We get a picture of the period as Ernst's landau drives up to Aksinya's house. A landau is a type of carriage. Ernst's carriage is a convertible landau with a two in hand team. This means he is very wealthy and very chic. A landau is considered a prestigious vehicle for the time. Having two horses and a driver make it very much a rich man's carriage. It is closed up for the winter weather.
On Thursday, a landau carriage drove up to the front door of Aksinya’s house. The convertible roof was up and the side flaps were tied tightly shut against the cold. The two dark horses blew out great puffs of frosty breath when the driver brought them to a halt. The driver jumped to the street and opened the flap on the house side. Ernst von Taaffe stepped out the landau and walked to the door. He held a small bouquet of flowers in one hand. He knocked on the carved cedar door himself.
Sister Margarethe opened the door to him, “Good evening.”
Ernst pushed past her into the house. He pulled off his top hat, “Good evening, Sister.” He glanced at her for only a moment, “I’m here to pick up that wonderful Lady, the Countess of Golitsyna.” He juggled the top hat and the small bouquet for a moment then handed her his card, “Will you please tell her that Ernst von Taaffe is here to attend her.”
Sister Margarethe took the card then her hand stole to her cheek, “You are here to pick up the Countess?”
“Yes, I am expected. I have an appointment.” He smiled.
Sister Margarethe backed toward the end of the room. As an afterthought, she called back to Ernst, “Please make yourself… comfortable. I shall return presently.”
Aksinya and Natalya almost ran into Sister Margarethe on the stairs. Sister Margarethe pressed her lips together, “A man is here.” She could barely get out the words. Then her eyes finally focused on Aksinya and Sister Margarethe let out a tiny squeak, “You were expecting him?”
“Of course,” Aksinya pushed past the Sister.
Natalya paused a moment beside Sister Margarethe. She smiled and nodded then she continued after her mistress.
Aksinya stepped into the parlor, and Ernst dropped both his hat and the flowers. Aksinya wore a dark blue dress made entirely of satin. The fabric shown brilliantly. Each twinkle of the gaslights reflected in it and blazed. It was an older noble cut, but certainly not out of style for visiting a tsar. The top was covered with brocade—a blue on blue whose design was so intricate, Ernst’s eyes could not discern its entirety in the dim light of the room. A mist of lace floated upward from the brocade to cover Aksinya’s shoulders. That was matched by the lace of the small veiled cap that covered her short hair.
Ernst could only beam when he saw her. He recovered the flowers and dropped to his left knee, “Countess, you are ravishing.” He held out the bouquet, “Please accept this small gift.”
Aksinya took the flowers. She knew it was no small gift. In the middle of winter such a bouquet of fresh flowers was very dear. It was made of a single red rose surrounded by lilacs and edelweiss. She brought them close to her nose. They smelled very pleasant. She smiled behind the bouquet, “Aren’t you being a little presumptive in presenting me with a red rose?”
“Not at all, you accepted it, didn’t you?”
“So I did, Herr von Taaffe.”
We see many indications of wealth here: the carriage, a driver, the clothing, the flowers, a calling card. Ernst had his driver rush--the horses are winded while pulling an almost empty carriage. He has a small bouquet, obviously for Aksinya. Such a bouquet in post WWI Austria would be especially expensive and hard to find. Ernst wants to impress and express his love.
The moment the door opens, Ernst pushes his way into the house. Ernst obviously knows something about Aksinya's house. It should be evident that Ernst has information from another source--how about the demon? He pushes into the house passed Sister Margarethe. He is very polite, but he gets in the door. You always hand your calling card when visiting in this culture and level of society. Note that Ernst is a little nervous and uncomfortable, but tries not to show it.
The moment Sister Margarethe leaves to get Aksinya, she meets Aksinya and Natalya coming down the stairs. The Sister reads Aksinya's face. She knows something is up. Aksinya is back in control of herself and to a degree, her world. Natalya is following and keeping up again.
The moment Ernst sees Aksinya, he drops his hat and the flowers. We understand from this that she appears truly ravishing. I try to show you how ravishing she is, but the reaction of Ernst is better than a thousand words. I also continue the running descriptive joke about the style for visiting a tsar. This reminds you that Aksinya is Russian and that she is nobility. I also remind you that her hair is short--we can't ever forget the hair, since it represents the reason she is here and in her predicament.
Ernst is somewhat romantic. Although his letter wasn't a girl's dream, he brings flowers in winter (a very big deal in 1918 Austria). The bouquet is simple. It is a single red rose with purple and light blue flowers around it. In German and Austrian culture a red rose signifies love. By accepting such a gift, a person has accepted the feelings of the giver. You don't bring red roses unless you mean it, and you don't accept them unless you mean it. Thus, we start the evening with Ernst von Taaffe. We shall see how he and Aksinya fair tomorrow.
I said I would mention markers a little. In writing historically based novels, like this one, a key point is to use markers to set the time and place. These markers are significantly different than the usual makers in setting a scene. The reason is that in a real historical novel, time moves. In a nonhistorically based novel, or a novel in a historical setting, time doesn't matter much. You tell your readers once that you are in 1920 and there you are. The time and the novel don't depend on the movement of time. It is as if the world stopped for that novel. In a historically based novel, the world moves around the novel and time in the novel is critical. This is why I am careful to the point of exactly determining the precise days of the calendar for the years, months, and days I am writing about. When I tell you it is Monday the xth, it was really Monday the xth. You can use tricks to make certain you don't trip yourself up, and you can work the days, weeks, and months to make the times work out. In addition, the events of the world should occur within and without the story--that is if they drive the story, plot, or theme. Usually, I like to put letters (dated and with an address), seasonal references (winter, spring, etc.), church season references (Advent, Epiphany, Lent, etc.), historical markers (end of WWI, famous treaty, famous person, etc.) to mark important time events. In my Aegypt novels, the time was so important to the writing, my publisher asked me to put a month, year, and place at the beginning of each chapter. It think that was a great idea. I might add it to this novel, although, I think here the time markers are strong and the movement of the times is both obvious and well marked.