Painful memories have kept Karen away from the Tiernsee for many years but, after a difficult term, she returns there for the Easter holidays between Excitements and Coming of Age. Were the events of the past really all they seemed, and will she yet find true happiness?
Ste Therese's House Characters:
Anna Pfeiffen, Karen, OC
Alternate Universe, Romance
(I'm working on a title for the series!)
05 Jun 2011 Updated:
05 Jun 2011
1. Chapter 1 by Alison H
2. Chapter 2 by Alison H
3. Chapter 3 by Alison H
4. Chapter 4 by Alison H
5. Chapter 5 by Alison H
6. Chapter 6 by Alison H
7. Chapter 7 by Alison H
8. Chapter 8 by Alison H
9. Chapter 9 by Alison H
10. Chapter 10 by Alison H
“The school is her very life, I believe” – Hilda discussing Karen with Joey.
I hope that this works, because the domestic staff must have worked harder than anyone else at the Chalet School and, especially in the Swiss books, no-one really seemed to appreciate everything they did … and I thought that Karen, who had to supervise all the rest of the domestic work as well as cooking lots of delicious meals and providing refreshments at all hours, definitely deserved more than for the school to be “her very life” …
(The first part is set during Excitements at the Chalet School.)
Sometimes distance couldn’t be measured in feet and inches or in metres and centimetres. The relatively short walk from the kitchen to the staffroom might have been a million miles. Karen, queen of her own domain, respected, adored and feared in equal measure by the rest of the domestic staff, felt as shy and uncomfortable as the youngest new girl in this Easter term as she knocked reluctantly on the staffroom door. The world of the Chalet School kitchen might not be an exciting one but it was her world, as the domestic staff’s quarters were her home and the young maids of whom she was in charge were the nearest she was ever likely to have to children of her own. The kitchen was said to be a cosy place in this cold weather: a stove was kept lit in there at all times, a light that never went out. Sometimes it seemed to symbolise the fact that the work that needed to be done to keep the school running was never-ending.
Venturing to other parts of school when bidden was an accepted part of Karen’s life, but venturing there unbidden was like stepping out of the world in which she belonged; and that was something that she’d vowed, on the day that she’d started working alongside her dear friend Marie Pfeifen in the kitchen of the Chalet School at Briesau, never to do again. She’d learned her lesson and she’d never forgotten it. She tried not to think back to those golden days of youth and hope and love now. It did no good to dwell on the past. She was well aware that, as far as everyone else at the school was concerned, she wanted nothing more from life but to ensure that the meals she provided met with everyone’s approval and that the cleaning, washing, ironing and other domestic duties were done always to the high standards that she herself expected. Let them think that. It was what she wanted them to think.
It was Nancy Wilmot who opened the door. “Karen!” she said in surprise. Nobody had rung the bell to summon a member of the domestic staff, as far as she knew. “Is anything wrong?”
“If you please, Fraulein Wilmot,” Karen said, reminding herself that she was after all here on legitimate business, “I am looking for Frau Mieders. I need to know which ingredients the young ladies will be needing for their domestic science lessons next week, so that I may add them to the list of items to be ordered for the kitchen.”
Karen had known Nancy Wilmot, as she had known most of the teaching staff, for many years, in this case since Nancy had been a pupil at the school herself; but she never allowed herself to question the fact that she was expected to address the younger woman as “Fraulein Wilmot” whilst being called by her first name in return. The only title that anyone ever afforded her was “Cook”. Cook Karen, who made stuffed veal, apple tart, coffee, lemonade, cakes, picnic lunches and everything else that was consumed by the inhabitants of the Chalet School. She wasn’t unhappy with her role as cook and head of the domestic staff: she’d been trained from her earliest years to cook, even if she’d harboured dreams of cooking in the kitchens of the great palace of a king or emperor rather than in those of a school, Sometimes, though, she couldn’t help thinking about how different her life might have been if events had taken another turn all those years ago.
Frau Mieders, sitting in a comfortable chair at the far end of the room, spied Karen, put aside her knitting and hastened to the door. “Karen, I do apologise!” she exclaimed. “I was supposed to tell you what I needed for my lessons next week, but it completely slipped my mind in the excitement of this afternoon. Do come in, and I will make the list for you now.”
Karen felt completely out of place as she followed the domestic science mistress into the staffroom, where the good lady proceeded to make out a list of the items required. In a different environment, she and Frau Mieders might have been friends, they being the only two Austrian women at the school; but one of them was a member of the upstairs staff and the other was a member of the downstairs staff, and that made for a gap that was unbridgeable in the world of the Chalet School.
“You will never guess what we have been discussing at Freudesheim this afternoon,” Frau Mieders said as she handed over the completed list. “Imagine, it will be twenty- one years in April since our dear school was founded. I must confess that I had no idea about it until dear Joey, Frau Doktor Maynard I should say, mentioned it this afternoon. This is the year that the school comes of age. Twenty -one years since Lady Russell took that first chalet on the shores of the Tiernsee and the Chalet School came into being!”
I know, Karen thought. Believe me, I of all people know that twenty- one years have passed since then. Twenty- one years since that evening when he told me that the vacant chalet at Briesau was to be let to an English lady who was to turn it into a private school. How distressed he was, how disappointed. He had wanted so much for Herr Braun to let the chalet to someone who would generate business and employment for the people around the lake. I remember his exact words: I remember every word that he ever said to me and I to him. I know only too well that it was twenty-one years ago, but I remember it as if it were yesterday.
“Miss Annersley, Miss Wilson, Mademoiselle de Lachennais and I have been over to Freudesheim for afternoon tea,” Frau Mieders explained. “Frau Doktor Maynard thought it fitting that we four should discuss with her the plans to celebrate the occasion, since we are all, as she put it, foundation stones of the school.”
Karen bent her head, to hide the distress that, despite herself, she couldn’t help feeling. What was she? She had been at the school since its earliest years: was she not entitled to be classed amongst its “foundation stones”? She wondered if Lady Russell or Frau Doktor Maynard or any of the “upstairs” staff ever stopped to think how hard she and her staff worked? The school would not grind to a halt if it were to go without maths lessons or games, for example, for a few days; yet such things were seen as being essential and it was the work that the domestic staff did, the work without which the school would be unable to manage, that seemed so often to be taken for granted.
Every day, long before the school rising bell went, the domestic staff were hard at work. Gaudenz and the lads who worked with him were attending to the fires, whilst Karen and the maids were ensuring that breakfast for all the pupils and the teaching and administrative staff was ready and waiting by 7:30 a.m.. Most of the cleaning had to be done either early in the morning or late in the evening, for those were the only times of day at which the classrooms, the staffroom, the studies, the hall, the splasheries and the corridors were not in use. Then there were the other meals of the day to prepare, not to mention the endless laundry and ironing – and woe betide the maids if any mark, however minute, remained on any piece of laundry or if any item of clothing or bedding wasn’t ironed to Matron Lloyd’s exacting standards. Then there were the bathrooms and the staff bedrooms to be cleaned and the shopping for provisions and cleaning materials to be done, not to mention finding time to eat their own meals; and she, Karen, had to organise and supervise it all in addition to carrying out her duties as cook. There was also the general maintenance of the buildings and the furniture and equipment for Gaudenz and his assistants to deal with, not to mention the upkeep of the grounds and outdoor sports facilities in all weather conditions. There was always so much to be done: given that that was the case, it was a good job that not one of the domestic staff had ever shirked from a hard day’s work in their lives.
This was Karen’s life and it’d been her life since she’d been a young girl in her native Tyrol. She’d been born in Briesau and she’d thought that she would live her entire life there, but then the Anschluss had come and the school had closed. She hadn’t had to think hard about whether or not to follow the school: the Nazi occupation of Austria had met with little resistance and she’d known that she was powerless against the new regime, but she’d had no intention of staying there and living under it. She tried not to think back over that difficult, terrifying journey that she and Anna Pfeifen had made together across Europe to reach England, but she remembered the relief they’d felt on arriving there at last. Then, instead of finding safety after risking life and limb to flee Nazi-occupied Austria, she’d found herself interned as an enemy alien. Once she’d been released and come back to the school, she’d worked even harder than she’d done before: trying to provide adequate and nutritious meals on wartime rations had been the greatest challenge she’d ever faced in her working life but she’d done it. When the new finishing branch had opened in Switzerland she’d been persuaded to move there with it, and then when the rest of the school had followed it she’d been asked to move to the new premises at the Gornetz Platz and take charge of all domestic matters there.
She’d been with the Chalet School almost every step of its way, but it had clearly never occurred to Joey Maynard to include her in the party invited to discuss the coming of age celebrations. Probably she should take that as a compliment. Probably it would have been wrong had it been otherwise; for surely the mark of a good servant, and that for which they should strive, was that they should, as far as possible, go unnoticed.
“It is intended that the girls should go in groups to visit Briesau as part of the events taking place to mark the occasion,” Frau Mieders continued. “Frau Doktor Maynard plans to escort one of the parties herself. They are to stay at the Kron Prinz Karl.”
Suddenly Karen felt as if something had exploded inside her head and everything in the room had become distant. They are to stay at the Kron Prinz Karl. How long was it since she’d heard the name of that hotel spoken out loud? She longed to get up and run away, as far away as she could, to be alone with her thoughts; but Frau Mieders was still speaking. “It is still owned by the Brauns,” she was saying. “Good Herr Braun and his dear wife Frau Braun. They were always such lovely people.”
With you, maybe, Karen thought. With you who were of the middle classes as they and their precious friends and family were. If you only knew …but no, I was the one who was at fault. I was the one who forgot my place. But what is it that people say? ‘Tis better to have loved and lost …
“They had two sons,” Frau Mieders reminisced. “Neither one of them was working at the hotel when we left the Tyrol, though. The elder son’s name was Kurt. He and his wife lived in Innsbruck: their daughter Gretchen was a pupil at the school for a while. The younger son … ah, there was some mystery about him. He left suddenly: it was said that he’d gone away to stay with relatives but he never came back. I forget his name now: ach, what was it? What was his name?”
“Rudi,” Karen said abruptly. “His name was Rudi.”
“Rudi!” Frau Mieders said. “So it was. I always thought him a fine young man, always so kind and considerate, always so ready to help anyone. Indeed, most people spoke well of him, as I recall, yet sadly it seemed that he and his parents could not work together in harmony. What a good memory you have, Karen.”
Too good, Karen thought. Too good.
Later, alone in her room, Karen found herself unable to sleep. She didn’t know if she could bear to hear all the girls and the upstairs staff speaking of Tyrol, of the hotel and of the Brauns. It was too much.
She would make raspberry fluff for Abendessen tomorrow. And she would make a little too much. It was a particular favourite with the Maynard twins and she would say that she was taking the extra to Freudesheim so that it would not go to waste. In those long-ago days in Tyrol, she and Marie had often prepared a little too much food, so that they might take the excess to those families around the lake who had been so badly in need of it. They had felt a little guilty about it; but the food had made so much difference to its recipients, especially in the winter months, whereas they had known that the small extra cost would make but little difference to Miss Bettany and Mademoiselle Lepattre. Karen had always been a little fearful about the consequences should they be caught, though. Having been dismissed from one job, she had known that she could not afford to be dismissed from another.
It was different now. The Gornetz Platz was so much more prosperous than 1930s Briesau had been. Now, if she made a little too much, it was usually only to give her an excuse to pay a visit to Anna. She had grown up with all the Pfeifens. Anna might be a few years her junior but once they had both outgrown childhood that had ceased to matter. She could talk to Anna about anything. She would tell Anna all that Frau Mieders had said, and Anna would understand.
Anna answered the door and beamed when she saw Karen standing there. “Come through to the kitchen,” she said. “I’ve only got Cecil with me: Rosli’s taken the older children and Bruno for a walk.”
Karen followed her friend into the kitchen, feeling better already. She didn’t know what she’d do without Anna. Pleasant though most of the other domestic staff at the school were, she’d never formed as close a friendship with any of them as she had with Anna. Perhaps it was because she didn’t have the shared history with them that she had with her old friend, nor even the bond that came from having the same background. Other than Gaudenz and his wife Lisa, they were all considerably younger than she was; and every one of them was Swiss born and bred, and all strictly Protestant as were the majority of people in this canton dominated by the city of Berne. She knew that sometimes they found her Tyrolean accent difficult to understand, and many a time when she unthinkingly used words of her own dialect she was greeted by nothing but a blank look in return. As for the teaching and administrative staff, they would no more consider socialising with her than she would with them. Thank goodness for Anna. The two of them would always be there for each other, in good times and in bad.
Cecil, whom Anna had left sitting securely in her high chair, crowed with delight when she saw Karen and lifted out her arms to be picked up. Karen placed her basket down, lifted the little girl out and sat down at the kitchen table with Cecil on her knee, whilst Anna filled two mugs with coffee and placed a few lemon biscuits on a plate.
“Is Frau Doktor Maynard not at home?” Karen asked. The house was unusually quiet.
“She’s upstairs, having a lie down,” Anna said. Seeing the look on Karen’s face, she hastily added “It’s just a headache!”
“I thought you were going to say something else then,” Karen laughed. “Cecil is ten months old now, isn’t she? I thought that perhaps the quads that everyone keeps being threatened with might be on the way!”
Anna shuddered. “Don’t even say such things! Rosli and I are hoping to have Cecil out of nappies before the Frau Doktor presents us with any more babies to look after. In fact, if she starts talking about having any more in the near future, I shall be helping myself to Herr Doktor Maynard’s sedatives and slipping them into his evening coffee to make sure that he falls asleep before they get chance to do anything about it!”
They both giggled.
“Having said which,” Anna added, “when she isn’t busy being “busy” she tends to acquire house guests, but at least they’re usually old enough not to need someone to watch them all the time.” She smiled wryly. “Little did I think that I would end up bringing up nine children without ever marrying!”
“You’re wonderful with the children,” Karen said wistfully, bouncing Cecil on her knee. Freudesheim was the only place where she felt able to indulge the softer side of her nature. The school’s failure to match the rising level of wages paid by the local hotels these days meant that its domestic section was severely understaffed. The school authorities were well aware of the problem, but their only effort towards resolving it had been to arrange for the pupils to clear the tables after meals, which did not exactly make a great difference in the general scheme of things. Under these circumstances, time was at such a premium that she just couldn’t afford for anyone to think she would tolerate any sort of slacking or timewasting; and, as a result, her temper tended to show itself rather more often than it would have done otherwise.
