Jem Russell paced his study in Die Rosen, his face grave. His wife, Madge, sat in an armchair, watching him. “I’ll be honest, Ted,” he said eventually, to the man standing by the door, “this is quite something to take in.”
“I know,” said Ted. “Believe me, I know! But someone else must know beside me, and the Robin is still too young.”
“Absolutely,” said Madge definitely. “You mustn’t think of it, Ted! For her to know what her mother went through… oh, it doesn’t bear thinking about.” She gave a little sob, and Jem squeezed her shoulder.
“I mean to tell her one day,” Ted warned her. “But you’re right, she’s too young now. But… well, I don’t expect anything to ever come of it – we never wanted that for her, Marya and I – but I’d like her to know about her mother one day, and I’ve hated the thought of something happening to me before I can tell her. I was hoping…” He broke off, looking away, clearly uncomfortably. “Well, you’ve been damned good to me and the Robin, and I know I can trust you if… well.”
Madge and Jem shared a glance, then Jem crossed the room, holding out his hand. “Of course you can trust us, old man. Not that anything’s likely to happen to you before you can tell her yourself.”
“Sit down, Ted,” invited Madge. “Tell us the whole story, and if need be, we can tell the Robin.”
The nun sitting in the quaint stone room of Toronto’s La Sagesse convent was small and frail, with a face reminiscent of a faded, crumpled rose-petal, long-forgotten in an old book. She was over ninety, this nun, and Vassily hoped he could be kind to her, but he had a grave even older than she which had yet to be filled, and filling that grave was his job for today.
“My name is Vassily Mikhailovich Ivanov,” he said, sitting down beside the nun and laying his overcoat on the seat beside him. “I have come from Russia to see you, Sister Cécile. Thank you for meeting with me.” He showed her his identification. Sister Cécile said nothing, but he saw that her still-bright eyes missed nothing. “I doubt my visit is shocking to you. You will naturally be wondering how we found you after all this time,” he continued conversationally, leaning back and crossing his legs. “It was merest coincidence, I assure you. You are aware that the Soviet Socialist Republic annexed the country of Belsornia after the war. We acquired many of their state papers, and these were added to our archives.” He spread his hands apologetically. “But archives are very full; there is much information. It takes a long time – sometimes never – before someone has a look at a particular paper. Among Belsornian papers are state reports of a ceremony, attended by the princess and her English school friends. This is also attended by many European nobility.”
The nun finally spoke. “I remember,” she said. “It was a beautiful day.”
He nodded. “Miss Cecilia Marya Humphries. You were with your guardian, Miss Bettany. She cared for you while your father was away. In Russia, I believe.” He smiled a little at her resumption of silence. “We really have traced you most carefully, Sister Cécile. You will find that we know everything. But no, I was telling you of this ceremony, which you attended. A newspaper report was written by an impoverished Russian noble, scribbling away at romantic gossip columns. She says she saw the princess Elisaveta and her friends and how astonished she was at the resemblance between one little girl and another little girl she had known many years ago in her homeland.”
He leant forward, hands meeting in an imitation of prayer. “Our archive worker is most curious at this statement, you understand. Also among the Belsornian papers are many photographs of this day, and he sees you, Miss Cecilia Marya Humphries. He too sees a resemblance that is very marked.”
There was no reaction. He cocked his head. “You are not interested in who it is you so closely resemble, sister?”
Sister Cécile grasped her cane, and pulled herself to her feet. “I cannot imagine what you are here for, young man,” she said acerbically. “I am old woman. I have no interest in your stories. You will excuse me now.”
His hand shot out and caught her wrist, narrow and delicate, the pulse palpable beneath thin skin. “Sit, sister. I wish to have this discussion with you, but if that is not possible, you have a cousin, I believe.”
Sister Cécile stared at him, defiance in her eyes, but she sat, as he knew she would. “My cousin is a connection of my father’s,” she said deliberately, and a smile slowly spread across Vassily’s face.
“There!” he said, delighted. “We progress! For you see, you know it is your mother whose family concerns us.”
“My mother is long dead,” Sister Cécile said. “She died when I was a baby.”
Vassily wagged an admonitory finger, the gesture at odds with his bland appearance. “Only the truth, sister! You were five years old – nearly six – when your mother died. It was Munich, yes? 1925. She died from tuberculosis. You were no longer a baby.”
