Karen slipped quietly out of the Schloss Wertheim at first light the next morning. She hoped that she’d be able to carry her heavy suitcase as far as the bus stop without too much trouble. She hoped that the Countess had believed her white lie about needing to leave this morning rather than this evening as the School needed her back early because the kitchen ceiling had fallen in. It was the best she’d been able to come up with in the state that she’d been in last night and was in still. Above all, she hoped that Rudi would be able to forgive her for the note she’d pushed under his door (luckily one of the maids had had a list of who was staying in which room) saying that she’d realised that they weren’t right for each other, that she didn’t think they should see each other again, and that she was sure that in time he’d realise that it was for the best.
Last night, when she’d realised what he’d been going to say, she’d completely and utterly panicked. She’d stopped him before he’d even had chance to ask the question, saying that she didn’t want to have this conversation outside the ballroom where anyone wanting a breath of fresh air might walk out at any minute, and that they’d be better talking about it in the morning. She knew that just leaving like this, without telling him in person and explaining things properly, was a terrible thing to do; but surely this was better than a long and painful conversation that would only be even more distressing for both of them. She didn’t want to hurt him any more than she was doing already.
Lying awake in tears for most of the night, she’d known that if there were just the two of them to consider then they could be happy together. They might not have spent much time together, but they knew everything that really mattered about each other. She knew that they’d argue sometimes, because they were both strong-willed and they could both be stubborn, but she knew that they’d always make up afterwards. She knew that she wasn’t the easiest of people to live with, that she flew off the handle sometimes no matter how hard she tried not to, but she also knew that he was the one person who’d always met her fits of temper head on and never been fazed by them. She’d thrown a glass of lemonade over him once, when he’d said something that she hadn’t liked, and he’d looked at her mildly and said that he hoped that she wasn’t thirsty because she needn’t think that he was sharing his lemonade with her after that … and it’d been a boiling hot day and she’d been dying for a drink.
And she knew that his habit of never putting things away properly (it’d driven her mad when he’d been working in the kitchens of the Kron Prinz Karl with her – she liked everything to be neat and tidy) and his constant talk about politics would have get on her nerves sometimes. But she also knew that he loved her, that he’d always take care of her, that he’d make her laugh, that he’d comfort her when he was upset; and she knew now that he’d never let her down. And she knew that she loved him and that she’d do everything she could to make him happy.
It was the rest of the world that was the problem, and all of it seemed to be a problem. How could she possibly accompany him to something like last night’s Grand Ball? She wouldn’t have a clue what to do or what to say. What if she inadvertently committed some horrendous breach of etiquette and made a laughing stock of both of them? He must have lots of smart friends in Boston: she could just imagine them all sneering at her behind her back, saying that he’d married beneath him. What if all the men went off to talk together and she was left with a load of snooty women with whom she’d have nothing in common and who’d all look down on her? She’d turn him into a social misfit. And what if she showed him up in front of some important business associate and then they refused to deal with the hotel any more?
And no-one there would speak German. Her English was fairly good after the years she’d spent at a British school, some of them living in Britain itself, but it wasn’t fluent … and American English wasn’t even quite the same as British English, was it? What if she couldn’t make herself understood, or if she completely misunderstood something that somebody said to her?
And she didn’t know anything about Boston, except that it was a big city and she wasn’t sure that she’d be able to cope with living in a big city. She wouldn’t know a soul there apart from him. She’d miss Anna. And what would she do all day, whilst he was out at work? She assumed that she’d be expected to stay at home, but surely the cooking and housework and shopping for just the two of them wouldn’t take up all her time, not when she was used to being up first thing in the morning and cooking and directing domestic operations for an entire school. She’d be bored and lonely, and how could she expect him to understand that when it wasn’t a situation that he’d ever have been in? And then there were his parents. He’d said that he wanted to put things right for them, but they’d hit the roof if he told them that he was going to marry her of all people. She could just see the two of them walking into Gretchen’s wedding together. His entire family would probably disown him on the spot, and it would all be because of her.
Oh, what a mess. And now she’d hurt him and she’d hurt herself as well. Oh, what had possessed her ever to come back to Tyrol in the first place? The sooner she was back in Switzerland, back in the Chalet School kitchen where she belonged, and he realised that he was better off without her, the better.
Karen kept looking at her watch nervously. She had to get to Innsbruck and on a train to Switzerland before Rudi could find her note, in case he came after her. He’d realise that she’d be taking the cross-border train from Innsbruck to Zurich. Or maybe he’d be too angry to want to see her ever again, or maybe he’d realise that what she was doing was best for both of them. And it was, wasn’t it? Or was it? She wasn’t really sure about anything at the moment; she couldn’t seem to think straight; but she certainly didn’t have any better ideas.