She smiled at Cecil. She adored babies. Once she’d had dreams of a family of her own, but when life had separated her from the man she’d loved it had denied her the chance to have children as well: she’d never wanted to marry anyone else. “Do you ever think about Tom, Anna?” she asked suddenly, thinking about the young man her friend had met during the school’s time in Armishire.
“Tom Evans?” Anna looked surprised. “Not really. Oh, he was a nice enough man, but when it came to it I couldn’t really see myself spending the rest of my life being married to him. What made you ask about Tom all of a sudden?” She took another lemon biscuit and looked at Karen with concern. “Is everything all right? You look a bit upset. Tell me what’s up.”
Karen bit her lip. “In April it will be the school’s twenty-first anniversary,” she said simply. “Frau Mieders tells me that the girls are to visit Briesau to mark the occasion. And that they are to stay at the Kron Prinz Karl.” She felt the tears starting to fall. What would Anneli and Miggi and Mechtilde and all the other maids she was responsible for keeping in order think if they could see her now - big jolly Karen, who ruled the kitchen with a rod of iron, crying on Anna’s shoulder?
“When the school was still at Briesau I learnt to live with seeing the hotel every day, and hearing everyone saying how wonderful Herr and Frau Braun were, but it was different then. Before the war I didn’t know where he was living, but at least I knew that he was living; but since the war came … oh Anna, every day I have to cope with not knowing even if he’s alive or dead. Never mind not knowing whether or not he’s married and has a family of his own: I don’t even know if he survived the war. I’ve never been brave enough to try to find out: I couldn’t face it. But now the girls are to stay at the hotel, and I understand that one of the groups is to be escorted by Frau Doktor Maynard who will surely ask the Brauns for news of their family. I couldn’t bear to find out whatever news there may be by accident, by overhearing snippets of gossip. I should have asked long ago but I could never bring myself to, but now … now I can’t go on any longer without knowing. There must be someone in Briesau who would know, or who could find out for me.”
“I could perhaps ask my mother, or my aunt, or one of my cousins,” Anna said doubtfully. “It might be easier for someone who works at the hotel to find out, though. I know that he and his parents weren’t on good terms but surely they must hear from him.”
“There is my cousin Madel,” Karen said thoughtfully. “She works in the kitchens at the Seehaus, but I think she knows some of the staff at the Kron Prinz Karl: the hotels sometimes hire each other’s staff for the evening if there’s a big function on. She doesn’t know the story – there are so few people who do - but maybe if I mentioned the school’s coming of age and said that it had made my wonder about my former employers and their family she wouldn’t think it strange that I should be asking about them.”
“Are you sure that this is a good idea?” Anna asked carefully. She knew Karen’s quick temper and didn’t want to upset her any more than she was already upset; but digging up the past so often did more harm than good. Bad news would only cause her friend bitter sorrow, and good news would only bring back memories of a time that surely couldn’t be recaptured.
Karen nodded. “My mind is made up. I will write to Madel and ask her to find out what she can.”
She drank the last of her coffee, finished her lemon biscuit and placed Cecil carefully back in the high chair. “Thank you for listening, Anna. Now, I’d better get back and finish sorting out the food for Abendessen. Luckily there are no domestic science classes today so I don’t have to worry about the meal being ruined by anything like sulphur in the cakes or garlic in the pies! Auf wiedersehen!”
Madel had never been a good correspondent, and Karen resigned herself to the fact that it could well be some weeks before she heard anything. She didn’t have to worry about keeping her mind occupied in the meantime: she was always occupied. By the time all the dishes, cups, knives, spoons and glasses from Fruhstuck had been washed and put away and she had ensured that those maids who didn’t work in the kitchens had gone about their tasks for the rest of the day, it was almost time for her to serve the mid-morning coffee, milk and biscuits and to take Miss Annersley’s elevenses to her study. After that, the cold meat and salads and the fruit and cream for Mittagessen had to be prepared, and then served, and then the cutlery and crockery cleared away.
Then the food for Abendessen had to be prepared and put in the large, slow-burning ovens to cook. She had to ensure that any items that were running low were added to her shopping list, and then at three o’clock it was time to serve Kaffee und Kuchen. Following that, there was yet more washing up and clearing away to be done, and then came the final preparations for the Abendessen, the main meal of the day.
She tried hard to vary the meals and at the same time to ensure that those dishes that were particular favourites with the girls featured reasonably regularly, and that in itself took a considerable amount of planning given that she was catering for a large number of people on a budget that was not particularly generous. As well as the cooking, once all the meals of the day were finally over she had to check the laundry and ironing done that day to ensure that it would pass muster: she knew that some of the laundry maids regarded her as something of a tartar but she preferred that to letting them risk one of Matron Lloyd’s notorious tongue-lashings. Then there were some days when she had to prepare a whole set of picnic lunches at short notice, or interrupt her other work to take cakes to the Head’s study for special guests. Not to mention heating up milk in the middle of the night if someone been woken by a noise or gone sleepwalking.
Still, she couldn’t complain. There were far worse places to be in this cold weather than her nice warm kitchen or the domestic staff’s sitting room. In fact, life at the Chalet School was really quite comfortable compared to the conditions she’d worked under at the Kron Prinz Karl. These days, most hotels paid far more generously than the school did; but when she’d been young the wages paid to girls such as herself by the hotels on the banks of the Tiernsee had been little more than a pittance.
The amount paid by the Chalet School had seemed generous by comparison. And she and Marie had been envied by the other girls of Briesau and the other lakeside villages for the kindness which Lady Russell, then Miss Bettany, had showed them and her insistence that the girls always be polite to them. They had considered themselves very lucky to be employed by the Chalet School.
She still considered herself very lucky to be employed by the Chalet School. As unmarried cooks’ lives went, she supposed that hers wasn’t a bad one.
It wasn’t long before the snow came. Karen watched as the girls set off for their fun and games in the great outdoors, trying not to see the wistful glances of the younger maids as they set about their work. She wished that she could send them outside to play in the snow, just for a little while, but the fact that the pupils and mistresses had been excused lessons for the day never meant that the domestic staff could be excused their work too. In fact, there was always more work to be done when it snowed. Gaudenz had been up even earlier than usual that morning, ensuring that all the heating was working properly; and she and the maids would have to scrub all the wooden floors once the girls had walked over them with their wet boots, not to mention washing all those winter sports suits and ensuring that none of them ended up in the washing with any of the bed linen. She could just see Matron’s face if the sheets ended up being dyed crimson.
Maybe the weather was delaying the post from Austria. Or had Madel found out something that she was finding it difficult to write about?
When the weather was like this, something hot was usually served at Mittagessen, and so Karen, together with the kitchen maids, set about chopping vegetables with which to make huge vats of soup. She’d been up early and, tired out, was finally about to retire to the domestic staff’s sitting room for a few minutes’ rest when the wretched bell rang to summon her to Miss Annersley’s study. Karen sighed. Surely no-one could ever say that she and her staff didn’t work hard, but sometimes they were all sorely tempted to wreck that bell mechanism so completely that its irritating peals would never sound in the kitchen again.
Dutifully, she abandoned her plans for a well-earned sit-down and trooped up to the study, where she found Miss Annersley and her co-head Miss Wilson in conference with Joey Maynard. Probably they were discussing the coming of age celebrations … in which no-one had even suggested including the domestic staff, although they would doubtless be expected to provide meals for all the guests expected for the occasion. Had it really been twenty-one years? So many memories …
“Ah, Karen. Would you bring us up some coffee and cakes, please?” Miss Annersley asked.
“Yes, Fraulein Annersley,” Karen answered automatically. Back down the stairs she went. She carefully placed a pot of coffee and a plate containing a selection of cakes on to a tray, which she carried carefully back up the stairs, narrowly avoiding slipping on a patch of melted snow that she suspected had come from the boots of either Karl or Thomas, two of the lads who assisted Gaudenz. She had spied them throwing snowballs about earlier in the day when they were supposed to have been clearing the path. She wasn’t going to say anything, she’d decided: they were little more than boys, after all, and she only wished that her girls had had the chance to enjoy themselves in the winter wonderland outside as well.
Arriving at the Head’s study once more, she found the door shut. Miss Annersley tended to shut the door when it was cold, in an attempt to keep the heat in. Karen frowned. The tray was heavy and she wasn’t sure that she’d be able to hold it safely with one hand whilst she knocked on the door with the other. Bending down, she placed the tray carefully on the floor. She was about to knock when something she heard made her stop. She would never deliberately eavesdrop, but it was impossible to avoid hearing what was being said when you were standing right outside.
“I’m just ready for a cup of Karen’s coffee,” Miss Wilson was saying. “No-one makes coffee like she does, not even Jeanne de Lachennais. Her cakes are always delicious too. I can’t imagine the school without her.”
Karen beamed. It was nice to be appreciated. She felt much better now. Then she heard Miss Annersley’s voice.
“I doubt that she can imagine life without the school. The school is her very life, I believe.”
My very life, Karen thought. Is this what you think my entire life has been about? Cooking, cleaning, washing and ironing? Oh, I was brought up to know that I would always have to work hard. I never expected anything else. I wouldn’t want anything else: I wouldn’t want to live as the mothers of some of the school’s pupils do, with servants to care for their homes and their young children whilst they do nothing all day but go shopping and pamper themselves and pay calls on their friends. But do you never stop to think that even the school cook is entitled to moments in her life that are far removed from the daily routine of her work? And there have been such moments in my life. Maybe there never will be again, but there have been. And you never realise that, do you? You look at me, if you bother to look, and you think, if you think at all, that the high points in my life have been producing a perfectly shaped cake or a cup of coffee that people say tastes like nectar. What do you know about my life? “The school is her very life” indeed! But is that what everyone here thinks about me? Is that how I seem to them all?
Karen tried to keep her mind on her work for the rest of the day, but her nerves were fraught, and she was ready to scream by the time Yseult Pertwee complained that she didn’t like the meal that Karen and the others had slaved over all afternoon and asked if there were an alternative. It was virtually impossible to please everyone, and, whilst it often seemed odd to her that no choice of meals was offered, it had always been the system at the school that you got what you were given. The resources allocated to the kitchen wouldn’t have allowed for providing more that one option anyway. In the end she made a meat sandwich and slipped it to Yseult when none of the mistresses or prefects were looking. It might be against the rules but she wasn’t about to see any of the girls go hungry.
She was glad when she was finally able to retire to the sitting room, where she settled down to chat with Gaudenz’s wife Lisa and a group of the younger maids – Anneli, Miggi, Nette and Berta. Their sitting room was a pleasant place. They were never invited to attend any of the school’s evening entertainments but they had a radio in there which was always tuned to stations playing the latest music (the sort that Mr Denny heartily disapproved of); and two of the maids, Mechtilde who could always be relied on to make the others laugh and her friend Vreneli who was equally lively, had adorned the walls with posters of their favourite film stars. Much more cheerful than the staffroom where people were always moaning about bad behaviour or errors in prep, they all agreed!
Anneli, who was one of the laundry maids, was giggling about some of the items she’d found in the washing – it was surprising what Matron wore under her starched uniform, not to mention the stays that enabled Miss Annersley to maintain her trim figure. Karen grinned to herself. She’d love to see the “upstairs” staff’s faces if they ever found out some of what got said in the domestic staff’s sitting room! It wasn’t all hard work and no play, even if sometimes seemed like it.
She relaxed and joined in the conversation. For a little while, at least, it took her mind off wondering just how much longer it would be before she heard back from Madel and what news, if any, her cousin would be able to give her.
Later, in her bedroom, Karen grimaced at the sight of herself in her thick flannel nightgown, with curlers in her hair. However, given that she always covered her hair with a cap whilst she was cooking, every day would be a bad hair day if she didn’t at least try to do something about it by using the curlers. She sometimes wondered why she bothered, given that it wasn’t as if there was anyone here who took the slightest interest in what she looked like, but pride drove her to at least make an effort. As for the nightgown … well, it was cold at this time of year, and she had nothing else to keep her warm at night, apart from a hot water bottle.
Getting into bed, she pulled the bedclothes tight around herself and picked up her latest romantic novel. Matron might ban the girls from reading such things, but Karen enjoyed them and turned a blind eye when she saw the maids reading them. They were harmless, after all: Matron might say that they filled the girls’ heads with nonsense but there was nothing wrong with a bit of romance between the pages of a book, was there? She’d borrowed this one from Anna, and was anxious to finish it because she knew that Rosli was waiting to read it next.
She was engrossed in reading about the lives of the characters in the novel – it was funny the way that the romances in these books were always between doctors and nurses rather than doctors and teachers! – when she was rudely disturbed by the sound of something creaking. Was she imagining it? No. She could definitely hear a noise. Quietly she crept out of her room and into the corridor. She shivered as a cold draught hit her. Where on earth was that coming from? All the windows and doors were supposed to be shut. Then she realised that not only was one of the windows open, but that someone was climbing through it.
She was about to scream for help when she realised that the person climbing through the window was a young girl. Surely one of the school’s pupils hadn’t been out of bounds at this time of night? Then the silhouetted figure assumed the shape of Mechtilde, one of the kitchen maids. The girl saw Karen standing before her and her face fell. Getting in at this time of night was strictly forbidden, and Karen was famed for having a fearsome temper.
“What on earth have you been doing?” Karen hissed. “Do you know what time it is? And it’s freezing outside: the snow’s thick on the ground. You could have caught your death of cold. And why was that window open? Vreneli was supposed to have checked that they were shut before you all went to bed. Oh Mechtilde, look at the state of you, you silly girl!” It must be snowing again: the girl’s coat and hat were covered in white flakes, which were rapidly melting, and her boots were wet. “Go and change out of those wet things at once and then come to my room: I’ll get a hot drink and a hot water bottle ready for you. And try not to wake anyone else, please.”
“It wasn’t Vreneli’s fault,” Mechtilde muttered. “I asked her to leave the window open: please don’t blame her.”
Karen raised her eyebrows sharply. “Then you went out intending not to be back until this ungodly hour? That makes it even worse. Oh Mechtilde, I’m supposed to be responsible for you girls! Tell me truthfully now: were you meeting someone? A man?”
