categories: Cocktail Hour / Our Best American Short Stories
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Here’s a story for our new category, “Our Best American Short Stories.” “Harbinger Hall” appeared in The Atlantic in December, 2004. Readers seemed evenly divided on the question of whether it represents a little boy’s fantasy or something real. I mean, real in a fictional sense, if that’s not too confusing. My answer is that I completely believe in the story we are told. By me. Or more accurately, by my narrator, who is not so much a version of me as he is an extension into adult consciousness of the protagonist, Bobby. And maybe then again an extension of Mr. D’Arcy. In an earlier post, I told the story of the Atlantic’s fact-checking of this story. And now, as we build our new feature, here’s the story itself.Harbinger Hall
Bobby Mullendore was sick of fifth grade, especially without his best friend, Jack B., plus it was spring. Painstakingly, key by key, jabbing hard with each of his index fingers, he typed a missive in the exact language of a certain carbon copy Jack had given him as a good-bye treasure just this past fall.
Dear Mrs. Applegate:
Due to a career emergency we are moving as of 15 April, 1963. Robert will attend his last class this Friday, April 12. He will start school in North Carolina a week hence. Please accept my apologies for this short notice. It could not be helped, and we regret it.
After twenty focused, difficult minutes, after typing the “Sincerely yours” one letter at a time, Bobby pulled the curled paper from the Royal Standard, flattened it carefully, and signed his mother’s name.
That afternoon, at two-fifteen, moving against the tide of the other kids leaving class, Bobby made his way to Mrs. Applegate’s desk. She was searching through a low drawer, sat up straight when he made a noise, looked surprised. And just started talking, as she could do: “Robert! Well. Your homework is better the last few weeks. Your hands are much cleaner too!”
Bobby made no response, merely presented the letter.
“Oh, my!” Mrs. Applegate said.
“Yip,” Bobby said.
The next day, Good Friday, Mrs. Applegate sprang a surprise, just as she had for Jack’s departure: “Bobby Mullendore,” she announced, “is moving.”
On Monday Bobby wore the same old clothes, but with the addition of one Sears Roebuck watch, a reviled Christmas present, strapped self-consciously to his wrist. Mom saw it and smiled inwardly but still visibly, knowing in her Mom way not to say anything. Bobby walked to the bus stop clutching his lunch, stood there a minute in case Mom should look down the road, and then leaped into the woods. Ancient Mr. Green stopped the old yellow beast, maybe even would have honked (he didn’t like to miss a kid), but a couple of Bobby’s former classmates yelled out, “Moved! Moved!”
Bobby could hear Mr. Green croak, “Bobby moved?”
“Moved!” the kids cried.
Mr. Green said a merry “Well, okay, then,” and the bus roared off. It wouldn’t stop here again.
Bobby crossed Wahackme Road, trotted to Dogwood Lane, ducked past Mrs. Smith’s, trotted past the private lane sign, remembered to breathe, trotted along the high stone wall in front of the Schraeders’ house and into the pine forest along the needle-soft path that would take him to the old stone stable where he and Jack B. had found wondrous things: cigarette butts, beer bottles, a big girl’s bra, a pair of tighty-whities with Brent Lovelace’s camp tag sewn in.
All this was on the D’Arcy estate, the centerpiece of which was a stone mansion five full minutes on foot from the stable through well-kept forest on a wide bridle path. “From another era,” as Bobby’s dad phrased it. Jack B. and Bobby had often slipped up to the house at dusk to look in the windows; they’d seen only a maid in uniform once and, another time, a small party—old people having dinner on the great stone patio. Jack B. had had the tuff idea of blowing squeals through long blades of grass, which they did. On the patio the old people went silent in the night, and then they rose. “Now, what’s that?” one said. Another said, “That’s some sort of crane,” and another, “Rare, I should think.” Pretty soon they’d left their desserts and come tottering across the lawn to investigate.
Bobby and Jack B. giggled their way back into the woods, blowing parting calls all the way down the bridle path and luring the old folks on. Then silent: the birds had flown. “Scared them off,” the first voice said. “Quite sure those are cranes,” the second said. Nine or ten old folks huddled in a little knot there in the woods, where any ogre might get them. “A harbinger, I should think,” the third voice said.
For months and months Bobby and Jack B. whispered those phrases under Mrs. Applegate’s nose: “Rare, I should think!” Har har har! “A harbinger, I should think!” Gales of laughter. The “I should think” became part of the comedy repertoire of the whole fifth grade: “Sloppy Joes for lunch, I should think!” The boys didn’t know what a harbinger was, and didn’t look it up, but Jack B. used the word to name the estate.
Bobby spent his first day of freedom in the abandoned stables of Harbinger Hall, inspecting every corner of the place, looking out every bubbled window, finding things to discuss in a possible letter to Jack B.: six old horseshoes, a 1903 penny, a pair of girl’s underpants with two curled red hairs more or less pasted inside (Lovelace’s girl, Jenny Oswest, had red hair), rotting tack, the skeleton of a cat. He ate his lunch at 12:15 exactly on a desklike shelf in the groom’s quarters, under no awful pressure to trade his Ring Dings for egg salad.
“Funniest thing,” his mom said at dinner (fish sticks and tartar sauce). “I saw Mrs. Crawford at the A&P, and she said she’d heard we’d moved!”
“Empty-headed woman,” Bobby’s dad said.
Bobby hadn’t thought till now that his plan had a possible flaw. But the train of conversation chugged quickly away from Mrs. Crawford to a “communication” problem at Dad’s company in New York, and then to a similar problem at Mom’s garden club. Bobby felt the safety of his plan settle in around him.
He stepped off the bridle path where he’d stepped off each day last week, and trotted into the forest on his recon trail until the mansion came in view. Now it was tree to tree, the Nazis in there holding Jack B., dark day, about to storm, and the microfilm in Bobby’s pocket in direst danger of getting wet in the rain and fizzing to deadly acid. He had to make the grand stone entryway, where he’d brazenly hidden his GI poncho on Friday’s mission, a note to Jack B. folded inside it. Was Jack dead? Had Jack been able to decipher the encrypted message? The line of azaleas was a machine-gun emplacement.
