8 Kuragin chateau near Paris, 16 January
By the time they crossed the moat it was already dark. Jack had insisted on renting a car at Paris airport and was driving.‘There it is,’ he said excitedly, pointing to the ivy-covered tower rising out of the mist ahead. ‘I told you I’d find it!’
‘Taking the freeway wasn’t such a great idea, admit it,’ replied Rebecca.
‘Driving three times around Paris before finding the right exit must be a record. We should have been here hours ago. Great weekend, Jack. We’ll be lucky to get dinner.’‘Stop whingeing. You’re about to meet a Russian countess.’
The rented Citroen looked diminutive and out of place next to the two Bentleys and the Mercedes Maybach, parked in front of the imposing entrance.
The liveried doorman suggested politely that they should perhaps go straight to their rooms and change, as dinner would be served in half an hour. Tactfully assisting first-timers was part of his role.‘Aren’t you grateful we went shopping?’ whispered Rebecca, following the porter up the marble staircase.
‘You heard the man: “lounge suit”. No jeans here, buster. Lucky it wasn’t black tie. We better hurry.’
Their suite occupied almost the entire first floor. It had three bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, and a spacious sitting room with a marble fireplace in the middle.
‘My, my, look at this,’ said Rebecca. ‘Big enough for the entire Von Trapp family. Which room would you like?’ Rebecca was testing Jack.
She thought that taking a suite with three bedrooms had been a clever way of bringing them closer without presumption. She’d wanted him to suggest they share a bedroom. However, a familiar little voice inside her told her to be careful. Leave it up to him, she thought, sensing that he may not be quite ready.
Which room would I like? thought Jack, watching Rebecca carefully. Is she teasing me? Despite his confident and urbane manner, deep down Jack was rather old fashioned and quite shy. Women sensed this and it added a further layer to his appeal. Don’t rush it, mate. You’re her client. Give her some space …
‘Your choice,’ he said, deflecting the question. ‘You’re my guest, remember? I hope they have some decent tucker ’round here, I’m starving. I don’t fancy frogs’ legs or snails tonight. I could kill for a steak! How about a glass of champagne first?’ suggested Jack, pointing to the silver ice bucket on the sideboard.
‘No time. We’d better get changed and do as we’re told. Move!’ Rebecca chose the bedroom with the fireplace, and Jack the smaller one next to it. A little more relaxed, they spoke to each other through open doors whilst getting changed. Jack needed some help with his attire, and Rebecca was happy to oblige. It all seemed perfectly natural and good fun. Watching Jack in the mirror, Rebecca realised she had made the right decision. Good move, she thought. Intimacy without risking embarrassment.
‘Not bad for a country lad,’ said Rebecca five minutes later when Jack emerged wearing his suit. ‘Let me have a look at you.’
She straightened Jack’s tie and adjusted his collar. Satisfied, she linked arms with him and they walked downstairs to meet the other guests. Somewhere in the background, a string quartet was playing Vivaldi.
The dining room was lit entirely by candles, making the large room appear intimate and warm. Countess Kuragin knew that the difference between a memorable entrance and a flat one was timing. Wearing a simple black evening dress, but jewellery fit for a tsarina, she swept into the room just as her guests were being seated.
No one would have believed that the tall, elegant woman with the youthful face and regal bearing was in her forties.
The countess knew the names of all the guests and conversed fluently in several languages. She sat at the head of the table and Jack found himself to her right. Rebecca sat opposite, next to an elderly Texan oil baron who ogled her with interest. The other guests turned out to be an ageing French actor between fortunes, an English lord – clearly a regular – and his bored wife. Further down the table, a bombastic German industrialist from Hanover accompanied by a striking young woman – obviously not his wife – was trying to make conversation with a pianist from Prague who had seen better days.
‘A long way from home, Mr Rogan,’ said the countess, reaching for her glass. ‘I found your book most fascinating,’ she added casually. ‘Do you like the Chablis?’
It was always a fine line between welcome attention and privacy, but the countess knew exactly how far she could go without annoying or, God forbid, embarrassing her guests. Jack was rather pleased with himself for having been recognised and felt instantly at ease.
As every experienced hostess knows, bringing total strangers together at the dinner table for the first time and making them feel relaxed is quite an art. However, by sitting at the head of the table, the countess was able to involve all of her guest in conversation, not only with her, but also with each other. The copious quantities of excellent wine helped as well.
‘Coffee will be served in the music room,’ said the countess after the last dessert plate had been cleared away. ‘Please follow me.’
Standing up, she smiled at the pianist from Prague and took him by the hand, leading him into the music room where the grand piano, a Bösendorfer with the top already opened in concert hall style, was waiting.
‘Do you like Chopin?’ asked the countess, joining Jack and Rebecca by the fire at the other end of the room. ‘He was my mother’s favourite.
She used to play Chopin on that very piano. Mazurkas were her forte.’
Rebecca nodded. ‘Very romantic.’