Why were buses so unreliable, especially at this time in the morning? She kept staring up the road, as if that might make the bus come sooner. “Come on bus,” she muttered. “Please hurry up.” Once she was on that train back to Switzerland, it would be all right. Even if he followed her to the Gornetz Platz, the School would turn away any visitor whom she said she couldn’t see. It was better this way. He didn’t need someone like her. Her eyes filled with tears again and she scrabbled in her coat pocket for her handkerchief. Pull yourself together, Karen. Oh, where was the stupid bus?
Rudi woke early, troubled by a feeling that something wasn’t at all right. He wanted everything to be perfect when he asked her to marry him, so he’d just let her go last night, not wanting to say any more when she’d told him that she didn’t feel comfortable talking in a place where anyone could have interrupted them at any minute … but he couldn’t help feeling that there’d been more to it than that. He knew Karen and he knew that something had been worrying her. That was inevitable, he supposed. She would have thought that he’d be asking her to give up her whole life … but, if she’d only given him chance to explain, he could have told her exactly what he had to suggest.
He shouldn’t have rushed things like that, though. She’d always been one to over-react, and he had a horrible feeling that he’d panicked her. When he’d first met her, all those years ago, he’d had a head full of dreams and ideals and he hadn’t always thought things though fully before he acted. She’d told him that often enough, and over the years he’d tried to be a bit more down-to-earth … but they’d been apart for twenty-one years and he hadn’t wanted them to be apart ever again, and she’d seemed so happy over the previous few days.
She was bound to be up and about. He knew from what she’d said about her life at the Chalet School that she was used to rising early. Maybe she’d be in the kitchen already, or walking about outside somewhere. He’d get up and dressed and go and see if he could find her.
Then he saw a piece of paper on the floor by the door. He went to pick it up, read it quickly, read it again more slowly, and then threw it back on the floor in frustration. “Oh Karen, what are you doing?” he muttered. Well, she must know very well that he wasn’t going to leave it at this. He hoped that, once she’d calmed down, she wouldn’t want him to. She must have been very upset indeed to have just left like this. There were tearstains on the note: the ink was smudged where she must have been crying whilst she was writing it. Oh Karen, could you not have talked to me?
She’d be going down to the Tiernsee to get the train from Seespitz to Spartz and from there to Innsbruck: she’d said something about having a return ticket. He glanced at the clock. The first buses of the day would only just have begun running, and she wouldn’t be able to walk down to the Tiernsee with a suitcase to carry. He’d seen the bus stop on his way to the castle the previous week: he knew exactly where it was. If he hurried, he should be able to catch her there. If he could just persuade her to sit down and talk to him, surely they’d be able to sort themselves out. He hoped. He was certainly going to try.
Karen heaved a sigh of relief as the bus came round the corner. She looked at her watch again. The trains to Spartz ran every hour, on the hour. She should be there in plenty of time to catch the next train. She wished that she could stop feeling so tearful: she was struggling to keep her emotions in check and she didn’t want to embarrass herself by bursting into tears on a public bus. She was doing the right thing, wasn’t she? She wished she knew, because, at the moment, it didn’t feel very much like it; but she’d made her decision now.
Then, as invariably happened every time you were trying to get anywhere whatsoever in a hurry, the traffic ground to a halt because of roadworks. Looking agitatedly at the time, Karen realised that she was going to have to walk very quickly indeed from the bus stop to the train station if she was going to catch the next train, which would be easier said than done given that she had a suitcase to carry. “Oh get a move on,” she muttered. Why did they have to be digging up the road just today, when she was in such a rush?
It seemed like a very long time before the Tiernsee hove into view and then they finally reached the Seespitz end of the lake. Karen alighted from the bus and began walking towards her destination as rapidly as possible. Wouldn’t you think that the wretched bus would stop a bit nearer the train station? she thought crossly to herself. She tried to quicken her pace, but it was difficult given that her suitcase was so heavy. Then, just as she was beginning to feel that she had a chance of catching the next train after all and making good her escape, she heard a voice calling her name. She turned round.
Rudi had reached the bus stop outside the grounds of the Schloss Wertheim just in time to see the bus leaving. He was sorely tempted to kick the pole marking the bus stop, in frustration, but he knew that that was hardly going to help. Now he was going to have to go back to the castle to get the car that he’d hired to use whilst he was in Tyrol. “What are you doing to me, Karen?” he muttered. What was the best thing to do now? He could go straight to Innsbruck, but the Bahnhof was a busy place and it would be easy to miss someone in there. It’d be better to go to Spartz: the bus would presumably stop fairly frequently between here and the Tiernsee, and then Karen’d have to wait for the mountain train from Seespitz to Spartz; so he should get there well before she did.