“I remember almost nothing,” maintained Sister Cécile. “It was a very long time ago, and I was very small. But I cannot imagine why your government should be interested in a young Polish girl who died so many years ago.”
Vassily laughed out loud, and slapped his thigh. “Is very amusing,” he said, “very amusing, sister. You see, once we have Polish girl pretending to be Russian, and here we have Russian girl pretending to be Polish.”
“I have no idea what…”
“Her name was Marya Nowak, yes? The new Maria. We find marriage certificate in Cologne. They signed their names, Marya Nowak and Edward Humphries. How did your Polish girl come to Germany?”
Sister Cécile gave a little shrug. “I do not know. It was after the war. Many people moved around. It was a difficult time.” She looked him straight in the eye, and Vassily could tell suddenly that she knew quite enough, and that what he and his superiors deduced was entirely correct. “My mother suffered very greatly during the war, you see.”
He nodded. “Yes, I believe she did. Regrettable, always regrettable. But war, you know, does that. Although,” a thought seemed to strike him, “I do not think it was quite the fault of the war, do you?”
Sister Cécile once again retreated into silence, and he smiled. “You are very discreet, sister. This is admirable. Your father, too. He knew everything, of course? That is why he would not take you into Russia with him in 1926. A sensible man. As we have seen, the resemblance is very marked, though, I think, the colouring is a little different, yes? And there was all that fuss of the pretenders. Everyone was wondering.” There was no reply, and he sighed. “Sister, I do not think you understand. I told you, we have traced you very carefully. We have spoken – quietly, of course – to many people who remember you from your schooldays and before you entered the convent. We know that you are said to resemble your mother very closely. We know that you lived at school when you were young, even after your father returned from Russia. They were very careful of you, I believe? They didn’t let you rush around and play like the other children. You had illness also when you were an adult. And something else we find interesting. Your guardians did not wish you to have children. We presume they also knew the truth.”
“I had poor health when I was younger. They were afraid that tuberculosis might…”
“Do not annoy me, sister. I know all this nonsense about inheriting from your mother. Tuberculosis is not genetic, and you were not at any great risk of developing it from an earlier infection. I do not believe this is why they treated you thus.”
“Believe what you will,” Sister Cécile said sharply. “It makes no difference to me.”
There was a pause in the conversation. Vassily rose and poked around the small room. There was very little to see.
“You grew up a Catholic, sister? That was a little surprising.”
“I see no reason. My mother was a devout Catholic, as many Polish are.”
“She was certainly devout. Her family, too, yes?”
“I wouldn’t know. She didn’t speak of them. But I know she believed in God’s Will. That everything that happened was for a reason.”
“Even what she suffered?”
”Everything, Vassily Mikhailovich. Everything is God’s Will. Even our conversation today.” Sister Cécile’s voice was stronger now, and there was humour in it.
“Then I would expect you to be a little more forthcoming.”
“God has said nothing to me about that.”
Vassily allowed a smile. “And if it is God’s will that you should die today? What then, sister?”
“God has not mentioned that, either.”
His irritation grew. “And does God speak to you, sister? Do you believe you are one of his divine chosen? Has he so anointed you?”
“You speak in riddles.”
“I speak plainly, sister, and you understand me plainly. Who else knows your identity?” She said nothing, and he slammed his hand on the table. “Who?”
“Your violence is unnecessary. There is no-one alive I know of who knows anything about my mother, if that is what you mean. Soeur Marie-Cécile, Robin Humphries – there are many who know her.”
Vassily nodded, relaxing slightly. “That is good. I do not think it would be wise for people to know. As I said, you have been discreet.” He stood to leave, then checked himself. “One last thing, sister. Your belongings, when you entered the convent – where did they go?”
“There was nothing in my possessions that had anything to do with my life or my parents’ before we left Germany. I – my parents – have been discreet. There is nothing to my life but God’s work here. You need fear nothing from me, Vassily Mikhailovich.”
He nodded in agreement, and left. Soeur Marie-Cécile – Robin - watched him go, and sat lost in thought as the shadows lengthened, remembering her mother’s warm smile and the soft dark hair that brushed the little Robin’s face as her mother sang her favourite Russian lullaby, while her father sat beside them, kissing her mother and whispering my darling Marya, to her. Marya had found the husband and child she had always longed for, and, however great her suffering, Robin knew she had been happy in God’s plan for her. When the darkness fell, that was all that was needed.
