A Cossack Spring by Catrin Collier by Catrin Collier - Read Online

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A hidden past, a dangerous love and a voice to reach across the ages. A brand new title from best-selling author Catrin Collier. Allenstein, East Prussia, 1939 - Charlotte von Datski's parents hold a glittering ball to celebrate her eighteenth birthday and announce her engagement to a Prussian count. But Hitler is about to plunge the world into war... Soon, Charlotte will be forced to leave behind her beloved homeland and flee to England carrying a secret that both strengthens and torments her. Years later, Charlotte's granddaughter, Laura, is shocked when the truth about her grandmother's past comes to light. Laura persuades Charlotte to embark on a journey to her childhood home in Eastern Europe. There, as Charlotte re-reads her diary and recalls the one great love of her life, she finally faces the demons that have haunted her for over half a century.
Published: Accent Press on
ISBN: 9781681466187
List price: $2.99
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A Cossack Spring - Catrin Collier

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Chapter One

Beletsky Mansion, Hughesovka

December 1870

‘A little girl, a perfect little girl. Just too small to live or draw breath. God bless and keep her.’ Yelena made the sign of the cross before taking the tiny body from the bowl of water and wrapping it in a towel.

‘Please, let me see her.’ Sarah begged. It was standard medical practice to remove stillborn babies and miscarriages from the mother as soon as possible ‘for the mother’s sake’ but she desperately wanted to see her and Peter’s child.

Nathan took the tiny bundle from Yelena, uncovered the baby’s face, and placed it gently in Sarah’s outstretched arms. Oblivious to the tears falling from her eyes, she cradled the corpse.

Unable to bear the sight of Sarah’s grief Yelena picked up the bowl and carried it out.

‘Would you like your daughter to be buried in the same coffin as your husband?’ Nathan asked.

Sarah didn’t look away from the child’s face. ‘Could you … would you arrange it, please. I know it’s illogical but I can’t bear the thought of her lying alone and abandoned in unconsecrated ground.’

‘If those are your wishes, Mrs Edwards, I’m certain Father Grigor will do his best to accommodate them.’ Nathan took a loaded syringe from the side table.

‘Morphine?’ Sarah asked.

‘You need rest.’

‘I need to bury my dead.’

‘For that you need strength.’ He gave her the injection.

Yelena returned and busied herself bundling the soiled linen together. He spoke to her in Russian. ‘After you’ve carried that out, please sit with Mrs Edwards. Call me if there’s any change in her condition.’

Yelena watched Sarah’s eyelids drop and her body relax in drug-induced torpor. ‘The child?’

Nathan eased the tiny bundle from Sarah’s limp arms and covered the baby’s face again. ‘I’ll take it to her husband. Alexei and Mr Hughes are making arrangements for the funerals.’

‘I knew it. I knew there’d be deaths this morning when a bird perched on the kitchen windowsill of Mr Edwards’ house. Not content to sit there, it tapped the window with its beak. You know what that means?’

‘The bird wanted whoever had been feeding it to put out crumbs?’ The shtetl was as rife with superstition as Alexandrovka, and Nathan abhorred old wives’ tales.

‘No one had been feeding it,’ Yelena retorted. ‘I won’t allow anyone to put out food for the birds. They are harbingers of death. As soon as the wretched creature tapped the glass I knew someone in the house would be laid in their coffin before the next sun dawned. But I didn’t expect it to be two people and an unborn child.’ She shook her head. ‘People should stay where God put them. They have no right to travel. These foreigners should never have come to Mother Russia. They are not wanted here. This is just the beginning. They will all die for breaking God’s laws … you wait and see …’

‘That’s complete nonsense, Mother Razin.’ Unequal to dealing with Yelena’s irrational beliefs as well as the unfolding tragedy, Nathan carried the dead child to the door. He collided with a slight figure in the corridor.

‘I’m Anna, Dr Kharber.’

‘I know who you are, Anna. You work alongside my sister, Ruth.’

‘You wouldn’t let me sit with my brother Richard. Please, can I stay with Mrs Edwards?’

Nathan looked at the girl’s white pinched face and recalled ordering her out of the men’s room. He sympathised with her. Her only relative in Russia, her brother, could die at any moment. Two of the men who lived in the same house as her were already dead. The nurse who was training her had lost her child. Could there be something in Cossack superstition after all? Were the newcomers cursed?

He pushed the thought from his mind. Exhaustion had driven him to the borders of sanity. If he wasn’t careful he’d find himself on the lunatic side. ‘You can stay with Mrs Edwards, Anna. Find me when she wakes.’

Anna crept past him into the room.