“Karen? It is you, isn’t it? Do you remember me?”
It was Jockel, the lad – at least, he’d been a young lad back then - who’d worked at the Chalet School in Briesau years ago. The last she’d heard, he’d been working for Cornelia Flower’s father; but evidently he was now back at the Tiernsee. Under other circumstances she would probably have been pleased to see him; but now she had to make it clear that she had no time in which to stand and talk.
“Gruss Gott, Jockel,” she said. “Of course I remember you. It’s good to see you and I wish that I could stop to talk, but I’m afraid that I’ve got a train to catch.”
She saw the offended look on his face and sighed. She couldn’t just walk away. “I’m sorry,” she amended. “How are you, Jockel? I didn’t know that you were back here.”
“I’m working at one of the hotels here: I park the cars and do odd jobs. Let me show you where it is and you can tell me how you are. It’s not far. I’ll carry your suitcase for you if you like.”
Karen was about to say that she really didn’t have time, but he’d taken her suitcase and started walking along the lakeside path, so she had little choice but to follow him. Then she realised with a sense of horror that he was heading towards the Kron Prinz Karl. Oh no. Set foot in that place she would not.
“I’m sorry, Jockel, but I really do have to get going,” she said firmly. “Would you let me have my suitcase back, please?”
“I’ll carry it to the station for you,” he offered. “I’m not on duty at this time of the morning. Come on, I’ll walk there with you.”
He talked all the way to the station about old times at the School: she felt that she wasn’t being very polite by not responding other than to nod or shake her head, but she couldn’t help worrying about the fact that time was getting on. As they approached the station, she heard a clock strike the hour and groaned. Even if she ran, there was no way that she’d make the Spartz train now. Great. Now she was going to have to wait here at Seespitz for a whole hour until the next one was due.
Rudi stood outside the castle, trying frantically to remember. Car keys. What had he done with them? They weren’t in his pocket: the only thing in there was the box containing the diamond ring that he’d chosen so carefully yesterday afternoon.
Where were they? In his room, because he hadn’t expected to need them. And where exactly had he put them? In a safe place somewhere that they couldn’t get lost … but where? He looked at his watch for about the tenth time in five minutes. Karen would have reached and left Spartz long before he got there at this rate. He was going to have to go straight to Innsbruck, and at this time of day he was bound to get stuck in traffic. Did he have any realistic chance of catching her? Well, he was just going to have to try. And, if he missed her at Innsbruck, then he’d go back to the castle, ask for the address of the Chalet School and take himself to Switzerland.
There was no way that he was giving up on her, not when they hadn’t talked through the issues that admittedly might exist, and she hadn’t even given him chance to tell her his idea. If she wasn’t so temperamental, she’d have told him exactly what was worrying her so that they could have had a rational conversation about it, instead of taking off like this and just leaving him a cryptic, tearstained note … but she wouldn’t be Karen if she was any different from the way she was.
Karen waited agitatedly for the Spartz train. The time was dragging: she was sure that the hands on the station clock were hardly moving. She took her book out of her suitcase and tried to read it, but she couldn’t concentrate and the words kept blurring before her eyes. Why had she had to miss the earlier train? The last thing she needed was time in which to think. She felt guilty every time she thought of him reading the note she’d left; and she was dreading the weeks and months ahead, having to get used to being without him all over again.
What other choice did she have, though? In the small, self-contained world of the Chalet School, a mere couple of hundred people, of whom only a minority were adults, lived under the same roof, day after day, together; and yet she’d never dream of going to sit in the staffroom and chatting to one of the middle class teaching staff any more than one of them would dream of coming to sit in the domestic staff’s sitting room and chatting to her or one of the maids. Society didn’t allow for gaps like that to be bridged even for friendship, much less for marriage.
She was relieved when the train finally arrived. Now all she had to do was catch the Innsbruck train at Spartz and then board the next Zurich train at Innsbruck, and she’d be away from here. Back to Switzerland, not that she was looking forward to that: she’d felt at home back in Tyrol over the last twelve days in a way that she’d never done and never would do in the Bernese Oberland. Back to real life. Back to her kitchen with its stove that never went out. And, once his niece’s wedding was over, he’d be going back to his hotel in Boston and the life that he’d made for himself there …and she’d never see him again … and she’d always be thinking “What if?” …
The road away from the Schloss Wertheim was, as Karen had found earlier, partially blocked by roadworks. All Rudi could see ahead of him was a long line of traffic. He wished that people would stop hooting their horns: doing that wasn’t going to make the cars in front move any more quickly, unfortunately. Maybe he’d be better trying to drive straight to the Gornetz Platz. No, he couldn’t do that. Quite apart from the fact that he had no idea of the way, he hadn’t got his passport with him. For now, he was just going to have to head for the Innsbruck Bahnhof and hope for the best.