The pianist sat down, stretched his fingers and began to play the Minute Waltz with the flair of a professional. The others stood around the piano and watched him perform.
‘I love your dress, Rebecca,’ said the countess. Smiling, she turned to Jack. ‘You have come a long way for just one night, Mr Rogan, yet there’s so much to see around here, even in winter.’
‘I didn’t come here to see the sights, Countess,’ replied Jack quietly, taking advantage of the opening. ‘I came to see you.’
The countess looked up, surprised. ‘You came to see me?’ she asked. ‘But why?’
‘I have something to show you.’
Realising that they were momentarily alone, Jack reached into his suit pocket, pulled out the bracelet, and placed it on the marble mantlepiece. At first, the countess stared blankly at the bracelet in front of her, then her whole body began to tremble and she had to reach for Jack’s arm to steady herself.
‘It can’t be,’ she whispered, choking with emotion. ‘Where did you … how?’ The guests standing around the piano began to clap. ‘Is something written on the back?’ asked the countess, her voice barely audible.
‘Yes, one word,’ replied Jack, turning the bracelet over. ‘Right here.’ All the colour had drained from the countess’s troubled face, making her appear suddenly much older.
‘Örökke,’ she whispered. ‘Oh God. Örökke!’
‘What does it mean?’ asked Jack.
‘“Forever”. In Hungarian. Please excuse me,’ whispered the countess and hurried out of the room.
Jack looked at Rebecca and raised an eyebrow. ‘Well, what do you say now?’ he asked.
‘I’m impressed, Jack. The detour is forgiven.’
‘Detour? What detour? I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
Twenty minutes later the countess returned looking calm and composed. Jack admired her self control.
‘Breeding – see?’ observed Rebecca. ‘Just look at her.’
The countess mingled with her other guests at the piano – Chopin had turned into jazz – and then walked across to Jack and Rebecca who were standing away from the others by the fire.
‘Would you mind coming with me?’ she said, taking Rebecca by the hand. ‘I have something to show you.’
At the back of the chateau was a small chapel. The countess opened the heavy wooden door studded with wrought iron nails, and ushered her guests into her private world. The first thing Rebecca noticed was the photograph on the altar, its solid silver frame reflecting the dancing flames of the candles burning next to it.
‘That’s Anna,’ said the countess, pointing to a photograph. ‘She was christened in here and so was I.’
This is a shrine, thought Jack, the distinctive smell of wilting flowers, incense and candle wax reminding him of his mother’s funeral.
‘I come here every day to pray,’ continued the countess. ‘I wonder, Mr Rogan, are you the answer to my prayers, or a harbinger of more torment? I’m not sure if I’m strong enough to bear it, should you be the latter. Please tell me, how did you come by the bracelet?’ The countess placed a hand on Jack’s arm and looked at him intently, her eyes reflecting the hopes and fears gripping her heart. ‘And please remember,’ she whispered, ‘we are in God’s house.’
Quietly, Jack described the circumstances of the bracelet’s extraordinary discovery. Hanging on every word, the countess listened in silence. Not once did she interrupt.
‘This is God’s work, can’t you see it?’ she said after Jack had finished. ‘I can feel it. He has brought you here. I believe Anna is alive. I’ve sensed it all these years. Do you believe in destiny, Mr Rogan? I think you do. You say so in your book.’
Looking for reassurance, she reached for Jack’s hand. ‘Thank you for returning the bracelet to me. It’s a sign. You are now part of its history. Come, let me tell you the part you don’t know.’
Jack and Rebecca followed the countess upstairs to her apartment on the top floor. Dismissing her maid, she waited until they were alone.
‘It all began with an old story: two young men in love with the same girl. We all lived in Paris at the time and attended the same university. Zoltan was Hungarian. His parents left Budapest during the revolution in 1956 and opened a small nightclub in Montmartre.’
The countess lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, her gaze fixed on the bracelet on the table in front of her.
‘Nikolai came from an old Russian family. His grandparents left St Petersburg in 1916. They ran away from the Bolsheviks, just like mine. Fortunately, my family already owned this place and settled here. Zolli and Nikki were inseparable. They shared a room somewhere near the university and both of them worked in the club at night. Zolli played the piano in a jazz band and Nikki worked behind the bar. That’s where I met them. I’m telling you all this,’ explained the countess, ‘to help you understand what was to follow. Would you mind opening the champagne, Mr Rogan?’ The countess motioned towards the ice bucket the maid had left for them.
‘The club was very popular with the students and I went there often with friends. Zolli and Nikki became part of our little group. We met at the club almost every night. Zolli was very popular: charming, gregarious, good looking … Nikki, on the other hand, was the silent type – deep, brooding, poetic … typically Russian.’
Jack opened the champagne, letting the cork pop. The familiar sound brought a smile to the countess’s pale face.
‘We drank a lot of this,’ she said, pointing to the champagne bottle, ‘buckets of it. I fell in love with Zolli. We used to sneak back to the room he shared with Nikki and make love. We missed many of our lectures. Nikki never missed his. And then I fell pregnant … I was 19.’
