The Russian Concubine - By Kate Furnivall


My warmest thanks go to Joanne Dickinson at Little, Brown for her enthusiasm and commitment and to Teresa Chris for her unfailing belief in the book. Many thanks also to Alla Sashniluc for providing me with Russian language with such energy and to Yeewai Tang for providing Chinese language with such grace.

A big thank-you to Richard for opening the door in my mind that took me into China, and to Edward and Liz for their invaluable encouragement. I would also like to thank the Brixham Group for listening to my woes and giving good advice, and Barry and Ann for taking me out to play when I needed it. And most of all, huge thanks to Norman for all his insight, his support, and his cups of coffee.



December 1917

The train growled to a halt. Grey steam belched from its heaving engine into the white sky, and the twenty-four freight carriages behind bucked and rattled as they lurched shrieking to a standstill. The sound of horses and of shouted commands echoed across the stillness of the empty frozen landscape.

‘Why have we stopped?’ Valentina Friis whispered to her husband.

Her breath curled between them like an icy curtain. It seemed to her despairing mind to be the only part of her that still had any strength to move. She clutched his hand. Not for warmth this time, but because she needed to know he was still there at her side. He shook his head, his face blue with cold because his coat was wrapped tightly around the sleeping child in his arms.

‘This is not the end,’ he said.

‘Promise me,’ she breathed.

He gave his wife a smile and together they clung to the rough timbered wall of the cattle wagon that enclosed them, pressing their eyes to the slender gaps between the planks. All around them others did the same. Desperate eyes. Eyes that had already seen too much.

‘They mean to kill us,’ the bearded man on Valentina’s right stated in a flat voice. He spoke with a heavy Georgian accent and wore his astrakhan hat well down over his ears. ‘Why else would we stop in the middle of nowhere?’

‘Oh sweet Mary, mother of God, protect us.’

It was the wail of an old woman still huddled on the filthy floor and wrapped in so many shawls she looked like a fat little Buddha. But underneath the stinking rags was little more than skin and bone.

‘No, babushka,’ another male voice insisted. It came from the rear end of the carriage where the ice-ridden wind tore relentlessly through the slats, bringing the breath of Siberia into their lungs. ‘No, it’ll be General Kornilov. He knows we’re on this godforsaken cattle train starving to death. He won’t let us die. He’s a great commander.’

A murmur of approval ran around the clutch of gaunt faces, bringing a spark of belief to the dull eyes, and a young boy with dirty blond hair who had been lying listlessly in one corner leapt to his feet and started to cry with relief. It had been a long time since anyone had wasted energy on tears.

‘Dear God, I pray you are right,’ said a hollow-eyed man with a stained bandage on the stump of his arm. At night he groaned endlessly in his sleep, but by day he was silent and tense. ‘We’re at war,’ he said curtly. ‘General Lavr Kornilov cannot be everywhere. ’

‘But I tell you he’s here. You’ll see.’

‘Is he right, Jens?’ Valentina tilted her face up to her husband.

She was only twenty-four, small and fragile, but possessed sensuous dark eyes that could, with a glance, for a brief moment, make a man forget the cold and the hunger that gnawed at his insides or the weight of a child in his arms. Jens Friis was ten years older than his wife and fearful for her safety if the roving Bolshevik soldiers took one look at her beautiful face. He bent his head and brushed a kiss on her forehead.

‘We shall soon know,’ he said.

The red beard on his unshaven cheek was rough against Valentina’s cracked lips, but she welcomed the feel of it and the smell of his unwashed body. They reminded her that she had not died and gone to hell. Because hell was exactly what this felt like. The thought that this nightmare journey across thousands of miles of snow and ice might go on forever, through the whole of eternity, that this was her cruel damnation for defying her parents, was one that haunted