Bobby crawled on his belly along a stone-lined drainage ditch and then to the driveway portico and the entryway, breathing hard. His carbine, a polished stick, turned into a stolen Luger. This he tucked into his pants for the climb, chink to chink, up the stone wall of the entryway, twelve feet high. Bobby put his face in the void where the poncho should have been. He held on to the rock crevices, muscles quivering with the effort. No poncho.
He climbed back down, pulled the heavy Luger from his pants, and let it turn into a machine gun, to be held with two hands. Who could have taken his poncho? The game had turned forty-five degrees toward the real, and his fear turned with it. He flopped to his belly in the fine gravel of the drive and crawled the width of the great entryway, hidden only by the lip of the single marble step. At the next corner of the house he peered around, peered into a study, saw the back of an old man writing at a desk. Writing orders to send Jack B. to the firing squad! Bobby stood and aimed his machine gun.
Exactly then he heard two sudden steps in the gravel. One enormous hand grabbed his collar, another the belt of his pants, and someone lifted him off the ground. A heavy foreign accent, very like that of the Nazis on TV, said, “Vat does this mean?”
“I’m just a neighbor kid!”
“You are spyink!”
“I live over there!” Bobby tried to point.
The man pulled Bobby up the step by the collar and belt, across the marble, through a set of massive oaken doors, and then through a second set and into an expansive marble foyer. Bobby’s heart fluttered in his chest. He began to thrash, but the man just yanked him off his feet by his belt and let him kick in the air.
A maid—the very one he’d seen with Jack—appeared on the great marble stairway that rose straight ahead. She said, “Oh, is this the person who’s been … ?”
“The same,” Bobby’s captor said.
“I’ll get Hilyard.”
Soon a door opened, and a butler came into the great foyer, an unmistakable butler in actual tails, carrying the poncho in front of him. He said, “This is … yours?”
“It’s just my raincoat,” Bobby said.
The butler produced the note to Jack B. and read, “Attack-way 0900 hours-way, ill-kay all-way?” Then, translating, he read, “Free you through back wall—stand clear for dynamite?”
“It’s just a game.”
“Use acid on maid’s face?”
“I’m sorry,” Bobby Mullendore said. He would not cry.
“What do you think, Dort? Shall we bother Mr. D’Arcy?” Hilyard said the master’s name in three distinct syllables, like letters: D-R-C. He turned on his heel. The hand at Bobby’s neck squeezed harder, urging him to follow. Prisoner and guards walked about a mile down a corridor of heavy doors to an elaborately arched stone doorway. The butler gave the gentlest knock. After a long, silent wait the thick door opened.
“My,” Mr. D’Arcy said. He was the man Bobby had seen at his desk, the one Bobby had been about to machine-gun through the great windows. He was much older than Bobby’s grandfather, and frailer. He did not look harmless.
“A game, he says,” the butler said.
“And what game was this?” Mr. D’Arcy said.
“War?” Bobby said helpfully. “World War Two?”
“Do you call that a war?” Mr. D’Arcy said.
As the old man slowly smiled, Dort let go of Bobby’s neck and retreated silently down the hall. The butler lingered, but at a subtle nod from his master sighed and padded off.
“Your name?” Mr. D’Arcy said.
“Come in, then, Robert,” Mr. D’Arcy said. “I’ve been expecting you.” And the old man shuffled into the room, impatiently waving for Bobby to keep up, as if the boy were having a problem sustaining the old man’s tortoise pace. Bobby performed covert reconnaissance on the surroundings; the room was all dark wood. Books in dark bindings reached to the ceiling. The tall windows were filled with plants—some of them trees, really, growing in enormous earthen pots and pushing the dark, heavy curtains aside, starved for light. The floor was flagstone—blue and red and black. A dozen tall floor lamps lit the whole warmly. The fireplace, set with handsome birch logs, was as tall as Mrs. Applegate—she could put her whole desk in there and stand behind it, and her head wouldn’t even be up the chimney! The brightest spot in the room was Mr. D’Arcy’s desk, piled with books and papers and rubber stamps and a heavy old phone, all of it lit by two golden lamps. A tall accounting book lay open, a fountain pen uncapped upon it, work interrupted. Mr. D’Arcy straightaway recapped the pen and placed it in a golden holder. Bobby wasn’t at all scared, he told himself—something about all the books and lamps.
Mr. D’Arcy smelled of cologne and looked pleasantly stuffed—taxidermy in corduroy. He was carefully shaved and trimmed (none of Grandpa’s long ear hairs and nose hairs), his hair neatly cut and dyed black, shot with white strands, damply combed. His spotted hands had a little shake to them, as if they were conducting their own small orchestra. His face, when he finally looked at Bobby, was large and serious, full of spots and lines, yet something kindly was in it, something soulful and sad inside the hardness of the eyes.
“You want to play war?” Mr. D’Arcy said abruptly. He marched around his desk to the bookcases, reached for a book, and pulled at its spine. A section of the bookcase slowly swung out into the room—a secret door, straight from a monster movie.
“Tuff,” Bobby said.
“Tough?” Mr. D’Arcy said.
“Cool,” Bobby said.
“Ah,” Mr. D’Arcy said.
The room beyond was dark until Mr. D’Arcy found the switch on a table lamp. When he closed the bookshelf-door, the lamp was the only light. He said, “Our map room.” It had no windows, but a fresh breeze came from somewhere. Two walls were full of big cabinets with wide, shallow drawers. The other two walls offered complicated banks of roll-down maps. Mr. D’Arcy shuffled around the room, turning the switches on another dozen lamps and gradually lighting a stately table the size of two Ping-Pong tables pushed end to end. A colorful map, almost as long and wide as the table, was already rolled out and pressed flat at its four corners with iron pyramids.
