Chapter One: Ducky CHAPTER ONE Ducky
The attachment governesses feel for the children they rear may bear some relationship to their past personal disasters. Those of the Zakrevsky children’s Irish nanny were the result of a succession of tragedies that nobody in Russia would ever learn about.
Her name was Mrs. Margaret Wilson, or Ducky.
Moura owed everything to her nurse’s love: her calmness, her kindness, and her thorough willingness to indulge—which would come to charm so many men.
Ducky had kept her maiden name, Wilson, even though she was married. She wasn’t Irish by origin but British. She was descended from a middle-class Protestant family in Liverpool, where her parents owned a grocery shop. They had instilled in their only daughter a grasp of proper conduct, a sense of good manners, and an understanding of upright morals. In all other domains, Margaret Wilson’s education was thoroughly abbreviated. She knew how to write, of course, and even how to count. To read, certainly. But she had little acquaintance with general ideas, much less knowledge itself; she never found herself absorbed in novels, much less the poetry that filled ladies’ magazines. Still, she was preternaturally gifted with intuition and shrewd common sense. Tall, svelte, instinctively elegant, Margaret garnered the admiration of everyone in the area. Her reserve and her dignity pleased them. Nothing in her childhood dreams had prepared her for falling in love with an Irish rebel—a Catholic, at that—nor for the heartbreak of her father’s opposition, the aspersions cast on her honesty, their elopement, and least of all life in absolute penury in Dublin. She had nothing but her passion and her will to live.
Her husband’s alcoholism, his frequent disappearances into unsavory bars, and the birth of a child swiftly sounded the death knell for their marriage. One night he did not come back home, and he never showed his face again.
Abandoned, indigent, bereft of any information about her husband—who could just as easily be dead as alive, for all she knew—the young woman fought against catastrophe. After several jobs, and ensuring the education of her little boy, Sean, as best she could, she struck out on her own. She was eighteen years old.
The austerity this “Mother Courage” underwent would have lasted the rest of her time on earth if she had not met the second man of her life: Colonel Thomas Gonne, a soldier of the British army. He had lived in the Indies and in Russia, and he was now living in Dublin. A widower and a father of two girls of marriageable age, as well as a rich man, the colonel was, like Margaret, in love with the land where he had been posted. This last attribute—his passion for Ireland—seemed to be the only commonality he had with Mrs. Wilson. On all other fronts, they seemed to be not of the same world.
Still, Colonel Gonne courted her properly, inundating her with flowers and attention, waiting respectfully and patiently for her to give in. Mrs. Wilson’s innate dignity had seduced him. Even if he never had any intention of doing more with her than he might do with a mistress, he saw in her a charming companion with whom he might while away a small portion of his life. And maybe, who knew, even the rest of his time on earth.
Margaret was twenty-two years old at the time. The colonel was thirty years her elder. Unstinting in his affection, generous, courteous, he succeeded in reassuring her. She glimpsed a promise of happiness, and ended up acceding.
Which was a mistake, because this fall reduced her to nothing more than a loose woman. Their relationship quickly grew complicated: immediately after their first tryst, she learned that she was expecting a baby. He promised to support the mother and the child. But Colonel Gonne’s swift death from typhoid fever meant that their adventure took a tragic turn.
Margaret only learned of her lover’s death and funeral the day after she gave birth, when, standing in the street with their little girl in her arms, she saw the shuttered windows of the empty house. The servants had already returned to England.
She tried to fight again. But in vain. This time, she couldn’t recover from the blow. She collapsed.
Her job, her respectability, her love: she had lost them all. In one last attempt, she mustered the energy to head to London. The colonel had a brother there whom he had once mentioned to her, a brother he had designated as his daughters’ guardian. She made the trip to gain some money, some time, so the baby could survive until she was able to find work again.
