Mary Nichols: www.marynichols.co.uk
The Civil War is raging in Russia and Count Kirilov decides to take his wife and two children, Andrea and Lydia, to Yalta and see them onto a ship to England. With their family jewels sewn into their clothes, he and the Countess set out in the carriage and the children and their nurse go in the droshky, driven by Ivan Ivanov. The droshky is held up by bandits and Andrea and the nurse are killed. Ivan takes Lydia to the rendez-vous but her parents never arrive. She is put into the care of Baron Simenov who is also taking his wife and son, Alexei to England. He takes her to Sir Edward Stoneleigh, a British diplomat who has been instructed to oversee the evacuation of the refugees and then leave himself. Sir Edward is left with the dilemma of what to do with her. He refuses to send her to a Russian orphanage, which are notoriously dreadful places, especially for someone who appears to be of aristocratic stock.
He and his wife are childless, something they both regret, could Lydia fill that gap? He could give her a good life, but would his wife accept her? Would Lydia later blame him for taking her from her homeland? Would the pull of her Russian roots be strong enough to make her abandon a comfortable life to go in search of them? And when it does, many years later, she finds herself in Russia at the start of the Second World War, searching for her baby son who has been abducted by his father and her situation becomes desperate.
Sir Edward Stoneleigh’s temporary office overlooked the harbour. He was standing at the window looking out on a seething mass of humanity, all hoping to be evacuated. Some had run along the pier in the hope of being first to board any vessel taking off refugees. There were abandoned motor cars everywhere, some with doors left open and engines still running. There was nothing worse than a mob in a panic, he told himself, unless it was an aristocratic mob, unused to discipline and orderliness. Edward could see British ships standing by to take people off, but so far the order had not come for them to come into the harbour and begin loading.
He had his own orders to see as many off as he could and then leave himself. How many could be safely taken he was not sure and if they could not all go, what order of priority was he to use? There were more ships on the way and he hoped all who wanted to leave could be accommodated.
He turned away from the window as his clerk announced Baron Simenov. Another aristocrat claiming kinship with the Tsar, he supposed, and hoping for preferential treatment. He smiled and went forward to offer his hand. ‘What can I do for you, Baron?’
Pyotr shook the hand. ‘A place on board one of your ships for myself, my wife and son would be greatly appreciated, Sir Edward.’
‘There is a protocol…’
‘I am aware of that, Sir Edward, and I would not ask to go out of turn, but I can furnish you with telling evidence that I have been of use to the British government in an intelligence capacity, for which the Bolsheviks would dearly love to shoot me.’ It was said with a hint of dry humour which Edward liked.
‘Then we shall have to see what we can arrange.’
‘That is not the only reason for my visit, Sir Edward, I have another problem. I have been asked to look after a little girl, supposedly the daughter of Count Kirilov, though I have no way of verifying that. She appears to be all alone in the world and I am at a loss to know what to do with her.’
‘There are dozens of children in Yalta who have become detached from their parents. Husbands have lost wives, wives their children. I have no idea how it will all be sorted out. What is so special about this child?’
Pyotr told him succinctly all he had learned from Stepan Ratsin, which was little enough. ‘Her parents were supposed to meet her and her brother in Simferopol, but they never turned up. I could not leave her with that uncouth peasant, and so I brought her to Yalta. According to the servant who took her to the peasant, that was where the family was heading.’
‘Has she means of identification?’
‘None at all. But she is dressed like a little aristocrat. Except for the blood stains. Her brother's and her nurse's, who were shot in front of her, so I was told.’
‘What does she say?’
‘Nothing. She has not uttered a word, except to croak her name and age. She seems to be in shock. Hardly to be wondered at, is it?’
‘I was hoping you might have news of the Count, or some message as to what was to be done with her. I can hardly carry her off to England when her poor parents might be searching for her. And what would I do with her when I got there?’
‘I see,’ Edward murmured. 'Where is she now?’
‘Outside in the vestibule. I have taken a room in a hotel for my wife and son. They are charging the earth for rooms and I was lucky to obtain one for all of us, but we cannot accommodate the little girl. She is, not to put too fine a point on it, somewhat smelly. You can see how we are fixed?’
Sir Edward did see. ‘You had better bring her in. I’ll see what I can find out.’
‘Thank you. And you will remember a place for us on one of the British ships?’
‘I will remember.’
They shook hands again and Pyotr fetched Lydia, his step lighter than when he arrived. Katya had always been a soft-hearted woman, but the last few months had hardened her and, like everyone else, she looked to her own safety and that of her darling son first. They had no idea who Lydia Mikhailovna was. She could be an impostor or a member of the Romanov family and, until they were safely in England, Katya would do nothing to risk being arrested; the penalties would be dire. He could hardly blame her. She would be glad the child could be handed over with a clear conscience.
