Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna Romanova, second daughter of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra. She was considered the beautiful daughter.
He slipped through the ceremony like a huntsman, lost among the silver groves of an enchanted forest. Each trail and gully of his mind seemed familiar, but the great towering trees bent and gnarled in weird, faerie shapes. They cast shifting shadows in the moonlight and transformed the mental landscape beyond his recognition. He wandered for what seemed a hundred night-times through the dream world, sung to sleep at long last by the low breathing of the wind through the pipes of honeysuckle and cat-tail that grew by the river. When, in his vision, he awoke, he lay on the bank of a deep, black lake, glossy and still beneath the starlit maw of the arching heavens. Helena stood across from him, at the edge of the lapping pool. She was cloaked in white, with ribbons the pale blue of the Madonna tied through her hair. Curling her bare toes in the carpet of grass beneath her feet, she fed a flock of thrush nestled on the bank. Ferdinand took a step toward her, but as his arm reached out, the vision faded. He stood once more at the foot of the altar, the trill of lark’s song lingering in his ears.
With the desolation of one so late revived from a pleasant dream, the Vice Chairman plodded with hollow obedience through the ancient rituals. He sipped from the cup of Christ, repeated the father’s vows, and slid his grandmother’s ring upon Madame Vice Chairman’s outstretched finger. He felt as pale and gaunt as if he’d loitered a thousand years in the demon wood, with all the weight of all the days since the Fall passing over him. With the last of his plundered courage, he leaned his mouth in close to hers, and surrendered with a kiss. Helena’s lips were as ripe and tart as summer cherries. He savored the uncharted swell of their topography.
Helena stood on the open balcony of the highest tower of the house. Far below, on the other side of the clear barrier, the sea glimmered like an emerald in the rocky setting of the bay. Her hands shaded her eyes. Ferdinand came up beside her. He leaned on the rail and gazed out toward the water.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” he asked.
“What is it?” Helena wondered aloud. “It seems large for a lake.”
Ferdinand was astonished, but remained kind. “The sea,” he informed her.
“It’s not how I’d imagined it,” she declared. Suddenly, she turned away, realizing that perhaps she should have been embarrassed by her naiveté. After composing herself, she looked back at her husband.
The Vice Chairman was interested. “Well, go on,” he insisted.
“Didn’t men go mad with love for the sea?”
“You don’t believe it?” he challenged.
Helena looked back at the glistening water. “It’s nothing but a looking glass!” she exclaimed.
“What were you expecting?” Ferdinand asked light-heartedly.
“I thought,” Helena began, then paused, collecting her disorganized impression, “It would be crueler. Less forgiving.”
“Is that what love is?” Ferdinand wondered, bringing his hand to his eyes, squinting at his wife through the broken canvas of daylight.
I can’t remember if I already posted part of this, but recently I’ve been re-reading T.S. Elliot, excerpts of whose masterpiece “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” I use in reference to Ferdinand’s youthful nights in Geneva.
Much later, when the guests had returned to their villas and townhomes, Helena waited alone in a quiet, dimly-lit room. She sat on the edge of large bed and removed the pins, one by one, from her velveteen hair. It fell into a hundred thousand ringlets, bobbing like marionettes on the stage of her bare shoulders. The reflection above the vanity mirrored her every move, but the lady in the looking glass was a stranger. Her face was like the winter moon, or sweet merengue, a pale and succulent blossom unfolding from the supplest of stalks. She cut a sophisticated figure in her French lingerie. Her limbs rested in lines of graceful repose, like a heron on the water or a doe in the bracken—not in the jumble of knees and elbows to which Helena was accustomed. Startled by the sight, Madame Vice Chairman wrapped the silken arms of a dressing gown tightly about her body.
While her attention was absorbed in her reflection, Ferdinand slipped silently through the door from his dressing room. Surprised to find his bride immersed in so intense a private world, the Vice Chairman kept perfectly still, his hand upon the doorknob.
In the days before Helena, Ferdinand had enjoyed his fair share of women. There had been Company ladies, of course, who had considered it a social requirement to have shared the bed of their future Chairman. Though they had comprised the majority of his sexual experiences prior to marriage, they held the least sway in his memory. To the women of The Company Standard, these encounters had been markings in a date book, appointments for advancement. Considering their feelings on the matter, Ferdinand felt it would have been unseemly for him to have treated these relationships with any degree of seriousness.
More influential to him had been the Republican girls he met during the summer evenings that he spent with Konrad’s family in Geneva. Chateau Wittberg was a three-story townhome on Bosphorus Street, perched at just the spot where the canal opened onto the bay. On hot nights, they would picnic on the back lawn, with the view of the houseboats moored in the harbor spread out before them. In that stone-walled garden, under the dangling limbs of the willow and pear trees, they sipped lemonade and enjoyed each other’s company. In defense of The Republic’s honor, Frau Wittberg saw to it that only the most fashionable women attended her starlit fetês.
Superficially, the daughters of Councilors, merchants, and academics were identical to The Company girls. They had the same perfumed skin and manicured tresses; they shared the same taste in jewelry and ordered their dresses from the same Parisian boutiques. Even their clear eyes and husky voices were reminiscent of their Company cousins, but closer inspection revealed these were a different breed of women entirely.
On the antique rugs Frau Wittberg spread out on the lawn, they enjoyed their alcohol and speculated on the future. They spoke of university appointments and art collectives, recited poetry, and debated the credibility of controversial journalists. They were botanists and mathematicians; precocious ballerinas and celebrated musicians. Words passed their lips with the texture of sighs, bubbling over into the night with excitement and curiosity. They had no use for him.
“Then how should I begin,” Ferdinand recited thoughtfully to himself,
“To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?”
He let the words roll lazily from the corners of his mind, down through the empty spaces in his head, and over the gap between his teeth and tongue. They held their weight, even now.
As they talked into the midnight hours, the humid air would drape softly around them. The lights of the houseboats seemed to string out in the distance like ornaments on the velvet canal. Music from the city center trickled over the water and provided a backdrop to the Free Radio Geneva plays that Frau Wittberg staged on the patio. Perhaps a banker’s daughter would lean in close to whisper an observation about one of the actors, or comment slyly on the political message. Ferdinand would drink deeply from the chunky glass bottles of homebrew, enjoying the smell of her hair as she rested her head on his shoulder. When the band took the stage after the headline performance, they would walk down to the edge of the water and dance among the lilacs. Her fingers would wind into his, and he would feel the softness of the flesh around her firm muscles as he drew her closer with the hand he placed on the small of her back.
Her breasts and torso and thighs would be warm and wet and salty in the slivers of orange light illuminating the room above the boathouse. The darkness would be soaked in their sweat and the mournful brass harmonies seeping from the radio hidden in the shadows. Her earrings would rest like dewdrops on the bedside table; her toes and shoulders would arch beneath the weight of his body. But like all the others who came to him in the little cottage on Bosphorus Street, she would be as ethereal as a ghost. The Republican ladies of Geneva moved on a plane wholly separate from his own. In the syrupy blackness of the summer night, they would kiss like planets in the void, osculating tenderly in the dusk. But in the light of day, they drifted away on their own courses, like floes of ice colliding and breaking apart on a melting sound:
“We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”
He thought of them often, in the quiet of the evening, in the company of his books.