Theirs seems like the least likely of love stories. But, as Napoleon’s army sweeps on towards Moscow, great events will throw them together—and pull them apart again. As the French face defeat and a starving retreat through the snow, Valentina must search desperately amongst the survivors for the man she loves.
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About the Author
Evelyn Anthony is the pen name of Evelyn Ward-Thomas (1926–2108), a female British author who began writing in 1949. She gained considerable success with her historical novels—two of which were selected for the American Literary Guild—before winning huge acclaim for her espionage thrillers. Her book, The Occupying Power, won the Yorkshire Post Fiction Prize, and her 1971 novel, The Tamarind Seed, was made into a film starring Julie Andrews and Omar Sharif. Anthony’s books have been translated into nineteen languages.
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By Evelyn Anthony
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1966 Anthony Enterprises Ltd
All rights reserved.
The month of June in the year 1812 was a perfect month for war; the weather was mild, the roads were dry, the rivers smooth flowing; the rolling countryside was like a garden, bisected by the frontier created between Poland and Russia by the River Niemen. On the Russian side of that river an army of close on half a million men was waiting, the soldiers of the Czar Alexander I, and across, in Poland, the troops of Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, ended their long march across Europe and came to rest, waiting for the order to advance. They too numbered half a million men, a hundred thousand of them cavalry. The world had been waiting all through the spring, while the Emperor of France brought his great fighting forces into position for his attack upon his old ally the Russian Czar, and the peace moves went on at the same time as the troop movements, but they came from France, and they found no response in the silent, menacing Russians. Russia wanted Napoleon to go to war, and in the last spring month of June, war was inevitable. Only one country with real ties of loyalty to France welcomed the prospect, and that was Poland, dismembered and partitioned three times in twenty-three years. What remained of the ancient Kingdom was now a Duchy of Warsaw with the King of Saxony as its ruler; it existed under the patronage of Napoleon, and Poles followed him and fought in his European wars because they believed he meant to restore independence and unify their country. The city of Danzig was en fête that June, because the war was certain, and the Emperor Napoleon himself had just arrived there from holding court at Dresden with his second bride, the Austrian Archduchess Marie Louise.
The Polish nobility gathered in Danzig, which wasn't a fashionable city, but was packed with people now, because it had become part of the French route to Russia, and they opened their houses and decorated the city in the Emperor's honour. One of the richest and most influential men in Poland was Count Theodore Grunowski; he had made the long journey from his estates in Lvov to present himself before the French and to do any service for his fellow politicians that might be required of him. Early in the evening of June the 8th he sat watching his wife getting ready for a reception in Napoleon's honour.
He liked looking at her because she was very beautiful and it gave him pleasure; he had a keen aesthetic sense. He loved good paintings and fine furniture; he enjoyed music and appreciated good food and rare wines. He had a collection of Chinese jade which was priceless. He was a collector by nature, painstaking, determined and unscrupulous; he had acquired his young wife in much the same spirit as the rest of his possessions, though he had more fondness for his jade, and in the last year or so he had spent more time with his horses than he did with her. He hadn't been in a hurry to marry; a succession of mistresses satisfied his appetites when young and ministered to his vanity as he approached middle age, and they were all women of inferior position who had no redress against him if he chose to treat them badly. He was contented with his own mode of life for many years, and only the need to provide an heir for his name and lands made him decide to cast off the bachelor role and look about him for a suitable wife.
He had first seen Valentina when she was sixteen; he had been staying with her father on his estate at Czartatz, ostensibly to do some hunting, but his real purpose was to inspect Count Prokov's elder daughter, who was still unmarried. Alexandra Maria was twenty-seven years old, and in an age when girls married in their earliest teens it was not a recommendation to be a spinster in the late twenties. Theodore had made enquiries about her, and was attracted by her enormous wealth, inherited from the Count's first wife, who had been a Russian Princess. He had learnt little more, except that there was a second daughter, the child of Prokov's second wife, a well-born Polish lady, who was not, alas, rich like her predecessor. Both wives had died a few years after marriage and the Count lived alone on his huge estates with his two daughters; he sometimes came to Warsaw and he had issued the invitation to Theodore to visit him. The Count was not impressed by the house at Czartatz; it was too big and gloomy and everything in it was old-fashioned. Being a perfectionist where creature comforts were concerned, the Count was not in the best of humours when he came down to dine and meet his host's two daughters. Neither of them had appeared before, and he thought this odd and inhospitable on the part of the elder, who should have been waiting at the steps with her father to welcome their guest. The moment he saw her he understood why; the woman who took the place at the opposite end of the table was arrogant and casual as a man, with a handsome, strong-featured face and slanting eyes betraying Tartar blood. He had been instantly repelled by her; nothing annoyed him more than signs of independence in a woman, and this was one absolute mistress of herself, and no virgin either, if he was any judge. His attention remained fixed for the rest of the evening, and the remainder of his visit, on the exquisitely lovely younger sister, with her pale skin and brilliant blue eyes; the combination of jet black hair with this flower-like colouring was so startling that the Count could scarcely bear to take his eyes off her.
