Ekaterinburg, Russia: July 1918
Extract from the journal of Empress Lydia Romanov
It's all over now.
It is the year 7020 here on Excel, the year AD2020 on Earth. But my memory serves me better than five-thousand years of hell. So for these contributions which I am duty-bound to make, I must refer to an archaic time and a lost civilisation, so that you may see how and why I did what I did. I am not expecting forgiveness, but some understanding maybe.
Back, then, to a little town called Ekaterinburg, in a vast country that once was called Russia, in a short year called 1918.
And it is July. A miserable, cruel July: the summer that this month is supposed to represent is a myth, for if seasons are measured by the elements and by the frivolity of one's mind, then this is still winter—and a murderous, bloody winter that ends too soon for my children.
It was dawn. Disquieted nerves warned me of the significance but I chose to ignore them. My skirts wouldn’t lay properly; for some reason I felt it important that they did. My husband gently mocked my vanity. Once dressed, we sat on the various spartan furnishings, waiting wondering. As if we didn’t dare speak aloud that which we most hoped for—because to articulate the wish might in some way nullify it—the cold room lay heavy with our breaths which frosted in the morning light struggling through dirty windows. Four of the children sat on the remains of my bed.
They looked like scared promises, made in a time when everything belonged to us but the future, and the purchase of that was assured by each infant forced from my belly. The future would be forever ours, so certain we were always.
The children’s adolescent faces, frightened and underfed, lashed me with guilt. I pledged them an empire—and they must have wondered, sitting there with skinny bruised backs against the damp wall, clean trusting mouths loving me across the room, is this it? Is this the empire? Or did Mamma lie?
Anastasia complained of the chills: though we had latest enjoyed a brief teasing of summer skies, we had for this last three days to endure abrasive winds and the incessancy of hard rains. The maidservant tended my daughter’s whims, whilst my husband’s fractured wrist was redressed by the physician. Then Nicholas lifted his son and held him protectively within his arms. The child’s shattered leg fetched out ridiculously against the splint. “Are we going for the train now?” asked Alexei.
“Perhaps,” Nicholas said. (Who knew what the gaoler’s enigmatic smile meant?)
Certainly the boy’s leg was broken, yet he mithered only very little as his slight body made the most of what morphine the physician had dared give him. I saw in Alexei’s eyes that he hurt the most from self-recrimination: he had broken his father’s heart and might never forgive his own misdirected bravery. It was last night, whilst we crowded the meagre fire in the basement scullery, the boy threw himself from top stair to bottom, crashing his fragile bones against the rough wood. It should’ve killed him. I’m sure he meant it to. He knew well that the haemophilia made those bones vulnerable, that another haemorrhage might fill his lungs with blood in place of air.
(From where does a child hatch schemes of death? How in God’s name can a playful mind give up its innocence to make room for suicide?)
At last the knock came. We were taken to the stairs.
My husband and I walked abreast. I could have closed my eyes and imagined a glittering evening when we came down the huge spiralling carpets side by side, my arm secure in his, with extravagant lacing gathered about my ankles, and his uniform so proud. We will be attended at the bottom of the staircase, led by fussy servants to the big hall, to feast and dance, to laugh and suggest mischievous liaisons. I could imagine the wine glowing in decanters, the merry sparkle reflected in my husband’s eyes. And my children, inquisitively peeking between the balusters. I could close my eyes and see all that.
But in this place you must have your eyes open. The fact is that Nicholas carries a ruined boy, and the stairs are ratted boards that complain of fatigue. The walls are chewed with rain and the man who will lead us to the ‘ball’ has a smile full of secrets, with rebellious eyes that flicker like bloodied gemstones in candlelight. Truly, I can’t imagine anything but terror.
We are shown into a sprawling room. It is a place of … of miracles.
A trestle heaped with wholesome fare—and cutlery even! A black kettle bubbles above a fire fat on chunks of smoking timber. Coffee, acrid and rich, tantalises the nose. Pastries are licked with whorls of steam. Even rugs, my God, rugs!—warm the mildewed floorboards. Is it a mockery that Nicholas’s portrait hangs crooked above the fireplace? I care not, care only that it sits high above this mystery, smiling in old paint across our meal.
We take our places at table and break fast; but we do so with reserve—no greedy hands will grab the toasted crusts, nor will neglected mouths fill too avidly; we are imperious and polite.
Hell’s teeth! We are starving!
The guards leave us. But in a minute one of them returns with a box. “Your letters,” he says. There is respect in his movements when he lays the box centre of table. All of us stare at it like stupid paupers before a gold coin. What can it mean? So the man I love looks up, with courage raw and useless across his face. “What is this? Some other game? Some new deceit?”
The guard departs without leaving behind any clue of his thoughts. My impatient daughter, Olga, petitions her father, her eyes urgent. “May I, Papa?”
With his consent, she reaches for the box and brings out a batch of curious papers. As though she held the Lord’s Covenant between her thin fingers, she lays the papers reverently on the table beside a pan of broth. We waited whilst she unpicked the seal on a document.
Her face is naked of expression, prepared for anything. And then she shouts: - “It’s from Grandmamma. From Gran…”
I lose sight of her in the sudden rush of tears. Something warm, something lovely and forgotten heats my blood…
(copyright Gareth K Stokes 2007)