Lydia was ushered into the office, more terrified and bewildered than ever. The man who had brought her here, promising to find her father, disappeared and she was left facing another man, who was still not Papa. He had a light moustache but no beard, his brown hair was parted in the middle and had a slight wave to it. His blue eyes regarded her kindly. He squatted down beside her so that he was on her level. ‘Well, Lidushka, we shall have to see what we can do to help you.’ It was said in perfect Russian, with hardly a trace of an accent. ‘Are you hungry?’
Lydia was not sure if she was hungry or not, but decided it was polite to nod that she was.
‘Good.’ He rang a bell on his desk. ‘First things first, eh?’ Then to his secretary, Richard Sandford, who had arrived in answer to his summons. ‘Richard, ask Madame Molinskaya to come here, will you? And then see if you can find out what has happened to Count and Countess Kirilov. The Count, according to the information I have been given, is a Colonel under General Wrangel. Or he was. He may have decided to call it a day. That would account for him saying he would meet his family in Simferopol. He may, of course, have assumed his daughter perished along with her brother and the nurse, so we need to reassure him on that score and tell him we have her safe.’
‘It won't be easy, Sir Edward. Everything is a complete shambles. We have tenuous communications with the White command but that is becoming more and more difficult as their posts are over-run.’
‘Do your best.’ Edward bent again to Lydia. ‘How old are you, sweetheart?’
‘Four, eh? Then you are a big girl, aren't you? Perhaps you know where you live. Do you know the name of the place?’
‘Kirilhor,’ she said.
‘Where is that?’ Richard asked, but that was more than she could tell him.
‘See what you can discover,’ Edward told him.
He disappeared and a few moments later, a fat motherly Russian woman arrived and Lydia was given into her care. ‘Get those clothes off her and give her a bath,’ Sir Edward murmured, handing her Lydia's bag of clothes. ‘Then feed her and put her to bed. After that…’ He shrugged, having no clear idea of what he would do.
‘Come, golubchick’' she said, taking Lydia by the hand and leading her from the room. ‘We shall soon have you feeling more comfortable.’
‘Mama.’ It was a refrain Lydia was to repeat over and over like a mantra. ‘Where is my Mama?’
‘Sir Edward, will find out for you. You know who Sir Edward is, don’t you?’
Lydia shook her head.
‘He is the English gentleman we have just left. He is a baronet in England and what they call a diplomat. He is a very important man and very busy, so we must not trouble him if we can help it. I will look after you until we find your mama and papa. Now, you are going to be a good girl, aren’t you? A good girl for your papa and Sir Edward.’ As she spoke she led the child through the house to her own quarters above the kitchen. They consisted of a sitting room, a bedroom and a bathroom. She rang a bell and when this was answered by a maid asked her to prepare food for their guest. Then she ran a bath.
It was then the struggle began. Lydia did not want to be undressed. She was afraid the Star of Kirilov would be found and it was her bounden duty to hang onto it; Mama had told her not to let anyone see it. But Madame Molinskaya was hard to resist. She spoke softly, saying there was nothing to fear, everyone was her friend, and all the time she was unbuttoning, untying, stroking the little one’s face, reassuring her. It was when she managed to remove the bloodstained petticoat and threw it on the bathroom floor and heard the heavy thud, she realised something was hidden in it.
She picked it up again to examine it. ‘Ah, my little one, what have we here?’ The secret pocket was found and the Star extracted, while Lydia, filled with a sense of her failure, cried salty, silent tears. ‘I see it all now. This is meant to pay your way. Now, why would anyone do that unless they knew you were going to be all alone? We shall see what Sir Edward says, but for now, I shall put it here.’ She laid the jewel on a table against the wall. ‘It will be quite safe while you have your bath and some supper, and then we will take it to Sir Edward. Now into that warm water with you. There is some nice smelling soap here.’ She sniffed it and held it to Lydia's nose. ‘Violets. You like it, don’t you?’
Lydia nodded and was lifted into the bath. It was heavenly to be soaped with the luxury soap, something she had not seen since leaving Petrograd, but she remembered Tonya bathing her there and how she always enjoyed it. Her matted hair was shampooed and when that was done, she was lifted out and dried with a big fluffy white towel. This was more like it used to be, before they went to Kirilhor. Down in the bottom of her smelly bag was a nightdress which had escaped the staining. It was slipped over her head.
‘Now you are civilised again,’ Madame Molinskaya said, picking up a hairbrush from the table and, standing Lydia between her knees, began brushing the hair dry. It fell about her face in little corkscrew curls. ‘My, you are a pretty little thing.’
The Kirilov Star is out in paperback published by Alison & Busby. ISBN 9780749009496. Also available as an ebook download.