Mechtilde nodded. Karen sighed. “Go and change. I’ll get the coffee on.”
Shortly afterwards, she heard a knock at the door, and assumed that it was Mechtilde. “Come in,” she called
It was Gwynneth Lloyd. “I thought I heard a noise,” the school’s head matron said suspiciously. Karen glared at her. Did the wretched woman have ears like a lynx? How on earth had she managed to hear people moving about so far from her own bedroom? “No-one is unwell, I hope?” Matron enquired, peering into Karen’s room in a way that made Karen’s hackles rise. Could the woman never mind her own business?
“Everyone is perfectly well,” Karen said firmly. Not that Matron would be all that interested if they weren’t: no-one ever bothered to ask the domestic staff if they’d had mumps or German measles or scarlet fever or whatever other epidemic happened to be striking the school. For the most part she, Karen, was left to deal with any minor ailments, and she’d spent many a night sitting up with one or more of the younger maids when they’d been ill. “I awoke and decided to make myself some coffee. I’m sorry if I disturbed you.” There was no way that she was going to have Mechtilde or any of her other girls subjected to an inquisition by Matron, or by Miss Annersley either for that matter.
Matron’s eyes strayed to the book lying on Karen’s bed. If she dares to say that that isn’t a suitable book to have in the school, I’ll make sure that every last one of her sheets gets dyed lime green, Karen thought resentfully. Matron might be in charge of such domestic matters as the linen, but she certainly wasn’t in charge of the domestic staff’s private lives. Seeing the look on Karen’s face, Matron thought better of what she’d been about to say and made her departure. Few people ever got the better of her, but Karen was one of them.
Mechtilde arrived a few moments later, a look of fear on her face. Karen was “a poppet” (to quote the school’s pupils) most of the time, but it was well known that she could be a tartar when she was angry, and she had good reason to be angry this time. She was responsible for supervising the maids and she might very well get the blame if Miss Annersley found out that one of them had been breaking rules.
“Don’t look like that, girl! I’m not going to eat you,” Karen said firmly, handing the girl a mug of coffee, “but I am responsible for you whilst you’re young and under my supervision, and I don’t like to think of you being out until all hours, especially in this weather … and especially if you’ve been staying out late with someone who might end up bringing you only sadness. What have you been up to, Mechtilde?”
A list of men whom the girl might have been meeting was going through her mind. Who was there living nearby? Herr Denny? Herr Laubach? Gaudenz? Or one of the Herr Doktors from the San? Herr Doktor Courvoisier? Herr Doktor Graves? Surely not Herr Doktor Maynard?
“Well?” she asked. “I’m waiting.”
“I was meeting Heinrich,” Mechtilde muttered. “We were only going for a walk: we weren’t doing anything wrong. We both get so little time off that we hardly get any chance to see each other.”
Karen heaved a sigh of relief that she hastily turned into a cough, not wanting the girl to think that she condoned her actions: whatever the reason, the girls weren’t supposed to be out this late, as much for their own safety as anything else. However, she knew Heinrich, the lad who worked as a general handyman at the San and did odd jobs at various houses around the Platz. He was a decent enough young man. Oh, what a relief that the girl hadn’t been foolish enough to get mixed up with any of the masters or the doctors. That way could lie only trouble. Stick to your own kind, Herr Braun’s voice came back to her across the years. You should have known that, Karen. You’re only a kitchen maid.
“All the same, you had no business being out so late, and you most certainly shouldn’t have been walking about in this snow,” she said firmly. “Don’t let me catch you coming in at this time of night again!”
“Is that all?” Mechtilde blurted out in surprise. She’d expected Karen to give her a tongue-lashing the likes of which she’d never forget. How surprising people could be sometimes.
“I was young once, you know!” Karen said. She smiled at the look on the girl’s face but was saddened by it too. Did all her staff think that she’d only ever been middle-aged, spinster Karen, the school cook, her main concerns in life the timings of the meals and the cleanliness of the kitchen? “Take care, Mechtilde,” she said gently. “Go to bed now, and try not to wake the others up. Another time, be more careful. What if Miss Annersley or Matron Lloyd had caught you? Drink your coffee, and take this hot water bottle: we can’t have you catching a chill. And don’t be discussing this with anyone else, please. I can’t have people coming in this late regularly or I’ll be in trouble with the school authorities myself. Off you go.”
Mechtilde looked at her in amazement and then smiled, and leaned over and impulsively kissed her on the cheek. “Get away with you!” Karen said; but inwardly she was pleased, even though she didn’t allow herself to smile until the girl had gone.
I was young once, you know, she repeated to herself when Mechtilde had gone. I know what it’s like when you get so little time to see each other that you forget what time it is or how many rules you’re breaking. I understand. I remember.
How old was Mechtilde? Eighteen, perhaps? Karen had been far younger than that when she’d first gone to work in the kitchens at the Kron Prinz Karl. In her early days there she’d occasionally caught sight of Rudi, the Brauns’ younger son, in his school holidays; but, although he’d always treated the staff with a degree of politeness and consideration sadly lacking in so many of the hotel’s guests, the proprietors’ son had had no reason to venture near the hotel kitchens and her life and his had never touched each other. Then he’d gone away to university in Wien and spent most of his holidays there as well: she’d heard vague reports about him being involved in some sort of left-wing politics but she’d neither understood about all that nor been particularly interested in it.
The way she’d looked at things then, politics weren’t her concern and the owners’ relations weren’t her concern: her day-to-day work was. Her role in life was to work hard, to try to avoid any sort of censure, and to take her wages home to her mother and father every fourth Sunday when she was allowed the day off.
She well remembered the day that he’d come home from university for good. She could still see him now, in his fashionable city clothes, his golden blond hair gleaming in the sunlight. He’d looked like a fairytale hero to the young kitchen maid that she’d been, and had seemed as remote as one.
He’d been back in Briesau barely a day before he’d come to blows with his parents. He’d insisted that, if they wanted him to learn about the running of the hotel, he ought to see at first hand how every aspect of it worked. Including the kitchen. The head chef had been furious when he’d found out that his kitchen was to be invaded by the young master. The wretched young puppy would be play-acting at working and all the time doing nothing but getting in the way, he’d fumed; but Karen had secretly been delighted. Day after day, year after year, she’d worked in those kitchens, with the surly head chef, his dull assistant and a few older maids, and it’d been starting to feel like a prison in there.
She’d felt, at the age of eighteen, that surely there had to be more to life than this. Any sort of change would have been welcome, but this had seemed like the most exciting thing to happen to the hotel kitchen in years. Although she’d never, not even for one moment, expected or wanted him to take any notice of her in whatever short space of time he chose to spend down there. She’d always tried instinctively to avoid being noticed by those in any sort of authority. But they’d been drawn to each other right from the start.
It had started on the very day after he’d come home. The head chef, even more bad-tempered and irritable than usual thanks to the prospect of having the owners’ son hanging about in his kitchen, had lost his temper over a complaint made by one of the guests about the food not being hot enough, and it had been Karen who’d borne the brunt of it. He’d screamed and he’d shouted, and she’d feared that he was going to hit her … until Rudi had come upon the scene, intervened and told the man that if he ever treated one of the maids like that again he’d live to regret it.
“Are you all right?” Rudi had asked her anxiously. “Here, come outside for a few minutes. Oh don’t cry.” He’d given her his handkerchief and, when she’d insisted that she must get back to work, he’d promised that he’d come to find her later to make sure that she was all right.
He’d been as good as his word, and she’d found herself telling him how long she’d been working at the hotel for and how she was looking forward to that Sunday, which would be her day off. “Tell me about your family,” he’d said. Karen had looked at him with suspicion. She’d been warned about the dangers of young men of the wealthier classes who might seek to take advantage of girls such as herself. Also, she had no intention of being distracted from her work: she knew very well that it would be she, not he, who’d get the blame if things in the kitchen got behind schedule. “I beg your pardon, but I have work to do,” she’d muttered, looking at the floor. “You must excuse me, mein Herr.”
“Oh don’t call me that!” he’d said. “My name is Rudi.”
“I could not address you by your given name, mein Herr. It would not be fitting. Excuse me now, please. I have much work to do.”
“Later, then,” he’d come back at her with an engaging grin. “You can’t be working all day.”
He’d been shocked when he’d realised just how many hours she did work. And she’d scorned both his shock and his ignorance. He might have been three years her senior in terms of age, but what did he know of real life, she’d flung back at him in answer to his questions. She’d been quick-tempered even then. It had occurred to her afterwards that she should have watched her words with her employers’ son, but even then he’d seemed so much more like a friend than a boss.
Somehow, from there, she’d found herself working harder than ever so that she might complete her work even more quickly than before, giving her whatever time she could snatch to spend in conversation with Rudi when they were both out of the sight of the head chef. She’d set him straight on the subject of what life was really like for the majority of the people around the Tiernsee – he’d read a ridiculous number of books purporting to describe the lives of the poorer classes, but most of them had been written by middle-class academics with no experience whatsoever of the reality of their subject matter – and he’d made her better aware of the world beyond the lake, of what was going on in Innsbruck and Wien and in places across the world that she’d rarely given a thought to before. They’d seemed to spend most of their time arguing in those early days, her practical nature clashing with his idealism.
She’d found him a curious mixture of work ethic (he’d worked hard, even the ill-tempered head chef had admitted that, but then so had all the Brauns, a hard-working middle-class family who’d earned their money through their own efforts rather than from rent or investments) and dreams. He’d told her earnestly that the Austrian republic, still in its infancy, would have to change, that then life would become better for everyone. She called him a fool. Then, realising that she’d hurt him, she’d apologised, but he’d seemed saddened rather than angry. “Oh Karen,” he’d said. “Don’t you ever dream of a different sort of society?”
“Dreams are for wasters,” she’d said. “Our lives are as the good Lord made them. To think or to wish otherwise is foolish.”
“Do you really believe that?” he’d asked.
She’d shrugged. “Does it matter if I do or I don’t? All your fine words aren’t going to help feed people if we have a bad winter, are they?” Then she’d regretted speaking so harshly. The Brauns had been known on several occasions to give food to people in need, and the poverty around the lakeside wasn’t his fault any more than it was hers.
She’d told herself that she only enjoyed her time with him because she enjoyed listening to what he had to say and putting forward her own views, which no-one had ever been interested in before … and especially putting him right when it was needed. There was nothing more to it than that, was there? He was Herr and Frau Braun’s son and she was their employee. Even if she did look forward to every moment they had together. And even if he’d told her that he did too.
She’d told Rudi about her family. About her father, who was a cowherd and so was unable to bring in money when the cold weather came, living from year to year in dread of an early winter and a late spring, powerless before the elements that could strike at will and bring disaster to the families of the Tiernsee. There’d been no industry in the Tiernsee area, no businesses that might have taken on casual labourers; and in those days there hadn’t been the number of winter visitors to the Tyrol that there were now, so there’d been no demand for seasonal workers in the hotels in the months when there’d been no work for the herdsmen. About her mother, who took in washing as well as caring for her own home and cleaning those of the wealthier inhabitants of the area. About her brother Friedrich, who’d gone to work in Innsbruck, vowing that he wasn’t going to live his life at the mercy of the weather as his father and so many others did. Karen and Friedrich had been the only surviving children of their parents’ marriage: their mother and father had married relatively late in life.
She’d told him about her aunts and her uncles and Madel and her other cousins. And she’d told him about her friends the Pfeifens, Marie and her younger cousin Anna and the large number of other children in their family. He hadn’t spent long in the kitchens; he’d soon moved on to work in the other areas of the hotel, determined to see how every part of his parents’ business worked …but he’d always come back to see her.
Every time a door had opened, she’d hoped it would be him. Not that she’d admitted that to herself … until the day that there’d been a wedding reception at the hotel, which all the Brauns had attended, Rudi included. For once she’d been allowed to work outside the kitchens, helping to carry drinks round, enjoying listening to the music and watching the dancing … and then she’d seen him dancing with one of the female guests and she’d been oh so jealous. And then she’d seen him looking at her and known that he knew exactly how she was feeling.
She’d been so embarrassed and she’d longed to dump the drinks tray on the nearest table and run away and hide, but she’d known that she couldn’t. She’d turned away, her face red hot, and walked as quickly as she could to another part of the room, but as soon as the dance had ended he’d come to find her.
“I’d much rather be dancing with you,” he’d whispered.
“Don’t!” She’d spoken a little too loudly, but luckily the music had been so loud that no-one else had heard her. “Don’t you dare make fun of me, Rudi Braun,” she’d hissed. “Take a drink, it’s what your parents pay me for; but don’t you ever make fun of me.”
“I’m not,” he’d said quietly. “Oh Karen, you must know how I feel about you. Why are you being like this with me?”
“Don’t,” she’d said again, tearfully this time. “I’ve heard about men like you, men who think that any servant girl’s some sort of easy prey. Well, we’re not. I’m certainly not. Stay away from me. Please stay away from me.”
She hadn’t slept at all that night. She’d been afraid that he’d either have her dismissed for impertinence or else make her life impossible by pursuing her even though she’d told him to stay away.
He’d done neither. Looking back, she couldn’t think how she’d come to misjudge him so badly when he’d never shown her anything but kindness. If anyone had been guilty of making assumptions about people based solely on their position in society, it had been her. He’d written her a note apologising for upsetting her. It had been the only letter that she’d ever had from him, and she had it still. And the next time she’d seen him, she’d smiled at him to let him know that she acknowledged his apology and that she was so sorry for the way she’d spoken to him. Then, soon after that, when she’d been returning from her parents’ home one Sunday evening, she’d bumped into him by the lakeside. He’d insisted at the time that their meeting had been purely coincidental.
Later, he’d insisted that it must have been fated. She’d found that idea very romantic, she recalled, her eyes filling with tears at the memory. “You’re a sentimental old fool, Karen,” she muttered to herself.
“I meant what I said, Karen,” he’d said. “I would never make fun of you and I would never mean to do you any wrong. Can you really tell me that you don’t know how I feel about you, and can you really tell me that you don’t have any feelings for me?”
She couldn’t. They’d both known that. And they should both have known too that it wasn’t meant to be. She was his parents’ employee, the daughter of a cowherd: there wasn’t and never had been anything wrong with what she was; but there had been, in those days, something very wrong with those of her social class associating with those of his. She should have known that it could only have ended in tears and she should have put a stop to it there and then. But she’d been young and foolish then, and she’d let her heart rule her head. She’d never done that since and she was determined that she never would again.
