EXCERPT FROM “SPRING RETREAT,” PART 3

RUSSIANS IN SONOMA

“But, Alexei, we have made a good life here. What is there for us back in Russia other than the ostracism of my family? You know they’ll never let you progress in the ranks there as you might here or in Sitka.” It wasn’t the first time Helena made the plea to her husband.

“My dear, I know best in these matters and you really must let me do what I think right. Hadn’t you better see to Monsieur du Mofras’ entertainment? I must see the Captain and get provisions on board for the Alaskan settlements. He already has my letter requesting transfer and will see that it gets on its way to St. Petersburg.” Having said his piece, Alexander Rotchoff, commandant of Russia’s southernmost settlement on the North American continent, left the room.

With a sigh that might have been of sadness, Helena prepared to greet their distinguished guest as he made his way toward the house from her garden. M. du Mofras was with the French legation in Mexico City and was making a tour of the coastal area. Alexei thought his motives were innocent, but Helena, a princess of the house of Gargarin, had grown up in the midst of household and political intrigue. She was suspicious. Dinner last night went quite nicely. She delighted in serving her best Bordeaux and the Frenchman was genuinely startled to see and hear her play from an original Mozart piano score. The distraction of an interesting guest would be more enjoyable if only Alexei would be more reasonable.

“Ah, Madame, I am not disturbing you?”

“Please, M. du Mofras, won’t you join me for tea? The samovar is always at our call,” responded Helena in her purest Parisian French. “Perhaps you know the story of our settlement?” asked Helena, as she poured. Last night’s dinner conversation had dealt with recent events abroad.

“Wasn’t it Captain Ruskoff who found the Ross Colony?”

“Yes, he came from Sitka to establish a garden for the Alaskan communities. He went as far south as the bay the Spanish call Bodega, but then he returned here.”

“Perhaps he found the soil and climate here would raise better crops,” said du Mofras.

“I suspect you’re right. Captain Ruskoff became a folk hero to our people, traversing the wilds on his one good leg and opening up new territories. He found friendly natives here who called the place ‘Mad Shui Nui.’ He got a bargain lease at three blankets, three pair of britches, three horses, two axes and some beads. I’m afraid it wasn’t any more honorable a price than the Dutch paid for Manhattan.”

M. du Mofras chuckled at the story and added, “Perhaps those items were worth more in 1812 than now, nearly thirty years later.”

An hour later, a mounted party of six could be seen leaving the fort: two Russian soldiers in front, Helena and M. du Mofras, Helena’s Pomo Indian maid and a male servant, burdened with picnic hamper and blankets. The soldiers and du Mofras were armed against the occasional bear or wild boar known to roam the coastal mountains. The afternoon passed quickly and, high in the hills, the party stopped to picnic. At Helena’s suggestion, Monsieur and one of the soldiers continued deeper into the country, leaving Helena to her private worries. Resting against a young redwood, Helena looked down on the fort, its surrounding orchards and grazing lands, to the sea.

“Oh, Alexei, can’t you see the wealth, the beauty, and the potential here! Thirty years, tui! That is nothing in the march of history. So, we devoured the otters and seals. Leave them be and they’ll be back. Let their Highnesses wear rabbit! The orchards are flourishing, we only need more. The soil and the fog may not be right for grain, but what of the cattle and sheep? We are a self-sufficient colony. There is little we cannot grow, make or build. And we have only begun to explore the Slavyanka and her primal forest.”

The heady wine, warm sun and her feelings overcame her. In her dream, Helena saw the history of Russia past and future. Blood ran, flags and crowns passed. Through the violence, the laughter and the tears, she saw one face clearly and it was Alexei’s. Her dream tried to awaken her.

“Darling, I’m here. Have you lost our guest?” teased Alexie.

Trembling and reaching for him, Helena spoke. “I was far away from here, in St. Petersburg, and there was much trouble and danger. But we were there together. Oh, Alexei, I’m so afraid.”

“Nonsense, Helena. It was nothing more than an afternoon’s bad dream. You will see. All your friends and family long for your return. I am sure your father will forgive our elopement. You are too precious to him for us to remain in exile forever.”

Helena gave up her effort to win him over. She missed her family and there was always the music and the ballet. She would return with him, but they must find a way to share their thoughts and feelings. She would insist.

The exuberant M. du Mofras and his guide returned soon after to find the Rotcheffs restored to each other’s good graces. The party followed the sun’s path, reaching the fort just as the sun took its plunge into the sea.

