Empress of the Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great

Empress of the Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great

by Eva Stachniak

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553908053
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/25/2014
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 93,000
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Eva Stachniak was born in Wrocław, Poland. She moved to Canada in 1981 and has worked for Radio Canada International and Sheridan College, where she taught English and humanities. Her debut novel, Necessary Lies, won the Books in Canada First Novel Award in 2000. Her first novel of Catherine the Great, The Winter Palace, was included in The Washington Post’s 2011 list of most notable fiction. Stachniak lives in Toronto, where she is at work on her next novel.

Read an Excerpt

9:00 a.m.

The pain is sharp, piercing, a burning dagger’s thrust inside her skull, somewhere behind the right eye. It hits just as she lifts her quill out of an inkwell. Her hand freezes. The quill, dropped, stains the letter she was just about to sign.

The mantel clock begins to chime. She recalls being frightened as a child to see the hands of a clock turned back, believing time itself might go back and she would be forced to live again through everything she had already lived through, depriving her of the adventure of the future.

The pain doesn’t stop or diminish. It is already nine o’clock and she is still behind with the reading she must finish before her secretary arrives. She considers calling Zotov, her valet, but dismisses the thought quickly. The headache will go away by itself, but once her old servant begins to fuss, she won’t be able to send him away.

Pani, her Italian greyhound, sniffs her mistress’s hand with fierce concentration, licking the skin of her palm. The dog is slender and fine-­boned, a direct descendant of beloved Zemira, who lies buried in the Tsarskoye Selo gardens.

“I’ve nothing for you there,” she mutters. She tries to pat Pani’s head, but her right hand is strangely wooden, stiff and unwieldy, so she settles for an awkward caress, noting thick drops of pus in the corners of her dog’s eyes. Just like Zemira, Pani is prone to lingering infections.

Outside her study, pattering feet and muted voices dissolve into furtive silence: The Empress is working. The Empress must not be disturbed.

She stands. With her left hand she grips the edge of her desk, clumsily, sending the papers flying. How intriguing, she thinks, watching the vellum pages glide on invisible currents, hover in the air, silent like birds of prey. Pani, too, watches, head cocked to the side. A wagging tail thumps at the floor.

The cup of coffee on the desk must be cold by now, but a drink will do her good. Her right hand is still heavy and stiff, so she picks up the cup with her left. The first bitter sip is refreshing, but the second one makes her choke.

She spits the coffee out. On the encrusted wood, on her papers. Brown, watery splashes she should wipe right away, but instead she lets her tongue probe the inside of her mouth, the soft, ribbed folds of her palate. Like calf’s brain, she thinks, her mother’s favorite dish.

She tries to put the cup back on the desk, but her hand refuses to obey, and it shatters on the floor.

If she walks a bit, will the headache dissolve?

Her first step is wobbly, unsure, making her clutch whatever is within her reach. The corner of her desk, the chair.

Behind her something falls down. Something big and heavy.

Her right knee is still sore. It’s been like this ever since that dreadful fall three years ago, when she toppled down the stairs on her way to the banya. Zotov had heard the noise and rushed after her. Made her sit on the marble step for a while. Only when she assured him the dizzy spell had passed did he help her stand up, slowly. She didn’t think she had been truly hurt, bruised and frightened as she was, but the knee is not letting her forget the fall.

9:01 a.m.

Each step, unsteady as it is, is a marvel. The muscles contracting and releasing. The feet shuffling forward, one after another. Like the mechanical doll her granddaughters loved to play with, before Constantine, her grandson, cut it open to see what was hidden inside.

The steps take her out of her study, past the small alcove where her pelisses hang beside the silver-­framed mirror, toward the door that leads to her privy.

In the alcove mirror, her body is reflected as if in quivering water, broken into uneven, ill-­fitting parts, each wrinkled and malformed. Her face fares no better, the sagging flesh, the neck that resembles a turkey’s throat. Her eyes are bloodshot, watery, blinking. I’ve never been beautiful, she thinks. But what did Helen of Troy have to show for her looks? The ravages of war and the pursuit of men she had not chosen?

The privy smells, faintly, of wet animal fur and rotting roots. The door closes behind her with a thump. The squeak of the hinges is oddly sharp, circling around her like the sound of a tuning fork. As if time looped, refusing to unravel.

Her fingers gripping the edge of the water closet resemble claws of some ancient bird, not quite accustomed to such feats of agility. And yet they hold on, help her balance. How magnificent, she thinks, this effort of muscles and bones, sinew and blood.