Once she’d outgrown childhood she’d learned to dread the onset of winter, but that year had been different. Her favourite memory was of the evening when, as soon as she’d finally finished work, Rudi had taken her to the ice carnival on the lake. There’d been so many people on and around the frozen Tiernsee that night that no-one had taken any particular notice of them, and for once she’d felt that they’d been just like any other young couple out enjoying themselves. It had been easier to meet once spring had come, though, slipping out on the long, warm nights to walk along the lakeside in the moonlight. He’d encouraged her to have hopes and dreams, to believe that life might have more to offer her than what she’d been brought up to expect, and they’d both been so happy just being able to spend time together.
He’d been so upset when his father had let out that empty chalet to be turned into an English school for the daughters of the wealthy, rather than letting it to someone who might have brought much-needed business and year-round employment to the lakeside; and he’d vowed then that he wasn’t going to spend the rest of his life working at his father’s hotel, kow-towing to those who had the money to stay there.
They’d talked for hours that night and they’d both lost track of the time, so that by the time they’d got back to the hotel it’d been locked. Rudi had let them in with his key and they’d thought that they’d been so quiet as they’d tiptoed in, stifling their giggles, stopping only to share a goodnight kiss before heading off to their separate quarters; but Herr Braun, who had ears as sharp as Matron Lloyd’s, had heard the noise of the door opening, come out to investigate, and caught them.
She’d never seen Rudi again. Herr Braun had ordered her to go to her room at once: Rudi, seeing how angry his father was, had gently told her that he’d deal with this and that maybe she should go and get some sleep. The next morning, she’d been dismissed from her job. Herr and Frau Braun had tried to give her money, which in her anger and distress she’d thrown in their faces, then told her to leave the hotel at once. They’d told her that Rudi had gone away at first light to stay with relatives and refused to say any more on the subject.
Eager to avoid any scandal, they’d told the rest of their staff that Karen’s mother urgently needed her at home for a while - a lie which her parents had gone along with, forbidding her to tell anyone the truth, an edict which she had broken only in the cases of Marie and later Anna. They’d also told people that Rudi had decided that life at the Kron Prinz Karl wasn’t for him, which everyone had accepted, it having been widely known that he and his parents had never seen eye to eye as regarded the running of the place and that they didn’t approve of his left-wing politics.
She’d waited and waited for him to come back for her, but he never had done. He’d never even written to her. Her parents had been furious with her and the only person she’d been able to turn to had been Marie Pfeifen, who before long had persuaded Miss Bettany to take her on to help in the kitchens at the new school, which had grown rapidly almost from the moment that it’d opened its doors. She’d thrown herself into her work, and she’d put on a front to conceal her sadness. Happy, jolly Karen. She’d turned to food for comfort, nibbling at bits in the kitchen as she’d never dared to do at the Kron Prinz Karl, she’d settled down to life there, and she’d never looked twice at any other man.
It hadn’t been a bad life at the new school. She’d missed Marie when her friend had moved to the Sonnalpe with the newly-wed Russells, but she’d found stability and a sort of contentment in the Chalet School kitchens all the same. But then the Nazis had marched into Austria, meeting with a lack of resistance that had disturbed her deeply. Union with Germany was something that she could have accepted, but not union with a Germany ruled by Adolf Hitler. Rudi had really opened her eyes to what went on in the world outside Briesau and she’d been following events in Germany in the newspapers that the German-speaking members of staff left lying about in the staffroom, with increasing alarm at the nature and tone of the reports.
Still, Briesau had been her home, the only home that she’d ever known, the home of her parents, and leaving it would always have been difficult. Leaving it to go to a foreign country, especially in the uncertain political climate of the times and with it becoming more and more difficult to go abroad at all, had seemed almost impossible when she and Anna had first talked about it. Somehow they’d done it, though. She’d never regretted that decision, but the price that she and Anna had paid had been having no contact with their family and friends in Austria for the duration of the war and being regarded with hostility by some there in the years that had followed.
By the end of the 1940s, all her immediate family had gone. Her brother Friedrich had been killed in the war: she hadn’t even known about it until peace had come and she’d finally been able to get news from Austria again. She’d gone to Briesau as soon as she could, only to find her mother and father both aged by the war, grief-stricken at their son’s death and struggling to accept what they’d seen as their daughter’s desertion, and Tyrol itself occupied by the French army. She’d been able to come to terms with her parents and they’d written to each other regularly once she’d gone back to Britain, but her father had died not long afterwards and her mother a year later. She’d managed to get to Austria to attend both funerals but, after her mother’s death, apart from occasional letters to her relatives there she’d turned her back on Briesau and the painful memories it held and vowed to dedicate herself to the school that had been her home all these years: she felt safe in its enclosed little world. She hadn’t been back to Tyrol since.
It was all in the past. Briesau was in her past and Rudi was in her past. What on earth had possessed her to try to find out what had happened to him, to open up old wounds which even after all this time had never really healed properly? She wasn’t going to read Madel’s letter when it came. She would burn it to ashes without even opening it.
Madel’s letter, when it came, was handed to Karen by Anneli (who had been summoned by Miss Dene to collect the domestic staff’s share of that morning’s post) just as she was about to serve the coffee at break time. She shoved it into her apron pocket. It would go in the fire at the first opportunity she got.
Some lines are direct quotes from Excitements at the Chalet School.
Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of those days. For a start, the girls had just been told of the various plans for the coming of age celebrations and were busily discussing the planned trips to the Tiernsee, which she could well have done without hearing. For another thing, Miss Annersley announced that there was to be skiing and coasting after the girls had had the rest that the school found it necessary to give them after their oh-so-exhausting morning of eating the food other people’d made and sitting in lessons, which meant that Kaffee und Kuchen would have to be served late and the kitchen staff’s routine disrupted accordingly. Then Janice Chester contrived to upset a milk jug, sending milk and broken bits of pottery everywhere, so clearing up from break took far longer than it should have done.
Then, just as Karen was finally heading off to dispose of the letter in secrecy, she was stopped in the corridor by Norah Fitzgerald, who announced that she’d upset ink all over her form room’s floor and been sent to ask for wet cloths to clear up the mess, and looked at Karen as though she expected her to magically produce the cloths from thin air. By the time she’d dealt with Norah, she had to get back to the kitchen to sort out the preparations for Mittagessen; and then there was a problem involving a scorch mark on a sheet which Matron was complaining about as if it was the end of the world. Having finally shut Matron up, she then encountered Mechtilde rushing along to tell her that the door of one of the ovens had broken. Could none of the maids deal with anything without her? And was she fated to get no peace at all that day?
“Get on with your work, Mechtilde,” she said exasperatedly. “I’ll go and fetch Gaudenz to see to the broken door.” It took her a while to find the school’s handyman, and her patience was wearing very thin indeed by the time she eventually located him by the fusebox. “Gaudenz, would you go to the kitchen at once, please?” she said. “The door of one of the ovens has broken and needs repairing, and at this rate none of us are going to be getting anything for Abendessen this evening.”
Gaudenz sighed. He was in the middle of dealing with something, but he knew better than to argue with the formidable head of the domestic staff when she spoke in that tone of voice, and he headed for the kitchen in such a rush that he forgot to remove the key from the fusebox lock. Anyone who said that women were gentle, vulnerable creatures had obviously never met Karen, he thought to himself!
Whilst Gaudenz was attending to the oven door, Karen and the maids concentrated on putting out the cakes for Kaffee und Kuchen. Then, all of a sudden, the kitchen lights went out and some of the younger maids started screaming. I do not need this, Karen thought. “Stop that screaming at once!” she ordered. “It’ll just be that a fuse needs changing. Everyone be quiet whilst I try to find my torch. I can’t hear myself think!”
Once she’d located the torch that she kept in the kitchen in case of such emergencies, she made her way to the cupboard where the matches and candles were kept, and soon she had candles lit and everyone in the kitchen was able to see what they were doing again. She sent Miggi, Vreneli and Mechtilde to take matches and candles round to the rest of the school, and Gaudenz was able to deal with the problem soon enough.
Karen was not amused when she found out that it had all been the fault of Charmian Spence, one of Inter V. Did the stupid girl not think that they had enough work to do without losing time because of her silly idea of a joke? No: she doubtless hadn’t thought at all. Girls like her never did. What did they know about the amount of work that went on behind the scenes at the school? They probably thought that the food was prepared and their clothes washed and ironed by magic, if they ever thought about it at all. Honestly, what a day this was turning out to be!
Then she was informed that the kitchen staff were to be graciously allowed into assembly the next day to hear the wretched girl apologise. Nice though it was to know that the inconvenience that they’d been caused was being acknowledged, she wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry at the way that Miss Annersley spoke as if some sort of major honour was being bestowed on them by letting them into the Hall (with a capital H) when the pupils and mistresses were there. However, she saw the funny side of the whole thing later on, and only wished that she’d had the opportunity to play jokes like that herself when she’d been Charmian’s age.
Between the incident with the lights and the need to scrub the corridor floors all over again due to the amount of snow trampled along them when the girls had come in from their winter sporting activities, everything was running behind, and Karen didn’t have time even to think about the letter again until she got to her bedroom at the end of the day. She took out the envelope and looked at it. No. She was not going to read the letter. It was going in the fire.
Then again … she and Madel did write to each other from time to time, and the letter probably contained bits of personal news, news of other members of their family, maybe some interesting bits of gossip about other people she’d known when she’d lived in Briesau. It couldn’t hurt to read just those bits, could it?
She took a deep breath and ripped the envelope open.
“Dear Karen,” the letter began.
“Thank you for your letter. I had been meaning to write to you, to tell you about some excellent new powder that we have started using on the stoves at the Seehaus. It gives them a wonderful polish.”
Karen threw the letter down in frustration. She’d got so worked up about opening it, and was that was all that Madel could find to write about? The latest new improved cleaning product?! Still, despite her irritation, she made a quick note of the name of the powder her cousin had mentioned. She liked the kitchen to look bright and sparkling when they’d finished cleaning it at the end of each day.
She retrieved the letter from the floor, and read the next part of it. Bits of news about sundry aunts, uncles and cousins, a few snippets of gossip about events at the Seehaus and some comments about the recent cold weather. She’d told herself that she wasn’t going to read any more, but she could already see the familiar names jumping out at her from lower down the page … oh who was she trying to fool? There was no way that she could stop reading now.
“You asked about the Braun family. You’ve been with the Chalet School for so many years that I’d almost forgotten that you once worked at the Kron Prinz Karl: how long ago it was! I have not been there for some time, but I do hear its news from my friend Luise, who is in charge of the housekeeping there. Herr Braun and Frau Braun do not change much.” I bet they don’t, Karen thought. She read on hastily: she didn’t want to think too much about Rudi’s parents and the way that they’d treated her.
“Their son Kurt and his family visited Briesau only last week. Gretchen, their daughter, is betrothed and is due to be married later this year.” Karen smiled ruefully. She must be getting old: she remembered when Gretchen had been born, and now it seemed that the girl was ready to walk down the aisle! Where did the time go? “You may remember from when you worked for them,” Madel’s letter continued, “that they also had another son, who left Briesau many years ago and never came back.”
That was the last line on the first page of the letter. Karen sat there with the piece of paper in her hand and closed her eyes. She wasn’t sure that she was strong enough to do this. Anything could have happened to him: the world had gone mad since that day that she’d been sent away from his parents’ hotel. The unrest of the mid-1930s. The civil war in Spain. The annexation of Austria by a régime that had sent so many to their deaths. And the war that had claimed the lives of so many men of their generation and of civilians as well. Maybe she could take the letter to Freudesheim and ask Anna to read the rest of it for her; but the doors were locked now, and Anna would probably be asleep in bed anyway. Besides, she knew that this was something that she needed to do for herself.
Come on, Karen, she muttered to herself. He’s probably living in Innsbruck, working in a bank or an office, and married with half a dozen children. Just turn the page over.
“I don’t know whether or not you remember this,” the second page of Madel’s letter began, “but he left Briesau very suddenly. Supposedly it was because he’d decided that he didn’t like working at the hotel, but rumour had it that Herr and Frau Braun had sent him away because of some sort of misdemeanour on his part that they’d found out about. Anyway, whatever the truth of it, he and his parents certainly never got on after that, and apparently they very rarely even mention his name; but last week Luise heard Gretchen Braun informing her grandparents that she intends to invite her uncle to attend her wedding this coming summer. He is, it seems, alive and well and living in America.”
“Oh thank the Lord,” Karen sobbed. She flung herself down on the bed and burst into tears. She had no idea why he might be in America or what he might be doing there, but it didn’t matter. All that was important was that he was alive, that none of her worst fears had come true. She couldn’t read the rest of the letter that night. The relief was too much, and she was too overcome with emotion to be able to concentrate on anything more. Just then, nothing else really seemed to matter anyway.
When she woke the next morning, she found the letter still clutched in her hand, the rest of it still unread. She must have fallen asleep with it like that, after she’d cried so much that she’d thought she’d never be able to stop. She had no time now to read any more before Fruhstuck, and in the cold light of day she felt embarrassed by her emotional reaction of the night before. What sort of wretched, pathetic woman are you, Karen, she thought miserably, to still care so much for a man you haven’t seen for over twenty years, who probably couldn’t even remember your name a few months after he left without even saying goodbye? Relief at someone having survived those terrible times is all very well, but not carrying on like that after all these years. You’re ridiculous. Now, pick yourself up, pretend that nothing has happened, and go about your work, here where everyone thinks of you as the strong-minded woman who rules the kitchen with a rod of iron and not as a weeping, sentimental fool.
She finally looked at the rest of the letter later that morning. It was clear that neither Luise nor Madel knew any more about Rudi, about his life in America or what he’d done since leaving Briesau, or whether or not he’d ever married. In fact, there was only a little bit more to read. “Karen, you haven’t been home to the Tiernsee for so long and I would like so much to see you. Why don’t you come here for Easter?”
It was a preposterous idea. Where would she stay? She couldn’t very well invite herself to stay with any of the various relatives whom she hadn’t seen or written to for so long, and she could hardly stay with Madel in the staff quarters at the Seehaus.