He cultivated her very carefully, and was pleased to find her gentle and quite unsophisticated. Love was not a word in his vocabulary, it was not in his emotional capacity to feel anything for any human being except in the basic terms of tolerance for men or lust for a woman. And his lust for Valentina overcame his desire for a rich wife to add to his own fortune and prestige; he left Czartatz with the understanding that he would marry Count Prokov's younger daughter within a month of her seventeenth birthday, and he extracted from her father a dowry of thirty thousand roubles. In exchange, Prokov received a place on the council of the Grand Duchy, which he had always desired and which was within Theodore's power to obtain for him. Everybody was satisfied with the arrangement, except the bride to be, who wept and pleaded with her father to find someone younger and less forbidding than the Count. His elder daughter swore at him, and quarrelled fiercely on her sister's behalf. Had Theodore witnessed the extent to which he had judged Alexandra correctly he would have fled the country at the thought of taking such a wife. But it was useless; Valentina's father was obdurate; the bribe of political power was more to him than the sentimental pleadings of a girl without experience or the angry reproaches of a woman with far too much. The marriage took place at the chapel at Czartatz, and the Count had taken his bride away immediately after the ceremony, insisting that they return to his estate at Lvov. They had spent the night at a posting inn on the road, and the Count had observed all the conventions of courtesy, allowing her an unhurried dinner, before escorting her up the narrow stairs to the one bedroom in the place. There he had subjected her to an act of callous rape, neither expecting nor caring about arousing her response. He was in a hurry to gratify himself, and his own appetite was all that mattered. Later, when he felt less urgent, he might take trouble with her. He was extremely angry in his cold way to find her crying herself to sleep, and positively furious when she shrank from him the next morning.
The bride who finally arrived at Lvov was wan and spiritless and red-eyed from constant weeping. Her husband gave her into the care of a young widow, the wife of a serf on his estate who had had some training as a maid, and began by ordering her to burn the new Countess's trousseau, which was badly made and out of fashion, and the most experienced dressmaker in Warsaw was summoned to make a suitable wardrobe. The action was typical of the Count's attitude; he made it clear from the beginning that he expected complete obedience from his young wife in every aspect of her life, and that tears or complaints would be punished without mercy. Valentina had learnt a lesson in inhumanity that first year which taught her to discipline her rebellious spirit and force her unwilling flesh to do as she was ordered. There was no alternative, no respite. Her husband had written an irritated letter to her father complaining that she was wilful and uncooperative and he felt he had been cheated in the marriage settlement. He had an even greater cause of complaint when she remained childless after six months of unremitting attention from him. His disappointment was so great that had Count Prokov not died within a year of the marriage he might well have sent her home and asked for an annulment.
Her father's death left Valentina without hope of redress; she knew it, and she submitted accordingly. The little maid advised; she was a kindly, simple woman who sympathised from the first with her unhappy mistress, and appreciated her gentleness. Never once had Valentina struck her or threatened to have her whipped, and this was rare in great ladies when dealing with a bonded serf. She grew to love the Countess, and to try to help her. She knew what a bad husband could be like, whether he was a slave or a lord; she had borne the marks of her own marriage to a drunken brute for seven years, until the good God took him, and released her. Jana set about protecting her mistress, warning her of the Count's habits, his humours, his pedantic, irritable insistence on complete protocol in his house. And, slowly, Valentina learnt. Now, after five years of marriage, she was still childless, and he had ceased to trouble her too often; in this respect she found her life much easier to bear. At twenty-two she was in the full flower of her beauty; she was a perfect hostess, a cool, sophisticated wife and a great lady in her own right. He could find no fault with her except her barrenness, and he taunted her with it from time to time when he felt like hurting her a little, and she never replied. He had no idea how she implored God on her knees that she would never, never have a child to carry on his name. She was cold, and that was another pity in his view; but she was virtuous, and he was sure of that. Unlike many women in similar positions, Valentina had never had a lover. She had no interest in men. One husband was enough. She glanced at him now, as Jana combed her black hair into the high curls made fashionable by the French Empress Marie Louise. He was a handsome man in his way, but he was ageing fast, and the selfishness, pride and cruelty were written on his face. She often took comfort from the thought that one day, perhaps in ten years even, he must die. She was no different from many other women. Men ruled the world and made the rules. There was nothing to do but bear it and enjoy the few things God had given freely, like the countryside and fine horses, and moments when visual beauty lifted up the sinking spirits as a great sun set, red and blazing, or the moon turned the gardens at Lvov into an enchanted landscape.