Slowly she lifts the fingertips to her nostrils and sniffs at the sweet, sharp smell of ink. Something from the past floats by—­images of a race, frothy waves crashing against the shore, stretching over tawny sand. Seagulls shriek out of jealousy or greed. In the shallow water a horse’s head lies entangled in a tattered fishnet and tufts of seaweed, baring its teeth. A swarm of eels wiggles out of its eye sockets, slithers through its open jaws.

A memory, she thinks, not a dream.

9:04 a.m.

With the headache pounding in her temples, voices bubble inside her. Phrases echo in her mind: I am Minerva. I am armed.

Something odd is happening.

A thought is not just a thought. A word is not a mere word.

She thinks of an apple and an apple appears. It is slightly greasy to the touch. It has plump, sunburnt sides and a splash of green around the stem bowl. Its skin is freckled with darker spots.

She stares at it for a while before setting her teeth on the skin and pressing hard. The apple snaps off with a cracking sound, then shatters, filling her mouth with juice.

The joy she feels is ancient, the joy of crushing through living tissue, life nourishing life.

Why am I thinking about an apple?

There is no apple. Her hand is empty. The word apple that rattles in her mind means temptation.

Is this what she should be thinking of?

The question intrigues her for a while, until another agonizing throb shoots up the right side of her skull and a flash of light stings her eyes.

9:05 a.m.

In the vestibule, servants talk.

“Are you sure Her Majesty hasn’t called for me yet?” Gribovsky asks. Her secretary’s voice is anxious, thin with unease.

“Quite sure, Adrian Moseyevich.”

“But it’s past the usual time.”

“Her Majesty has her reasons.”

Something is happening to her, but she has little time to think what it might be. Each movement demands her utmost attention, angles to calculate and adjust, muscles to flex and to steady. She listens to each breath that enters or leaves her nostrils.

Her heart, a traitor drummer, pounds its own rhythm. Or is it like a frantic courtier sent to warn her of some approaching calamity? Fire? Flood? The mob armed with scythes, marching on the palace doors?

Her lips are parched. The blue porcelain jug in the privy is too heavy to lift, so she dips her fingers inside and sucks on the drops that cling to them. The water is stale. She should ring for Queenie, who must be outside, with the others.

Why is there no bell in the privy?

The headache has diminished, but the inside of her skull feels fragile and exposed, as if an ax has split her open. Is this how Jupiter felt giving birth to Minerva?

“What time is it?”

“Still early, Adrian Moseyevich,” someone answers curtly. A woman laughs. A door opens and closes. Footsteps grow fainter. A dog barks. Something rattles against the windowpane; there is a loud bang followed by a thump.

“You know who he is. His father ran a bookstore off the Great Perspective Road. By the Fontanka. Then it got flooded.”

“What are you scribbling there, Adrian Moseyevich? Have some hot tea. It’s a chilly morning.”

“The dog is still missing. Do you think someone stole it?”

“A thief would’ve brought it back, already, for the reward.”

“The poor beastie must be dead by now.”

The voices outside the privy door float back and forth; whispers fade away. Rumbles quicken like wooden carts on the ice mountain, right before they pick up real speed and become unstoppable.

9:09 a.m.

In the privy, she manages to hike up her petticoats and lower herself on the commode seat. Like a big hen settling onto a nest. The seat is cold and sticky, giving way under her weight with a squeak.

The voices in the vestibule swirl, punctuated by moments of soothing silence. The world around her slows. The pain is still there, but it, too, feels distant, easier to bear. Time is sluggish. There is no need to rush.

Inside her belly, muscles let go, release the hot stream of urine. For a while, all she wants to do is sit and absorb the profound pleasure of relief. Sink into silence. Just be.

Out of this silence comes another memory. A monkey, Plaisir, was the French Ambassador’s gift. A mere baby when he came, dressed in a velvet jacket, breeches, and a feathered hat. His tiny paws clutched at her finger when she held him, and he buried his pink face in the folds of her dress. His eyes were big, beseeching.

Cebus capucinus. White-­headed capuchin.

The two keepers ordered to mind Plaisir at all times had scars on their hands and arms from bites and scratches, all the way up to their elbows. No chain was enough to restrain the little rascal. Once free, the monkey always found a way to her study. He opened every drawer in her desk, tore papers, spilled ink, chewed at her quills, peed on her chair. He put his finger up his anus and then smeared excrement on the walls. When she screamed at him, he covered his ears and made a grimace of such relentless misery that she laughed.