Then again … it was tempting. She missed the Tiernsee so badly, even after all this time: the Bernese Oberland might be beautiful but it wasn’t home. And she hadn’t had a break for so long. She spent all her holidays at the school: it was just too expensive to go away anywhere in Switzerland. She even tended to spend Christmas Day working, helping Anna and Rosli prepare Christmas dinner for all the waifs and strays of the British colony who gathered at Freudesheim for their turkey dinner. And if she went to Tyrol for the Easter holidays then she’d be safely away from there and back in Switzerland long before any guests arrived for Gretchen Braun’s summer wedding, so there’d be no risk of her running into him. There was certainly no way that she’d ever be able to face seeing him again.
No. It might be tempting, but no. There were too many memories in Briesau. She had a nice safe life here on the Gornetz Platz and to go venturing outside it would doubtless only be asking for trouble. She shoved the letter in her bedside drawer. When she got round to it, she would reply to say that she couldn’t go.
One thing that Karen did do was to order a tin of the polish that Madel had recommended. It arrived soon afterwards, on a Thursday afternoon. It hadn’t been a pleasant week: the weather had taken a turn for the worse and the strong winds and melting snow had made going outside difficult. Most people at the school had been bad-tempered and irritable after being stuck inside all week, and she’d had to console several of the maids after one or other of the teaching staff had spoken to them sharply. However, on the Friday morning, she awoke early to find that the muggy atmosphere had gone and that there was a much fresher feeling in the air. Ah, that was better!
What time was it? Just before five o’clock. No-one else would be up yet … so what was that noise? She was sure she could hear footsteps. Surely Mechtilde hadn’t been sneaking out to meet Heinrich again, not at this hour? Then she heard the sound of a key turning in a door and she began to panic. Had someone broken in? Quickly she got out of bed and headed in the direction from which the noise was coming, moving as quietly as she could. The noise led her to the main kitchen … and then she saw the intruder, a very small intruder, covered in black powder. They must have opened the cupboard and dislodged that new tin of polish! Well, it was a waste of good powder, but it didn’t half serve them right! That would teach whoever it was to break into her kitchen again. And she could deal with a burglar that size all right.
She grabbed hold of the miscreant, who began to scream. The next thing she knew, Mechtilde, Anneli, Vreneli, Miggi and various others were pouring into the kitchen, all in their nightwear, screaming and shouting, and there was powder all over her lovely clean kitchen floor. Then Miss Ferrars, the young mistress who’d been new the previous term, came bursting in and tried to grab hold of the burglar. “Karen!” she cried. “It’s Miss O’Ryan! Do let go of her! And what is all this awful mess?”
“Fraulein O’Ryan!” Karen let go of her prisoner and took a closer look. Fraulein O’Ryan – so it was! “But it is Fraulein O’Ryan! Pardon, mein Fraulein!” Oh dear. This wasn’t going to go down very well … but it was pretty difficult to recognise someone when they were covered in black powder; and what on earth had the woman been doing in her kitchen at this time in the morning anyway? Great. Her usually pristine kitchen floor was an absolute mess, there was hardly any of her new powder left in the tin, the maids were all staring at her, and Miss Ferrars was looking at her as if it was all her fault. She began to apologise, but then, as if things weren’t bad enough, Miss Annersley arrived, banged on the table with her hand and commanded silence in a very peremptory manner. “What is the meaning of this disturbance?” the Head demanded, as if she’d been addressing a group of juniors rather than a group of grown women.
Miss Ferrars began to babble something about wanting milk for tea for herself and Miss O’Ryan, and then Biddy O’Ryan began to talk about a tin falling on her head and being grabbed by Karen, as if it were Karen’s fault that the silly woman had been creeping about in the kitchen and dislodging the tin of powder! Why on earth had she been looking for a tin of milk in the cleaning products cupboard, anyway? “Pardon, mein Fraulein,” Karen interrupted. “I thought I had caught a burglar. I, too, was awake. I heard the steps and the key turning in the door so I came down.”
“But what is the stuff?” Miss Annersley asked. Karen groaned inwardly. Miss Annersley was bound to try to blame her for the mishap, rather than one of the “upstairs” staff; and she also seemed to expect the domestic staff to use the same old cleaning products even when new and better ones were available, and was bound to complain about the purchase of the new powder. “Gnadiges Fraulein, it is but a powder I would try on the stoves to give them a brilliant polish. My cousin told me it was excellent. I ordered the tin and it arrived today and I put it on the top shelf in that cupboard. Perhaps it was too near the edge and, when the door was opened, it fell out. I had loosened the lid, ready to mix for some work in the morning.”
She knew straightaway from the look on Miss Annersley’s face that she was going to get the blame for what had really been an accident. Later in the day, she found herself being summoned to the study, where she was given a severe ticking off as if she had been a naughty eleven year old. “You had no business disobeying my orders,” the Head said sharply. “You seem to have some sort of craze for samples of the latest thing and this is what happens! I’ve told you time and time again to stick to the old tried products. Thanks to you, all the maids have been disturbed, and it has taken Matron a long time to get that powder out of Miss O’Ryan’s hair. In future, you will do as you are told, please.”
Karen hadn’t felt so humiliated since the day that she’d been dismissed from the Kron Prinz Karl. She’d tried to save time and improve the appearance of the kitchen by trying out a new polish – and where would the world be if everyone did nothing but stick to “old tried” products, and what exactly did Hilda Annersley know about cleaning stoves anyway? – and she had tried to protect the school and everyone in it by tackling someone whom she had believed to be a burglar; and this was the thanks that she’d got for it. She worked day in, day out with hardly a word of thanks in return, and then one thing went wrong and she was spoken to as if she were a naughty schoolgirl. At the first opportunity she got, she rushed out of the school and over to Freudesheim. “Oh Anna!” she sobbed. “What a fortnight it’s been!”
“You need a break,” Anna said firmly, when she had heard the entire tale of the past fortnight’s events, from Madel’s letter to the incident with the stove cleaner. Karen had said furiously that she wished she’d thrown what had remained of the powder over Miss Annersley’s head, and they had both begun to laugh at the thought. “Write to Madel and tell her that you will go home at Easter. It’ll do you good, Karen. I’ll write to my aunt, Marie’s mother: she’s got room and she’ll be delighted for you to stay with her. Don’t tell me that you don’t want to see the Tiernsee again.”
The Tiernsee. Home. Away from the Chalet School where people could treat her as they’d done today.
She nodded. “You’re right, Anna. I will go home at Easter.” She smiled. “I still think of it as home, however much I might try to convince myself otherwise. I’ll write to Madel tonight.”
Karen sat on the train as it headed for the border between Switzerland and Austria on Holy Thursday, which the British called Maundy Thursday. The second half of the term had passed with little incident. In fact, it had ended on a rather pleasant note. Miss Ferrars had proposed a new idea – it was considered all right for the teaching staff to suggest new ideas, even if it wasn’t considered all right for the domestic staff to try out new cleaning products! – referred to as “Spot Supper”. Karen and the maids had worked extra hard to prepare the food for the special occasion, and they had been rewarded by Mary-Lou Trelawney calling for three cheers for them all and the other girls joining in the cheers at the tops of their voices. Mary-Lou could be a bossy madam sometimes, but she’d made Karen and her assistants feel that their hard work hadn’t gone unnoticed and Karen appreciated that.
It had been a difficult term at times, but it had ended well, and now she was ready to put the Chalet School behind her for a couple of weeks. She was to spend the first week in Briesau, staying with Anna’s aunt, and then she would see what the second week brought. She opened her latest romantic novel and smiled. Hopefully, this holiday would bring nothing but peace and relaxation.
The Swiss trains were usually fairly efficient, but there was some problem with engineering works on the line and Karen arrived at the Innsbruck Bahnhof to find that she’d missed the connection to Spartz and there wouldn’t be another one for an hour and a half. Oh well, it couldn’t be helped. She decided to leave her case at the left luggage office and walk to the area where the fashionable shops were: she hadn’t had the chance to window shop in a big city centre for ages. She tried to ignore the presence of a group of French soldiers near the station, a reminder that Austria’s political status remained ambiguous even now when the war had been over for years, with the Soviets and the Western Allies seemingly unable to decide on a way forward.
She was enjoying gazing at the expensive gowns displayed in the windows of the Hamels’ store in the Mariatheresien Strasse when her attention was caught by a tall, fair-haired man, accompanied by two women, leaving the shop on the opposite side of the road, and she felt suddenly apprehensive. Maybe coming back to Tyrol hadn’t been such a good idea after all. Don’t be so stupid, Karen, she chided herself. You can’t spend the next fortnight feeling nervous every time you see a tall man with fair hair. Besides, if he lives in America, he’s hardly likely to be in Innsbruck, is he? Even if he does intend to be present at his niece’s wedding, that’s not for weeks yet. You’ll be long gone from here by then.
Anyway, the man she had seen was several years younger than Rudi would be now. Good-looking fellow, whoever he was. He reminded her of someone, but she couldn’t quite think whom: it was going to annoy her now. She glanced at the two women who were standing on either side of him and was sure that she’d seen the elder of the pair before. Who was she? She had none of her male companion’s good looks, being dark and rather plain. The younger woman was pretty, though, in a dark, Mediterranean type of way … and she seemed vaguely familiar as well. Karen shook her head. Surely she was being fanciful now, imagining that she recognised people who were doubtless complete strangers. She’d better stop wondering about them and walk back towards the station, or she was going to end up missing the next train as well.
Oh, it was good to be back home! Especially at this time of year. Karen had always loved the springtime, and until this year she hadn’t admitted to herself how much she’d missed the Tyrolean Eastertide celebrations. She looked up at the large willow branch that stood behind a picture frame in the living room of the Pfeifens’ cosy home. It was traditional in Briesau for the young men of the village to carry such branches into church on Palm Sunday to be blessed, and then for the branches to be distributed round the houses of the neighbourhood, the idea being that they protected the houses from bad weather and the houses’ inhabitants from bad health.
Yesterday, she’d attended the Good Friday service with the Pfeifens and some of her own relatives. As always at this time of year, the church bells hadn’t been used, in keeping with the tradition that they’d “flown” to Rome to participate in the Easter Sunday service there; and the noisy wooden devices known as Ratschen had been used instead. Now it was Easter Saturday. Madel was working, and Karen had insisted on helping Anna’s aunt with the Easter baking. The two of them were busy making the Osterbrot, the sweet plaited loaves traditionally eaten at Easter, and the lamb-shaped Sandkuchen that was a symbol of spring. Although Marie and Rosa were with the Russells and Eigen was working in Vienna, the Pfeifens still had a large number of children and grandchildren living locally, and Frau Pfeifen was expecting a lot of people for Easter Sunday lunch the following day.
“You would be very welcome to join us for lunch tomorrow, you know, Karen,” Frau Pfeifen said, but Karen shook her head. “Thank you very much for the invitation, but you’ve got enough people to cater for as it is, and my aunt has invited me to go to her house after church.”
“You will be joining us for the Easter egg hunt, won’t you, though?” Frau Pfeifen asked. Karen laughed and nodded. She’d enjoyed helping Frau Pfeifen make the chocolate eggs and chocolate bunnies. Tomorrow, the children of the family would be presented with presents by their godparents. Later on, they’d be given hardboiled eggs to paint, and then some of them would end up battling it out to see who could smash the others’ brightly-decorated eggs with their own. And they’d hunt for the eggs that the Osterhase, the Easter bunny, would have hidden for them.
Karen hadn’t been on an Easter egg hunt for years. She was quite looking forward to it. She remembered how excited she’d got about them when she’d been a child. You never knew what you might find or whom you might meet.
Easter Sunday proved to be warm and sunny, and the Pfeifens’ grandchildren and their friends were up and about early, laughing as they ran about in the fields looking for the eggs that the older members of their families had been out at dawn to hide. Karen felt happier and more relaxed than she’d done in years. The lakeside held so many memories for her, good and bad, but those of Easter time were only happy ones. She remembered one year when Friedrich had rolled one of his hardboiled eggs down a sloping field at the Seespitz end of the lake and it had fallen into the water, and he’d dived in after it in his best clothes. Their parents had seen the funny side of it in the end. Then there’d been the time that she and Madel had been bored with painting the eggs and had decided to paint their faces instead. It had taken hours for their mothers to scrub them clean afterwards. She was so engrossed in her memories that she didn’t notice that she’d wandered away from the others until she found herself nearing the Barenbad Alpe and suddenly realised that she’d better turn back.
She paused to admire the lake. How lovely it was, gleaming in the sunlight. Why was it that, when you lived in a place all the time, you never quite appreciated its beauty as you did when you returned after a long time away? She stood there, gazing at the water, memories assailing her. When she’d been young it had never occurred to her that she’d ever end up living anywhere but here. How different her life might have been … if she’d never gone to work at the Kron Prinz Karl … if she’d never fallen in love with Rudi …if he’d never left … if she’d never gone to work at the Chalet School … if the war had never come … It wasn’t a bad life, though, she supposed. She’d always genuinely enjoyed cooking, and there were far worse places to work than at the School. She would go back from this holiday feeling refreshed, and then she’d set about her work with renewed zeal. Everything was going to be all right.
The striking of a clock reminded her that if she didn’t hurry back she would end up being late for church. She began to walk more quickly, so intent on getting back to the Pfeifens’ house that she didn’t notice that there were two people coming the other way until she walked right into them. She began hastily to apologise without even looking to see who they might be, and only stopped when she was interrupted by a voice exclaiming, “I can’t believe it! Of all the people to bump into here! How are you, Karen?”
“Countess von und zu Wertheim!” Karen exclaimed. She would have known the beautiful former Marie von Eschenau, one of Frau Doktor Maynard’s closest friends, anywhere. She looked to see whom the Countess’s companion was, only to find that it was none other than the plain, dark-haired woman she’d seen in Innsbruck earlier in the week. “Do you remember my cousin, Paula von Rothenfels?” the Countess asked.
Of course! Karen recognised her now. Paula von Rothenfels, her younger sister Irma and their parents had lived in Hungary at one time, she recalled, presumably because their home had ended up on that side of the border when the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been dismembered; but they’d moved to Salzburg not long before the last war. Countess Marie and her husband had spent the war years in America and later in Britain, she remembered; but she knew (she and Anna tended to find out most of the gossip about the Old Girls between them) that they were now once again living in the Schloss Wertheim, not far from here. She’d always had a secret longing to work somewhere like that, even if the days when grand social functions had been a regular occurrence were now long gone. Making school dinners, on a tight budget and a tight schedule, didn’t exactly give her much chance to test her culinary skills, especially given the school authorities’ obsession with the idea that plain food was what was best for the girls. “How do you do?” she said.