Of course, although he hadn’t been here for a long time, he’d been born and bred in this part of the world. A lot of these busy main roads hadn’t been here in his youth. He knew a few back routes that other people would probably never think of. With a bit of luck, he’d be able to make it to Innsbruck before Karen did after all.
Karen left the mountain train at Spartz and asked for the time of the next train to Innsbruck. It would be the train coming from Salzburg, she knew. She was told that the next one was due into Spartz station in about twenty minutes’ time. That wasn’t too bad at all. She decided to have another go at reading the next chapter of her book: it wasn’t a particularly good one but it would help to pass the time.
Then an announcement came over the loudspeaker. “We are sorry to announce that the train arriving from Wien, via Salzburg, is running approximately quarter of an hour late due to engine trouble. We apologise for any inconvenience that this may cause to your journey.”
Karen went over to the ticket office. “Is there no other way of getting from here to Innsbruck?” she asked urgently, hoping that she didn’t sound too abrupt. “I understand that the train from Salzburg’s running late, but I have to get to Innsbruck and I haven’t got any time to spare. I need to get on a train to Zurich as soon as possible.” She’d have to change at Zurich for Interlaken, but she’d worry about that when she got there. Her concern at the moment was getting away from Tyrol. Tyrol, where everything important that had ever happened in her life had taken place: maybe it was fate that he should have come back here at just the same time as she’d come back here.
She made herself abandon her thoughts as the man at the desk looked up at her. “Zurich? There’s no need to change at Innsbruck,” he said. “The next train from Salzburg’ll take you straight through to Zurich. It’s the cross-border train.”
“Are you quite sure?” Karen asked in amazement. “Coming the other way I was definitely told to change at Innsbruck.”
“It depends on the time of the train,” the man told her. “Not all the Salzburg-Innsbruck trains run as far as Zurich, and not all the cross-border trains call at Spartz. This next train, which comes from Wien and then Salzburg, definitely goes on to Zurich after it’s called at Innsbruck.”
“Thank you!” Karen said. That made life much easier! Now all she had to do was get on this train and stay on it. She wouldn’t have to change at the Innsbruck Bahnhof after all.
Karen sat back in her seat as the train hurtled along on its way from Spartz to Innsbruck, and thought about how long it was likely to take to get from here to Zurich, from Zurich to Interlaken, and from Interlaken back to the Gornetz Platz. It would be a long journey, but by some point during the afternoon she’d be back at the Chalet School.
And the School authorities would think that good old Karen had come back early because the School was her entire life and she hadn’t know what to do with herself whilst she’d been away from it. And even if they did know what had really happened, they wouldn’t care as long as she made sure that all their cooking, cleaning, washing and ironing got done as and when they expected it. When, instead, she could be spending the rest of her life with someone who, amazingly, really cared about her, as much as she cared about him.
For a moment, she was so sure that she’d made the wrong decision that she almost decided to leave the train at Innsbruck, go back and hope desperately that he’d forgive her for running away like she had done and that he’d still want to marry her. There had to be some way that they could be together, some way that she could be accepted into his world. Maybe they could dream up a more suitable background for her, one that his friends and business associates wouldn’t be able to object to: maybe one of the doctors’ wives at the Gornetz Platz could give her some sort of training in how to behave like a proper middle class wife. Would he expect her to give afternoon tea parties like Frau Doktor Maynard did, she wondered wildly.
No: now she was being ridiculous. Even if she did try pretending to be something that she wasn’t and somehow managed to convince people of it, she knew that she’d never be able to live that sort of lie for long … and, anyway, his family would always know exactly who she was. But both of them would always be unhappy if they were apart. What was the answer? She didn’t know, and she didn’t know what to do.
Rudi reached the Innsbruck Bahnhof at last, parked the car and rushed into the station building. As he looked around frantically for Karen, he saw an elderly lady who was obviously finding it difficult to carry all her luggage, and knew that he couldn’t leave her to struggle. “May I assist you, meine Frau?” he asked. When she told him that she’d be very grateful for his assistance, he picked up her bags for her, saw her safely to her platform, walking as quickly as she could keep pace with, then looked around to see if there was some sort of noticeboard anywhere.