On one of his mischievous sprees, Plaisir smashed a jar of her face cream and ate its contents. A few hours later, he crept under a chair in her bedroom and wouldn’t come out. No treats, none of his favorite toys would tempt him. “Leave him,” she ordered the servants. “He’ll come out when he gets hungry.” Only he didn’t. He just shrank and died.

9:10 a.m.

To stand up, many muscles have to be kept taut, many bones lifted. In the meantime, every heartbeat calls for her attention.

The memory of Platon’s hoarse voice interrupts her concentration. “Why are you hurting me, Katinka? You are all I’ve got. Without you, I’m dust.”

The voice of her lover is insistent, pleading. She pictures Platon standing next to her, so crushingly beautiful in his charcoal-­colored ensemble, his features pure. Nose, jawline, lips. If she could draw, she would sketch him in black ink. Then smudge the edges to soften him.

Have I hurt you, Platon? How? And when?

This is a problem she could solve. Unravel the puzzling configuration of cause and effect, if only she thought about it long enough. She has always been good with ciphers. Numbers that turn into letters. Words that stand for other words. To solve a puzzle one needs to look for patterns, the rhythm of repetitions.

But why does Platon begin to whistle, and then sing?

Russia reaches farther-­higher

Over mountain peaks and seas.

How can she solve a puzzle that shifts its shape, flickers like a firefly, and then disappears into the dark? How can she solve a puzzle when all she can be certain of is the searing pain in his voice?

9:11 a.m.

“Crying all night . . . again . . . poor child . . . this is not the end of the world, Her Majesty told her so many times . . . but the young never listen . . .”

The voices in the antechamber veer off, like nervous horses bent on flight. Sometimes whole phrases come through the walls, sometimes only words.

“It hurts more when you are young.”

“Such a shame.”

“How could he . . .”

She should try to hear more, learn what the servants are talking about. It’s useful to know what is not meant for your ears.

But the headache is not going away. Each pang is a blow, enclosing her in a roaring fog. Voices, groans, a loud drumming sound. Her palms moisten with sweat.

Such headaches have plagued her before. The bursts of blinding light are not new, either. It’s not surprising. She has been working too much, too hard. But what looks done one day disintegrates on the next. No wonder that the weight in her chest gets heavier.

The Polish campaign is over, but the Polish partition treaty is still not finished, her last objections still not resolved. The Prussians want to keep Warsaw, but won’t yield anything of value in return. As always, they want Russia to get their chestnuts out of the fire for them!

Nations are like merchants. They form and break alliances according to the rules of costs and profits. A country that wishes no expansion will wither. Stillness is an illusion. Empires need to grow or face defeat. This is why she has taxed her body beyond its strength. In the service of her empire. Are other monarchs working as hard as she is? Without stopping?

She needs a good long rest.

The Earth hides many secrets.

This is a good thought. Useful and pleasant.

In Siberia, serfs dig out giant bones buried several fathoms underground. “Fossilized ivory, Your Majesty,” scholars tell her. “Brought here by the current of an ancient river.” But ivory does not grow in the shape of bones. Elephants must have once lived where now there is nothing but snow. If one is patient, the strangest transformations are possible.

Remember these words, she orders herself. Write them down as soon as you are back at your desk. Use them when you talk to Alexandrine.

Outside her privy, noises grow and diminish. Feet clatter. Something metallic bangs, then rolls away. The dog’s nails are scratching the wooden floor. Voices she hears are too loud, or sound hollow, as if coming from inside a deep well.

Her servants are jostling among themselves. Queenie is asserting her position. Vishka opposes her, slowly, with measured, relentless cadences. It matters little what they are talking about. Prices of silk, salt, Crimean wines. The likelihood of the Neva freezing soon. Predictions—­even those professed by experts—­are hardly ever accurate. Conviction is merely a sign of the speaker’s self-­assurance.

A telltale sign of arrogance.

9:13 a.m.

The commode has a soft leather seat. When she moves, the leather creaks. Back and forth. Slowly, gently. The swaying of the body soothes. This is how being in a cradle must feel to an infant.

Inside her belly a throb, a mounting pressure of blood. As if her menses have returned. Which cannot be.

The flashes of light are gone now, replaced by elongated floating shapes that drift through her field of vision. Glowing against the ray of pale morning sun that comes through the small window up high. Sometimes blurry, sometimes transparent. Sinking to the bottom when she tries to look at them closer.