“I suppose you’re wondering what we’re doing here, especially on Easter Sunday morning,” Marie von und zu Wertheim laughed. “Paula fancied a nostalgic visit to some of our old haunts, so we decided to get up early this morning and drive over here before going back in time for church. We’re glad of a little peace, quite honestly. I’ve got a houseful at the moment. My husband Eugen’s mother was American, and one of Eugen’s American cousins is over here visiting us at the moment. He’s brought a couple of business associates with him and they’re staying with us too, and when we knew they were coming we decided to hold a proper house party for the first time since we got the Schloss back - although most of the guests have ended up being my own relations! Paula and her sister Irma and their parents are here, and so are my sister Wanda and her husband Friedel von Gluck. My elder brother Kurt and his wife Bernhilda will be arriving tomorrow, and my younger brother Wolfram got here a few days ago.”
Ah. That was who the man in Innsbruck had been! Wolfram von Eschenau. She’d only seen him a couple of times before, and that had been years ago, but she realised now that it was the Countess and Frau von Gluck whom he’d reminded her of. So who had the younger woman with him been? Another cousin?
“Most of my relations are joining us … apart from some cousins in Germany whom we’ve lost touch with,” the Countess said, a darker note in her voice. Karen, remembering the infamous Thekla von Stift, who had always been so rude to the domestic staff at the school, said nothing. “We’ve even got some relations from Italy, whom we hadn’t seen since before the war, here,” Countess Marie continued. “My cousin Giannini, Prince Balbini, with his twin children Mario and Maria.”
The Balbinis! Those Italian children who’d played all sorts of tricks on the school and then run off with Sybil Russell! There’d been some talk of Maria Balbini coming to the Chalet School but it had never happened in the end. That was who the younger woman she’d seen in Innsbruck had been. She’d forgotten how many cousins the von Eschenaus seemed to have! And she’d forgotten that the Count had had an American mother and was bound, therefore, to have American connections.
“It’s lovely to see you again, Karen, but time is getting on, I’m afraid,” Paula von Rothenfels interrupted. “Marie and I are planning to come down here again on Tuesday, though, with Irma and Wanda and Bernhilda. I’m sure they’d all love to see you again as well. Would you like to join us for Kaffee und Kuchen? We can have a good old nostalgia session about the days when the School was here, and you can tell us all the latest news from the Gornetz Platz! Unless you’re only here for the weekend?”
“I’m staying with Frau Pfeifen, my friend Anna’s aunt, until Thursday,” Karen said. She still hadn’t decided what she was doing about the following week. “I would like that very much, but … well …” She wasn’t quite sure what to say. The Countess von und zu Wertheim, wife of the most important man in the entire district and mistress of the sort of grand Schloss where she’d always rather fancied working, and her sister and cousins were all aristocrats born and bred, and Bernhilda von Eschenau was the wife of an aristocrat and the daughter of a wealthy banker. However pleasant they might be, she wasn’t sure that she’d be at all comfortable sitting round a table with them, even if they had invited her.
“Oh please do, Karen!” Marie exclaimed, sensing her hesitation. “Really, we would all be very pleased if you would agree to join us. My treat. It’ll be fun, talking over the old days and catching up on all the gossip!”
Karen felt that she could hardly say no. Anyway, it’d be nice to eat out and be waited on for a change, rather than always being the one doing the cooking and the clearing up! She smiled and nodded. “Thank you so much, Countess. I would be delighted to join you.”
“We’ll meet at three o’clock on Tuesday, by the landing stage, then,” Marie said. “Until then, auf wiedersehen!”
“Auf wiedersehen,” Karen echoed.
Karen spent a thoroughly enjoyable Easter Sunday afternoon with her family and a pleasant Monday boating on the lake with some of the younger Pfeifens, her only regret being that she’d stayed away from the Tiernsee for so long. She didn’t get paid enough to be able to afford the train fare to Austria every school holiday, but she vowed that she’d try to come back at least once a year from now on. She’d been a bit worried in case she ran into old Herr and Frau Braun, but so far she’d managed to avoid them: the only times she’d seen them had been at church and luckily they hadn’t spotted her. The last thing she needed was a close encounter with any member of that family after the way they’d treated her.
On Tuesday afternoon, as arranged, she met Countess Marie and the others for Kaffee und Kuchen. She was relieved to hear that they’d decided on going to Der Goldene Apfel rather than the Kron Prinz Karl, and any unease she felt at being in the company of so many well-born ladies soon vanished thanks to their friendliness and easy conversation. She heard all about Wanda and Bernhilda’s numerous children and about Paula’s fiancé, a wealthy Salzburger, and enjoyed answering all their questions about the school.
She promised Irma von Rothenfels that she’d get Anna to ask Frau Doktor Maynard to pass on the address of the Canadian convent where Soeur Marie-Cécile, who’d been one of Irma’s closest friends during their schooldays in Tyrol, now lived; and she listened with interest when Wanda von Gluck told her that the Balbini twins were both living in Milan, where Mario was a banker and Maria was a fashion designer.
The only person who was a little quiet was the Countess herself. “Is everything all right?” Karen asked her quietly when she got chance. Marie sighed and shook her head. “Not really, no. It’s nothing serious, but … actually, maybe you might know someone who could …oh, I’m sorry, Karen, I shouldn’t be spoiling your meal by boring you with my worries.”
“Oh, you couldn’t spoil it!” Karen exclaimed. “It’s been a wonderful afternoon, honestly: thank you so much for inviting me. And I don’t mean to pry, but if there’s anything I can do to help with whatever the problem is, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
Marie took a deep breath. “Karen, I will be truthful with you. I am well aware, believe me, that I lead a privileged life and have much to be grateful for; but it is very expensive to maintain a Schloss. When the Nazis took over the Schloss during the war, they helped themselves to a lot of our possessions, and then by the time we got the castle back a lot of repair work needed doing and it ended up costing us a significant amount of money. It’s no wonder that so many castles in Tyrol and elsewhere in Austria have ended up being turned into hotels because their owners just couldn’t afford to maintain them any more. The Count and I certainly have no wish to see the Schloss Wertheim become a hotel, but Mr Howard, Eugen’s American cousin, has suggested that it could perhaps be used for business conferences or as accommodation for private tour groups from time to time, especially once the occupying troops leave Austria which we hope won’t be long now; and quite honestly the extra income would come in useful.
“One of the two business associates accompanying him owns a hotel in Boston and comes from Tyrol originally, and the other one works in the travel and hospitality industry; and they’re both interested in the idea of promoting Tyrol as a destination for tourists and international business conferences. So obviously we want to make the best possible impression on them. It’s meant an awful lot of work for our staff, and the most important part of our house party is yet to come: on Monday night there’s going to be a Grand Ball, to which we’ve invited several senior local and regional dignitaries as well as the people who are staying with us.
“Unfortunately, our cook, who’s married to our butler, has been called away to Mayrhofen to look after her mother who’s been taken ill. I insisted that she must go because I could see how worried she was, but now I’m finding that the rest of the kitchen staff are struggling to cope and I’ve got no idea how we’re going to manage with the catering for the ball. I’ve asked the proprietors of several of the hotels around the Tiernsee if they could help, but none of them can spare anyone at this busy time of year. At the moment I really don’t know what to do, but maybe you know of someone living locally who might be able to help?”
“Could I perhaps help?” Karen asked shyly, trying not to show her eagerness. She might be on holiday, but she had no plans for the second week of her visit and quite honestly she’d never been one for sitting around doing nothing … and she’d always wanted the chance to try catering for something like this. A Grand Ball at a fairytale castle! And she couldn’t imagine a lady like the Countess nagging her staff about what sort of blacking they used to clean the ovens with! It was probably a silly idea, though. What if she made a mess of it? And the Countess was bound to want someone whose recent cooking experience went a bit further than school dinners.
Marie looked at her in surprise. “Karen, that would be wonderful! I often say to my husband that we’d have to go a very long way to find anyone whose cooking’s as good as yours, especially when it comes to Austrian food which is exactly what we want; and my girls are always telling me that the food at school’s better than it is at home! But I wouldn’t dream of asking you to do this whilst you’re on holiday. Please don’t think that I was dropping hints. I know how hard you work during term-time. And didn’t you say that you were going back to Switzerland on Thursday?”
Karen shook her head. “I’ve only arranged to stay with the Pfeifens until then, but I’m not going back for another week after that. Honestly, Countess, it would be a pleasure. I hope that your guests’ expectations aren’t too high because if they are I’m sure that I won’t be able to live up to them; but I would certainly try.”
“Karen, I’m sure that you will surpass everyone’s expectations: I know your cooking of old, remember!” Marie declared. “I would be eternally grateful to you, but are you really sure?”
“I’m really sure,” Karen laughed. She took another sip of her coffee and another forkful of her cream cake. Hopefully her stay at the castle would turn out to be one to remember.
It was the first time that Karen had ever seen the fourteenth century Schloss Wertheim at close quarters, and her first glimpse of the castle on the Wednesday evening almost took her breath away. Set in a thirty-acre park, it looked for all the world like something out of a fairytale, and she half expected to find Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and their Prince Charmings inside. Instead, she found a recently modernised and well-appointed kitchen, and a staff who were friendly and helpful enough but a little unsure of how to proceed without the direction of their cook.
It didn’t take Karen long to sort things out. After years of catering for a whole school with limited resources, producing meals for the castle guests with a well-staffed kitchen and plenty of funds at her disposal was a pleasure as well as a challenge, and she thoroughly enjoyed planning the sort of extravagant menus that she rarely if ever got chance for at the Gornetz Platz. The cleaning, laundry and other domestic matters were all dealt with by the von und zu Wertheims’ regular staff, meaning that she had far more free time than she was used to, and the Countess insisted that she was to feel at leisure to explore the castle and its beautiful grounds.
The one slight problem was the presence in the kitchen of Hans and Elisabeth, the young son and daughter of the butler and the absent cook. Even that wasn’t really much of a problem to Karen, who was fond of small children. “My wife didn’t feel that she should take them to her mother’s with her under the circumstances, and there is no-one else to look after them,” their father explained apologetically. “I wondered if perhaps they could sit in the kitchen as they usually do when they’re off school. They won’t be any trouble.”
Sitting was the one thing that they didn’t do much of: they kept wandering about and complaining that they were bored. Elsa, one of the kitchen maids, was nominally in charge of them, but she had her own work to get on with. Karen felt sorry for them with their mother away. She’d long since accepted that she wasn’t destined to be a mother herself, although she was still young enough to have children of her own; but it was still something that saddened her when she let herself think about it. She supposed that their father didn’t want to risk them running around the castle and getting up to mischief with all these important visitors here. She hadn’t actually seen any of the guests yet, but then she was more interested in seeing the castle than the people who were staying in it. Other than those who were Chalet School Old Girls, it was hard to imagine that any of them could be of any interest to her.
Nothing out of the ordinary had been required for Fruhstuck or Mittagessen on the Thursday, but in the evening a lavish meal was expected for Abendessen. Karen was a little nervous in case her cooking didn’t go down well with the visitors, but it proved to be a huge success. The first course was a light, clear soup, and it was followed by the popular Tyrolean dish of Kalbshaxn (knuckle of veal), accompanied by dumplings in the Austrian tradition and several different vegetables. For dessert Karen made apple strudel, and then she rounded things off with coffee and chocolates. The maids who’d served the meal in the grand dining room of the castle came back to the kitchen all smiles, saying that everyone had been praising the food and telling the Count and Countess how much they’d enjoyed it.
“One of the visitors from America asked me to tell the cook that it was the best meal he’d had in years,” Elsa reported to Karen. “He said that he was Tyrolean born and bred, although he now lives in Massachusetts, and that he didn’t realise just how much he’d missed Austria until he tasted your wonderful cooking. He said that he’s going to be in Tyrol for three months, and that he hopes he’ll find the food everywhere as delicious as tonight’s meal but doubts that that’ll be possible.” She grinned. “It’s a shame you weren’t there to get the compliment in person. You’d’ve enjoyed it: he must be round about your age, or maybe a few years older, and …”
“Thank you; but could we have a bit less gossiping and a bit more work now,” Karen said firmly. Elsa was a nice enough girl, but she couldn’t half talk and they had a lot of clearing up to do; and Karen really didn’t need to hear her opinion of all the male guests! She allowed herself a smile, though. Compliments at the Chalet School were few and far between: she’d remind herself of the unknown gentleman’s words when she was back in Switzerland. Back in her school kitchen with its stove that never went out.
Countess Marie came to the kitchen the next morning to thank Karen in person for the previous night’s meal, which she said that everyone had raved about. That gave Karen’s confidence a further boost: she was enjoying it here. Then, whereas at the Chalet School she was expected to provide mid-morning coffee and biscuits, she found herself at leisure once the Fruhstuck dishes had been cleared away, and wandered around the grounds of the castle, admiring the scenery. The views from the Gornetz Platz were beautiful in their own way, but nothing would ever come close to Tyrol as far as she was concerned. It was contrary to her nature to be away from her work for too long, though, so she decided to get back and make an early start on the preparations for the rest of the day’s meals.
She could tell that something was wrong as soon as she walked back into the kitchen: everything was in uproar and several of the maids looked ready to cry. “What on earth is going on in here?” Karen asked in exasperation. She’d only been gone for forty minutes or so and all hell seemed to have broken loose.
Karen looked round the room. “Where are Hans and Elisabeth?” she demanded. Elsa was supposed to be keeping an eye on them, but they were nowhere to be seen.
“We don’t know,” Elsa answered tearfully. “They were here ten minutes ago and now they’re not; and we don’t know what to do. We haven’t told their father because he’ll be furious with us. None of us saw them go, and we’ve got no idea where they might be.”
Karen tried not to panic. She could see that Elsa was very upset so she refrained from pointing out to the girl that she’d been supposed to be watching them. Having said which, they weren’t really Elsa’s responsibility; and keeping two young children cooped up in the castle kitchen, especially on a bright sunny day like this, was hardly ideal. It was probably no wonder what they’d sneaked off as soon as Elsa’s back had been turned for a few minutes. The castle was fairly secluded so she genuinely felt that the worst that could have happened was that they were hiding somewhere in the building or wandering about in the grounds, but it was a big place and they could be anywhere about.