The shame this journey left her with would stay lodged in her soul forever. The humiliation of hearing others say she was just a liar, a rogue who deserved to be thrown out the door, the shrieks, the threats…
Only by sheer luck did the colonel’s legitimate daughter, Miss Maud, twenty years old, hear the insults her uncle was hurling at the young woman sobbing in the parlor. Maud had adored her father. She herself had taken the responsibility of sending the envelope he had entrusted to her on his deathbed: a letter and a check meant for a certain “Mrs. Wilson.” She knew without a doubt that the newborn being discussed was her half sister.
And so a sympathy of sorts, bound to their memory of the deceased, was established between Maud and Margaret. As they were now both in their twenties, the two young women met again. One had inherited a fortune and offered to care for Eileen, her father’s child. The other was fighting against starvation and obstinately refused to hand her child over to anyone.
Margaret dug in her heels for six years. Free, but in the bowels of misery.
When her first child, Sean, had no choice but to start working as a ship’s boy at ten years old and she saw that her pride and egotism were ruining any chance her daughter had of a decent life, she came to her senses. Her temporary surrender consisted of accepting employment with a very wealthy Russian family. One year abroad would earn her a sum that would have taken a hundred years to make in Dublin. Her compensation would allow her to reestablish herself and, upon her return, to guarantee Eileen’s and Sean’s educations. The potential employer was a Ukrainian aristocrat who had known Colonel Gonne quite well when the Brit had come to work in Saint Petersburg. An Anglophile, he wanted his children, who were now living at his estate in the oblast of Poltava, to speak the language of Shakespeare fluently. When he visited Maud, the daughter of his old friend, in London, she suggested an Irish widow she knew. She presented Margaret to him as a deserving person, presently in need, who had been her tutor and lady’s companion in Dublin. A perfect nanny. Mrs. Wilson’s charm and dignity did the rest. He hired her.
The scope of suffering Margaret endured in being so far away from her six-year-old daughter, the scale of her sacrifice, was immeasurable.
Margaret Wilson’s fate seemed to have been banal to the point that making a story of it would have made a melodrama of it, would have framed the personalities of all its protagonists as larger, each in his or her own way, stronger, more enduring than Life itself… like all those who were close to Moura.
And so this Miss Maud, who mothered Mrs. Wilson’s child, would go on to be the muse of Ireland’s best poet, William Butler Yeats—the famous Maud Gonne, to whom Yeats would dedicate many of his works, who fought alongside him for Ireland’s independence.
As for His Excellency Ignaty Platonovich Zakrevsky, who had brought back a practically illiterate governess, during one of his subsequent trips to Paris he would become a friend and accomplice of Émile Zola in his battle to rehabilitate Captain Dreyfus. Senator Zakrevsky, a legal expert at the tsar’s court, even took up Dreyfus’s defense against the entirety of Félix Faure’s government. In all the foreign papers that accepted his articles—most notably the Times of London—he attacked France’s monstrous treatment of an innocent man.
This act would cost him his career. But it would earn him the respect of the woman educating his children.
The night before Zakrevsky’s departure for Ukraine, in those dark hours of December 1892, Mrs. Wilson sobbed to herself… She was going to the end of the world. A year’s separation from her children, a year in the farthest reaches of the globe—she presumed.
She was wrong. Her adventure would last nearly half a century. Until 1938, the year she died.
During their interminable journey, His Excellency’s manservant had the opportunity to teach her about the history of the family she would be serving. His Excellency’s family tree led back to a Cossack chief who had been the great-nephew of Peter the Great. Or, more exactly, the nephew of Tsarina Elizabeth and her morganatic spouse, Kirill Razumovsky. His Excellency could thereby claim to be connected to the Romanov family—a distant relation of His Majesty Tsar Nicholas II.
Whether or not this relationship was true mattered little: the Zakrevsky family needed no such legend to prove their nobility. Their ancestors were of such high birth that adding a title to their names hadn’t even occurred to them.
The Zakrevskys were not princes, nor counts, nor barons, in contrast to their relatives and neighbors, the Naryshkin, Saltykov, and Kochubey princes. They didn’t have to be. In the Zakrevskys’ eyes, their lineage was even better.
