Excerpt: Katrina, Sin of Love (3)

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Chapter 5

It was afternoon. The sun was burning like a fire ball on the clear, blue sky. The heat came in waves from the drowsy forest, where no birds chirped and no bugs buzzed. The girls came out of the house all sweaty and went to the waterspout to chill out.

They had finished their house work and wanted to leave, but not before letting the Madam know their job was done. Madam Emilia was dosing on the terrace couch, while Ovidiu and Mister Aristide were playing canasta. Katrina and Maria moved shyly towards the terrace, reluctant about disturbing the masters’ rest.

– Hmm… said Katrina, Madam Emilia, I don’t mean to wake you, but we are done with our chores and now we’ll be on our way.

– What, you’ve finished already? You’re so hardworking, my dear darlings! Did Ion put out the rat poison?

– Yes, he did, they answered at the same time.

– Did you go by Ana, in the kitchen, to have something for lunch? Come on, go and eat something, she’s made all kinds of goodies… You know we have guests tomorrow…

– That won’t be necessary, Madam, we can eat at home, said Katrina rather embarrassed.

– Aristide, dear, give the girls some money, so they buy something nice… since they won’t have our food!

Mister Aristide searched through his pockets and scooped out some coins which he gave to the girls, sighing:

– You can’t find such beautiful girls in Bucharest, can you, Ovidiu?

– You’re right, Mister Aristide, sighs Ovidiu as well, his eyes all over Maria. If you allow me, I’d like to accompany them to the village, that’s because I see no sign of Anton around.

The girls tried to refuse him politely, but to no avail. So Ovidiu stood up from the table and the party went towards the garden, on the alley leading to the large gate. They were walking slowly, silent, the girls shying away their gaze from Ovidiu’s avid eyes, who looked at them lustfully and kept circling round Maria, wanting to speak to her and not finding his words. Once they reached the gate, someone sprung from behind a bush, yelling: Pick-a-boo! The girls got really scared and were about to run amok, but, at a second glance, they saw it was Anton, holding a large bunch of blood-red roses.

– Why did you get so scared, my little doves? Did you think I was some evil spirit or even “the hoofed and horned one”?

– Oh, you devil, what on Earth are you doing here?

Katrina said, scared and upset, spitting into her shirt.

– I’ve been waiting for you; I mean… the both of you, all day, to see when you leave, because I picked these roses especially for you.

– You needn’t have bothered so, I’m not that easily impressed. I thought we had a deal, you and me, and you didn’t keep it when you left the room.

– I couldn’t help not kissing you, what can I do, when your mouth is like a ripen cherry? Forgive me, this time, Katrina, I swear I won’t do it again. And, to see that I keep my word, here, I brought you a book by Creangă. You know, so that you read it and then we’ll talk about it tomorrow, at ten o’clock, when we meet in this meadow, said Anton, showing her a lovely opening in the forest, as they walked through it.

– Are you crazy? You’ve got guests coming from Bucharest tomorrow morning. I am aware there’s also a young lady coming, so spare me with your secret rendezvous. You get tête-à-têtes with her, not with me!

– Didn’t we agree to meet every day, so I can teach you Literature and History, my dear girl?

– Yes, but not tomorrow. You are very busy and you won’t have time for me.

– Katrina is right, Ovidiu intervened, you won’t have time for lessons, but I’m as free as a bird and I can come and teach you both… I mean you and Maria.

– You know, that’s not so bad! Isn’t it, Maria? Ovidiu could teach us both a little something. So, tomorrow at ten, we’re here, said Katrina, ending the conversation and, taking Maria by the hand, they turned around and started running towards the village.

