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It was as I was returning from a trip up to Manchester that I saw the sign: ‘Stewartby Park Prestige Hotel’. I vaguely remembered hearing that the old place had been converted, some years after she died, but it hadn’t really hit home to me until that moment. Before I’d even realised it I’d swung the car between the gate posts and started up that familiar wide, sweeping gravel drive, framed by rhododendron bushes. After a few hundred yards I rounded a corner and saw again the huge, sprawling former stately home I’d last set eyes on more than 30 years earlier, its crooked Tudor chimneys silhouetted against the afternoon sky. I paused for a moment; it was ridiculous, in barely an hour I could be back in Maidenhead, relaxing in my own home, sipping my own 20-year old malt whisky, sleeping in my own bed next to Susie. But as I released the handbrake I knew I was going to check into the hotel, was going to spend a night again in this place that held so many memories for me.
I entered the cavernous reception hall, with its grand staircase winding towards the upper floors, its glassy-eyed stag heads on the wall, and its medieval polished suits of armour — they were an addition since I’d last been here. The wall behind the reception area was dominated by a huge portrait in oils, of a slim, elderly woman, haughty but with a warm twinkle in her eye, with Slavic features, dressed in white silk, a tiara perched in her white hair and a double string of pearls around her long neck. The receptionist noticed me staring at it and explained that it was of the lady who had formerly owned the estate. Of course, I didn’t need telling. Later, as I lay back in the king-sized bed in my room, I thought about that painting and the past flooded back into my mind.
It was 1975 and I’d just left university, very proud of my shiny new degree and determined to make up for the years when Susie had supported me with her salary and the handouts she got from her wealthy parents, despite their thinly disguised disapproval of me. We’d been married just over a year, and now Suze was pregnant with Jemma and it was time for me to become the family breadwinner. Not that we were going to be holidaying in the Seychelles on the weekly wage I was getting from my new employer, the Bedfordshire Weekly Gazette, but everyone has to start somewhere. Nobody would have believed then that the skinny, long-haired 23-year old in the fur-trimmed parka and the brown corduroy trousers would eventually achieve the status I enjoy today, Richard Chapman, one of the most respected commentators in the British news media.
My boss at the Gazette was Reg Hollins, the Features Editor, who’d been with the paper 40 years. (As is so often the way with small local papers, he was also Sports Editor, Crime Editor and Obituary Librarian.) One Monday about two months after I started, Reg called me into the broom cupboard he called his office and told me he wanted me to go to Stewartby Park — which I’d never heard of at that time — to interview the owner, the Grand Duchess Xenia Yekaterina Alexandrovna Romanova-Devers-Stewartby, no less. Once he’d explained to me who she was I raised objections. I was a bit of a leftie — the left wing of British politics still existed in those far-off days — and I’d gone into journalism to right social wrongs and reveal scandal and corruption in high places, not interview some old Tsarist crone, no doubt dripping in jewellery, furs, and opinions which would make Adolf Hitler sound like a modernising libertarian. But Reg patted me on the shoulder and introduced me to the real world.
“Look, College,” (his nickname for me) “I’d love to be sending you to interview Nixon about the truth behind Watergate, but unfortunately that doesn’t have much impact on the good citizenry of Bedfordshire. I’ve got a crap features page to fill with meaningless bollocks every week, and in case you haven’t noticed we’re not exactly overloaded with celebrities around here. I’ve done Eric Morecambe (our local comedy legend) to death, and the vintage car rally’s not till next month, so I’ve got to find something to put on the bloody page. Lady Xenia’s just turned 75, and the august journal which pays what we laughingly call our salaries was founded 75 years ago this month, so that’s a nice tie-in. Plus she’s a bit of a recluse, hardly been seen outside the place since Lord Stewartby died 15 years back, so her condescending to give us an interview is a bit of a scoop — a world exclusive you might say. Sarcasm aside, look on the bright side, she might tell you where they hid the Romanov millions, or where Anastasia really is, or something. Anyway, you’re doing it, so stop whining, get off your spotty Marxist-Leninist arse and get down there. She’s expecting you at two-thirty.” So I stomped bad-tempered back to my desk, grabbed my camera and notebook and, as I left the office, I heard the old bastard whistling Lara’s Theme from Doctor Zhivago.