The countess took a sip of champagne and kept staring at the bubbles rising in the tall crystal glass.
‘It was a disaster. At first, I didn’t have the courage to tell Zolli and I turned to Nikki for help. Little did I know … I had no idea how he felt about me. For an unmarried young woman to fall pregnant at that time, especially in our circles – my parents were deeply religious – was a catastrophe. Nikki understood this and spoke to Zolli. Zolli was ecstatic and proposed at once. We would get married and live happily ever after … That was when he …’
The countess began to choke and couldn’t complete the sentence. She reached for her purse, took out a handkerchief and wiped away the tears that were rolling down her cheeks. Jack and Rebecca looked away.
‘When he gave me this,’ continued the countess, regaining her composure. She reached for the bracelet and held it up with both hands. ‘I found out later that he had to borrow the money from Nikki.’ A small smile flashed across the countess’s wan face. ‘He never had any money, you see, and two days later, he was dead.’ For a while the countess sat in silence, staring at something only she could see.
‘What happened?’ asked Rebecca, trying to break the spell.
‘There was a fire at the nightclub. It started in the cloakroom and spread quickly. Six people died. Zoltan was one of them and I almost followed him. I wanted to take my own life, you see. It seemed the only way out, until Nikki saved me.’
‘How?’ asked Rebecca, reaching for the countess’s hand.
‘He offered to marry me, and I accepted.’
‘That’s quite a story,’ said Jack.
‘Yes, but is doesn’t have a happy ending. You met Nikolai, you say, Mr Rogan. What did you think of him?’ asked the countess.
‘He struck me as a very private man. Reserved. Rather shy I thought, and sad,’ replied Jack. He reached for the bottle in the ice bucket, dried it with a serviette and refilled the glasses.
‘Very perceptive of you. I tried to love him. I really tried, but somehow Zoltan was always there. He may have died, but he never left us, especially after Anna was born. You cannot force love, don’t you think?’ asked the countess, turning towards Rebecca.
‘Gratitude isn’t love. You cannot ignite what isn’t there. Nikolai sensed this of course and buried himself more and more in his work. He was offered a teaching position in Cambridge and we moved to England. Anna became the apple of his eye. He loved her more than life itself. It was almost as if he had somehow transferred his love for me onto the child. You see, Anna returned his love. Naturally and unconditionally.
‘She adored him. She became our bond, the link between our quite separate lives. Nikolai was brilliant right from the start and rose quickly in academic circles. He travelled a lot and we sent Anna to Switzerland to finish school.’
The countess lit another cigarette and reached for the photograph showing the inscription scratched into the secretaire. ‘Did Anna really write this, Mr Rogan?’ she asked, holding up the photo.
‘I don’t know, Countess,’ replied Jack. He paused, choosing his words carefully. ‘But every time I look at it, I’m moved … I’m not explaining this very well, am I?’ He paused again, sensing that he had almost gone too far. ‘In any event, I intend to find out. I promise you.’
The countess looked at him wistfully. ‘We both agreed that we would tell Anna about her father when she turned twenty-one. It seemed the right thing to do. Zoltan deserved that, and so did Anna. Nikolai dreaded this, more than I realised at the time. He left it to me to tell her. It came as a great shock to her and I thought at first that we had made a big mistake. However, rather than turning away from him, Anna cooled a little towards me. They became even closer …’
‘How do you explain that?’ asked Rebecca.
‘I think she sensed that I didn’t really love him; couldn’t love him … Yet he loved her, fervently, and he wasn’t even her father …’
‘And the bracelet?’
‘I gave it to her as a twenty-first birthday present. That, and a trip to Australia. Nikolai was against the trip, but one of her closest friends – Julia, an English girl she’d met in Switzerland – was going and she desperately wanted to go with her. The rest you know.’
‘The other missing girl?’ asked Jack. The countess nodded sadly. ‘We spent several months in Australia after Anna disappeared. The police were wonderful. They did all they could, especially one man. For a while, the loss bound us together. But then, with all hope gone, there was nothing left, only pain. Lonely pain, the worst kind. Nikolai went back to England, a broken man, and immersed himself in his work. I came here and converted the family chateau into a hotel. A year later we divorced,’ she said sadly. ‘Just before he received the Nobel Prize. Personal tragedy next to professional triumph – ironic, don’t you think? There’s one more thing you should know: Nikolai firmly believed that Anna was dead. I didn’t; I still don’t.’
Just then a clock began to chime – it was 2 am. The countess glanced at the clock.
‘But enough of all that. I have kept you up too long already. Look at the time. How selfish of me,’ she said, turning again into the attentive hostess. ‘You must be exhausted. We can talk more in the morning. I’ll walk with you to your suite – come.’
PS Don’t forget to visit us again next Friday for your next instalment of The Disappearance Of Anna Popov. Or better still, may I invite you to subscribe to our blogs, Letters from the Attic, and you will be notified when a new one is due. That way, you will never miss out!