Far away from La Sagesse, in a house in Surrey, a middle-aged woman called Anna turned out yet another cardboard box, and sighed as a collection of faded papers and memorabilia fell to the table.
“Letters, it looks like,” she reported briefly, flipping through the papers. “Look, Aunt Sybs, one from you!” She held it out, and her elderly aunt leant forwards from her armchair to have a look at it.
“It’s to Uncle Dick – you remember Uncle Dick, don’t you, darling? This must have been when he was still in India.”
“The rest are to him, too.” Anna picked up an ivory elephant. “Looks like the whole box is his stuff, actually. How did Dad end up with all this?”
Sybil shrugged. “I couldn’t tell you, dear. I suppose Mother had it for some reason. Is there anything we should keep in the letters?”
Anna shook her head. “I don’t think so. Mostly just chat from Grandma and Auntie Jo, if you want to have a look. Some from a –” she peered at a scrawled name – “Ted Humphries.”
“Uncle Ted! Gosh, that’s a name I haven’t heard in a while! He was Dad’s secretary in Austria – Robin’s father. Oh, you know Robin! Auntie Jo’s adopted sister, as she called her – the nun.”
Anna’s face cleared. “Oh, her! I remember. Anyway, there’s a few from him.” She skimmed a few. “More chat. Oh, in this one he asks Uncle Dick to look after some stuff for him while he goes to Russia. Enclosure, it says.”
“Does he say what? It wouldn’t be any good to Robin, of course –”
“She’s still alive!”
“Oh yes! She can’t have any possessions, of course, but I think she’s got a cousin. If we have some family things, it would be nice for her.”
Anna read the letter properly. “No, doesn’t say.” She poked at the contents of the box. “I suppose it might be in with this tat. Who needs seven ivory elephants?”
“Keep them for the children,” Sybil suggested. “What’s in the little box?”
Anna duly investigated. “Necklace and newspaper clippings,” she announced. “Look – not sure I’d want that hanging round my neck!”
Sybil took it off her. “Ugh, yes! It’s an icon, I think. He looks a bit unpleasant, don’t you think? I wonder where Uncle Dick got it from.” She handed it back. “What are the clippings?”
“Just pictures of royals. Did Peggy collect them? Some coloured glass, too, and a lock of hair. Honestly, Sybs, people do keep the weirdest stuff! Do you think there’s any point to hanging on to this?”
“Good Housekeeping keeps encouraging me to de-clutter,” advised Sybil. “I’d chuck the lot, to be honest. I can’t imagine David ever looked at it.”
”Roger wilko,” said Anna, and she did exactly that.
tl;dr - extensive notes at the end of the story
END NOTES (serious case of tl;dr here – I got a bit carried away! I clearly thought about this far, far too much, and got a little over-invested in my AU world!)
In 1917, there was a revolution in Russia, and the Tsar, whose Romanov ancestors had ruled Russia for over 300 years, abdicated. His family was subsequently kept under house arrest. In July 1918, he, his wife Alexandra, their five children, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei, and four servants, were shot in the cellar of a house in Ekaterinburg. Their bodies were mutilated and ultimately buried in an unknown location. A grave was discovered in 1991, which contained almost all the bodies – all except for the Tsar’s son, Alexei, and one of the grand duchesses (the American forensic specialists decided that Anastasia was missing; the Russian specialists decided that it was Maria; some girls on the internet decided that it was Tatiana), which merely fuelled ongoing speculation that some of the children had survived the execution.
This speculation had been going on for years, starting with disinformation by the Bolsheviks, who didn’t want to admit that they’d executed the family. It was suggested there were opportunities on the night of the execution for someone to be rescued: the executions were not done very professionally, and the grand duchesses took a lot of time and effort to kill. There was a lot of smoke and confusion, and according to contemporary accounts, people thought dead would sit up or moan (this is put down to the jewels sewn into the grand duchesses’ corsets, which probably deflected bullets and bayonets and prolonged events). The bodies were left for a while. If Maria had been rescued, she would have been injured – probably severely – and would also have been carrying a small fortune in jewels in her undies, which would have funded an escape from Russia. While Yurovsky, the man in charge of the execution, claimed that he had burned and buried two of the bodies separately, this has been interpreted as an unwillingness to admit to Bolshevik authorities that he was short a couple of people.