 *  *  *

 

 

Excerpt from “SPRING RETREAT,” Part 2

AILEEN’S STORY

At nearly six foot, Aileen Mary Shaver stood eye to eye with her husband. Her hair was the sort of red that gradually fades with the years. It was half as bright at thirty-five as when she was a young bride. Her hazel eyes remained clear and strong in color. Her sinewy frame turned any threatening fat to muscle. In a softer life, Aileen might have become matronly, but the hard life of the logging camp minimized that risk.

As the wife of the foreman, it fell to Aileen to supervise the company kitchen. Up at four, she directed the two Chinese hands in preparing meals for thirty men. She’d done all the work herself in the early years, but by the time she was twenty-seven with her seventh child due, Mr. Shaver went to the bosses. The bosses sent to San Francisco for the Chinese. In 1869, the gold fields and the City were flush with cheap labor. Chin and Wong were glad for the work. At first, they had only a smattering of English, but proved to be quick learners. Aileen found some respite and rescue from an early gravesite up on the hill.

Aileen’s seventh birth had gone badly for her, but the twins survived and no more pregnancies followed. The loss of eighteen month old Annie in ’65 and nine year old Seth, Junior, in ’67 had been hard to bear. It looked now as though the other children might make it safely to adulthood.

With little time to count her blessings, Aileen worked at a grueling pace from her early rising until after dark. Most foodstuffs were homegrown. Whether tending animals or garden, she was often out of doors. Her four room house was halfway up the hill and set apart from the mills
in Big Bottom. The smoke and haze lingered from March to October when the rains washed the sky clean.

“Oh, Mama, your Ohio washes were so crisp and clean, even in harshest winter! And your pure white Irish lace curtains! On my windows, they’d be Black Irish,” she thought with each turn at the washtub.

The town slid along the river with shanties braced against towering tree stumps. Folks called it Stumptown in the early days with good cause. Old timers like the Shavers built their houses on the surrounding hillsides to escape the mud and debris of the flats.

Most of the mill workers, loggers and men from the chair factory and fledgling tobacco farm were single. Barely twenty children were to be seen about town, though more and more women and infants were arriving on the weekly packet out of Santa Rosa. Aileen started teaching her own children almost from the cradle. After Annie’s death, she opened her parlor to all the camps’ children over the age of five. In time, there wasn’t a school aged child not attending Mrs. Shaver’s. By 1870, the church had been built and served as a school weekdays and Aileen was due to be replaced in September by a certificated teacher.
Today, the first Saturday in April, was Aileen’s special day. It was her day to walk deep into the forest, seeking out the wild mushrooms and bay. Later, she would search the fields and river bed for mustard, mint, arrowroot and wild asparagus. Leaving home before dawn, she followed the logging road into the ravaged forest. The road petered out about five miles from town and Aileen was ready to begin her search when she picked up the strong scent of the bay laurel.

“Lovely laurel, I spy you,
for sauces and mendicants I’ll brew.
Look you up and look you down,
I am here, there and all around.”

Laughing at herself for the silly verse, Aileen gathered the fragrant leaves. With a gunny sack nearly full of her treasures, she dropped to the ground and thought of napping.

“Aileen Shaver, you old fool, naps are for the very young or old or sick. But, then, today is different. No gardening, no teaching, no cooking or baking, no washing or tending or mending. Maybe just a short nap will do.” With a laurel pillow to rest her head on, Aileen looked to the sky. A bluebird darted about and a lone woodpecker was doing damage to an old tree.

“Must have lost your way, Mr. Pecker. Not many grubs to be found in this dark place. Go to the apple orchard and you’ll find a good dinner. Stay here and you’ll starve.” The woodpecker took her advice and flew off.

“I feel like I’m ten years old again and on the Ohio farm. Were there really days when I was free to roam, to read, to play and to do nothing?”

Drifting into her nap, Aileen’s eye caught a glimpse of a curiously shaped laurel tree. She was startled awake by recognition. “I know you, old tree. You are me. The storm knocked you over and down and now your back is arched from root to tip, but still you continue to grow. Tiny new growths remind me of the gifts of Annie and Seth. That branch, a different color and shape, reminds me of the uniqueness of Chin and Wong. Still another, reaching straight and strong to the sun, makes me think of my husband. He’ll be there, the companion of my final days. Laurel, you’ve taught me well.” Aileen rested as fully as her babies ever did.

She found the mushrooms along the pathway home. The sun was just going behind the hills across the valley as she climbed her own hill. The noises of home greeted her and Aileen welcomed the sounds.