“I need to find out where the Spartz train arrives or where the Zurich train leaves from,” he muttered, more to himself than to her; but she heard and smiled at him. “They are one and the same at this time of day, mein Herr. The Spartz train stops here only briefly before continuing on its way to Zurich. Passengers travelling on from Spartz to Switzerland will have no need to leave the train here.”
He couldn’t believe it. Now what did he do?
“We are sorry to have to announce that this service will terminate at Innsbruck. Due to continuing problems with the engine, it will be necessary for all passengers to leave the train at Innsbruck. A replacement service will be provided as soon as possible for those passengers travelling on to Zurich and all stations in between. We apologise again for any inconvenience that this may cause. Please ensure that you have all your belongings with you when you leave the train. Once again, we are sorry to have to announce that this service will terminate at Innsbruck.”
Karen got off the train at the Innsbruck Bahnhof and made her way tearfully to the nearest seat whilst she tried to work out what she should do. Should she get on the replacement train to Zurich when it arrived, or should she turn back? If she went straight back to the Schloss Wertheim, would he still be there? And would he even want to see her, after she’d just walked out on him like that and said that she didn’t think they should see each other again. But if she just went back to Switzerland and left it like this, would she always regret it? At the moment, she didn’t think that she’d be able either to ask for a ticket back to Spartz or to ask where the replacement train to Zurich would be leaving from without starting to cry, so, before she did anything at all, she was going to have to stay put for a few minutes whilst she tried to calm herself down.
Rudi hadn’t quite been sure exactly what he’d been going to do when the Zurich train arrived, but he hadn’t had time to think about it before the train had pulled into the station, the doors had opened, and hordes of disgruntled people had poured out, all complaining volubly about the inadequacies of the public transport system and the inconvenience of having to wait at Innsbruck until a replacement train arrived. He found an emotional Karen a couple of minutes later, sitting on one of the seats at the end of the platform, staring at the ground and wiping away tears from her eyes. Not quite sure of what sort of reaction he was going to get and deciding that it was best to tread carefully, he sat down beside her and handed her his handkerchief.
“There’s supposed to be something very romantic about train stations,” he said wryly. “They seem to feature in a lot of films. Can’t see why myself: they always seem rather noisy and dirty to me. I gather that there’s a problem with the train going back to Switzerland.”
“I don’t want to go back to Switzerland,” she said miserably. She looked up at him. “I’m only going back because it seems like the only thing to do, for both our sakes: I don’t want to go back. I want to be with you.”
“You’ve got a funny way of showing it,” he said gently. “Wasn’t saying that we should never see each other again and then trying to flee the country a bit drastic, Karen? What could possibly have been so bad that you couldn’t have talked to me about it?”
Karen shook her head. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I just panicked. Everything was happening so quickly and the more I thought about it all the more it just seemed impossible.” She stopped there, unable to say any more, her eyes filling with tears again. He wanted to put his arms round her and tell her that everything was all right, but everything wasn’t all right and it was never going to be if they didn’t discuss all this sensibly and rationally. They’d both acted too hastily: both of them had always been too good at doing that; but now they were going to have to sit down and talk everything through slowly and calmly. What was more, they might be better off trying to do so in a public place, where the conversation wouldn’t end up with Karen shouting at him, him refusing to be put off by her temper and then the two of them falling into each other’s arms without anything having been resolved at all.
“Well, if you don’t really want to go back to Switzerland, how about coming to have a coffee with me instead?” he asked. “If you don’t mind my saying so, you look as if you need one. And I certainly do: I’ve just been on a mad chase halfway round Tyrol, trying to catch up with you.”
Karen managed a watery smile. “That’s better,” he said, touching her hand tenderly. “I can’t bear seeing you so upset. Come on. I’ll carry your suitcase for you. The café’s just over there. Let’s talk everything through, then we can decide what to do about it all, together.”
He picked up the suitcase with one hand, Karen clung tightly to his other hand, and they walked slowly towards the station café. He hoped that the coffee served there would be nice and strong. This conversation was inevitably going to be neither short nor easy.
There was hardly anyone else in the station café and Rudi found them a table in a quiet corner. Once the waitress had left their drinks on the table and gone away again, there was no-one else within earshot. “The coffee’s boiling hot,” he said softly. “I don’t want you trying to throw it over me. Had I better hold your hand to make sure that you can’t?”
Karen nodded and he reached over and took both her hands in his. “Please don’t look so nervous,” he said. “Not with me. I’m not going to ask you anything that you don’t want me to. I should never have rushed things like that in the first place. I was asking you to make a lot of changes in your life, all very suddenly; and I knew that something wasn’t right. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not you,” she said. “You know it’s not you. It’s everything else.”
