Over the last few hours the wind had dropped so that now the snow came coursing out of the sky as if pouring from a vast celestial sieve; it was deceptively tranquil in its falling, concealing its danger in a brilliant display of winter's loveliness. All over Sankt Piterburkh, the steep roofs were fancifully decorated with jaunty caps and swaths of snow, glistening like cloth-of-gold in the shine from the windows and the lanterns on poles set in along the streets to guide the people of the city. As the chimes of the Cathedral of Sankt Piter and Sankt Paultje struck midnight, the beginning of the Mass took up where the bells left off, a sonorous, penetrating harmony of deep voices that carried softly through the night to all the city.
At the English Residence, the festivities were winding down; many of the guests were feeling the effects of the many cups of hot wassail, and were in need of escort to their homes; others, knowing tomorrow was close at hand, wished to show proper reverence for the day. A small number of guests lingered to gather the last sweetness from the evening, a few of them singing traditional carols and madrigals in the room next to the ballroom.
"It was good of you to come, Hercegek," said Drury Carruther, bidding Saint-Germain the joy of the holiday as he prepared to depart. He was looking tired, although he was splendidly turned out in rich, dark-green velvet with revers of gold brocade to go with his waistcoat and leg-hose; his elaborately tied neck-cloth had wilted a little during the evening and his wig was a bit rumpled.
"You offered a grand evening," said Saint-Germain as he drew on his wolf-skin cloak, covering his burgundy elk-leather coat and britches, which he had got from the leather-tailor just four days ago; ordinarily he would have saved the ensemble for hunting, but in this pervasive cold, more sporting than formal dress was approved, unlike expectations in England. "I think your evergreen swags are appropriate and excellent decoration, no matter what some of the others may believe." Earlier that evening, one of the guests-perhaps overcome by the wassail of brandy, whipped eggs, and heavy cream-had complained loudly that the evergreens were tasteless.
"You mean Dvama-that was unfortunate. His companions told me he is a Hussite, and opposed to holiday displays. There are Hussites in Bohemia still, it appears." Carruther shrugged. "At least no one wanted to fight, as happened at the Four Frigates."
"Something to be thankful for, no doubt," said Saint-Germain. "Between the sailors and ships' officers at the taverns, the ration of spirits in the supervisors' barracks, and the party for the Watchmen at Menshikov's house"-which Saari had attended under protest-"the Guards must have their hands full tonight, if they are patrolling."
"At least we have the Guards." Carruther touched his brow in a show of relief. Fatigue had made him nervous and his thoughts were over-strung. He licked his lips. "They weren't here last year, you know, the Guards weren't."
"They began at the end of July," said Saint-Germain.
"They and the Clerks. About time we had a central place for records. These Russians are dreadfully lax about records."
"Because so few of them can read," Saint-Germain suggested.
"That may be. But it's much better now than a year ago, that I can promise you."
"That's right. You and the Prussians were the first ones living here, weren't you?" Saint-Germain asked. "How did the Watchmen deal with the celebrations?"
"There was only one tavern, hardly more than a single large room, and there were far fewer residents in the city; only a few wives and hardly any children at all. I don't think we had more than fifty Europeans in the Foreign Quarter, so the possibilities were limited. Most of us were expected to fend for ourselves, as was the case for the rest: the army garrison was in place, but they looked to the work-gangs and the building of the port. Christmas was not much different than another cold day: the work-gangs weren't allowed more than an extra ration of drink and a sweet cake for the occasion. The service in the Cathedral was much less grand, and for that matter, so was the Cathedral. Spartan as this year is, it is a great improvement on last year. Next year should be grander still, if Czar Piotyr has his way." He made an uneasy motion of his head. "If the Resident would only agree to leave in the spring, so someone of a hardier constitution could take his place. Gout is the very devil in this climate."
"Has the tincture I provided given him any relief?" Saint-Germain inquired.
"I don't know. He has become so invalidish in his habits that I can no longer discern when he is actually incapacitated, or only fears he might be." His sigh was almost a snort. "The trouble is, with his health so poor, this mission is not functioning well, and another year of such performance, and we English will lose even more opportunities than we already have. Our government is at a disadvantage."