What land did the old map show? Bobby bent over it with sharp eyes. It was like a painting—somewhat crinkled, hugely detailed, the lakes showing waves, the mountains green with white peaks, the cities with ornate buildings, the borders with other countries orange and forbidding. The very lettering was foreign. Bobby had studied and imitated ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs; he knew the word “cuneiform.” But he didn’t know this alphabet.
Mr. D’Arcy let him look awhile. “Now tell me, Robert, to begin the game: what country is represented here?”
Bobby leaned closer, following a great river with his finger. “I can’t read the names,” he said. The lines of latitude curved narrower and narrower to the top of the map, where they nearly closed, forming a circle, and the North Pole was clearly enough delineated.
Mr. D’Arcy said, “Of course you can’t read it. The alphabet is Cyrillic. That is your first clue.”
Make-believe? Was it a map of—Cyrillia? Bobby didn’t chance that answer. He kept up his close inspection, a creepy feeling tickling its way up his neck. He walked slowly around the table and away from the old man, examining the map all the while.
Mr. D’Arcy said, “All right, then. Another big clue: it is a country now part of the Soviet Union.”
“Russia!” Bobby said. Goosebumps rose on his arms.
“You are correct. Now. To make things easier, let us find a similar map marked in English.” Mr. D’Arcy shuffled to a bank of tall tubes and indicated the correct one with a knock. Bobby helped him lift it—it was very heavy—and helped him lug it to the table. There they pulled it out, unrolled it over the first map, and carefully weighted it flat with the pyramids.
“Russia!” Bobby said again. He recognized it now. Sputnik! Spies!
“Relics, these old campaign maps. I buy them at auction. What I paid for this would build two houses. But see how beautifully it is made. It shows the Russia of the czars. Now. Here’s our game. Let us call it Russian Revolution. All right? And we are czarists. Yes?” Mr. D’Arcy opened a drawer in the table and struggled to produce from it an ornate leather box. He opened the box carefully with both hands, tilting it to show Bobby what was inside: figurines—many large handfuls of tiny metal people, nicely painted.
“We live here, in Saint Petersburg.” Mr. D’Arcy walked around to Bobby’s side of the table very slowly, carrying the box of people. He placed it carefully atop the map and put a precise finger on Saint Petersburg. “But it is summer now, so we are here at our dacha, our summer cottage, I should say, just south of the great city. The year is 1905.”
Bobby had his eyes on the figurines. Each was about one inch tall, and there were seemingly hundreds, all different.
“Yes? Let’s put some players on the board. First we’ll need a nobleman.” Mr. D’Arcy fished in the pile of little people and found a proud fellow dressed in what looked like a smart military uniform. This he placed at the dacha. He said, “Our nobleman’s name, as our little game begins, is Count Darlotsoff. He is twenty-three years old—quite young to be running an estate, quite young to be the father of three children. But such was the time and place. Now let us represent young Count Darlotsoff’s family.”
Mr. D’Arcy emptied the leather box into the North Sea and shuffled a handful of people up next to Sweden, indicating with a quavering hand that Bobby should pick out the players as they were named.
“Father, or the Old Count.”
Bobby picked out a fat fellow in a jacket with medals and put him near Count Darlotsoff.
“Now Mother, or the Old Countess.” Bobby picked an overweight little thing in a gown painted red.
“Uncanny choices,” Mr. D’Arcy said.
Soon a crowd of Count Darlotsoff’s relatives had gathered at the dacha: his beautiful wife (a redhead, like Jenny Oswest), their three children, her two sisters, their husbands, their six and eight children respectively, dozens of servants, two old aunts, several uncles and young cousins. The dacha was not a cottage at all but several mansions surrounded by a dozen fine barns and huge fields. “The trees there,” Mr. D’Arcy said, “were as big as your elms here in Connecticut—very large trees they were, Russian maples, I should say, in rows on both sides of the lane. One looked down over long lawns to … what shall we call them? To terraced ponds, and past these one glimpsed the homes of the peasants, the Old Count’s people, as he called them. ‘My people,’ he would say, as he might say ‘my cattle‘—people, as it happened, who were being stirred up by thinkers from Saint Petersburg’s universities.”
Darlotsoff, whom Mr. D’Arcy called the Young Count, was one of the troublesome thinkers. He’d taken the new philosophies deeply to heart, finding them humane (at least in theory), moderate, and achievable. The serfs had been freed by the Edict of Emancipation far back in 1861, but freed only to economic slavery. The thinkers rose up with ideas: constitutional monarchy, social democracy, anarchism, nihilism, Bolshevism, Menshevism, land reform. The peasants began to covet the fields they worked.
Mr. D’Arcy gave Bobby a long look. “These are things we can talk about in the future, you and I, should you be inclined.”
Bobby nodded noncommittally, shrugged, offered a polite smile.
Mr. D’Arcy fingered the figurine of the Old Count. “Him exactly,” he said with a sigh. “But I’m afraid our game starts with the violent death of this man, and with the revision, I should say, of the Young Count’s idealism.”
The Old Count, it seemed, had cut off all but the most rudimentary foodstuffs to his peasants after the uprisings of 1905. He made hunting illegal, fenced off the ponds, saw trespassers and poachers hanged. Mr. D’Arcy pointed at various places on the map as if the very neighborhoods and shop fronts and carriages were pictured there. The Neva blacksmith, he said, Iosif Vladimirovich Alyoshin, became enraged when his dog was run over by the mounted escorts of the Old Count’s party, which had come into Saint Petersburg to meet with the hated Czar. Iosif, a reader and declaimer of poetry, educated and eloquent far beyond his station, ran after the carriages, caught up with them at the Neva River market, and demanded restitution.
“And what do you think the Old Count said to kindly Iosif, Robert? Did he say he was sorry? Did he send a servant down the next day with one of his two hundred forty-six dogs? No. The Old Count said this: ‘Well, blacksmith, call on butcher Evanitsky! You and your brothers won’t need your meat ration this month!'”