“Can’t you tell me? I think I can probably guess at most of it, but we’re not going to get anywhere if you don’t talk to me about it. Please will you tell me, Karen? Everything? I promise that I won’t say a word until you’ve finished.”
He was as good as his word and he sat in silence whilst she told him everything that was troubling her, although he did shake his head vigorously and squeeze her hand tightly when she said that she was afraid that she’d be an embarrassment to him. Once she’d started talking she found that the words came much more easily than she’d expected, and she poured out all her worries about how she didn’t want to come between him and his family; how she was frightened that the people he knew in Boston wouldn’t accept her and that she’d make him a social outcast; how she wasn’t sure that she’d be able to cope with living in a big city in a country that she knew so little about, whose language she didn’t speak properly and where she wouldn’t know anyone except him; and how she actually enjoyed being a cook and she was afraid that she’d be bored and lonely all day whilst he was out at work.
“It’s not that I’m not willing to try,” she insisted. “I want us to be together so much. But marriage is for life and we come from different worlds and I’m frightened that we’ll both end up being unhappy. There’s no point pretending that all these problems don’t exist, because they do.”
“All right,” he said when she’d stopped speaking. “I understand everything that you’re saying; but I honestly don’t think that there’s anything that there isn’t a way round. My turn to speak now. Hear me out, Karen.”
“About my family,” Rudi began. “You do know that I’d always put you first, ahead of anyone else, don’t you?”
“I don’t want to come between you and your relations,” Karen said.
He stroked her hand. “I know that the way my mother and father treated you was appalling, and I’ve not always found them easy to get on with myself; but you’d find my brother and his family very different. I’m sure you’d like them, and I know that they’d like you. My sister-in-law’s had her differences with my parents herself: my father more or less browbeat my brother into sending Gretchen to the Chalet School when she was only ten, when my sister-in-law wanted her to stay at the perfectly good day school she’d been at in Innsbruck, just round the corner from where they lived. And my parents have never approved of me; and that’s because of me, not because of you.”
“You said that you were going to try to make things up with them, though,” she said. “I didn’t get to see very much of my parents in the last years before they died: they were in Austria, and I was with the school in England and then in Wales. I couldn’t really have come over here any more often than I did, but there’s never a day goes by that I don’t regret not having had more time with them. I don’t want to be the reason that you can’t put things right with your mother and father and spend time with them whilst you’ve got the chance. And we both know what they’d say if you turned up at the Kron Prinz Karl with me.”
He shook his head. “A lot’s happened over the course of the last twenty-one years, Karen. They’re not getting any younger, and living through another war and years of foreign occupation’s made most people see things differently. Gretchen told me that they seemed quite pleased when she told them that I was coming here for the wedding. It sounds as if they’ve mellowed, and hopefully that means that they’d be willing to accept both me and you; but if they weren’t then I’m afraid that that’d be their fault. Hopefully it wouldn’t come to that, but if it did then surely we shouldn’t let them come between us again, Karen. Haven’t they done enough of that?”
Karen nodded. He was right. She’d try: she’d grit her teeth and do her level best to get old Herr and Frau Braun to accept her relationship with their younger son; but, if they didn’t like it, then, as he’d said, it would be their fault. She and Rudi had been apart all these years because of their families: they were more than entitled to be together now.
“As to thinking that people wouldn’t accept you, or this idea that you could somehow show me up, I wish you wouldn’t think like that; but exactly what sort of life do you think I live? How many events like last night’s do you think I go to in a year? I’m hardly a member of the nobility like the von und zu Wertheims, am I? I’ve had to work for everything I’ve ever had, Karen: everyone in my family has. Don’t you remember my mother and my father working alongside each other at the Kron Prinz Karl?
“I don’t even know that many people in Boston: settling into life in a big city in a foreign country isn’t that easy, as you said yourself. It’s a wonderful city but it’ll never be home to me in the way that Tyrol is. And this is me you’re talking to: do you really think that I’d mix with the sort of people who judge someone purely on their job or their background or which knife and fork they use? I don’t live that sort of life, Karen: I never have done. And even if anyone were to say anything they shouldn’t about you, do you really think that I’d still want anything to do with them after that?
“Anyway … we wouldn’t necessarily have to live over there, live even the way that I’m doing at the moment, at all. I’ve got something to suggest, something that I was going to tell you about last night. It’s only an idea, just tell me if you don’t like any of it … but … well … would you be happier if we could live somewhere in Tyrol and work together?”