The two young men were left stricken; their eyes lost gazing after the two girls who were running for their lives… And finally, Anton and Ovidiu returned to the manor, dazed and confused as if they had lost someone dear…

Chapter 6

Early next morning there was a lot of hubbub at the manor. Each and every one was getting ready to welcome Mister Necshulescu, the Prefect from Bucharest, his wife, Dora, and their daughter, Anca. The servants kept sweeping the alleyways, cutting flowers from the garden and arranging them in vases, adding more sofas and armchairs onto the terrace, where, supposedly, it was cooler. Auntie Ana, the cook, was head over feet into foods and pastries, one finer than the other. The masters had washed and groomed themselves, each to their best, and were now yelling their lungs out at Ion:

– Ion, where is my new suit, the one I brought from the tailor the other day? Mister Aristide yelled.

– Ioooon, where did you put my new tie and the shirt that I had shipped in straight from Paris? Anton yelled, too.

– Here I am, masters, I’m coming… Hold your horses, I’m just one man and I only got one pair of hands, God forgive me!

No one could hear a peep from Madam Emilia’s room and everyone panicked, God forbid, she might be sick. Finally, Auntie Ana went upstairs and gently knocked at the door, so as to not disturb the lady of the house.

– Madam, are you awake? Auntie Ana asked shyly, slowly entering the Madam’s chambers.

– Yes, Ana, I’m awake, said Madam Emilia, already dressed up in a long, cream, silk gown, which fitted her well, considering she was rather round-shaped… What’s with this entire hubbub? Are the barbarians coming, the Huns? What the devil has gotten into everyone today? They’re all so nervous and agitated.

– We’re getting ready, Madam, the guests should be here at noon and everything must be ready by then. 

– Well, well, get ready then, but stop making so much noise, my head is about to explode! And tell those men of mine to not confuse Ion too much, because he might mix up their clothes again. I’ll be downstairs in a minute, I only need to fix my hair and after that, I’m all done…

At some point the whole hubbub ceased and they came downstairs one by one, Mister Aristide, Anton and Madam Emilia. The three of them sat on the terrace to chill a little in the shade of the Greek columns, and they looked around to see who is missing.

– Where’s Ovidiu, Anton? His father asked.

– I don’t know, father. He’s not in his room, he didn’t leave a note, so I suppose he’s somewhere nearby, perhaps he went into the garden or through the forest to take a walk.

– Well, let him be, dear. He’s not that important at this time of day. It’s the family that matters, and that’s us. We’re the ones who must attend to our guests. Let’s have breakfast! Ana, bring the coffee and tea and prepare some snacks for us, we’re hungry! Madam Emilia called out.

– Dear wife, you’re all about food; why don’t you try to go on a diet for a change, look at this splendid dress, it barely gets around you.

– Why don’t you mind your own business, dear husband, I’m not twenty anymore to be fit and thin… So what if I’m hungry? Ion, get a move on those plates, or I’m going to faint!

Ion brought the snacks and the warm beverages and took a very deep bow.

– Anon, boy, don’t bend that much! You might break in two from the waist, said Madam Emilia laughing, nearly choking on the appetizers which she gobbled without
chewing. Where on earth did you see this? What did I teach you? You make a little curtsy and then… you disappear.

So, laughing and quarrelling like that, they finished breakfast. Then, the hard waiting began. The hour became eleven, then twelve, and the guests were nowhere in sight. Ovidiu wasn’t showing up either. The Mândrescus began to show signs of impatience. Anton was going crazy at the thought that Ovidiu was out into the woods with the girls, having fun, laughing and enjoying the company of those beauties, while he was confined here, forced to wait for some guests whom he already hated, even if he hadn’t met them before. He stood up and started to measure the terrace, his hands behind his back, getting more and more annoyed, and hardly waiting to play the good host at once and then run off into the forest, to see his sweetheart, Katrina, to caress her wheat-gold hair, to smell her jasmine perfume…

– Will you stay put, for now? His mother scolded him. They’ll be here anytime! Why are you so anxious?

– You know what, mother? If they’re not here in fifteen minutes, I’m off; I’ve got business of my own!

– What kind of important business do you have at the hour of lunch? His father inquired, rather curious.

