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.
* * *