“Elsa, take another two of the girls and look round the inside of the castle,” she instructed. “Try not to alarm anyone and don’t let any of the guests know that there’s anything wrong, but if the children don’t turn up soon we’re going to have to tell their father and probably the Count and Countess as well. I’ll go and have a look round outside at the back. Marta and Teresa, would you go and check round the front side of the castle, please.” She tried to give Elsa a reassuring smile. “They can’t have got very far in ten minutes.”
Karen searched in vain for quarter of an hour, by which time, having heard nothing from anyone else, she was growing more and more concerned. Surely two young children couldn’t have gone very far, she told herself again, and surely there was no-one in the castle grounds other than the guests and the von und zu Wertheims’ staff. All the same, thoughts kept going through her mind of the numerous occasions on which girls at the supposedly well-disciplined Chalet School had wandered off, and she tried hard not to think about the number of times that they’d ended up meeting with accidents. “Hans!” she called in a shaky voice that didn’t sound like her own. “Elisabeth! Are you there? Please come out if you are. No-one’s angry with you: we just want to know that you’re safe.”
“I think that this pair must be the young lady and gentleman you’re looking for,” she heard a man’s voice call out in reply. “I found them wandering towards the woods and guessed that they shouldn’t be there. They admitted that they were on the run from the kitchen, so I was just bringing them back. They’re absolutely fine: don’t worry.”
That voice. Karen stopped dead in her tracks and stood stock-still. She felt as if she’d been struck by a thunderbolt.
She’d known his voice immediately ... but no, it couldn’t be. She was imagining things: she must be. It was being here, in Tyrol. This was surely one of the von und zu Wertheims’ guests, or maybe one of the men who worked in the grounds. She could hear footsteps approaching now. All she had to do was turn round and she would see that it was a complete stranger and not him at all.
“Karen?” The voice was quieter now, as if the speaker had had a shock, could hardly believe his eyes. “No: it can’t be. I must be imagining things. It’s being here, in Tyrol. Ever since I’ve been back here I’ve kept thinking … every time I’ve turned a corner … Karen, is it really you?”
She turned round. Their eyes met for a moment, then she dropped her gaze to the ground, feeling her face growing burning hot. This was dreadful. Why did he have to be here, of all places? He was supposed to be thousands of miles away. Oh why had she ever come back to Tyrol? And why was she wearing this dress that had seen better days, and why hadn’t she brushed her hair after taking off the cap she’d been wearing whilst preparing Fruhstuck, and why, oh why, had she eaten so many cream cakes over the past few years? And why was she standing here rooted to the spot like a complete and utter fool?
“I can’t believe it’s really you, after all this time,” Rudi said. “I didn’t know if you were still in Tyrol, I didn’t know … oh Karen. What are you doing here?”
Didn’t know if she was still in Tyrol! Much he cared! She hadn’t gone anywhere twenty -one years ago. He was the one who’d disappeared and broken her heart. “I’m working in the kitchen,” she snapped. “What else would I be doing here? That’s what I do: surely you can’t have forgotten that.”
She realised that the children, whose presence she’d almost forgotten in the shock of seeing him again, were looking at them both with puzzled expressions on their faces. “Hans, Elisabeth, go back to the kitchen at once, please,” she said quickly. “Ask one of the people there to let Elsa and the others know that you’re all right. Most of the kitchen staff are out looking for you. I realise that you were bored but you should never have gone off like that: anything could have happened to you.”
Once she’d watched them head off in the direction of the kitchen, she turned to Rudi again, her composure somewhat recovered. “Thank you for bringing them back,” she said quietly. “One of the kitchen maids was supposed to be watching them, but the kitchen holds little interest for children and they wandered off whilst she wasn’t looking. Thank you, again.”
“They’re lovely children,” he said. “I haven’t got any children of my own. I’ve never been married.” He looked at her intently and she could feel herself blushing again … and she knew that she was horribly, guiltily, overwhelmingly happy that he didn’t have a wife. “They told me that their father was the butler here, and their mother was the cook.”
“That’s right,” Karen said. “A very appropriate match, don’t you think? A cook and a butler? Even your parents couldn’t have any objection to that.” Good. Let him think that. Let him think that she had a husband and children. Anything other than the humiliation of him realising that she’d never got over him twenty-one years after he’d gone off and left and never come back.
“I’m glad you’re happy,” he said. He bit his lip. “Are you happy, Karen?”
She was going to break down and cry in a minute if she didn’t get away from him. “I’ve got to get back to the kitchen,” she said desperately. “Everything’s running behind because we’ve been looking for the children. I need to make a start on getting the food ready for Mittagessen.”
“What happened, Karen?” he asked quietly. “Twenty-one years ago, what happened? I’m sure that my parents had something to do with it and I suspect that yours did as well; but I’ve never really known. I’ve had to live with that: all these years I’ve had to live with it. And it may have been a long time ago but I still need to know. Tell me, Karen. Please?”
“I’ve got to go,” she muttered, not really taking in what he was saying, just knowing that she had to get away. She turned away from him and walked back towards the castle as quickly as she could, somehow resisting the temptation to pick up her skirts and run. Her mind was in turmoil. This was horrendous. How could she possibly stay here when he was here? She was going to have to make some sort of excuse and leave. No, she couldn’t do that: the Countess was relying on her and she couldn’t let her down. So what was she going to do?
Calm down, Karen, she tried to tell herself. She was only going to be here for another few days. She would just have to make sure that she didn’t run into him again. It would be easy enough tomorrow, at least, seeing as the von und zu Wertheims were taking all their guests to Innsbruck for the day. So long as she remained in the kitchen before Fruhstuck and during and after Abendessen, there would be no chance of her encountering him at all. Even if, for any reason, he came looking for her, she’d be surrounded by people: he wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near her.
With the von und zu Wertheims and their guests in Innsbruck for the day, there was very little for Karen to do once the Fruhstuck dishes had been cleared away on Saturday morning. She had no responsibility for cleaning or laundry here, and had been told that only a light meal would be required in the evening as they would be having a large Mittagessen at a restaurant in the city, so she found herself free to have a look round the castle.
It was amazing! Most of the damage done during the war and the years of neglect that had followed had been repaired and, although some of the rooms were no longer in use, all those that were were beautifully furnished, many of them containing items that had been in the Count’s family for generations. But the best part was when she reached the top of the castle’s main tower and stood gazing out over the lakes and mountains that lay beyond. Up there, she felt as if she’d stepped back into the Middle Ages. She knew that the castle would never have seen a siege, Tyrol having enjoyed a fairly peaceful history under the Habsburgs, at least until the Napoleonic Wars; but she couldn’t help finding herself thinking about knights in shining armour and damsels in distress. You read too many romantic novels, Karen, she thought to herself with a smile. She sat down on a stone ledge, and closed her eyes for a moment.
“I thought you’d be up here. You always did like looking out over the lakes and mountains. So, will you talk to me now, Karen?”
She looked up at him. “What do you want?” she snapped. “And aren’t you all supposed to be Innsbruck for the day?”
“I said that I’d stay behind because I had some important business papers to read through,” Rudi said. “It’s vaguely true, but the real reason was that I wanted to talk to you.”
“Well, I can’t think of anything that we could possibly have to talk about,” she said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to the kitchen.” She stood up to leave.
“No you haven’t, Karen,” he said, gently but insistently. “The Count told me that the Countess had ordered only a light meal for tonight. He also told me, when I asked how long the cook who was responsible for all the wonderful food that we’ve been having had worked here, that their usual cook’s had to go to visit her sick mother and that they’d been very lucky in finding someone who kindly offered to step into the breach for a week.”
“How dare you gossip about me with the Count or anyone else,” she flared. “What on earth has it got to do with you whether I work here permanently or not?”
“Will you stop shouting at me?” he asked exasperatedly.
“I am not shouting,” she shouted. She glared at him. He looked straight back at her.
Karen looked away. She could usually quell any argument from any member of the Chalet School domestic staff in a matter of seconds, but there was no way that this was going to be so easy. She knew very well that he was every bit as strong-willed as she was.
She sat back down.
“So you aren’t the person who’s married to the butler?” he asked.
“No,” she flared. “No, I’m not married to the butler. I haven’t got a husband. I haven’t got any children. My mother’s dead. My father’s dead. My brother was killed in the war. It’s just me. I’m all on my own. Is that what you wanted to know? Happy now?” What on earth had possessed her to blurt all that out, to him of all people? She very rarely talked about the loss of all her immediate family, so close together, to anyone. It was a sorrow that she usually kept buried deep within herself, and now she could feel tears pricking her eyelids and she knew that she was about to lose control. She buried her face in her hands.
“Oh Karen, I am so sorry,” he said quietly. “I had no idea. I’m so very sorry. What a time you’ve had.” She was sobbing uncontrollably now and she wouldn’t even look at him. He sat down beside her and put his arms round her. “Come here,” he murmured. She resisted for a moment, then she put her head on his shoulder and let him hold her close. When she’d stopped crying at last, he took out his handkerchief and dried her tears, then he put his arms round her again.
This time she pulled away, furious with herself. What was she doing? She was the woman who ruled the school kitchen with a rod of iron; she was the jolly school cook: it should have been easy enough to have put on a show of being tough and unemotional, or at least of being happy and jovial. Instead, five minutes after he’d showed up, she was in his arms, weeping about all her most personal private family matters and telling him she was all alone in the world. What on earth must he think of her? She retreated along the ledge until she was at a safe distance from him.
“Well, these things happen,” she said. “That’s life: you’ve just got to get on with it, haven’t you? I’m quite capable of looking after myself. I’m the head of the domestic staff where I work – I live in Switzerland now – and I’ve got a very good friend who lives nearby and I’ve still got relatives here. I’m absolutely fine. And you’ve obviously done very well for yourself. Being invited to stay with a Count and Countess.” She looked at him, wishing as she did so that she didn’t still find him so attractive. His clothes were casual but obviously not cheap, she noticed. Had the young left-wing idealist that he’d been turned into the perfect middle-class businessman? Why was he living in America? What had he been doing all these years?
“I shouldn’t have asked the Count about you,” he said. “I only wanted to know how long you’d been here: you wouldn’t talk to me yesterday. I’m sorry if I upset you.”
“That’s what you said after that wedding reception at the Kron Prinz Karl,” she muttered. “In that note you sent me.”
He smiled. “You remember?”
She certainly wasn’t going to tell him that she’d still got the note. “Well, I suppose I would do,” she said tartly. “Seeing as it was the only letter you ever bothered to send me.”
He looked at her as if she’d just said something that made no sense whatsoever. “What are you talking about?” he asked.
“The note,” Karen said angrily. “It was the only time you ever wrote to me. If you couldn’t even be bothered to say goodbye to me, was I not at least worth a letter? One minute you were telling me you loved me and the next minute you’d gone and that was that. Was that all I was worth? I might have only been a kitchen maid as far as you were concerned, but did you think I had no feelings? How could you have treated me, or anyone for that matter, like that? I had no way of contacting you: I didn’t know where you were. Where have you been, all these years?” She shook her head. “Where have you been?” she repeated. “Where did you go?”
He gave her a puzzled look, which she didn’t understand. “When I left Briesau? To Wien, of course. You must have known that: my parents said that they’d told you. When I went to see you before I went and I couldn’t find you, they said that you’d said that you wouldn’t see me until I came back. Then you never answered my letters, you didn’t want to see me when I did come back to Briesau …” Seeing that she was about to protest, he broke off his sentence and shook his head. “We’re talking at complete cross-purposes here, aren’t we?”
“You’re not making a word of sense to me, if that’s what you mean,” she said. “I had no idea where you’d gone: your parents wouldn’t tell me. I certainly never said anything about not seeing you. I waited and waited for you to get in touch. And not a word did I hear from you, ever. Letters? Coming back to Briesau? I don’t understand.”
“I wrote to you,” he said. “I wrote to you, so many times. I told you where I was and I told you that I’d be back soon. You never wrote back.”
“I never received any letters from you,” she said. She shook her head. “Could you have had the wrong address?” she asked wildly.
“How on earth could I have had the wrong address?” he asked. “How could I not have known the address of the Kron Prinz Karl? It was my parents’ home: I grew up there!”
“The Kron Prinz Karl?” Why would he have written to her there? She’d never set foot in the place again after his parents had sent her packing on the day he’d left. She tried to get all this straight in her head. “That night,” she said. “We came in late. Your father caught us. He was angry. You said that I should go to my room and that you’d speak to him. Then what happened?”
“We argued,” he said slowly. “My father and I argued, and then he said that it was late and that we should talk about it in the morning. First thing in the morning, he came to see me and he said that he wasn’t happy about my seeing you, but that he and my mother would accept it if my mind was made up. He said that I should go away, at once, for a little while, to stay with my cousins in Wien, to think things over, and that if I still wanted to see you when I returned then he and my mother would accept it. There was nothing to think over as far as I was concerned; but if a few weeks away meant that they would accept us then it seemed a small price to pay.
“I told him that I was going to go to see you, to tell you what he’d said, to say goodbye but explain that it wouldn’t be for long and that I hoped that you’d understand and you wouldn’t mind; but he said that the hotel restaurant was busy and that no-one in the kitchen’d have time to talk to anyone before Fruhstuck, and that it’d make more sense for me to pack first and speak to you later. When I went to find you, I couldn’t. He said that he and my mother’d spoken to you first and that you’d agreed not to see me until I returned from Wien.”
“And you believed him?” Karen asked crossly. “Why are men so stupid? They never told me anything about where you’d gone. And how could you possibly have believed that I would have agreed not to see you before you left?”
“How could you have believed that I would have deliberately gone away without saying goodbye, or that I wouldn’t have written to you?” he asked. “I went to Wien but I wrote to you. At the Kron Prinz Karl.”
“I wasn’t there,” she said. She shook her head. “I wasn’t there: your parents took great delight in dismissing me and telling me exactly what they thought of me for daring even to look at their precious son. They’d certainly never have passed any letters on to me. I went back to my parents’ home. It was horrible: they were furious with me. Then my friend Marie Pfeifen got me a job at the Chalet School.”