If these subtleties of Russian nobility went undetected by this daughter of Liverpudlian grocers, Mrs. Wilson still understood, by the manservant’s tone, the grandeur of the house of Ignaty Platonovich Zakrevsky. She was thoroughly convinced of it. She would remain so forever.
And woe betide those who would ever dare to question in any way the high standing of Moura and her sisters. Mrs. Wilson would become more of a snob in this respect than the rest of her flock was, more proud of their birth and their family history. She proved herself an unstinting champion of the clan’s claims to aristocracy, defending the Zakrevskys’ rights up until the most tragic results of the revolution.
The manservant, who had accompanied His Excellency in London for thirty years, spoke English very precisely. He underscored, however, that His Excellency also knew French, German, and Arabic. That His Excellency had studied law in Saint Petersburg, Berlin, and Heidelberg. That His Excellency was renowned across all Europe for his articles on the Russian legal system and for the crusade he was leading to institute trial by a jury of one’s peers. That His Excellency had been invited to Versailles as a legal scholar after the French defeat in 1871, to help with the negotiations between Chancellor Bismarck and President Thiers. That His Excellency had chosen to trade his position as a justice of the peace in Saint Petersburg for that of a prosecutor in Ukraine, thereby settling not far from his own lands.
Ignaty Platonovich Zakrevsky had inherited all the manors and forests of the villages of Orlivka, Kazilovka, and Pyratyn. He had also inherited the family estate, Berezovaya Rudka. He also owned an extremely lucrative distillery, which produced vodka that was sold everywhere in the Empire. He produced sugar, tobacco, and—even more profitably—saltpeter, which was used to make gunpowder. In short, he was one of the most powerful landowners in Ukraine. Nothing had forced him to lead a legal career, aside from his immense intellectual curiosity and his passion for the law.
At this point, His Excellency would have been in his early fifties. He was tall, thin, with a small birdlike head, which accentuated his too-long neck, oddly round skull, and aquiline nose. His thin, black mustache, which more or less sliced his face in half, brought to mind the feathers of a bird of prey. It was no reproach to say that Ignaty Platonovich was everything but a youth.
Although he was elegant, distinguished, and courteous toward Mrs. Wilson, he was full of haughtiness, disdain, and impatience for those who did not belong to his house. He was a man whose authority Margaret might be able to respect. A man used to giving orders, which she could perhaps appreciate. This did not mean that any hint of seductiveness slipped into their relationship. In this respect—being courted—she was branded for life. She could not bear any other attempt at philandering.
Such was not the case for Ignaty Platonovich. He was attuned to the charms of the weaker sex—indeed, too attuned, according to his wife. He had a tendency to get the peasant women of his domains pregnant and to collect mistresses in every world capital.
If he had hoped to distract himself from the ennui of the trip by flirting with the pretty governess, he quickly came to understand that she would hear nothing of it. There was no chance of finding some privacy with this sort of woman, not even by suggesting it directly. As for trying to make a move… no question of it. And so he chose to kill time by asking her about her feelings, her memories, her personal life… Dublin, her husband, her children, her friendship with Maud, her relationship with Colonel Gonne: he wanted to know everything.
Sitting across from him in the luxurious compartment of the train bearing them to Ukraine, Margaret Wilson, stiff, straining, responded in monosyllables: his insistence on questioning her was painful. The risk of revealing an indiscretion forced her to lie, which she hated. She was keenly aware of how much her employment with the Zakrevskys depended on deceit. What could she teach the offspring of such a character? It was hard for her to be sure even of how many there were… A son about twelve years old, whom Ignaty Platonovich seemed to hold in utter contempt; two twin girls who were about five years old; a ward, the eldest of them all? Were there others? He did not say. Nor did he offer anything about their mother, except when he remembered that she was expecting a baby. As for what he hoped Mrs. Wilson might teach… that was a mystery. He was happy to reassure her that so long as she made sure the household spoke English at the dinner table, just as in the pantry, she was free to be in charge of the four nurses, the four caregivers, the four tutors, the various French ladies—in short, the whole menagerie, to use the senator’s word for his wife’s former governesses, who were responsible for the nursery.