Iosif forgot himself and leaped up, pulling the Old Count out of his saddle and onto the cobblestones. And that might have been that, with Iosif hanged shortly thereafter, but the crowd surged in. They had no time for rope or guns, none of that; the peasants pulled up cobblestones and bashed noble brains, carried the bodies through the market square, and hung twelve on the iron spikes of the fence around the old church. The priest burst out, aghast. Holding his hands up for quiet, he said, “You have proved to God that you are serfs always!” Soon he was hanging from the fence himself.
Mr. D’Arcy gazed at the Old Count’s figurine a long time and said, “I’m glad you’ve picked him out—you’ve a marvelous eye. Let us bury him. We’ll need a graveyard before we’re through, I should say. Let us put our cemetery somewhere beautiful, somewhere we won’t have to move it—here in Sweden, perhaps.”
Bobby flew the remains of the Old Count to Sweden with a slow, solemn hand, and laid the fat little figurine on its back. In the ornate box of people he’d seen a priest, so he picked that figure out and flew it slowly to Sweden, visibly pleasing Mr. D’Arcy. Then he found eleven nobles, one at a time, and flew them to Sweden too.
Bobby said, “The Czar is like the king?”
“Bigger than a king! And his work of repression—repression is a holding down by force, I should say—his work of repression in those years was bloody, inhuman. All of life became so. Murder poured from the palace. Through acts of kindness the Young Count prevented what he could on his own lands, but he saw Iosif to the gallows, saw half the peasant men of the county hanged as well, for merely having been in the square.
“Then history moved forward. You’ll want to pick out some babies there, and more children, and some teens, and some young adults. Six in ten must be buried. Disease, largely, but common accidents, too. One will be the Young Count’s second daughter, I’m afraid. Pick well, Robert, pick well!”
Bobby counted out a dozen babies and young children and youths and maidens, including one thin girl-woman with thick black hair who somehow seemed a princess, and flew them solemnly to the growing pile in Sweden. Mr. D’Arcy stood as if at a funeral, watching each flight to heaven closely, none of the usual adult hurrying or condescension when it came to make-believe.
When all the dead were safely buried, he said, “World War One broke out in 1914. The Young Count was less young now. His politics, which had formerly urged him toward an enlightened aristocracy, now urged him toward an unpopular parliamentarianism, in which a monarch might have some role, however ceremonial. I hope you are following some of this, Robert. Good, good—smart boy. We’ll fill in the gaps presently, and correct any errors I might make. We have years to come in our friendship!”
Bobby grinned. He wasn’t having trouble following Mr. D’Arcy. The map was in front of them, as were the babies—a little cough, a growing fever, and death. And the Czar, a king’s king, flashing with jewels, robes purple—a cruel master!
Mr. D’Arcy smiled too, just so, and proceeded to give a carefully calibrated lecture in history: how the Czar had entered the Great War too enthusiastically; how most Russian factions had followed him; how the Bolsheviks had held back; how the new war had brought food shortages and yet more death; how, with the sudden proliferation of presses, all with points of view, the news had been all gossip; how, with the lack of food and dependable information, anarchy and insurrection had been rife.
“Now I must mention Rasputin. Have you heard of him, Robert? No? Then listen. Later you can read up and tell me what you think of him!” Rasputin, so Mr. D’Arcy said, was an opportunist, a satyr, a supposed monk, politely said to be “counseling” Empress Alexandra, who at his behest (so it was rumored) made secret deals with the Kaiser of Germany, further alienating the people and now the nobility as well. Saint Petersburg, called Petrograd during the war, was itself torn. In the countryside May and June of 1917 saw the peasants, already restive, rise up in waves of violent mutinies. Still the Young Count was sanguine, confident that his good relations with the peasants would protect him. Then, in October of 1917, in a paroxysm of antiwar fervor, Alexander Kerensky was overthrown by the Bolsheviks. After that the many rumbling factions would find focus and coalesce into at least four contentious movements: Whites, Reds, Greens, Blacks. Armed bands from the cities would roam the land as brigands, in uniform or no, joined by disaffected peasants. Meanwhile, for a young nobleman like Count Darlotsoff there was no one left to trust. In desperation he packed up his townhouses and took his family to what he hoped was the safety of the dacha compound, where they spent an ominous Christmas: the Bolshevik coup had unleashed a wave of violence against landlords.
Bobby listened intently and watched the map, from which the story seemed to rise.
“One day, in the first weeks of 1918,” said Mr. D’Arcy, “just when it had begun to seem that the unrest had spared the Young Count and his family, a band of forty came swaggering up the maple lane at Dacha Darlotsoff, straight to the grand doors. Hearing their shouts, the Young Count, though not feeling brave, stood up from his breakfast, pulled off his napkin, yanked on his jacket, and hefted his sword!” Alone, the Young Count stepped outside, barred the doors behind him, and made a stand. Soon his three uncles came running from their houses to support him, and then his brothers-in-law, his five teenage nephews, several young cousins, the children’s French tutor, and the three manservants who hadn’t run off: nineteen youths and men in all, standing against forty.