He watched her sit beside the bed and reach for Sarah’s hand. Sarah had lost everything but still had her life. He couldn’t help feeling the remaining patients in his care might not be as fortunate.

Alexei found John studying maps in the drawing room.

‘I’ve sent two grooms to Alexandrovka and the shtetl and asked them to bring carpenters back to measure the dead for their coffins, sir. I also asked them to bring any ready-made coffins they have. I doubt either carpenter will have more than one or two in stock.’

John sat back in his chair. ‘It’s been a long night for all of us, but especially you. My sympathies and condolences, Alexei.’

‘Thank you, sir, but I can’t think about my mother and sisters now. There’s too much to be done.’

John recognised Alexei’s need to delay his mourning. He knew from painful experience the loss of a loved one rarely registered until after the observance of funeral rituals.

A maid knocked the door and brought in a tray of coffee and sweet rolls.

‘Four cups?’

‘I asked my grandmother and Dr Kharber to come down. They’re exhausted and all the patients are sleeping. There are enough people upstairs to watch over them and fetch Dr Kharber if he’s needed.’ Alexei went to the window and opened the drapes. The gardens were bathed in the icy clear grey light of dawn.

‘You feel dawn shouldn’t break?’

Alexei turned. ‘How do you know?’

‘I’ve experienced loss. Not as much as you in one night. But I know what it feels like to lose your parents, sisters – and your children.’

‘I can’t believe my mother and four of my sisters have gone. I keep expecting the maid to walk into my bedroom with my morning tea to wake me.’

‘How is your grandmother?’

‘Since Mrs Edwards collapsed she’s taken it upon herself to help Nathan.’

‘As soon as the sun’s risen I’ll check the sites we’ve marked as possible company cemeteries. It’ll be with a heavy heart. I didn’t think I’d need to look so soon.’

‘I’ll go with you after I’ve spoken to the carpenters.’

‘You don’t have to, Alexei.’

Alexei’s eyes burned bright. ‘I can’t think of anything else I should be doing, Mr Hughes.’

John poured the coffee. He handed Alexei a cup. ‘I’ll order my driver to bring round the carriage. We’ll leave as soon as we’ve seen the carpenters.’

Beletsky family graveyard, Hughesovka

December 1870

Two days after the death of Countess Olga Beletsky and four of her daughters, Catherine, Alexei, Sonya, John, Father Grigor, Mr Dmitri, and Nicholas attended their private funeral. The ceremony was ‘invitation only’ at Nicholas’s insistence, although he hadn’t been able to prevent the Cossacks, caps doffed in respect, from lining the road between the house and the cemetery.

After the last coffin had been lowered into the vault and Father Grigor had said the final ‘Amen’, Nicholas walked to the gate. He shook hands with the priest, without removing his gloves, studiously ignored Alexei, and waylaid Catherine.

‘I have pressing business in St Petersburg.’

She inclined her head to show that she’d heard him.

‘From there I will travel to East Prussia and Allenstein to see the boys. I don’t want them to find out about the death of their mother and sisters from a letter.’

‘Your surviving daughters, Katya and Kira? Do you intend to visit them before you leave?’ Catherine enquired.

‘Katya’s contagious and Kira’s a baby. There’s no point in my seeing them. As soon as the house is free from patients and has been disinfected, I’ve ordered my lawyer to find tenants for it. Perhaps you could suggest its suitability as a home to Mr Hughes?’

‘You want me to discuss renting out Olga’s home at her funeral?’ Catherine’s voice was brittle.

‘Obviously not now or I would have spoken to him myself.’

‘Katya and Kira?’

‘Are your granddaughters. I trust you will offer them a home.’ He didn’t wait for her to reply. ‘This is not the funeral I would have wanted for my wife and daughters. It seems wrong to bury the dead so quickly.’

‘Not when they died of cholera.’

‘The manager of the hotel told me there hasn’t been a new case for twenty-four hours. Does that mean the epidemic is over?’

‘I’m not a medical expert, Nicholas. You’d have to ask Dr Kharber that question.’

Dr Kharber …’

‘Is a qualified practitioner.’

‘Qualified … he killed Olga, the girls, the English doctor, and the others as well as Pavlo Razin …’

‘I’ve no time to listen to your anti-Semitic ranting, Nicholas, when I’ve just buried my daughter and four of my granddaughters. I wish to mourn in peace. Alexei?’

‘Grandmother?’

‘Escort me and Sonya to our carriage, please.’ She walked past Nicholas. Alexei handed her and Sonya into the carriage, and climbed in beside them.

‘Your father …’

‘I heard