Terrified at the thought of her ignorance and her accent betraying the plainness of her origins, Margaret tried to hide it all through her silence. But to no avail. As an experienced inquisitor, he did not relent; as a former judge, Prosecutor Zakrevsky was used to playing the interrogator.
She fixed her gaze and rarely spoke a word to him. She was trying to judge him herself. Her new master… the “little father” of two thousand souls populating his mansions and his lands. The barine, as he was called by the long-bearded countrymen in the stations. They kissed his hand: an homage to the serfs of olden times, liberated barely thirty years ago. This man who, despite his seeming courteousness, blew cigarette smoke into her eyes, got up, sat back down, could not stay put, was always on the lookout, always in motion; this man, endowed with a curiosity, an intelligence, and an energy that was unparalleled, could not be quiet or listen or stop or wait. And his impatience, compounded by his tactlessness, would be his downfall. This was the first impression Margaret Wilson had, a flash of intuition that she tried her best to forget.
There were so many oddities.
As the train plunged into unbroken whiteness, as it carved a path through the forests, she lost all sense of time and all idea of limits.
There were so many images, so many sensations, so many new fears.
The size of the suitcases and the number of domestics serving His Excellency in his train car should, however, have prepared her for the atmosphere of the mansion at Berezovaya Rudka.
As the bells chimed, the long string of sleds slipped beneath the cradle of trees.
Following a well-worn furrow, the path led directly from the hamlet to the mansion. But there were no lights on the horizon, no glimmers in the sky. In fact, despite the lanterns on the troikas, the darkness was total. And if anyone had regaled Mrs. Wilson with the gleam of moonlight on snow, or the glare of sunlight on ice, or the powdery fields drowning beneath a purpled sunset, they would have led her to keen disappointment. As for the silence of those grand spaces… The wind howled through the tops of the poplars, the precious poplars imported from Italy, which lined the path. Their branches murmured with the rustling of crumpled paper, of silk being torn. A sharp whistle came through the surrounding woods, shaking the pine trees and the birches, which cracked and screeched over hundreds of versts in an unnerving racket.
The master’s sled led the rest. He drove it himself, urging his three horses to brave the elements. Faster, harder… At a gallop, with cracks of his whip, His Excellency staked his claim to his lands again.
Covered in a bear fur that had been thrown across her lap, the young foreigner he had brought along was hoping the trip would never end. An aimless journey that would take them nowhere.
Not to have to think of her children, to forget Dublin. Not even to have to imagine the future.
Just to feel the wind, the chill, the life whipping her face. Faster, harder. She, too, needed action, violence, shrieking. The forces pushing through the trees above her slipped beneath her skin, shouting within her and seeking some outlet.
When she saw the white, baroque, abundant silhouette of Berezovaya Rudka abruptly surging forth at the end of the path, she understood that they were nearing their end point.
Every style, every material, every form. A cacophony of columns and arcades, verandas, terraces, loggias adorned with mosaics, balconies of carved wood, balustrades and ramps of wrought iron. Not to mention the grand staircase and the coats of arm that stood a full story high above the porch.
Not to mention the hundreds of people arrayed among the torchlight flames on the front steps: the very particular jingling of the master’s bells had alerted his people. Ghostly silhouettes of gentlemen in top hats, tailcoats, and wolfskin greatcoats. Ladies in sable, pillbox hats, and dresses with bustles. Little girls in short white dresses, immaculate muffs in front of their torsos. Old ladies hunched over beneath their Victorian hairstyles, in fur coats, black outfits, and black pearls… Young boys in Russian Army uniforms, chambermaids in lace pinafores, peasant women in Ukrainian dress, muzhiks in boots, priests in cassocks. People from all classes, of all genders, of all ages.
And at the very center of the group stood the monumental profile of a pregnant woman: the frivolous and formidable matriarch of this immense family. The progenitor of Moura, the woman on whom Margaret Wilson’s fate would depend: Her High Nobility Maria Nikolayevna Boreisha, known among those who she disfavored as the Viper.