“The oldest was Uncle Pieter, my age now: eighty-one. The youngest was Cousin Victor (who had been named for Victor Hugo), your age, at a guess: he was twelve.” The leader of the renegades spoke: “We come in peace.” He was tall, with roughly cut leather pants, and for a uniform nothing but the vestiges of an officer’s jacket, on its breast a badge from neighbor Simeonov’s chest. The Young Count’s heart pounded. But he was master of the estate, and had established himself as generous and fair. He stood tall in his riding boots and said, “If you come in peace, then go in peace”—a rather nice line, he thought. All the brigands and all the dacha’s men stood frozen, till suddenly the great doors flew open, and out raced the Youngest Count, a boy nicknamed Chimp, a baby of five years, still in short pants and curls, shouting, “Turks! Huns! I kill you!” He waved his wooden sword and charged with it on an imaginary steed through the men of his family and into the press of soldiers. And just when one would expect laughter and relief in normal times among normal men, a brigand in the third or fourth rank of men—that’s how deep the brave Youngest Count had penetrated—picked the boy up, flung him in the air, caught him by the feet, and dashed his brains out on the stone stairs of the main dwelling. From the criminal’s mates there were cries of disgust, but never mind—the Young Count struck their leader down with his sword, a perfect thrust through the neck, and the old uncles faced the next tier, slashing and killing, but were overwhelmed by the advancing remains of the forty and were murdered one at a time, dying beheaded, disemboweled, gushing blood, as the Young Count and the brave young nephews backed up to the great doors. From above came sudden shots—the Young Countess and the Old Countess, as it turned out, firing the sophisticated hunting rifles of Dacha Darlotsoff, round after round into the band of criminals. And this saved the day: the brigands had only three or four old muskets, slow to load. By the time the brigands turned and ran, twenty or more of them were dead on the stairs, piled on Chimp’s tiny body, and on the bodies of the uncles, and the brothers-in-law, and Feodor, the favorite nephew, fourteen years of age, and two boy cousins, nicknamed Marcel and Louis, and on the cook, the tutor, and the stableboy, too, the loyal stableboy, who’d come up from the village that morning.
Mr. D’Arcy took a long breath, stood erect, and puffed his cheeks, blowing out a series of sighs and looking over the length of the map as if he were staring out across the great expanse of Russia herself. Bobby flew first the broken body of Chimp to Sweden; then those of the three old uncles, one at a time, full ceremony each; and then each of the others. He huddled the remaining family—mostly women and children—behind the Young Count, pictured the great wooden dacha doors closing behind them, imagined the shouts, the tears, the triumph of the women upstairs muted instantly by the tragedy they’d been unable to ward off and had only curtailed.
Mr. D’Arcy lowered his voice and continued. That evening, only two hours later, after barely enough time to drag in the dead family members, a score of brigand bodies still splayed out on the steps, the remains of the motley band returned with a horde of disgruntled peasants from beyond the ponds. Sixty men hid behind the piled bodies and then stormed the great doors. The Young Count and his nephews and nieces and daughters, armed one and all with elegant and thoroughly modern hunting rifles but little skill, fired from the downstairs windows out among the brigands, killing many and wounding many more.
“Even my children fought,” Mr. D’Arcy cried, “made murderers by those they killed!”
Upstairs at the dacha the Young Count’s pretty wife loaded rifles for the Old Countess, who was a masterly shot, picking off brigands like so many pheasants in the stubble of rye. The brigands and their peasant conscripts were no better armed than earlier, and died in growing heaps; but a handful managed to set the dacha doors on fire, filling the house with smoke. Then four of the beasts climbed the stones to the second story, surprising the Old Countess, who was still firing on their fellows. They overwhelmed her and tossed her bodily from the high balcony. She broke on the ground below, in sight of her son, died without a sound while the four brigands handed down their prize: the Young Countess. One could not shoot for fear of hitting her. One could not give chase, not with six young women and girls unprotected in the house.
“The Young Count didn’t know it at the time, of course, but this was the end of the Russia he had loved. His darling wife had been carried off, his mother defenestrated! His horses were gone. His barns were afire. The tutor, the cook, the stableboy, all dead. As for men, only the gardener’s assistant, a German youth the Young Count had never been fond of, was still alive.”
Mr. D’Arcy fell into a deep silence, while Bobby flew the dead to Sweden—first the Old Countess in her plumpness, then the tutor, the cook, and the stableboy, one by one. The Young Countess he held in his hand a minute; she’d only been carried off, perhaps to be rescued. The figurine he’d picked was so beautiful, the most beautiful of them all, with flowing red hair and a red-and-silver gown. Mr. D’Arcy gazed at her too, and at length shook his head very slightly. “She mustn’t have lived long at their hands,” he said.
To Sweden with her! Around Petrograd, Bobby could see rivers of blood, smoke pouring from dachas, flames enveloping the finest houses in town, women carried off, gentle milk cows slaughtered by starving roamers!
Mr. D’Arcy said, “Now—tell me, Robert.” He had begun to pronounce Bobby’s formal name just the way the part-time French teacher at school did: Ro-bear. His eyes were closed. “If you are the Young Count, what do you do next? Remember—you have two living daughters and three nieces, aged twenty down to seven, your single surviving sister-in-law, who is called Monique, and a brave if stubborn German gardener left. What is your course of action?”
Bobby looked at the figurines. What Mr. D’Arcy had said, his eyes closed, was exactly true: the Young Count was surrounded by seven, only one of them a man. Bobby didn’t know what to do. His heart began to beat in his thin chest, all of him safe in this rich man’s map room except his imagination. The first thought that came to his careful head was of heroics: “The gardener and I go to rescue the Young Countess! The women … hide? The women and girls hide in the tornado shelter!” This from The Wizard of Oz.
Mr. D’Arcy smiled briefly at that suggestion and said, “The German gardener is but seventeen, I should say! And the house, remember, is smoking at the doors. These girls—all very lovely, some of them small children, two of them your daughters! And Monique crying and moaning, she’s lost her head—no help there. Do you see? The gardener is a hulk: quiet, impassive.”
Bobby blurted out, “We have to gather everyone and leave!”
Mr. D’Arcy snapped back, “Just leave the dacha, with all its furnishings, all your wealth, all your beloved objects, papers, portraits, pets?”
Bobby replied, “But the brigands will be back!”
Mr. D’Arcy, almost in tears, said, “Leave the dacha and go … where? Where will they not be intercepted? Where should their flight take them?”
“Exactly—the forest. This was the Young Count’s first thought too.” Mr. D’Arcy closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair, resting a moment before plunging on. He told of the fires in the forest, the brigands lurking there, no escape route obvious.
Bobby smelled the smoke, saw all the blood, saw the old uncles lying dead on the couches of the grand drawing room. He said, “We’d better get going! Let’s move!” He looked at the crackled old map and saw a stream named Ota just where the dacha was marked in Mr. D’Arcy’s own ink. He said, “To the stream? Is there a canoe?”
“Well thought, Robert. Except that, of course, the River Ota is quite frozen.”