Stewartby was a few miles outside Bedford, and as I approached it, along casino siteleri a country lane, I drove beside a mile of eight foot high stone wall, which turned out to be the boundary of the 400-acre estate I was to visit. The entrance was marked by two gate posts, lacking the gates that had obviously once hung there, each surmounted by a stone eagle balancing precariously on a cannon ball. The rather winding driveway took me between a forest of trees and flowered bushes, which opened out onto a wide circular gravelled area in front of a massive, ugly house. I couldn’t even begin to guess how big it was — four storeys, plus an artificial looking crenulated tower at each end, and what seemed to be hundreds of windows, most of them looking pretty grimy. As I parked I realised how out of place I was going to look in my War On Want clothes and my crappy, rusty Ford Cortina; but I wasn’t going to kowtow to any bourgeois aristocrat leftover from history, and I strode up the dozen steps to the massive front door with my head held high and firmly gripped the brass bell pull.
The butler who answered my summons was straight out of central casting — sixty-ish, six feet three, receding white hair, frock coat, and gold and black striped waistcoat straining over a puffed-up chest. I immediately felt about a foot shorter than my five-ten and, staring at my scuffed plastic shoes, mumbled that I was here to see her ladyship. The guy looked me up and down as if wondering how best to lift me into the bin without actually touching me, glanced with distaste at my car and, in a pained voice, told me he supposed I’d better come in. He pointed mutely at a red and gold chaise longue and, without another word, stalked off, his footsteps on the marble floor echoing around an entrance hall larger than my entire flat. From the distant wall a severed red deer stag’s head with huge antlers stared disdainfully at me. After a couple of minutes Jeeves returned and ordered me to follow him. We went down a long corridor panelled in dark wood and lined with 18th Century fox hunting prints, towards a very solid looking door, on which my guide rapped smartly before entering.
The room I followed him into was a surprise — it was delightful. Small and cosy, decorated in cream, with a matching modern three-piece suite, French windows looking out on a pretty rose garden. Sitting in a comfortable armchair, one hand on the handle of a tall silver coffee pot, was the lady I’d come to see. She rose as I entered and, with a warm smile, stepped forward and shook my hand then directed me to a chair opposite hers. In flat shoes she was a couple of inches shorter than me, with a surprisingly firm handshake. In a light voice tinged with, to my ears, a slight Zsa Zsa Gabor accent she invited me to sit in the chair opposite hers, in front of a real fire, and dismissed the butler with thanks. As I sat an elderly cocker spaniel, sprawled in front of the fireplace, raised its head, but clearly decided I wasn’t as exciting as the rabbits of its dreams and flopped back down.
Lady Xenia offered me tea and, as she poured for me from a silver pot I surreptitiously studied her. Her snow white hair, permed into loose curls, hung almost to her shoulders. Her skin, almost as pale as her hair, seemed as thin as tissue paper, stretched taut across her high cheekbones, marbled by fine blue veins at her temples and on the backs of her hands. She had a good bone structure, only a few laughter lines around her pale blue eyes and mouth, a nose just a little too long and pointed for perfection and thin, wide lips. I guessed that in her youth she was probably breathtakingly beautiful. She was dressed in a cream silk blouse and navy slacks which emphasised a trim figure. I thanked her for the tea, calling her your ladyship, but with another warm smile she said, “Please, you must call me Xenia, and you are Richard, yes?”
My determination to despise the Russian grand duchess of my imagination quickly disappeared as I relaxed and chatted to this elegant, charming lady. After we’d talked for a few minutes she said, “Well, you’re here to learn about my life, aren’t you, so I suppose I had better tell you.” She explained that she had been born in St Petersburg in 1900, a distant cousin to Tsar Nicholas II. His daughters had been her childhood friends, especially Olga and Anastasia. To my embarrassment Xenia wiped away a tear as she told me of her devastation at their assassination, and how she blamed Britain’s Queen Mary for it. “People say it was King George who stopped Uncle Nicky and the family coming to England, for fear of the British communists, but in truth it was Mary who insisted against it. She was a very minor German princess who married above herself and, like so many small people in that position, she adored exercising her power and influence.” The blame didn’t stop there either. “The Bolsheviks offered to let the girls go at least, but their stupid, sauerkraut mother Alicky (the Tsarina) wouldn’t let her little güvenilir casino chickens go without her, so instead she allowed them all to be slaughtered with her.”