Karen hadn’t expected that. She’d resigned herself to the fact that she was going to have to try to adapt to a totally alien lifestyle if the two of them were to be together … so what was he suggesting now? Trying not to let herself hope for too much, she looked down at the table, then looked up at him again. “Tell me what you mean,” she said.
“I told you last night that Robert and I had decided that the idea of organising conferences in Tyrol seemed like a good one, and also that we’d decided that the Tyrolean resorts looked like becoming very popular with tourists before long. What I should have said next, before I said anything else, was that we’d decided to open a hotel of our own here. The original idea was to employ someone locally to manage it for us. However, we’re going to need someone who’s used to dealing with the American market to be in Tyrol for at least part of the time, to organise the conferences; and we both think that that ought to be me because I know the area. And it wouldn’t really make much sense for me to be splitting my time between two continents and incurring a fortune in travel costs when we could get someone to manage the hotel in Boston as easily as we could get someone to manage a hotel in Tyrol.
“And I want to come back to Austria, Karen. I like New England but I’m ready to come home. Not to Briesau, it’s not a big enough resort and anyway I don’t think that being too close to my mother and father would be a good idea, but maybe Kitzbuhel or Kirchberg, or more probably Mayrhofen. I don’t really know anyone in Mayrhofen but I’ve heard people say that it’s a friendly place and that you soon meet people, especially if you’re running a business there. And I’m very much hoping that it’s what you want as well, Karen. You’ve said that you hoped that the School’d move back to Austria one day; you’ve been sounding as if you want to come home as much as I do; but tell me if I’ve got it all wrong or if I’m assuming too much.”
“You haven’t got it all wrong and you’re not assuming too much,” she said shyly. “Mayrhofen sounds lovely. Wouldn’t you find it very different though, after running a big hotel in a city centre? The Tyrolean resort hotels, even the larger ones, only tend to be small.”
“Oh, I’d have more than enough to do, with the conferences to organise as well. Anyway, I’ve had enough of working all hours, taking paperwork home with me to keep me company: I always told myself that I’d never let my life get like that, but I have done. However, as you said, the hotels here tend to be very different from the one that I’m used to: they don’t have “management teams” like my hotel in America does. In fact, they tend to be family-run, like my parents’ hotel is. Usually by husbands and wives … which wouldn’t really be very good for a lonely old bachelor like me.
“And I know where I am with the business side of hotels but I don’t think I’d be all that good at organising the domestic side of things efficiently. Then there’s a problem in that the hotels in Tyrol tend to pride themselves on the quality of their food and I can’t cook to save my life: the staff at my hotel would tell you that I was my own hotel restaurant’s best customer, embarrassingly enough. And the restaurants at all three of the American hotels have the same menu so I don’t even have to worry about what goes with what, but it’s different here: the hotels usually offer a choice of two or three meals but it’s three different choices every night of the week.
“Am I making any sense, Karen? Like I said, it’s only an idea; and I haven’t had very long to think about it: tell me if you don’t like it. The coffee’s probably stone cold by now, so you can throw it at me if you’ve think I’ve got a nerve suggesting all this … but I thought that it’d be better than Boston for both of us, and you keep saying that you enjoy your job, and you said that you wouldn’t want not to work …”
“It’s perfect,” she said. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry: she was still trying to take it all in. “You couldn’t have suggested anything better. But you’re not just saying that you want to come back to Austria and change your whole way of life because of everything I’ve said, are you? And your business partner won’t mind?”
“I can’t think that quickly! No; it’s a genuine business idea and we were planning to open a hotel here anyway … although even if we hadn’t been then I’d have suggested it if it’d would have meant that you’d say yes to me, Karen. And Robert’ll be quite happy about it, it’ll make no difference to him whether I’m here and there’s a manager in Boston or vice-versa. The only difference from his point of view will be that he’ll be dealing with both you and me as partners here instead of just me; and I know that the two of you’ll get on. Are you sure about it, though? It’s going to mean a lot of changes for you as well as for me. You don’t have to decide now. I’ll wait as long as you want.”
“I’m sure,” she said. “I told you, it’s perfect. You and me together. Back home in Tyrol. Being able to run things without Miss Annersley giving out orders about what sort of oven blacking to use.” She giggled. “Don’t ask! And we’ll get to know people in Mayrhofen, won’t we? Plus it’s close enough to Briesau and to Innsbruck for us to see plenty of the people we want to see there, and it’s not really all that far from the Gornetz Platz for visiting.”
“It’ll take a while to organise everything,” he said. “I’ll still have to go back to America after Gretchen’s wedding, but it won’t be for long and then I’ll be back here, and we’ll have plenty of time together before everything’s ready.” He smiled at her. “Are you really sure? And are you happy?”