The wind picked up a bit, frisking the torrent of snowflakes about the air.
"You are making the best of a bad situation," Saint-Germain suggested.
"Hardly a workable excuse." He fiddled with the ruffles of his cuffs. "If we're able to enlarge our mission here, then we may have more success with the Russians." He closed his eyes, a frown deepening on his forehead.
"You are tired," Saint-Germain said.
"Regretfully, I must concur," said Carruther. "I apologize for my-"
Saint-Germain waved this away. "Anyone in your position earns his exhaustion." He inclined his head as a signal of departure. "I thank you for a festive entertainment. Is there anything more I might do for you before I leave?"
"No, I think not. I appreciate your willingness to listen."
Saint-Germain gave a slight bow. "You provided a most enjoyable evening, and I thank you for including me."
"I have Colonel Broughton if I need him," said Carruther. "That is, if he isn't too drunk to respond."
"My point exactly," said Saint-Germain.
"Captain Fet came by three hours ago, to see if we might need one of his men posted here. I asked him to send someone 'round later tonight, just as a precaution. He said one of his men would be here, and reasonably sober." Carruther held Saint-Germain's Persian-lamb hat out to him. "You'll need this tonight, even with your hood."
Saint-Germain took the hat and set it on his head before raising the hood. "I will call back in two or three days, to see how the Resident is doing."
"A pity your wife didn't join us," said Carruther.
"Yes; but she elected to attend the Midnight Mass at the Cathedral after dining at the Prussian Residence. She asked me to join her at the Cathedral. After all she has heard about Orthodox rituals, she wanted to see a Mass for herself. She promised her brother she would Confess it when she returned to Poland, because while she is here, she is sure it cannot be a sin. I plan to meet her there in half an hour." He bowed and stepped out into the flying snow, accompanied by Carruther's chuckle. He followed the lanterns down the street toward the Cathedral and the rich harmonies that rode with the snow; as he walked, he thought back to his breathing life: he had been born at the dark of the year, and took an odd satisfaction in these later celebrations, which served as a reminder of his own provisional mortality.
The Cathedral smelled of incense and wet fur; at least three hundred people stood to hear the Midnight Mass, most of them Orthodox, and following the liturgy. At the rear of the Cathedral, and near the door, a small group of foreigners was gathered, most of them watching the celebration attentively, a few clearly baffled and bored: Zozia was one of those who had no interest in the Mass, and had begun to flirt with the Hessian courier next to her.
Saint-Germain stepped to her side, lifted her hand, and kissed it. "Ksiezna. A joyous Christmas to you."
Speaking just above a whisper, she said, "So far, Hercegek, it is a tedious one. I had no idea how soon this would pall on me." She sighed. "Lugubrious music, with far too much incense, and too many candles. And those icons!"
Remembering his time in Moscow over a century ago, when every home had its own iconostasis, and every door was guarded by an icon, Saint-Germain thought this Cathedral was austere by Russian Orthodox standards, but he knew better than to say so. "Some Catholic churches are as grandly ornamented as this one."
Zozia paid no attention to his remark. "And look at all that gold, and the seed-pearls on the vestments, and the rough-cut jewels. The Metropolitan has an amethyst the size of a baby's fist in his head-dress. Too gaudy for an Emperor, and not even the Pope goes to such excess." She realized she had raised her voice, and put her hand to her lips. "We had best get out of here before I do something truly unwise."
"As you like," he said, with an elegant inclination of his head, following her out into the writhing snow. "Is your sleigh waiting, or are we going to walk?"
"I told Vincenty to come for me when Mass was over, and there's almost an hour and a half to go-I fear we will have to walk. I cannot remain here any longer." To emphasize her determination, she donned her high-crowned fur hat, took hold of his arm, and moved him along toward the Foreign Quarter. "I don't know how you can stand that music. Just voices, no instruments, and all men. Give me a lively little consort with singers or a splendid organ, at least, and things become bearable. But this drone, drone, drone and Byzantine texts no one understands!" She found a slight rut under the snow and began to follow it.
"Where is your brother tonight, that you came to Mass alone?" Saint-Germain asked as they managed to establish a walking pattern together.
