fashion) on both cheeks, and as she did so whispered: “Hush! let the dead past sleep.”

Wondering much, I held my peace and went to inspect the sunshine of Whichello Towers, the pretty dimpled Corrie; and though I forgot the incident during the evening, I remembered it when I found myself in my own room.

Why had Nadine lived in the mean street with the so-called woodcarver and his wife? She was a widow, true, but widows of rank do not usually lodge in such humble places for pleasure. Then again, what was the mystery attaching to Irene? Would the tangled skein ever be unravelled? Time would show.

Whichello Towers was more than a great house, it was a home, a northern liberty hall, surrounded by woods and big breezy moors. There was something for every one in this broad domain. A fine library full of rare editions of rare books, a museum of natural history specimens, a gallery of antiquities, a lake on which to skate or row, preserves in which to shoot, a grand ball-room with an old-world polished floor, a long corridor full of pictures and articles of vertu, and a beautiful music-room.

Princess Nadine and I were much together, we talked of her little sister’s school-days, but never of her latter ones, the subject was evidently tabooed.

General Trakoff (a stern, military man who had once been governor of the penal settlement of O—-) was evidently devoted to the beautiful Russ, and I found myself hoping that she would not become “Madame la Générale,” for though the general was the very pink of politeness, I could not like him.

I had spent a happy fortnight at the Towers when the incident occurred which will always remain the most vivid in my memory. A sudden and severe frost had set in. All the trees turned to white coral, the lake was frozen stone hard. There were naturally many skating parties organised, and in these Nadine and I generally joined. One morning, after we had been skating for nearly half an hour, the princess averred herself tired, and said she would stand out for a time. The general declared that he would also rest awhile, and the two left the lake together, and stood watching the skaters at the edge of the pine wood.

By-and-by I too grew a little weary, and thought I would go for a stroll by myself through the woods I loved so much. The air was fresh and keen, squirrels jumped about in the trees, and the storm-cock sang blithely. Through an opening in the glade I saw the princess and the general chatting en tête-à-tête.

As I came up the former was saying, in a tone of earnest raillery:

“Now, tell me, general, is there nothing you regret doing, or having allowed to be done, when you were administrator of O—-?”

She spoke with a strange, almost tragic, earnestness, and when her companion replied:

“No, on my honour, princess.”

She bowed gravely. A moment later, with a careless laugh, she opened a gold bonbonnière full of chocolate caramels, and held it temptingly towards him.

He hesitated, and as he did so I put my arm through the branches, and with a playful:
“By your leave, princess,” attempted to help myself.

Nadine started, and closed the box with a snap, a strange pallor coming over her white, set face. The general looked gravely at her, and then, raising his hat, with a “Till we meet again,” walked leisurely away.

I must own to being slightly offended, I was childishly fond of chocolate, and the act seemed so inexplicably discourteous. We walked to the house in silence, neither of us speaking, until we reached the side entrance. Here the princess paused by the nail-studded oaken door, and said:

“There will come a day when things done in secret will be declared upon the housetops, then (if not before) you will know the secret of the gold bonbonnière. Say, ‘Forgiven, Nadine.’”

And I said it with my hand in hers.

How glad I was afterwards that I had done so.

Throughout the great house of Whichello Towers there was a hush. Soft-footed servants went to and fro, all the guests save Estella and I went away with many condolences. The Princess Nadine was passing away in the room overlooking the pine woods. She had been thrown from her horse whilst hunting with the Whichello hounds, and the end was not far off.

I was sitting in the library with a great sadness in my heart, when the door opened, and Canon Manningtree, the white-haired rector of Whichello, came into the room.

“Miss Dene,” he said gravely, “in the absence of a priest of the Greek Church, I have ministered to Princess Milontine. She is going to meet a merciful Saviour who knows her temptations, and the singular circumstances in which she has been placed. She desires to see you. Do not excite her. Speak to her of the infinite love of God. Will you please go to her now.”

Weeping, I went.

Sitting besde the sufferer was Maura, who rose when I came in, and left us two alone, save for that unseen Angel who calls us to the presence of our God.

The princess looked at me with her beautiful wistful eyes, as she had looked when she gave me the amber roses in the narrow street.

“Gloria, little sister, I am going to tell how Irene died.”

“No, no, not if it distresses you.”

“I would rather tell you. Listen! I have not much time to speak. As you know, we are of a noble Russian family, and Irene and I were the only children. I was ten years older than Irene, and was educated in France; she came to England, and was your schoolmate!