– I have a business meeting in the village. That’s it, and no more questions about it!

– Way to go, lad, I had no idea you were so secretive…and here, you pull this on us…

– Oh, well, it’s only a small business with someone in the village, don’t you start imagining things.

An engine humming was heard and a deafening honk scared the sleepy birds from the trees.

– Here they are, jumped Madam Emilia from her seat. Ioooon, go and open the gate, so the guests can drive in with their automobile!

Ion went running, fought the weight of the large gates and let in the car with Bucharest license plates, to drive on the main alley and stop right in front of the house. From the vehicle out came the driver, then the Prefect with his wife and daughter.

– Bonjour, Aristide, bonjour Emilia, glad to find you well! And, I guess, this handsome young man is Anton, your son, said the Prefect, all red in the face because of the heat, and, sweating like a hog, he went towards the terrace.

– Welcome, my dears, Madam, Miss, Mister Prefect, come into the shade, on the terrace, smiled Mister Aristide welcomingly.

Madam Emilia hugged each of them, very happy for having such honored guests. The men shook friendly hands, while the two young people, Anton and Anca, looked at each other slyly, weighting one another instantly.

– I’m so happy to see you, said Madam Dora as well, a tall and lean woman, wiping her sweaty forehead with an embroidered handkerchief. Your house is so far away, my dears, I thought it took forever to get here on this heat!

– It’s true, the road is long, but it’s worth making it to spend a few days in the middle of the nature, said Mister Aristide, obligingly.

– Aristide, as fat as I am, I nearly died of apoplexy on the way, laughed the Prefect… But now it’s over, right?

– Why, to mend all the unpleasantness of the road and to chill a little, let’s have some wild berries ice-tea, and then, the houseboy will show you to your quarters, to make yourselves at home.

– Ion, come and bring that tea now, and also something sweet to keep us until lunch is ready! Madam Emilia called.

Ion brought the tea and served it skillfully. The guests, content with their welcome, went upstairs to their rooms, to rest a little. Anton sat in one of the wicker armchairs and got lost in his thoughts. He compared the Prefect’s daughter – tall, lean, dark-haired, with lively green eyes like a squirrel’s – to Katrina, the blonde beauty with black, almond-shaped eyes.

He hadn’t exchange any word with Anca yet, but he could already tell that she was a blue-blood girl, and had been raised as such; she had everything she wanted and never knew what penury was, and she believed it was her given right to have it all… She had looked at him straight in the eyes, so confident that he simply didn’t know how to speak to her or how to act around her.

It was so easy with Katrina! You needn’t have to pretend, needn’t have to choose your words, everything came naturally, and each gesture was in sequence, as a natural response to the other one’s gestures… Oh, dear God, what am I going to do?

 He had said this phrase aloud, without even realizing, so his mother replied instantly:

– What are you whining about, dear, what’s on your mind? Don’t tell me you’re in a quandary and don’t know who to choose: Katrina, the peasant girl, or the beautiful Anca? Did you see Anca’s gorgeous eyes? How delicate she is? Add to this that she’s got her mother’s figure, and she’ll never grow fat.

– Mother, please, let me be, don’t upset me any more! I’m just sad, that’s all, what more do you want from me?

– Listen to me, you boneheaded boy, all I want is your welfare and all the good in the world, but if you won’t choose your fortune, then I will force it upon you…

Ion had started to set the table in the dining room and, by the time the guests came downstairs, mother and son had a pretty sharp argument.