"Oh, he and Nyland went off to the Four Frigates, along with a dozen other men. They say the tavern will be enlarged next summer, and given direct access to the docks. For tonight, it will be crowded and the men will roister. I doubt I'll see him before sunrise, given how late sunrise comes." She cracked an angry laugh. "Those two spend hours and hours together. Nyland has come to the Polish house often and often. Not that there's anything much to do here. They go to the taverns, and other houses. I know they play cards, and drink, but I don't know what else they do." Then with an engaging look she changed her tone. "I have missed seeing you of late. I apologize for Benedykt's rudeness, but he believes that he must have final say in all I do. He has heard gossip about us from the servants, and he is afraid you will yet compromise me."
"That would be impossible," said Saint-Germain.
"I've told him so, but he is always thinking the worst of me. He claims that he is sure we have done the act, though I have denied it on the cross." She steadied herself through an uneven patch of ice and snow. "How little it takes to lose his good opinion."
"Probably not very much," said Saint-Germain. "Especially now, with everyone remaining indoors for days on end."
"He has nothing to do but play cards, drink, and brood, since there are few wives and no whores to be had. At home he might have amused himself with a chambermaid or a goose-girl, but here? The servants cannot be compelled to grant their favors; the Czar has said so. What else is there to do? He isn't a man to read."
"Then I suppose you have the sum of it," said Saint-Germain. "Unless he has the Czar's aptitude for working wood."
"Oh, spare me," exclaimed Zozia. "A lathe in the house would be all we'd need. Noise and shavings all day long."
"Well, the days will be lengthening soon, and the people will move about more," Saint-Germain reminded her as he guided her around a suspicious hillock in the snow. "The ice will start to thin at the end of March and will break up in April."
"Not nearly long enough days, and not nearly soon enough thaw." She would not permit him to cheer her. "I will be glad when the two years are up and I may return to Poland. I miss real fields, and the look of hills and mountains. This place is so flat! And it smells. Say what you will, it is no place for a city. If Piotyr wants a Baltic port, let him build up Kronstadt, or take Vyborg and shape it to his will. This place is unbearable."
"Everything you say is true," said Saint-Germain, "but it is Piotyr's decision, not yours or mine. This is his own, personal dream, and he will have it, the cost in treasure and lives unreckoned and insignificant compared to Piotyr's vision."
"You know they're going to tear down a dozen houses in the spring and rebuild them elsewhere, because the Czar has modified his design for the place." She slipped and sagged against him. As she righted herself, she panted as much from her aggravation as from the shock of a twisted ankle. "Oh, the Devil take it!"
"What is it?" Saint-Germain asked, steadying her.
"My ankle. It's not going to hold me up. It may start to swell if I try to walk on it." She gave a ferocious smile. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to carry me home? Or at the least, let me lean on your arm."
"Whichever you like," said Saint-Germain, and prepared to scoop her up into his arms. "I am yours to command."
She backed up a step, teetering on her left leg. "The snow is deep, and I'm no featherweight, nor is my cloak; I doubt you can carry me so far." She smoothed the ermine, her smile wide and filled with invitation and challenge. "It is some distance to the Polish house."
"No matter. I've carried more much farther." He closed the distance between them, curious now as to why she was paying such determined attention to him, and what the ploy was intended to accomplish. "Put your arm on my shoulder, Ksiezna."
"If we both fall down, what then?" She glared at him.
"Until that happens, at least you will be getting closer to the Polish house." He waited a bit, and then said, "If you remain standing here, you will risk frostbite, and I cannot believe you would want that."
Her eyes narrowed. "All right. We can try it." She laid her arm on his shoulder. "There."
With little effort, he swung her off her feet, and with one arm under her shoulders and the other under her knees, he began to wade through the snow.
"You're very strong," she whispered, her eyes shining speculatively. "I didn't know. You have good shoulders and a deep chest, but this is remarkable."
"Those of my blood have some strength." He continued on, taking care to make it obvious that he was making an effort far beyond what he was-not unlike her protestation of a damaged ankle, he thought. He could hear the merry-making in the Guards' barrack, and he thought the streets would not be as safe as they had been given to expect. After about ten minutes, he said, "I am going to stop and put you down for a little while, so I can catch my breath." It was not true, but he knew it was what Zozia expected of him.