“A sled?” Bobby cried.
Yes, a sled. The Young Count and his daughter Petra (the only girl capable), along with the dour gardener, loaded one of the dacha’s elegant sleighs with food and firearms and family papers as fast as they could. Then they escorted a trembling Monique and the younger girls down to the ice, none too soon: a mob in the hundreds approached, bearing torches.
Bobby bit his nails and said, “We have to hurry!”
“Hurry, Robert, yes. The girls tumbled into the sleigh. Monique we had to push. And Dort and I acted as horses. We took up the trace bars and pulled the sleigh out onto the Ota.”
“Safe,” Bobby said. “Safe!”
“Hardly,” Mr. D’Arcy said blackly.
“No homework tonight?” Bobby’s father said at dinner.
Bobby, lost in thought, had to scramble to keep his cover. “Report,” he said.
“Report?” his mom said.
“On the, um, Russian Revolution.”
“Oh, I know a thing or two about that,” Bobby’s father said. “Romanovs. Rasputin. The Czar and Czarina and Czarlings eating too much caviar! It all leads them right down into World War One.”
“Yes,” Bobby said. “But the worst of it comes well after World War One begins!”
His father and mother looked at him for a long time, as proud as pizza pie. Their faces said it all: Bobby was finally taking an interest.
His dad said, “Let’s get out the Encyclopaedia Britannica after supper!”
Bobby ran into the woods and took the commando route, even crawling to the front door of Harbinger Hall—he was a long-lost nephew, a brave boy bringing news of the River Ota. At the great doors of Mr. D’Arcy’s stone house he didn’t even have to knock: Hilyard was right there. “Master Robert,” he said.
“Hi,” Bobby said.
“Mr. D’Arcy will be down from his bath in a moment. You are to wait in his study.”
The day before, Bobby had had to ask Mr. D’Arcy to stop the game: it was school-bus time. And Bobby had worried about this in the night, feeling that he might have offended the old man. He stood in the study not touching anything (Hilyard had said he had best not), looking closely at the grand bookshelf, trying without luck to pick out the secret door. Soon Mr. D’Arcy shuffled in, wearing pajama pants, fleece slippers, and a silk smoking jacket like one the Young Count himself might have worn.
“Good morning, Robert!” Ro-bear. “I see your smile is with you! You are ready for more of my dismal story—more of our game, I should say.”
“But first, Hilyard has made me realize that there are some questions to ask of you. Are you Robert Mullendore?”
“And your mum, is she the Ann Mullendore who volunteers at the Nature Center?”
“So the redoubtable Hilyard did recognize you, I should say. The third question is about your studies. I’d made the rather hasty assumption that this for you was a holiday week of some nature. Hilyard says no. So why are you not in school?”
Seven lies went through Bobby’s head, but the truth bobbed up in the light of Mr. D’Arcy’s clear eyes upon him: “I am skipping.”
“Skipping! I believe I know what that means! Dort says he saw you one morning two weeks ago, racing through the woods, and then again last week, perhaps twice, and this week, of course, leading up to his making your acquaintance.”
So Bobby told the whole story of his desertion, his defection, his despair. Mr. D’Arcy didn’t seem angry so much as amused, and listened carefully. “Well, never mind. Later we’ll ask Hilyard to make a couple of phone calls on your behalf.”
Bobby’s heart sank. “Um, who’s he gonna call?”
“On your behalf, my boy. No more to say. Not to worry, either. Hilyard has a very delicate touch. But enough of that. We have a game to attend to.”
In the map room Mr. D’Arcy flicked on the lights one by one. Bobby felt glum until he was captured by the map again. All was as it had been left. The dead were in Sweden, lots of them. The living were arranged in their sleigh—a matchbox that Bobby had rigged with four paper-clip runners—upon the ice of the Ota. Mr. D’Arcy named all the figures in the sleigh: Monique, Petra, the other girls. The Young Count stood before the sleigh with the German gardener, Dort. Bobby picked up this figurine and looked at it hard: peasant garb, greenish trousers, a yellow shirt showing a tear, a rake and a hoe over its shoulder. The figure was larger than any of the others, especially its hands. Bobby said, “Can I ask you something?”
“You may, yes, ask anything, as you wish.”
“Is Dort the same Dort?”
“And I may answer or not, as I wish!” Mr. D’Arcy said. He was certainly more cheerful today. “For now let us just say that he is a young, silent, rather irritating German gardener’s assistant, with the one noble trait of loyalty. He is strong—he’s nearly a horse himself, which the Young Count is by no means. The Ota has overflowed its own ice after a recent thaw and has frozen anew, slick and hard and black, I should say. Can you see it?” And Mr. D’Arcy resumed the story.
The sleigh sang along on the most modern polished-steel runners. The problem was in controlling its speed; the two man-horses slipped and slid, holding the trace bars. The Young Count skidded in his riding boots, slithered at Dort’s steadier side, and had to keep shushing the girls behind them, who whimpered. They passed below the Petrokov summer palace, where flames silhouetted brigands passing furniture out the windows. A shout went up—they’d been seen!—and dozens of men came crashing down through the crusted snow on the great lawn. But Dort was a horse and pulled the whole band along the ice at a sensational clip. The Young Count finally gave up trying to help and hoisted himself onto the broadboard and then into the sleigh among the panicked girls. He looked back to see a phalanx of scruffy, slipping soldiers giving chase but losing ground. No comfort there: the milldam was ahead.
The Young Count hugged and kissed each girl and told her he loved her, kissed his daughters passionately as if he would never see them again, and then took up arms. Petra loaded and handed him hunting rifles one by one. The count picked off six soldiers of a growing number, while all the time Dort pulled and the sleigh skittered. At the dam the desperate family tumbled out—all but Monique, who was frozen with fear. The Young Count, the girls, and Dort, thus forced to leave her, stomped through the snow to the mill buildings, where they raced through the miller’s abandoned house, down the stairs, and back outside, onto the ice below the dam, all of them falling and sprawling, the Young Count thinking to reach the far bank and the old sawmill, where they could hide and fight. Just then over the dam came the sleigh, doubtless pushed by the soldiers, Monique riding it down silently. She was thrown out on impact and landed grotesquely broken on the current-weakened ice, which also broke, dumping the sleigh and then the woman into the water.