However, a second grave was found nearby in 2007 and the burnt bones of the two remaining children were identified, proving that the entire imperial family had been killed and buried as Yurovsky described.
But this is the fictional world of the Chalet School! In this world, that second grave was never there to be found, and the premise of this story is built on the idea that Maria somehow survived and made her way across Europe, till she met Ted Humphries in Cologne and fell in love. (We’ll ignore the fate of Alexei – general consensus prior to the second grave being found was that even if he survived the initial execution, his haemophilia would have meant he wouldn’t survive it by long.)
- It is remarked that Robin resembles her mother (I ignored her apparent resemblance to Adrienne as coincidence, since this relationship is on the Humphries side and EBD clearly had no understanding of genetics!).
- Belsornia is annexed by the Soviet Union, and it is reasonable to suppose that many of their state papers ended up in Moscow – even stray gossip columns!
- Maria Nikolaevna was noted to bleed excessively, and IIRC at least one of the daughters’ DNA profiles showed that she was a carrier of haemophilia (which is statistically very likely). Robin might also have been a carrier, which would be one more reason for Jem et al to restrict her youthful activities (carriers could also display mild symptoms of haemophilia) and to suggest that she didn’t have any children.
- TB is not genetically inherited, but it is entirely feasible that Robin was infected by her mother. The risk of latent tuberculosis becoming active is (according to Wikipedia!) 5% in the first year of infection, and 0.1% each year subsequently, and this is chiefly a risk where there is an element of immunosuppression. Refugees travelling in eastern Europe after the First World War, especially who had received brutal treatment which might have compromised their health, would probably have been very good candidates for picking up TB in the first place.
- The entire imperial family was Russian Orthodox in faith, and from the grand duchesses and their parents’ letters and diaries it is very clear how devout they were. They relied heavily on their faith to comfort them during their time of captivity. Maria could have turned to Catholicism – as lip service, if nothing else – as the next best thing if she wasn’t able to find an Orthodox church, or was afraid she might somehow be recognised.
- I liked the idea of there still being some evidence left, but no-one recognising what it was. When Ted Humphries takes Robin to Austria to find the English school he hopes will look after her while he’s in Russia, he doesn’t know that it’s being run by an old friend. If he had mementoes belonging to his wife (that might suggest her identity, if not prove it), he might have been afraid of taking them back into Russia with him; equally, it would have been silly to leave them with his six-year old daughter. Although his contact mostly seems to be with Jem and Madge in Austria, the text suggests that he had a stronger relationship with Dick Bettany. Despite being a friend of their parents’, he stayed with the Bettanys in Cornwall, and it is to Dick that Jo turns in Adrienne to find details of a family connection between Adrienne and Robin. She obviously supposes that Dick would know, which is quite right, because Ted wrote to him with slightly random details of his family history. In the absence of anyone else, Ted might send such items to Dick, safely tucked away in India. (Those are, of course, the items in the box – the grand duchesses all wore icons of Rasputin, apparently even on the night they were killed – and what would be more natural for Maria to collect than photographs of her family reproduced in papers. Maybe they would have kept a few jewels to secure Robin’s future.)
- Although I usually prefer to date everything in the Chalet School from the Anschluss/war references in Exile, for the purposes of this story, I have dated Robin’s age etc from her appearance in Jo of, therefore she was six years old in 1926. This would be just about the right time frame for Maria to recover and escape Russia, travel across eastern/central Europe, meet and marry Ted, and get pregnant. Maria was born in 1899.
- The reference to the Polish girl pretending to be Russian is to “Anna Anderson,” the most notorious Romanov wannabe. She claimed right up till her death in the 80s that she was Anastasia. However, DNA analysis has shown that she certainly was not Anastasia, and almost certainly was a Polish woman called Franziska Schanzkowska.
- The Red Sarafan was a Russian song composed in the C19th (not a folk song), which Maria might perfectly well have known. The title is a line from it.
- Of all the grand duchesses, Maria was the one who just wanted to get married and have lots of babies.
Maria as a young child