She laughed in approval. "I like this way of going home."
He let her down, and took advantage of the moment to brush away the snow on his hood and his arms and shoulders. "If you will come a bit nearer?" He got the snow off her hat and the folds of her cloak. "The drifts will be higher than my waist by morning."
"They'll have work-gangs out with shovels and barrows in the morning, Christmas or not," said Zozia. "They can't let the roads become impassable."
"That would immobilize the city until spring, and no one is prepared for that," Saint-Germain agreed. He took her hand and slipped it onto his shoulder. "Are you ready?"
"Oh, yes, please," she said, making the simple request provocative.
As he took her up into his arms again, she managed to give a quick kiss to his cheek, and she rested her head under his chin as they went on to the Polish house.
Antek admitted them disapprovingly to the vestibule. "Joyous Christmas," he intoned as if announcing a death in the family.
Saint-Germain set Zozia down once more, and told the dour servant, "And to you."
Zozia gave a mischievous wink to Saint-Germain, and said to Antek as she slipped out of her ermine wrapper, "My husband and I are going to my room for a while. He won't stay the night, of course-he must return to the care-house-but it is time we had a little privacy together. It's been far too long." She reached up and tossed back Saint-Germain's hood. "Take off your cloak. Antek will hang it on the peg over there, and you and I can adjourn to my room. You know the way."
Antek took Saint-Germain's cloak and his hat, hung them up, and ducked his head. "Do you require anything more of me, Ksiezna?"
"Nothing just at present," she said lightly. "I would like to think that I can rely upon you to do all that is necessary while the Hercegek and I retire." She was almost skipping as she urged Saint-Germain to follow her to the room.
He allowed himself to be drawn after her, although he was apprehensive about her state of mind, which seemed more volatile than usual: he was, he reminded himself, far from home at the most difficult time of year. As she enticed him into her part of the bedroom, the first thing he noticed was that there were now draperies over the window and a second armoire for her clothes. "You've made it very nice here."
"I wish we could have more mirrors, for brightness," she said, taking off her Ottoman shawl and tossing it on the end of her bed. "But the Russians don't approve, thinking them dangerous and filled with temptation and vanity, so we close or cover them except when we're dressing, and the Russians are satisfied." She went and patted the stack of pillows at the head of her bed. "Three of these are new, as well."
"Very nice," said Saint-Germain.
"I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to help me to undress, Hercegek," said Zozia, still playfully tantalizing. "Salomea is at Catholic Mass, and she won't return until later, since the Hessians are holding a supper for those who attend the Mass. I can't manage all the lacings and such, and I must rely on you."
"How do your Russian servants feel about that-your Polish servants attending Catholic services?" Saint-Germain inquired, although he supposed they were generally displeased. "Heer van Hoek will attend Protestant services in the morning, to give thanks for his returning health, and the assistants and nurses at the care-house are not well-disposed toward him for doing it. They fear it will cause God to punish them for allowing him to attend Protestant worship."
"Russian servants think God will punish them for everything." Zozia went on as if the notion had just occurred to her. "I didn't see Madame Svarinskaya at the Cathedral."
"She may not have attended; she's been looking after a boy with a shattered hand, which he is probably going to lose." His face was grave and he considered Zozia with steady, enigmatic eyes.
"I don't know how she stands it," said Zozia. "Or how any of you stand it, for that matter. So many men injured, sick, and dying. What a terrible way to spend one's days." She turned her back to him. "If you'll unfasten my laces? And my necklace?"
"Which would you prefer first?"
"The necklace. The pearls tend to get caught in the lace if I don't remove it first." She offered a winsome smile, then frowned a little. "Be careful with the clasp-it's not very secure."
"I remember," said Saint-Germain, working the temperamental clasp with expert fingers. "There." He took the pearl necklace and handed it to her. "A very handsome piece."
"Yes, so I think, too." She weighed the necklace in her hand before setting it in a small box on her dressing-table. "I've worn it too often, I think. This next year I must have some new jewelry or I will look paltry."
"An impossibility, Ksiezna," said Saint-Germain.
"Gallant as ever." Zozia stretched artistically, making sure Saint-Germain saw the curve of her breasts and the creaminess of her skin. "Now the lacing, if you would?"