“I’m really sure. And I’m very happy,” she said.
“Good. Now, I hate to return to more mundane matters, but seeing as the coffee’s gone cold and that I’m starving because I came chasing after you without having anything to eat first, may I suggest that we order some more drinks and see what they can offer here for a very late breakfast? And then that we go? There’s still one more question that I need to ask you, a very important question, and a train station café really isn’t the right place for it!”
“Where are we going?” Karen asked suddenly when they’d got to the car and he was holding the door open for her. “I can’t go back to the Schloss Wertheim. I told the Countess that I had to leave early because the School’s kitchen ceiling had fallen in!”
Rudi laughed. “Was that the best you could manage? Oh well, you did a lot better than me: I just left a message saying that some urgent business had cropped up in Innsbruck overnight, which I don’t suppose for a minute that anyone will actually have believed! I’m going to have to apologise profusely when I go back to collect my things: I dread to imagine what they must all be thinking about me! But just now, no; we’re not going to the Schloss Wertheim.”
“Where are we going, then?” she asked.
He grinned. “Wait and see!”
“I am not getting in that car until I know where we’re going!” she said furiously.
“Suit yourself, but I’m ready to leave and you won’t get very far without me,” he said, walking round to the driver’s side of the car and getting in. “I’ve just put your suitcase in the boot and you put your purse and your train ticket in it!”
Karen got into the car. She’d intended to give him a black look, but instead she pulled a face at him and they both started laughing. “You haven’t really changed very much, have you?” he said, putting his hand on her shoulder affectionately.
“Neither have you,” she said. “And I feel more like myself than I’ve done in years. I’ve spent all these years living with people who only see me as Karen-the-cook. Now I feel that I can just be Karen, at last.” She smiled at him. “And you still haven’t told me where we’re going.”
She realised before long that they definitely weren’t heading for the Schloss Wertheim: they were heading for the Tiernsee. He parked the car not far from the Kron Prinz Karl, and she looked at him questioningly. “It’s all right: I’m not going to suggest that we go there,” he said, as they got out of the car. “Not today, anyway. But I did think that it might be nice to revisit some old haunts around Briesau. I haven’t been here for a long time: too long. I certainly never thought that I’d be coming back here with you. We’ve been so lucky to have found each other again, Karen.”
She’d studiously avoided coming too close to the area around the Kron Prinz Karl when she’d been here the week before – which seemed like months ago now, given how much had happened since then. Everywhere around here reminded her of him. Even when the School had still been in Briesau she’d tried not to come near here: it would have been too painful. “I never came here, after you’d gone,” she said. “It would have felt all wrong, being here when you weren’t here.” She could feel tears coming to her eyes again: she was so happy now and at one time she’d thought that she’d never be happy again. “I missed you so much and I felt so lost without you. It wasn’t so bad when Marie Pfeifen was at the School with me, but then she went to live up at the Sonnalpe and I was so lonely. I had no idea where you’d gone; and I wasn’t even supposed to mention your name.”
He put his arm round her. “I know all about being lonely, Karen; believe me. But we’re together now, and hopefully soon we always will be. I’ve not upset you by bringing you here, have I? I was hoping that it might bring back happy memories.”
She smiled at him. “It does. Over there, just where that tree is, was where you met me to take me to the ice carnival. It was absolutely freezing when we got to the lake, and you insisted on taking your coat off and wrapping it round me so that I wouldn’t be cold. You said that you’d be all right because you’d soon warm up once you’d had a Schnapps.”
“And you said that my father’d go mad if he could see me having a drink out on the ice, because he thought that anyone who did that was “rough”! Oh dear, was it really all so long ago? We’ll have to come back here next time there’s an ice carnival, and see if it’s still just as good!”
Karen laughed. “I’ll hold you to that: I’d love to go to another ice carnival! And just here is where I ran into you that Sunday evening when I was coming back from my parents’ house. This is the exact spot: I’ve never forgotten it.”
“Nor have I.” He shook his head and smiled. “It really was a genuine coincidence, but you looked at me very suspiciously. I was sure you thought I’d been lying in wait for you!”
Karen blushed. “I’d completely and utterly fallen for you by then,” she said. “I knew that you’d realised; and I didn’t know what you were going to say. I thought you were going to laugh at me.” She looked up at him. “Until everything you said that evening, I didn’t understand that you felt that way about me too.”
“Well, I did,” he said quietly. “I still do. I loved you then, and I love you now, Karen. And I always will do.” He took the box containing the diamond ring out of his pocket and knelt down in front of her. “Will you marry me?”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, of course I’ll marry you.”