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Empress of the Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read Winter Palace first and it should be read before reading the Empress of the Night. I am from Russian decent and could familiarize myself with some of the food and customs. Thoroughly enjoyed both books.
Mirella More than 1 year ago
Author Eva Stachniak has written a sequel to The Winter Palace, her first novel about Catherine the Great. The novel is told in present tense in Catherine's own point of view as the great empress lays dying and reflects upon her life.  She has suffered a massive stroke and death is imminent and near. The author did a wonderful job of getting deep into Catherine's head - her thoughts, her desires, her emotions. There is a strong focus on her relatioships with her children and grandchildren, what brought her joy, and what she regrets. As always, the research is thorough, along with wonderful descriptions of the era's clothing, sights, and smells.   The story is presented in flashback mode, flitting back and forth between various points in her life in no chronological order. As a reader, I found this novel's focus challenging to understand and follow. Because of this, I highly recommend readers read The Winter Palace first to get a stronger grip on the storyline. For lovers of Catherine the Great and her impact on history, Eva Stachniak's novels are a great way to begin learning about this fascinating woman of history.
literarymuseVC More than 1 year ago
Catherine the Great arrived to begin her training as Grand Duchess, naïve and much maligned by her future mother-in-law, Elizabeth Romanov.  The pattern was set: she would appear to be a cooperative, willing wife to a future Emperor, ensure that her devout attitude was appropriately noticed, and at the same time learned about the internal and external politics, treaties, battles, finance and more that would be part and parcel of Russian government.  Empress of the Night…  is written in an unusual style, reflecting Catherine’s thoughts, emotions, and spirit for all that occurred throughout her training and actual rule of Russia. Catherine and others as well see her husband as a spineless man incapable of ruling, obviously created so by his imperious mother who trusted no one, feared everyone, and therefore ruled with an iron fist smothering all disagreement and conspiracies, real or imagined.  Catherine rules after the Empress’ death. But surprisingly, she spends more time reflecting on the slew of lovers who coveted not only her body but her power as well.  Her fiercest passion is depicted as a love that could never survive so much intensity with Grigory Potemkin.  Unfortunately for him, her foremost dedication was for her country and this decision was the cause of much hurt for him.   Catherine never boasts of her power but does frequently state that she was gifted at discerning between those who wanted the best for Russia and those who wanted the best for themselves and manifested that in scheming, traitorous ways.  We read about her anxiety when dealing with the Poles, Prussians, French, and later on in the story the Turks.  At the same time, she is interested in lavish spending on the one hand for her home and gardens but frugality meant to help promote the Russian economy.   Her reflections on her children and grandchildren are carefully charted because she must make a decision as to who will take over the Crown of Russia after her death.  The thoughts on this topic are scathingly truthful and pragmatic.  Disappointment is described as almost apathy and pleasure is clearly connected to her delight and favor.  As her health declines, Catherine’s mind rages with both hatred of her ailments and haunting, torturous reflections on the past relationships that have so often denied her opinions and provoking disagreement and dissension within her most loyal servants and administrators. Empress of the Night… is a wonderful read.  Surprisingly, it is highly effective historical fiction because it refuses to only catalog lists of events and what others thought of them.  It is a mental and emotional exploration of what is true and false about Catherine’s decisions on pivotal issues and concerning her relationships with multiple lovers and friends.  One truly gets to know and trust this intelligent, passionate, and careful ruler, lover and friend; and the reader wants to know even more by the time the story ends with Catherine’s untimely but spiritually connected death forever.  Very smartly crafted, engaging and intriguing historical fiction – a great read! Congratulations, Eva Stachniak, for writing a brilliant story in such a stylish, literate, and robust manner!
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Jasmyn9 More than 1 year ago
I have not yet read The Winter Palance, but I just added it to my Amazon cart to pick up with my next batch of books. Eva Stachniak just may be getting added to my "but everything she writes" list. Her writing was caprivating and very descriptive without going too far and giving too much.  The court and life of Catherine the Great was very different from many of the European courts I have read about during that time. Stachniak captured the grandoise lifestyle and obsession with impressing Russia's European counterparts and need for expansion. There was so much I never realized about Catherine the Great - such as she wasn't really Russian and her name wasn't originally Catherine. Her story was amazing, told as a memory she has after a fall towards the end of her life. She had many enemies, but many people also truly loved her and relied on her rule to make life in Russia better. I can't wait to see what The While Palace is like - told from the point of view of a close servant instead of Catherine. It's amazing how the same story can be completely different when told from two perspectives. *This book was received in exchange for an honest review*