Saint-Germain obliged her, taking care not to damage the heavy satin of her dress as he did. He then loosened the skirt and helped her to get out of the dress. "It is a beautiful dress; the wheat-color becomes you."
"Salomea and Feodosia only finished it two weeks ago. They are working on another for Epiphany; something in red, so the Russians will approve, although the Poles are going to disapprove its luxury. My seamstresses keep telling me the low light bothers their eyes and they have trouble setting stitches." She made a little sigh of exasperation. "That's servants for you, Russian, Polish, or any other."
"The light is low at this time of year," Saint-Germain said, "and sewing is exacting."
"You don't want me to look like a merchant's wife, do you?" she asked, a martial light in her eyes.
"No, Ksiezna, I do not," he assured her. "But I do not think it quite reasonable to expect your seamstress and maid to blind themselves on your behalf. I should think you would not want that, either."
"You've taken servants' sides before," said Zozia, as if calling another of his failings to mind. "You see them differently than I do."
"Very likely," he agreed. "Do you want me to unfasten your petticoats?"
"Oh, I can manage, thank you," she said. "I want you to help me unfasten my corset, and then I want you to remind me of what I have missed." She ran the tip of her tongue along her lips, watching him through her eyelashes as she did. "I have to clean my face, too."
As she unhooked her petticoats and stepped out of them, he went to turn back the coverlet spread over her bed. "How many quilts do you use?"
"Four. The nights are horridly cold." She removed the bolster-farthingale and set it on top of her petticoats on the dressing-stand.
"I hope you have not been too uncomfortable," he said, determined not to be drawn into an argument with Zozia.
She sniffed in disapproval. "Who hasn't been uncomfortable in this miserable place? I'm ready to have you unfasten my corset now." Again she turned her back and waited for him to untie the looped knot that held the corset. "You and I can still turn this night to advantage," she said as he set to work.
He could sense the calculation in her smile and the artifice in her seductiveness; much as he was unnerved by the comparison, he felt himself longing for Ludmilla, and that realization made him careful. He undid the lacing on her stays and took a step back. "Your servants are sure to talk, Ksiezna, whatever we do or do not do."
"Good. Good. Let them clatter like crows." She pulled off her corset and sat down on the small, low-backed stool in front of her dressing table. "I've been thinking," she began as she reached for his hands and carried them to her breasts. "I'm almost certain Arpad is not coming back. No one has found him, despite good efforts. There hasn't been a whisper of him anywhere. And no demand for ransom has come."
"A discouraging sign," Saint-Germain agreed, disengaging his hands. "But you may learn something more in spring, when the ships bring mail again."
Ignoring his last remark, she continued, "I have to assume that if he is still alive, he isn't going to return, or the man I have hired to locate him would have found some trace of him." She reached out to him once more. "Yet I have been thinking: here you have been accepted as Arpad. Only you and my brother and a few others know who you are-or rather, who you are not-and why you are here." She caught her lower lip in her teeth in a calculatedly seductive smile. "So long as I remain childless and my husband is missing, I will be my brother's pawn. But if I had a son, who is to deny that he is Arpad's child?"
Saint-Germain took a step back. "Ksiezna, you have not considered what you-"
"Oh, but I have," she said with strong intent in her eyes. "I have had little else to consider for the last two months, and I have hit upon a solution. If I remain childless, and Arpad is not found, then I am at best a pawn for my brother to use to his own ends." Her eyes were lambent with anger. "But if I could have an heir, a son, then I am free of Benedykt. I intend to have that heir, Grofok. You can do so much more for me than you have done."
"Ksiezna, you know my position: I took an oath to Augustus that I would do nothing to compromise you, and I renew that oath to you now," Saint-Germain told her. "I would not have been allowed to make this journey had I not so vowed. You have no reason to doubt me; I have nothing to gain by exposing our imposture, and a great deal to lose."
"All very noble," she said, clearly displeased at his response. "You also vowed to obey me, as I recall."
"Not where your brother is concerned, or the honor of your office," he reminded her.
"It's all nonsense." She rose from her low-backed stool. "You are here to serve me. You will do as I tell you."