Dort, the Young Count, the girls, all held hands in a line, Dort and the Count pulling the rest behind. Petra held the one rifle they had salvaged. By now, of course, the soldier-brigands would have the other weapons. Near the sawmill shore, near what might have been safety, the ice simply ended in a deep flow of river water from the millrace. And here came the soldiers, twenty or more men and boys, firing the dacha’s hunting rifles. Marta, the Count’s younger daughter, shrieked and fell dead on the ice. Petra, the older, fired back, hitting no one. The soldiers came forward in a crowd, slipping in their tall boots on the ice. Suddenly the sheen beneath them gave way. One brigand head bobbed and then went under the ice; many brigand arms flailed; many men simply sank under the weight of their stolen clothes and full pockets. Two or three climbed out on Miller Gurevitch’s garden banks—where, Mr. D’Arcy said, “one can only hope they froze.”
All this left the family and the gardener on a huge pan of ice that turned slowly as if it would reach the shore and save those still alive but then abruptly stopped, heaved itself up on something submerged, rose on the slow current, and broke, dumping everyone. Petra and Dort managed to swim out and help the Young Count to shore and safety, but all the others were lost. The survivors’ garments grew stiff with ice. The Count was nearly out of his mind, ready to leap into the Ota and join the dead. Dort had the inspiration to burn the sawmill building, easily done with the vanished sawyer’s flint and steel. Twenty minutes and the fire was ferocious, half an hour and the little band’s clothes were dry.
Bobby studied the figures of the girls. He flew Monique to Sweden first and laid her in line, squashing the matchbox sleigh with a slow fist. He thought hard in the silence, and then flew the matchbox to Sweden too. He could do that much. Then he flew Marta, shot, and the drowned girls one at a time, till all the girls but Petra were in Sweden. Mr. D’Arcy watched solemnly. He said, “Saved from rape by death.”
The map room was silent except for the sound of a fan whirring somewhere in the walls. Abruptly Mr. D’Arcy continued: The remaining threesome walked southward, avoiding towns, stealing food, always marching, growing wild, filthy, starved thin as rats. The Young Count’s plan was to cross the German lines—the Kaiser was more an ally than not, he thought—and make their way, perhaps as refugees or even as prisoners of war, first to Germany and then, God willing, “La France.”
At that someone knocked very softly, and the hidden door rolled open on its secret, silent ball bearings. “You will take luncheon here?” Hilyard said.
“Yes, quite, why not?” Mr. D’Arcy said, in an entirely different voice.
The butler set up a card table, chairs, a tablecloth. Soon he was back with a tureen of bright-red soup, a small loaf of coarse bread, and strips of liver on fine plates. Then came a salad of dark greens, a plate of cheeses, and finally chocolates. Bobby ate with his best manners, Mr. D’Arcy delicately. They didn’t talk until Hilyard came to collect the plates.
To him Mr. D’Arcy said, “You’ve made some phone calls?”
The butler said, “Indeed, sir. I found everyone most agreeable, once a certain level of, let us say, astonishment wore off.” Across Hilyard’s face crept the first smile that Bobby had seen upon it.
A smile spread upon Mr. D’Arcy’s face as well. He said, “And we will have Saturdays?”
“Saturdays, sir, quite so, though it took some persuasion.” Those smiles. Both men looked at Bobby.
“What?” the boy said. He knew the calls had been about him.
Mr. D’Arcy said, “You mustn’t shirk school, my boy. And from here forward you shan’t. I believe Hilyard has interceded on your behalf; you won’t be punished, we think, except by having to come here Saturdays through the school year for tutoring—to, um, I should say, to make up for lost school.” And that was that.
After lunch the band—the Young Count, Petra, and Dort—traveled slowly, finding abandoned buildings to sleep in, freezing by night, afraid to light fires, lingering where they found safety and warmth and food, and then carrying on, making their way south into spring, which was blessedly warm that year. Mr. D’Arcy leaned into his story in the golden lamplight, a hand on the map as Bobby moved the last three figures southward to the banks of a great painted river. Dort crossed first, shouting in German so as to be welcomed. The soldiers he met allowed him to swim back. But he’d read their faces, and he thought that he and the Young Count would be shot for the girl. So they walked several leagues along the river until they found a crossing on rocks under the remains of a bridge. A Russian peasant came to them and asked for food. This was the River Dnieper, he said. He took them to an abandoned dredging barge he’d found. The four wanderers launched that poor vessel and floated south for three weeks, unchallenged. At Kiev they traded the dredging equipment to a docksman for bags of beans and Chinese rice, and then floated on. Kiev was in German hands; Dort barked greetings to soldiers and sailors. And so the grieving band continued, all the way to Zaporozhye, where the peasant took off on his own.
In Zaporozhye—high summer—life seemed as it had always. The band found an estate the Young Count knew, belonging to a friend of his father’s. It was untouched, its master gone, a very old man in charge, a blind great-uncle. He welcomed them and shared the estate’s abundant stores and plush beds. This, Mr. D’Arcy said, was the worst period the Young Count had ever encountered or would ever encounter in his life: the succor and the solace made him comfortable, and in comfort every horror welled up: his wife dead, the members of his family, each a sorrow too much to bear, all dead. He would sleep hard, awake happy, and then remember—and spend the waking day in tears. Dort was the same. Petra was young, and healed more quickly.
“You said ‘we,'” Bobby said. “You keep saying ‘we.'”
“Do I?” Mr. D’Arcy said. He thought a moment, trying to hear himself, and said, “If so, I apologize. It is not I but a younger man I speak of, the Young Count Darlotsoff.”