'Jana!' the Count said suddenly. 'Put that necklace away. Madame will wear her rubies with that dress.' The maid curtsied and hurried away to get the jewels from their leather cases. 'Rubies will suit that red dress much better,' he said. 'You should have thought of that for yourself, Valentina. Tonight's reception is tremendously important. Everyone in Poland will be there. Hurry up, girl, fasten it and then get out. With your permission, my dear?'
'Of course.' Valentina looked at him, unable to hide her surprise. 'Jana, go, please. Give me my pelisse first.'
'I will fasten it for you,' the Count said, 'but it can wait a moment. I have something to tell you privately, my dear. I was summoned by Potocki today. Napoleon is already in Danzig, and has sent word that he will attend the reception this evening. All the Marshals and members of his General Staff are with him. It's certain now that the Czar Alexander has refused to make peace, and the French will invade Russia within the next few weeks. The whole world is waiting for this invasion and the outcome. But most especially Poland. I'm sure you know this?'
'I know it all,' she said. 'We are all praying for Napoleon to destroy Russia, so that we can be a free, united Kingdom again.'
'Bravo!' the Count said. 'That is what we all hope. But we would like a little assurance that His Imperial Majesty Napoleon really intends to re-establish our country. He's promising now, because he needs us to stay firm at his back while he fights the Russians. And he has the use of our troops and supplies. But promises are cheap. The man is only a little Corsican parvenu anyway; one can't rely on anyone who's not a gentleman. If he fails, Valentina, Russia will lay us waste with fire and sword, exactly as she's done before. We must know how far to go in his favour. Now I will stop boring you with all these political details, which I'm sure you don't fully appreciate — Potocki is a great admirer of yours. He mentioned to me that the services of a beautiful woman who kept her ears well open might be more useful to Poland than a dozen regiments. Danzig is crawling with the élite of the Grand Armée. If, for instance, you were to make yourself agreeable to some of them, and repeat everything you heard, you might bring some invaluable piece of news, some real indication of how the Imperial mind is working. Potocki explained all this to me and I had to agree. I have therefore offered him your services as a spy for the Polish Government. I want you to tell him tonight how glad you are to do it.'
For a moment Valentina didn't answer him. For the past six years, ever since Napoleon's defeat of the Russians at Tilsit, she had been brought up to regard the French as the champions of Polish liberty and the Emperor Napoleon as the saviour of her divided country. Now her husband had committed her to spying upon the men who were so soon to fight a terrible war from which it was hoped Poland would ultimately benefit.
'If you are hesitating,' he said, 'may I remind you of the grievous harm a refusal would do my political career in the future? May I also remind you that your half-Russian sister is hardly an advantage at the moment; you might be suspected of treason, instead of mere weakness. You can't afford to disappoint the Count. Or me.'
'At least you don't pretend I have a choice,' Valentina said. 'I shall do as I am told. But I find it disgusting.'
'Think of your country's future,' he said coldly, 'if you haven't any wifely concern for mine. Regard yourself as yet another martyr in the cause of Poland's freedom.'
'Surely,' Valentina said, 'Madame Walewska knows Napoleon's intentions? What better source of information could you have?'
Six years ago the beautiful Countess Walewska had deliberately thrown herself at Napoleon's feet, primed by the same men who were now recruiting Valentina, and she had become his mistress and Poland's most persuasive advocate. She had left Poland with Napoleon's illegitimate son and lived for some years in Paris. The plan had miscalculated, for the unhappy woman had fallen deeply in love with the Emperor, and her reports were too biased to be trustworthy. At the mention of her name the Count laughed contemptuously.
'I can think of almost any source better than the infatuated babblings of that damned woman; all she does is repeat the politic lies Napoleon tells her for our benefit, and she's stupid enough to believe them herself. It was obvious from the beginning that she was quite unsuitable.' He drew out his little dress watch and stood up quickly. 'Come, my dear. Let me fasten your pelisse. I told the carriage to be ready half an hour ago.' He took up the sable-lined velvet pelisse and wrapped it round his wife's shoulders; his fingers brushed across her bare throat and lingered as they fastened the silk cords across her breast. The caress made her shudder; the calculated sexual antics disgusted her, and alarmed her. There had been blessed intervals in the last two years when he hardly troubled her at all, and she supposed he had a mistress. She moved away from him abruptly.
'Come, Theo; we'll be late.'
'So we will. Never mind, I shall visit you this evening.'
'As you please,' she said. She had made excuses once or twice but he had always discovered the deception and now she didn't dare to lie.
Excerpted from Valentina by Evelyn Anthony. Copyright © 1966 Anthony Enterprises Ltd. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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