"I am here to serve Augustus and the Polish Crown; this has been complicated by the rise of Stanislas in Augustus' place, but my responsibilities are clear, and I will do all that I can to see you remain uncompromised in your work and your position." He could read the ire in her face, and strove to recall her to their shared duty. "You and I are sworn to this endeavor, and if I fail to do what is expected of me, I stand to lose more than my good name."
"Whatever that name may be," she said. "You at least have anonymity to protect you. I have my name and my position to consider."
"Precisely," he said at once. "You risk your name and your position by planning such a desperate solution."
"Only if it is recognized as such. Who is to say that having been here with my husband that I have not borne my husband's child?" She reached out and snagged the skirt of his coat. "Grofok, you are a sensible man. Anyone can see that. And you can see what's to be gained by our cooperating on this plan."
"Ksiezna, I am in no position to accommodate you, and well you know it. It would bring disgrace upon you and upon me." He kept the sting out of his words, but there was something in his dark eyes that engaged her attention. "If you have a child here, and in a year or two, Arpad returns, what then, or is proven to have died well before he could have fathered that child? You would be more completely at the mercy of your brother than you are now, and your husband would have to disown you." He tugged his coat free of her grasp. "Whether Stanislas or Augustus is on the throne of Poland, neither would tolerate such an embarrassment in his embassy as you could provide. Think, Zozia. You risk your safety and the safety of any child you might have."
"Arpad is gone! No one is going to find him, not now!" Zozia insisted, her face darkening in anger. "He has been gone so long, and no word has reached me or anyone else of his whereabouts. Why should I continue to wait?"
"Any letter may have to come a long way, and in winter, it may be many months before it can make its way here." He looked at her, trying to offer her kindness as well as his thoughts. "You are in a very difficult position, and it would be beyond unwise to do anything that could endanger the work you do here."
She reached for her powder-pot and hurled it at him, the powder leaving fronds and curls across her room before spattering him thoroughly and dropping onto the carpet. "How can you speak to me in that way? To me?"
"You and I have oaths to uphold, Ksiezna," he said gently. "If we compromise them, we do more harm than we know."
Her laughter was angry and harsh. "You look at me, and you can say that? You, who've come to my bed to pleasure me. You deny me this, when it is the only thing I truly want? What are you then, a eunuch?"
"I wish only to be of help, Ksiezna, to Poland and to you; you know your brother would not countenance any child you might have through me," he said, refusing to be goaded into an open argument, or to having to defend his true nature.
"Well, you're not helpful, not at all," she informed him grandly. "And since you are not, you may leave me. I will send you word when your return will be welcome." She reached for her wrapper and drew it around her. "If you change your mind, send me word. Otherwise, our communication is at an end."
"Ksiezna," he said, making a leg in the French manner, then leaving her, paying little attention to the disapproving smirk Antek offered as he shrugged Saint-Germain into his cloak, offered him his hat, and sent him out into the steadily falling snow.
Text of a letter from Evdoxia Sergeievna Urusova in Sankt Piterburkh to her brother, Nikita Sergeivich Urusov in Moscow, carried by private courier and delivered six weeks after it was written.
To the excellent Boyar Nikita Sergeivich Urusov presently in Moscow, the greetings of his sister in Sankt Piterburkh on this, the day following Christmas in the European year of 1704.
My joy, my brother Nikita,
You would be appalled to see how Christmas has been celebrated thus far in this city. I cannot begin to tell you what has taken place without shuddering. The Foreign Quarter has had services of its own, not just for the Roman Church, but for the so-called Protestants who are among the Europeans, and the confusion is truly astonishing. I wish I could impart to you the full degree of confusion that has been brought about by the Czar's insistence that the Europeans be allowed to observe the Nativity in the manners they see fit. No wonder God has visited a blizzard upon us. I am astonished that He has not done more to chastise us for indulging all manner of irreligious practices. Our cousins were as distressed as I have been to see how lax the clergy is here, permitting services for Christmas not in the Orthodox traditions. Our cousin Nikolai has told me that I would be wise not to complain, for fear of offending the Czar, so I have said little, but I am not going to constrain myself with you. I can hold my tongue no longer, and since our father made sure I could read and write, I will express my misgivings to you.