Meanwhile, Ovidiu was in the company of the two countryside beauties, the blonde and the dark-haired, taking a stroll through the forest. They sat down in a meadow, where the shade was thicker and the wind swept gently through the branches of the trees. He kept reading stories and tales by Creangă, and the girls, young and restless as they were, couldn’t stay put for a minute and listen in silence. They would stand up suddenly, picked some long blade of grass or a flower and they would tickle Ovidiu’s neck or ears with it. He was trying to defend himself as best he could, he would wave his arms and shake his head, sometimes he dropped the book, his hat would fall off, and they were all laughing so heartily, that one could hear them from tens of yards away. Ovidiu felt like a god, surrounded by nymphs, floating in the green sea of tall grass in the breezy meadow. At one time, he leaned on his back, smiling, giving himself away to the pleasure of being tickled and caressed by the two pretty girls, and he thought this is what Heaven must be like. He would have loved to die that instant. He maintained the reverie for several moments, then, suddenly, he stood up and said :

– Girls, girls, it’s so nice to be cuddled by you, but that’s not why we’re here for. I tried to read you some of Creangă’s stories and you wouldn’t even pay attention! Come on, sit still for now, and let’s try to discover this writer.

– You’re really silly, what on Earth… You suppose we haven’t read “The Goat with Three Kids”, “The Old Man’s and Old Lady’s Daughters” and others like that? Katrina said. Our school teacher read these to us in primary school. Haven’t you brought something else, more interesting?

They sat in a circle and suddenly it was all quiet, and Ovidiu began to read: “I don’t know about other folks…” Just as the story was getting more interesting, Katrina suddenly stood up putting her hands to her ear, listening in the distance.

– I think I hear something moving, perhaps Anton is coming… What did he do with the guests? How is the Prefect’s daughter like?

– Too many questions at once, Katrina, said Ovidiu. Why are you so interested in Anton? I believe he’s having lunch with the Necshulescus and his folks.

– I thought so, too, but I kind of miss him, sighted Katrina with sadness.

– You’re quite infatuated with him, you don’t say! What do you think about this, Maria?

– I stick to my opinion: rich and poor never mix well. This is something of a pastime for Anton, until he gets bored, and then you’ll see I’m right, Katrina! When your love will be most ablaze, his will die out like a fever… These are just rich boy’s vagaries…

– You’re just saying so, to chat away. How do you know what’s on his mind? Maybe he doesn’t like Anca that much. Maybe he only likes me. What do you know, Ovidiu?

– I can’t really have an opinion, I wasn’t there when he met Anca, and I don’t know what they spoke of… so I prefer to refrain myself. In fact, I think I should be going now. It’s lunch time and I don’t want to look bad in front of the guests. Girls, curtsies and kisses, I take a bow and be gone.

He stood up, waved his hand and simply took off. The girls remained somewhat aghast. They didn’t expect Ovidiu to leave them so suddenly. Katrina would have loved it if Anton could have come as well, so she could see him, at least for a moment, because she missed him so, but Anton didn’t show up. They stood in the meadow for a little while longer, trying to  understand why Ovidiu left so abruptly, but, having reached no conclusion, they took their Ion Creangă books and left, walking slowly towards their homes…

Ovidiu made haste in reaching the manor and arrived just as they were all sitting down to have lunch.

– Good day, I’m Ovidiu Barsan, Anton’s friend, we went to high school together, he introduced himself, shaking the Prefect’s hand, kissing Madam Dora’s and Miss Anca’s.

– We know each other from the dance halls, said Anca very friendly, looking playfully at Ovidiu. Where were you hiding back then, Anton?

– You know, Anca, I’m not that good a dancer and I was embarrassed to present myself so clumsy to the ladies.

– You don’t say, I don’t believe a word I’m hearing. You, who can win the heart of every girl or woman at first glance, simply by walking into a room, you were reluctant to come to a dance party…

– My dear, believe it or not, it’s the truth. I have to admit, I was never into this kind of things. If you must know, I was a very good student and I would keep my head at studying, not at chasing skirts.

– That I can confirm, all throughout high school he was a very bright student. We would only go out to take walks in The Cishmigiu Park, said Ovidiu, obligingly.

– Oh, stop it, we know all about his love conquests, said Anca, looking lasciviously at Anton through her long, dark lashes… He couldn’t stand her gaze, and, embarrassed, he looked down into his plate, which he noticed it was still full, thus he said:

– Why don’t we enjoy Auntie Ana’s food? She cooks excellently and she’ll be upset to see the servings untouched.