Truly fascinating though these snapshots from history were, time was wearing on and I still knew very little about the Grand Duchess herself. How, for example had she escaped the Revolution? “My papa paid an officer in the Imperial Guard, Captain Kazamirov, to get me away. He must have been in his mid-30s but, my God, he seemed so old to me, although rakishly handsome. Petersburg and the route to Finland were locked off by the Reds, so we had to go south. It wasn’t easy, but the countryside was in total chaos.” She paused for a moment, then said, in a very calm voice, “Kazamirov waited until the third day before he raped me while I slept — my 18th birthday. After that he made it clear that I was his price for carrying out his mission. I was to sleep with him every night, and do whatever he demanded, or he would simply abandon me, or worse. He was a pig, but I had grown up in palaces, I knew nothing of real life, the entire country was in chaos, so I did his bidding.”
I listened with growing astonishment as she continued the tale of her flight. Her father had given her money and jewels, but that was quickly used up as the pair paid their way across the land, dodging Bolshevik lynch mobs. At one point, near Rostov, they were captured, and for 24 hours it looked as if they would be killed. “But then I let the brigands’ leader have me over his desk in return for safe passage.” It was not just the story Xenia was telling me that had me staring at her in open-mouthed incredulity; it was also the matter-of-fact way she was relating it, as if she was describing a slightly irritating journey to work by public transport. She actually smiled at the look on my face. “When you are desperate enough to live, Richard, you will do whatever is necessary to achieve it. When I left my parents’ home I had never so much as held a boy’s hand. By the time we reached Sochi I was as skilled at pleasuring men as any Moscow street whore. Kazamirov once told me that he had slept with a thousand whores, and I had the cleverest tongue in all the Russias.”
In Sochi Kazamirov found a Dutch merchant ship whose captain agreed, for a high price, to carry Xenia to sanctuary. The price included an armed guard on her cabin door every night, and to his credit the captain kept that bargain. Kazamirov didn’t go with them, but faded into the murky shadows of a country in turmoil. Xenia never found out for sure the fate of her parents, but the family home outside St Petersburg became the dacha of a high-ranking Soviet minister. She was quiet for a few minutes after that, while my head spun at what she’d told me. Then she said, “I haven’t thought about those days for a long time. I am tired now. We will continue this tomorrow Richard.”
I hadn’t planned on visiting the place more than once, but before I could say anything she’d summoned old Jeeves and he’d whisked me out of there like a bad smell. As I drove away I was beginning to think that there was more than just a provincial newspaper feature in this, possibly an entire biographical volume. I stopped at a telephone box to give Reg the bad news (the only place where they had mobile communications devices in those days was the Starship Enterprise). I could envisage him raking his hand through his thinning hair as he sighed heavily and replied, “Okay, but don’t forget, College, your deadline’s four o’clock Thursday, or we’ll be printing your obituary come Friday.”
The following morning Suzie looked at me in amazement when I dressed in a suit and tie for work. The look turned to one of scorn when I explained that as I was interviewing a member of the Russian nobility I felt I ought to make a bit of an effort. As I arrived at Stewartby, just after nine in the morning, I saw Xenia emerging from the woods behind the house, dressed (ironically) in corduroy trousers, complemented by walking boots and a wax jacket, the dog at her heels. As she approached she gave me a cheery wave, and explained that she liked to walk at least two miles every day. Then she looked me up and down, and said almost teasingly, “You’re looking very smart this morning Richard.”
She led me into the house via a small utility room where she removed her boots and jacket, then left me in her sitting room while she showered and changed. I sat and petted the old spaniel for a while, getting muddy paws on my suit, then took the opportunity to have a look at some silver-framed photos standing on a sideboard and confirmed my suspicions about my hostess’s looks. In one of the pictures she was in her twenties, quite stunning in monochrome, a willowy blonde wreathed in furs and diamonds, accompanied by an equally glamorous young man in top hat and tails.