We have been caught in deepening snows so that the streets are becoming impassable, and now the wind is rising, which will not only bring higher drifts to the streets, it will keep everyone indoors for days. Those who venture out risk dying of cold. Ships in the harbor are cracked and broken by the ice. The roads beyond the Island of Hares vanish into banks of snow. I will hand this to our courier when I am finished, but he may not be able to leave until the weather clears and some effort has been made to allow horses and sleighs to move without fear of being trapped in drifts as high as houses. There has already been warnings that the work-gangs that have been cutting trees some distance away may be stranded, and as they have little food, so we will have little wood until this series of storms passes. I hope none of us starve or freeze during that time.
It has been a quiet day so far, and not because of the weather, but because no one is willing to venture out. A dinner that was to be held at the Hessian Residence has been postponed since there is no certainty that most of the guests could get there safely, or once arrived, could return to their various houses afterward without risking being caught in the snow. The Poles have opened their house to the Czar's officers seeking to play cards or drink, but few have accepted the invitation. Already we have had reports that two work-gangs assigned to shore up the embankments have lost men to cold, and we must expect more will die in the same way before the thaw comes. I hope the Czar has arranged to have replacement work-gangs sent as soon as it is possible to bring them here.
Alexander Menshikov, the Czar's close friend for whom our cousin is a scribe and keeper of records, remains here, carrying out the Czar's orders and overseeing the city in his stead. Marfa Skavronskaya, the Czar's preferred companion, has pledged to offer a banquet for Sankt Piterburkh's foreigners for the Feast of the Epiphany, if the weather clears enough, which many of us believe is yet another sign of the Czar's catering to the West. The Europeans are granted so many more privileges than we Russians that I begin to fear that there will be clashes between them and us in the coming year. Why should Piotyr insist that we dress as the Europeans do, keep the calendar, and tolerate their religious errors? It is bad enough that we Russians must remain here as long as the Czar wishes, but that no such constraints are imposed upon the Europeans only creates rancor and resentment among us.
Doubtless it will be spring by the time you receive this, and much of what I have said will have changed here. That is to be expected in this place, for the Czar demands it, and no one can gainsay him. He continues to require work to go on no matter what the conditions, so work-gangs are laboring on the interiors of buildings they framed in late summer, so that by the time the ice melts, the buildings will be ready to occupy and more can be built. We have been told that another five hundred buildings are to be completed and occupied by the end of next summer. The Foreign Quarter is to be doubled in size during the summer.
To that end, I ask you, of your kindness, to send me a pair of tutors. Most of the Russian children here are supposed to be taught to read, write, do figures, know geography, and whatever other topics the Czar decrees must be studied. If I can join with the tutors to start a school, there will be benefits for you as well as for me and our cousins. The Czar's woman, Marfa, is encouraging all families to have good teachers for their children in Piotyr's name. If we can establish the first school, our fortune here will be made.
Let me advise you to stay away for at least another year, not that I would want to postpone the joy of seeing you, but there is so much of this city that is unfinished, I cannot help but think that in spite of the vast amount of building going on, it is not yet in a state where a visit would be more than a trial. For all the building and grand plans, this place is hardly more than an army camp, and one that is unpleasant to live in, given its marshy setting and the harshness of the climate. By the spring after next, there will be amenities here that will make it a livable place, but for now it is unpleasant, demanding, and plagued by weather, bad water, and shortages. It is the sort of place that most sensible persons would avoid; you would find it inconvenient in many, many ways. If all goes as the Czar plans, by the spring after next, there should be a lessening of these problems, and fewer difficulties in living here. If it is the Czar's desire to continue to build this city, we must do all we can to bring that about for him.
Do not worry for me: I have become very comfortable with our cousins; their three older children are proving to be apt pupils, for just now there is little to do but study and play chess. There are few children in Sankt Piterburkh to offer them companionship or the opportunity for amusement, and so lessons have become a substitute for their entertainment. Spring will most certainly change this, but for now, I have their undivided attention.
Until I see you again, may Heaven bless you, and your wife and children, may you have good fortune and good crops, and may no misfortune befall you, my treasured brother.
With devotion and love,
Evdoxia Sergeievna Urusova