– Well, you should leave the chatting for after lunch, observed Madam Emilia promptly, and start eating now, before the food gets cold!

– Rightly so! The Prefect added with his mouth full.

– You have a very good chef, agreed Madam Dora, in between two bites. I believe it must cost you a fortune to keep her.

– Nonsense, my dear, in the countryside, if you give them food and a place to dwell, the servants are obedient and content.

After these remarks were made, everybody was silent, because they had no time for conversation. The broth, the stakes, the stuffed bell peppers, the home made cookies and the sponge cake were flowing onto the table, and everyone ate as much and as fast as they could, so they could have some of everything. It was as if the end of the world was coming!

Once their appetite was satisfied, and their bellies were stuffed full, the elder ladies and gentlemen retired to the living room, where it was cooler, to savor their coffees and drinks leisurely.

Ovidiu was dosing off, so Ana suggested Anton they should take a stroll through the garden. Anton wasn’t too happy about it, because he would have liked to talk to Ovidiu about his meeting with the girls, but finally he had to give in, since there was no way around it. They took one of the alleys which had, on both sides, all kinds of roses of many colors, and which was guarder by secular beech and oak trees. The garden, as everyone called it, was, in fact, a rather large park, where you could easily get lost. Anca went a little ahead and was picking up  rosebuds, romping about with joy that Anton agreed to this walk. Suddenly, she stung her finger in a spine and she shrieked softly, only loud enough for Anton to hear, and then she began to wallow that she was bleeding. Anton reached her swiftly, took her hand and sucked the blood dripping along her finger, and then he looked her in those burning eyes and said:

– Dear, I don’t think you should pick roses with your bare hands. The thorns can sting even worse than this. You would need some scissors and a wicker basket in which to put the flowers you cut.

Anca lifted her eyes slowly and battered her long, black eyelashes. She looked him straight into his blue eyes with a disarming innocence; she put her arms around his neck and kissed him passionately. At first, getting carried away, Anton hugged and kissed her back with the same intensity, but, realizing what he was doing, he tried to release himself from the embrace as gently as possible, so as not to offend her.

– What are you doing, Anca? Don’t you think we’ve known each other for too little time to be kissing already?

She bowed her eyes, ashamed, and pretended to arrange the flowers…

– I couldn’t help myself; your eyes make me shiver! And then, this is the fashion in Bucharest. If you like a boy, you don’t keep him waiting too long for a kiss. In fact, there was no harm done. I like you and I want to be yours entirely! Anyway, our parents are arranging our engagement. I believe they are talking about it as we speak.

When Anton heard what all that was about, he went red in the face with anger, and began to sweat nervously. 

– Listen, Anca, had I known the purpose of your visit here, I wouldn’t have accompanied you into the garden. You are a pretty girl, beautiful, one might say, and I don’t think many would say no to your hand in marriage, but I am in love, do you hear me? In love! With another girl and I can’t forget her when I’m with you. I’m not happy about your courtship, or about our parents thinking of marrying us. I don’t want you, I want HER, I dream about her every night!

– But who is this lass, dear? Asked Anca and she got really upset upon hearing these. 

She began to shiver and she dropped the flowers.

– I don’t think she is of a proper family, I would have heard it by now. Is she some girl from a village around here? You don’t say! And here I am, making odds and ends to come and meet you and get engaged… And what do you do? You trade me for a filthy peasant girl, who smells of straws and manure? I thought you were a well-bred gentleman, a grand boyar’s son, with good taste, especially in women, but I’m obviously barking at the wrong tree. That’s all right, I will prove to you that I’m not the silly and easy girl you’re looking at right now, and I will try to conquer you with the best that I’ve got… and you know what? I will not give up easily. We are meant for each other, even if you fight it now.

Saying this, she turned around and walked back towards the house.