I jumped as the duchess spoke close behind me — I hadn’t heard her enter. “That’s dear Teddy Mountebanks — he and I were lovers for canlı casino a while in, oh, 1922 I think.” I was still a bit shocked at the relaxed way in which she talked about her ‘romantic encounters’ to almost a complete stranger, and she laughed brightly at the look on my face. Shaking her head as she sat, she said, “You young people, you act as if you invented sex! I found early on that I enjoyed being with men, and that I was good at it. When I first arrived in England I was young, beautiful and exotic, but penniless. Fortunately I met several lovely young men who saw to it that I never had to pay for anything, and who were very kind to me.” Sitting opposite her, I gallantly told Xenia she was still beautiful. She laughed off my compliment, but clearly enjoyed it. She was wearing a knee-length, short-sleeved black dress, with a silver and pearl brooch at her left breast. The dress accentuated the paleness of her skin and, I couldn’t help noticing, revealed a surprisingly shapely pair of lower legs, sheathed in sheer black stockings.
Xenia continued her story from the previous day. The Dutch ship had taken her to Alexandria, where the British administration had arranged her transit to England. She stayed there for a couple of years, but found it dull. “I met the king and queen a few times, but generally they froze me out, like all the Russian aristocracy who had settled in London. In the spring of 1921 Xenia accepted an invitation to accompany her latest paramour on a luxury cruise liner to New York. She didn’t love the man, but she did fall in love with the Big Apple.
As she spoke nostalgically of her days as the toast of New York society, the men who had buzzed around her like flies, and the ones she took as lovers, I was slowly drawn into the glamorous world of her memories. Listening to her reminiscences, I could see the beautiful young woman from that old photo in the elderly lady sitting before me. In fact, despite the white hair, and the frailty of her advanced years, she still was beautiful. Her eyes shone, her gleaming smile radiated warmth, as she laughed at some memory or other her small but prominent breasts rose and fell. I had never previously thought it about an elderly lady, especially one older than my grandmother, never even considered the possibility, but there was no doubt that Lady Xenia Stewartby remained a very attractive woman.
She drew proceedings to a halt at the point where, after five years of playing the field of high society in Manhattan, she met her late husband. It was still early afternoon and I pleaded with her. “Please Xenia…your ladyship,,,I have to file this story in two days’ time, and I need time to write it up. Can we not go on just a little bit longer?”
She smiled but shook her head firmly. “Tomorrow Richard. Then, I promise you, I will tell you everything else there is to tell about me.” I didn’t like it, and I knew Reg would be tearing his hair out when I told him, but I had no choice. Instead of calling her butler Xenia led me towards the front door herself, but she paused at the entrance to a side corridor. “Would you like to see the ballroom?” Anything to spin things out a bit longer I thought, and smiled and nodded. She led me down the corridor to a large set of double doors, and flung them open. The room beyond was huge, with a raised stage at one end, but rather dingy with a scuffed wooden floor, and looked as if it hadn’t seen a paintbrush for at least 20 years. But as Xenia’s eyes roamed over it they sparkled, and her voice softened. “Ah, we had some great times in here, such wonderful balls. A full orchestra playing, the cream of society; it only ever gets used for the occasional village bring and buy sale and suchlike these days. Do you know, I danced with David…Edward VIII as he became…in this room. He was a lovely dancer, and a gorgeous man. That was only a few months before he met that dreadful Simpson woman who ruined everything…”
Her voice trailed off, leaving me wondering exactly what Wallis had ruined, then, surprising me, she turned to me, took both of my hands in hers and asked, “Will you dance with me Richard? Just one dance.” I thought maybe I’d found her batty streak, but I needed to keep her happy so I moved into a waltz position and we began twirling around the room. Xenia started to sing a tune from her memory; she was an infinitely better dancer than I, still very light on her feet, and I began to relax and actually enjoy the dance, my arm resting lightly around her slim waist as she gazed into my eyes, a broad smile on her face. We danced for perhaps five minutes then Xenia halted and stepped back. My hand in hers she half-whispered “Thank you Richard. It is so long since I’ve done that.” Still holding my hand she led me to the entrance hall, past the snooty butler, and, at the door, leant in and kissed me on the cheek before mouthing “I’ll see you tomorrow darling.” My stomach was churning as I steered down the long drive to the road, my mind fogged in confusion. I was a young, married man, very much in love with my wife, who was carrying my unborn child; yet as I’d danced with Xenia I’d felt a distinct stirring in my loins, and thoughts had flashed through my head which I would never have believed I could have about an old woman.
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