The old blind man of the manor came to the Young Count in front of the fire one midnight, walking in his sleep (“A true Tiresias,” Mr. D’Arcy said), and chanted, “Listen, noble friend, listen to me. You will be well. You will find freedom by way of water. You will prosper in your new home. You will never forget, but you will come to accept. You will be wealthy again, in a new palace. You will never again marry. You will have no more children. Until one day a boy will come. You will tell him what you have suffered, and even in his innocence he will understand, and what you tell him will change him forever, and you will have an heir in him. You will live long, very, very long. You, who have lost so much, will gain more back. And the boy you befriend will change the world in his turn.” The Young Count found surcease in the old man’s words, found the will to live on.
The Germans couldn’t hold Kiev, and in retreat they took the manor, bunking there and preparing for what, as it turned out, would be their doom. The intrepid three were once again cast loose, heading south. They reached the Crimea, spent what seemed a kind of mourning vacation in Sebastopol, and then went to Yalta, a resort city where White Army thugs handed out random death. Dort found work on the docks lifting; he was accosted constantly, beaten twice for his silence, accused of being a Red, or a German, or a criminal. The Young Count could get no work; he was jeered at and slapped for his accent by anyone who felt the urge, but he made rounds of the meanest back streets for scraps of food, for useful tin cans. Petra dressed as a smaller child, an urchin, and used her fine manners to collect day-old bread, vegetables gone by, the odd soupbone. In fact, the three ate relatively well. They lived under a bridge briefly, and then on the littered beach. Dort kept them in vodka.
One chilly afternoon, as autumn approached, the Young Count discovered a day sailboat from one of the empty resorts, small open cockpit, hull perhaps sixteen feet in length, partially rotted sails. It had been pulled into the reeds by vandals and forgotten. If one stayed out of sight of the piers (where White Army hooligans lined up young men and shot them just to watch them fall into the sea, just to watch the sea turn red), if one slipped in at night, one might supply such a boat with food and water, might steal it unseen. Terror prevented immediate fulfillment of the plan, however—even a hobo’s beach was more comfort than that little boat. Still, over the course of the subsequent weeks they hid a quarter share of their food under the boat’s small foredeck, among moldy life vests. On the penultimate night Dort took ill—vomiting, shitting, coughing.
“Surely I can say ‘shitting,’ yes? You grin! American boy!”
The next morning the Young Count fell ill too. That evening Petra succumbed. Dort became healthy enough to look after her, and then the Young Count came around too. But brave Petra grew worse and worse, and there on the beach, under the salvaged awning of a pleasure yacht, she died.
Mr. D’Arcy cried silently for a long while. Bobby thought that he, too, could cry but would not. He flew Petra to Sweden, feeling that the others greeted her there, that at least she had company there, family—her sisters, her mother, her grandparents. Who did the Young Count have? No one but Dort, the irritating gardener.
At length Mr. D’Arcy continued. The Young Count grew determined. Death at sea seemed a blessing. Even to be shot would be heaven-sent. The night after they buried Petra in Black Sea sand, “for the tides to find,” he and Dort dragged the abandoned boat from the reeds, climbed in, and hand paddled in a calm sea, under a moonless sky, till they were purely exhausted. Then they paddled more. Dawn and a breeze came up, good fortune, since they could still be seen from shore. The breeze turned to wind, and then to a storm—more good fortune mixed with more bad. The boat was tossed and raced southward, but no other vessels were about, no one to spot them. The Young Count had some aristocrat’s sailing lessons behind him, and he kept the little boat before the cold north wind for a full day, cruising ever south. In the night, while Dort slept, the Young Count held the tiller, groaning and weeping, his tears mingling with the heavy rain, the relentless spray. At daybreak came landfall.
“This was Turkiye, Robert, and freedom. And the Young Count did live on, as his Tiresias said he would.” In Berlin some months later, posing as French, the Young Count took a new name. Protected by Dort’s knowledge of the city, he worked as a waiter until he could get to Paris, well after the war. There family money awaited in various old-line accounts, so very much money that he found no obstacles to a voyage to New York, where he became thoroughly American in a matter of months, hoping to shed his horror. But horror ever returned, returned unbidden at every sweet moment, even as he rose to prominence and eventually reigned in the international banking business. In time the Young Count—not so young anymore—found his New World palace, as had been predicted. And in a moment of weakness, of nostalgia, of irrational love and longing for the past, he sent for Dort, who willingly became his master gardener, as stupid and irritating as always, as loyal as always, the only one who knew the Young Count’s story first to last.
Bobby tore up Dogwood Lane, pulling his sleigh full of doomed daughters, skittered on the ice that was Wahackme Road, raced into his own road, all but skated along the tar and breathlessly home. Mr. D’Arcy wouldn’t say a word more about the phone calls Hilyard had made but only invited Bobby back for Saturdays—which invitation he would honor nearly every Saturday of Bobby’s youth and young manhood: lessons on maps, lessons on a polished-brass microscope, lessons in a half dozen languages, lessons in business, ethics, economics, in the theory of relativity, lessons in math and mythology, lessons in what the old man called “charm.” Robert grew intellectually far past his peers, but he loved them and was loved by them and attended school in any case. With Mr. D’Arcy’s help he was welcomed at Harvard College with every blandishment the admissions team could muster. With the move to Cambridge his Saturdays with the ancient man ended, but never the game. He visited during Christmas breaks and summers, and took many road trips with friends to meet the master, sometimes bringing particular girlfriends. Mr. D’Arcy approved only of a certain redhead named Marilyn, whom, much later, Robert would marry. And though Mr. D’Arcy passed away on a winter’s day, expiring quietly alone at his desk, the Young Count was always with Robert. He gave him his many powers, gave him Dort, too, and Hilyard, and a fortune in bonds and real estate and numbered accounts across the great blue globe. Robert B. Mullendore would change the world, all right.
He was late, and ran, slowing only when he saw his parents standing at the end of the driveway waiting for him, Dad home early from work, tall and concerned, Mom in her apron, head somberly cocked, Mrs. Applegate looming just behind them, her formidable arms crossed over her chest.