“I was passionately fond of the child I had seen an infant lying in her pink-lined cot, and when she came out and married Prince Alex Laskine, I prayed that God’s sunshine might light on my darling’s head. Then, I myself married, and travelled with my husband in all kinds of strange, out-of-the-way places; in one of which he died, and I came back to St. Petersburgh, a childless, lonely widow!

“But there was no Irene; her husband had been implicated in a plot, and had been sent to O—-, one of the most desolate places in Siberia, and my sister had voluntarily accompanied him!

“When I heard this, I never rested until I too was en route to Siberia! I wanted to take Irene in my arms and to console her as her dead mother would have done. O—- was a fearful place, just a colony of dreary huts by the sea. Behind were the wolf-infested forests; in the midst of it, the frowning fortress prison! When I showed my ukase, and demanded to see my relations, they simply showed me two graves. Irene and Alex rested side by side, in the silent acre, and an exile told me how they had died! Alex had been knouted for refusing to play the part of Judas, and had passed away in the fortress. Irene was found dead inside their small wooden hut, kneeling beside her bed. Her heart had broken! My little Snow Flower had been crushed under the iron heel of despotism.

“He by whose mandate this iniquity was done was General Loris Trakoff, the governor of the province! I was turned to stone by Irene’s grave, and afterwards became a partisan of the Nihilists.

“Night and day I pondered upon how I could be revenged upon Trakoff, and at last Fate seemed to favour me.

“The general (so it was reported) was coming to visit a former friend of his. I made up my mind to be there also, and to shoot him, if opportunity served.

“So, two members of our society, a young mechanic and his wife, rented a house in Cherry-Tree Avenue, to which I came, and whilst waiting for my revenge I became acquainted with you.”

She paused, whispered, “The restorative,” and I gave her the medicine.

The sweet, faint voice spoke again.

“I knew that you were Irene’s friend because I saw your name upon the letter that I picked up, and I loved you, Gloria, aye, and was sorry for you.”

I laid my cheek next hers.

“Dear, I knew it, and was fond of you.”

“Fond of the Nihilist Princess, my little English Gloria! ‘Tis a strange world!

“After all, the general did not come, and then we all left. I bided my time. No outsider knew me for a Révolutionnaire, so I mixed in society as before, and accepted the invitation to Whichello, on purpose to meet him here.

“The bonbonnière was filled with poisoned caramels, prepared by a Nihilist chemist, and it was my intention to destroy myself after I had destroyed my enemy. I gave him one chance; I asked him if he repented of anything, and he answered ‘No.’

“At the great crisis your little hand, as a hand from another world–as Irene’s hand might have done–came between us.

“Your coming saved him. I could not let you share his fate.”

“Oh, thank God!” I said. “Nadine, tell me–tell God, that you are sorry, that you repent your dreadful purpose.”

“I do, I do,” she whispered. “Lying here I see all the sins, the errors, the mistakes. I do not despair of God’s mercy though I am myself deserving of His wrath. Irene used to tell me that when she fell asleep, in the new world of school life, it was in your arms. Put them round me, Gloria, and let me fall asleep.”

I placed my arm gently, very gently, under her head, and then sat very still.

I heard the big clock in the clock-tower slowly and distinctly strike the hour of twelve, I saw the pale lips move and heard them murmur: “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere mei.”

But save for this, all was silence! And in the silence Princess Nadine slept.
Thirty-five years ago, inspired by the writings of Georgette Heyer, and little more than fresh out of high school, I wrote a Regency Romance novel entitled, A Very Merry Chase, which I finally published last year.  Then and now history in all it’s forms was my first love–especially women’s history. These days I have two degrees in history; however a graduate degree in women’s studies was not an option at the university where I received my MA so I had to make do with a more generalized degree. Thus, in every class I made up for the lack by researching the condition of women in each age that I studied. I have always been fascinated by women’s history, so I thought I would start sharing some of the lost treasures that I uncover… and besides the truth of the matter is, most of women’s history was never written, and if was written it was downplayed, so in many cases our only real source of insight into a woman’s station in life were stories and women’s journal articles written by men, and sometimes women, for upper class ladies to read. I believe that most people have curious minds and like glimpses of how the world was, and how things were perceived in the past. I firmly believe in the idea that we must remember history in order to learn from it, grow and hopefully cut down on the number of stupid mistakes that random impulse and intellectual curiosity and greed and a thousand other human motivators lead us to make.
Smiles and Good Fortune,
Teresa Thomas Bohannon

Author of the Regency Romance novel, A Very Merry Chase

It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent.
– W. Somerset Maugham (1874 - 1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

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