Anton stood there appalled, without any proper reply to her speech, so he let her go and sat down under an oak tree, feeling suddenly tired.

Meanwhile, Katrina surprised Maria by leaving her alone and going back to the manor, under the weak pretence that she wanted to have a word with her father. She came close to the large gate, when she heard Anton talking to Anca. She was stunned to see the two of them kissing, but she caught her breath when she saw Anton rejecting Anca. Katrina stood still until she saw Anca leaving, then she tiptoed closer to Anton. He seemed lost in his train of thoughts, and she asked herself whether or not to disturb his meditation. She braced up, took a few steps forward into the grass, unnoticed, she thought, but Anton felt her presence and lifted his eyes.

– Ah, Katrina, how are you, my dear girl?

– Young boyar, what are you doing here in the garden, are you lost in thoughts?

– I’m lost, my darling, because I wonder how hypocritical can some people be. You probably saw the whole scene. How can a girl of her rank behave like that, like a woman of vice? And how can one force a man to marry… well, to get engaged, to a girl preferred by his family, by society, by others, but for whom he has no  feelings whatsoever?

Katrina kneeled in front of him and took his head into her hands, caressing him…

– Come, now, don’t be so upset, time settles everything. All harm can be fixed with a little bit of will on your part. You only need to want, or to not want, to do a certain thing. Nobody can tell you to marry a woman you don’t like or don’t want to. 

– Did you hear everything Anca and I spoke? The last part as well?

– Yes… And who is this girl you’re so much in love with?

– You still didn’t understand that it was about you? You’re the girl I dream about every night, you’re the girl I kiss in my dreams, every second of my life! 

And with these words he pulled her towards him and kissed her tenderly, caressing her long, golden hair, that was waving over her arms and bosom. For a second, he touched her firm, round, breast in a ginger caress. She tried to push away from his embrace, but he held her firmly.

– Stay here, I won’t bite you. You still don’t understand that I want you whole for myself? That I want to marry you, despite everyone who will stand against it, despite my own parents?

Katrina gave in to his embrace and put her hands with long, delicate fingers, around his neck.

– Only now I truly understand everything you think about me, and I’m so happy it is so, because everybody told me you will not want to marry me, that I would only be your mistress, for as long as you’d like, until you got bored of me. It seems you love me more than everyone expected, and I want to confess to you that I love you just as much. You are my knight in shining armor, my Prince Charming, riding a white horse, like in Creangă’s fairy-tales. I’ve never dreamed to be loved by a man like you! You mean everything to me!

They could hear footsteps and rustling coming towards them. They broke the embrace at once and cast glances towards the source of the noise. Strolling away through the trees, they could see Ovidiu, who was surprised to find them together.

– What are you two love-birds doing out here, together? Anton, I imagined you’d be “crushed” with pain after Anca left you alone in the garden… And you couldn’t care less; even worse, you soothe your sorrow with our beautiful Katrina! Well done, kids, you look great together! But I don’t expect your parents will agree to this relationship. I’m only here to summon you at the manor, for a regular family council. Anca came crying into the house, wallowing that you would not pay any attention to her, that you would not engage to marry her. You should have seen the hysterical fits she pulled, it was quite a show!

– So, it’s settled, then, the engagement between you two, said Katrina, bitterly… Everything we spoke here it’s just dust in the wind. You see, Anton, that’s why people tell me not to trust your sweet words. Everything you promised me here it’s gone with the wind, in a blink of an eye. Go on; get ready to stand your parents’ trial. We shall meet again some other time!

Speechless, just as before, Anton looked sadly at Katrina’s silhouette moving away and going out the main gate. Then he looked terrified at Ovidiu, who was sweating because of the heat, and said:

– Well, then, to the battle we go, brother, this is no trifling matter!

They started slowly towards the manor, each step smaller than the previous one, as if they never wanted to reach their destination… And they went into the house all sweaty and nervous about what was to come.

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