“The English private school?”
“Don’t say a word against it,” she warned him. “They’ve been very good to me. I worked there until the Anschluss came and the school was forced to close, and then I followed the school to Britain. Now it’s based in the Bernese Oberland and I work there still. I’m in charge of the domestic side of the school: admittedly it may not be a glamorous job or an exciting one, but it does for me and it’s my home. The Countess von und zu Wertheim was a pupil there once, when the school was still in Austria: I am working for her for this week only, and then I’m going back to Switzerland.
“I never knew,” he said. “Truly, I never knew that my parents had dismissed you. I’d have played hell with them if I’d known. I never had any idea. I wrote to you at the hotel. When you never answered, I decided to forget what I’d said about staying in Wien and I came back; but my father said that you’d told him that you’d realised that a kitchen maid and the hotel owner’s son shouldn’t be seeing each other because there could never be any future in it, and that you would refuse to see me.
“I was sure that he was lying and I went to the kitchen to find you; but you weren’t there, and the head chef said that you’d seen me coming and told him that if I asked for you he was to tell me that you wouldn’t see me and to ask me to leave. I didn’t believe him either: I knew that he’d always done anything my parents said whereas he’d never seen eye-to-eye with either you or me, and I was sure that my parents had told him what had happened and put him up to it. So I found your family’s home, but your mother and father told me the same thing – that you’d decided that we shouldn’t see each other again and that I should leave. No-one ever mentioned anything about a school. Oh Karen, did you really think that I’d have just walked away and left you like that?”
“What was I supposed to think?” she muttered. “And did you really think that I’d’ve decided that we shouldn’t see each other any more?”
“What was I supposed to think?” he asked. “As far as I knew, you were still at the Kron Prinz Karl. My parents, your parents, the head chef …” He shook his head. “I should be feeling angry but I can’t quite think straight. I can’t believe that so many people lied to us, forced us apart like that.”
“They probably thought that they were doing what was best for us,” she murmured. She couldn’t come to terms with it all. His parents, yes, she could believe anything of them after the way they’d spoken to her … but her parents as well? She wasn’t going to let herself think badly of them now, not when they were both long gone, not when she supposed that they had thought they’d been acting in her best interests, but even so. And he hadn’t abandoned her after all, he hadn’t gone and never come back, he hadn’t just cast her aside, he hadn’t decided that she wasn’t good enough for him. What was more, all this time he’d been thinking that she was the one who’d decided that she didn’t want any more to do with him.
Not that it really mattered now, she told herself. It’d all been a long time ago. Some things weren’t meant to be. The kitchen maid and the hotel owner’s son. It could never have worked. Could it?
“Well they weren’t doing what was best for us,” he said forcefully. “Were they? I wouldn’t have just left you, Karen. I’d never have left you.”
This was all getting a bit too emotional. She needed to talk about something else, or she was going to end up falling into his arms and telling him how much she’d missed him all these years, and she wasn’t at all sure that that’d be a good idea. What could it bring other than more heartache for both of them? They had completely different lives now. They were only here for a few days. More importantly, he was here as a guest of the most important family in the area and she was here as the cook. In that respect nothing had really changed.
Why exactly was he here, anyway? Something to do with hotels and promoting tourism? She’d told him that she was working at the Chalet School and had been almost ever since they’d been parted, but she knew nothing of his life or of where he’d been and what he’d been doing for the last twenty-one years. On the outside he seemed so different from how he’d been when she’d first met him, yet in every other respect he seemed so little changed. What had happened to him in all the years that they’d been apart?
“Tell me where you went,” she said. “You never came back to live in Briesau. How long did you stay in Wien? And how did you end up in America?”
Rudi took a deep breath. “Long story. I’ll try to keep it brief. When everyone told me that you wouldn’t see me, I went back to Wien. I’d had a furious row with my parents: they insisted that they’d had nothing to do with your supposed decision but I knew very well that that wasn’t true. I didn’t stay with my cousins for long: I went to live with some friends from university, and, seeing as hotel management was what I’d been brought up to do, I got a job in a hotel in Wien. I worked there for a few years, and my friends worked in various different places, but that didn’t stop us from being involved in trying to promote trade unionism.” He smiled wryly. “I don’t think I was exactly the sort of employee that the hotel owners wanted: I don’t know how I managed to keep my job there for as long as I did
“I don’t have to tell you that those weren’t easy times, Karen, high inflation and high unemployment, and … well, when the socialist uprising came in 1934, we were amongst those involved in it. After the army repressed the uprising, most of us lost our jobs. The owner of the hotel I’d been working at said that he wasn’t going to employ someone who’d been involved in civil unrest and was associated with the Social Democrats.”
Karen understood. Although most political events seemed to pass the Chalet School by, she’d been well aware of the events of February 1934 and the subsequent outlawing of the Social Democratic Party, followed four months later by a failed Nazi coup resulting in the murder of the Chancellor. She nodded. “What then?” she asked. She wanted to know all about his life.
“I went to America not long afterwards,” he said. “It wasn’t difficult in those days: there weren’t as many people trying to leave Austria as there were towards the end of the Thirties. Schussnigg and his allies had effectively set up a one party state and I could see that there was going to be more trouble from Germany sooner or later. I thought … I suppose I thought that I could make a new start. Leave Europe behind me.”
She frowned. “I can’t believe that you spent the last years before the war as an American businessman. That doesn’t sound like you at all. I used to keep finding myself wondering whether you were in Spain, fighting for the left-wing cause during the war there. I worried myself sick about you.”
“You did think about me, then?” he asked. “Despite everything you said earlier on?”
Karen smiled at him. She couldn’t very well be shy of him after all the screaming, the shouting, the tears and the very emotional conversation that they’d just had, and in a strange sort of way it seemed completely natural for the two of them to be sitting up here together like this. She wasn’t feeling very much like the big, jolly, middle-aged cook who ruled the school kitchen with a rod of iron at the moment: she was feeling a lot more like the Karen that she’d been just over twenty-one years earlier. “I might have done,” she said playfully.
He smiled back at her. “Am I going to have to make do with that? I suppose I might have thought about you as well. Every single day. Am I allowed to come and sit next to you now, or have I got to stay over here?”
Karen giggled and he moved over to sit beside her. When she was settled comfortably in his arms, he started speaking again, his voice more serious now. “You were right about Spain. I came back to Europe from America and joined the International Brigade fighting on the Republican side. It was horrendous as all wars are, and it turned out that we were fighting for a lost cause; but I’ve never regretted it.”
“That must have gone down really well with your parents,” she said drily. “So how exactly did you get from fighting alongside the communists in Spain to spending a week at the Schloss of an Austrian nobleman?”
“I’m here to work, not as a social climber. I’ve always been a socialist: I’ve always believed in equality for all. You know that, Karen. Anyway, I was injured in Spain. Quite badly; although I’m all right now, thankfully. I went back to America and I recovered, although it took a long time and I wasn’t considered completely medically fit for military service when the Americans entered the war against the Axis powers. In one way it was easier, because I don’t know what on earth the American military would have found to do with a man who came from Austria and was known to have fought in Spain and to have left-wing tendencies. Although, whilst they interned a lot of Japanese-Americans and some people of German and Italian birth, Austrians didn’t seem to be considered such a threat –America wasn’t at war with Austria, Austria had been taken over by Germany. Anyway, they found me an administrative job. So from 1942 to 1945 I was aiding the war effort against Austria.”
He looked at her. He’d found that plenty of people in Austria didn’t think at all well of an Austrian who’d served the Americans during the war: Austria might have been a victim of German occupation but it was a difficult subject. “Does that make you think badly of me, Karen?”
She shook her head. “I told you that I followed the school to Britain. I spent most of the war on the border between England and Wales. I understand completely. An evil regime was in power at home. We were on the right side, you and I. And I had no contact at all with my family for years: I didn’t even know about my brother’s death until the war was over.”
“I’m sorry.” He held her a bit closer. “I’d been working in hotels in America before the war. After peace was declared, I met Robert Howard. I knew that he had a cousin in Tyrol, although until recently I didn’t know that the cousin he referred to as Eugen was the Count von und zu Wertheim. He had the money and I had the knowledge of the hotel business, and now we own three hotels, although I deal mostly with the one in Boston. In which everyone is given the opportunity to progress and everyone is paid the same as anyone else doing a similar job. So I might have turned into a businessman but I certainly haven’t turned into a corrupt capitalist, believe me!
“A lot of business conferences are held at our hotels and we were approached by an acquaintance of Robert’s, who knew that we both had Austrian connections, to discuss the possibility of using Austrian castles for conferences in Europe and to discuss promoting tourism in Austria generally. Robert immediately thought of his cousin Eugen, whom he’d been intending to visit anyway, and I was already planning on coming to Austria for my niece Gretchen’s wedding; so here we are.”
He paused briefly, then began speaking again. “The wedding’ll be the first time I’ll have seen my mother and father for years. They’ve never really approved of anything I’ve done, and I never really forgave them for coming between you and me.”
“You should try to make things right between you,” Karen said. “They won’t always be there. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”
“Are you not angry with them for what they did?” he asked.
“I’ve always been angry with them for the way they treated me,” she said. “But being angry’s never done me any good, has it? And to be even more angry with them now I know the truth, and with my own mother and father who’re long gone … it won’t change anything, will it?”
He shook his head. “I suppose not. Much as I wish it would.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes, until the chiming of a clock somewhere reminded them how long they’d been sitting there for. “I suppose I should be getting back to the kitchen,” she said reluctantly.
“Do you have to?” Rudi asked. “I don’t want to get in the way of your work, but it’s still only late morning. Well, very late morning; but there’s no formal Mittagessen today.”
Karen smiled. “I suppose I haven’t really got anything that has to be done till later,” she said.
“I should probably be sorting out my business paperwork, but it can wait,” he said. “Come on, come and walk round the castle grounds with me. With any luck we’ll get ourselves lost somewhere where no-one’s likely to find us.”
She giggled. “You used to say things like that twenty-one years ago.”
“And you don’t look a day older now than you did then!” he declared.
Karen burst out laughing. “Are you flirting with me? You’ll have to do better than that. That line was awful! Quite apart from the fact that it wasn’t true, it sounded as if you’d taken it straight out of a book or a film or something!”
He laughed with her. “Sorry. I’m a bit out of practice.”
“That makes two of us,” she said ruefully.
“Maybe I should try something else instead,” he said. He gently pulled her close and kissed her. “Was that any better?” he asked softly.
“Much better,” she murmured. “And the kitchen can definitely wait.”
“You seem very happy today,” Elsa observed as Karen hummed rather tunelessly to herself whilst they prepared Mittagessen after church on Sunday. “You’ve had a soppy look on your face ever since yesterday morning. And you weren’t paying attention in church: I had to keep digging you in the ribs to remind you when to stand up and when to sit down.”
“Don’t be so cheeky!” Karen said; but from the tone of her voice Elsa could tell that she wasn’t really annoyed at all. “And hurry up with those vegetables. We don’t want to be late serving Mittagessen, do we? Some people might have plans for this afternoon.” She smiled in a way that made Elsa wonder what on earth she was up to. “Nice weather for the time of year, isn’t it? I believe that I might go for a little walk later on.”
“I feel like I’ve gone back in time, coming out to meet up with you all over again,” she giggled when she and Rudi met by the small, gloriously blue lake in the castle grounds an hour or so later. “I don’t know what everyone at the Chalet School would have to say if they could see me now. They all think that my idea of an exciting afternoon’s trying out a different type of furniture polish or a new recipe for fruit juice!”
“Forget about the Chalet School for once,” he said. “I’m sure that we can find much more interesting things to talk about!”
They found plenty to talk about, and they were both very sorry indeed when the time for Kaffee und Kuchen drew near and they had to go back to the castle. Rudi grinned and replied in the affirmative when Kurt von Eschenau said politely that he hoped that he was enjoying his visit to Tyrol; and Karen just smiled widely and issued a command to hurry up with putting the cream cakes on one of the best plates when Elsa remarked that she hoped that she’d spent a pleasant afternoon. “Take one for yourself if you like,” she said. “There’re more than enough to go round!”
Elsa didn’t need to be asked twice. Unable to think of any other particular reason for it, she put Karen’s exceptionally good mood down to the wonderfully convivial atmosphere that was permeating the castle as a whole. The Count and Countess, in addition to being considerate and easy-going employers, were an excellent host and hostess; and all the guests were thoroughly enjoying themselves. It was hard work for the staff but it was fun as well: there hadn’t been this much merriment in the castle since before the war. House parties could sometimes be a strain, especially when there were so many members of the same family all under one roof, but this one was definitely going with a swing.
Really, it was a great shame that it would all be coming to an end the day after tomorrow. Several people had been heard to remark that they’d be very sorry to leave all this behind them and go back to the reality of their everyday lives. Oh well, that was the way it went. Life never seemed to be this good for long.
Karen didn’t read any more of her romantic novel when she went to bed that night. Instead she lay there, thinking about everything that had happened over the weekend, hardly able to believe the course that events had taken. She’d cried plenty the night before, at the thought of all the years that they might have had together but had missed out on because of other people’s interference, but what was done was done … and now it seemed that they might have a second chance.
Or did things like that only happen in the novels that she was so fond of reading? Wasn’t she just she fooling herself by thinking that they might have lived happily ever after had their families not intervened all those years ago? She’d been a kitchen maid. He’d been a middle class university graduate. In some ways they’d had everything in common but in other ways they’d just been so far apart. And, whilst the war had done something towards changing attitudes, and whilst it might be different were they to meet now, as a girl and a young man, living in the same village, as things were was it not just as difficult as it had ever been? Maybe even more so?
She lived in Switzerland. She was a school cook. He lived in America, in a big city, a place that really she knew very little about. He was a hotel owner. They were both used to their own ways of doing things now, and what did either of them really know about each other’s lives? Anyway, in less than two days’ time they’d both be leaving this place. A couple of days later she’d be going back to her home and her job, and he’d be staying in Austria until his niece’s wedding and then going back to his home and business thousands of miles away on the other side of the world. Admittedly they were both working here, but in some respects it was a holiday for both of them, and what happened on holiday didn’t count, did it? It wasn’t real life.
And nothing could alter the fact that he was a member of the middle classes whatever his social and political views might be, and she was a servant in this castle where he was a guest. There’d certainly be no forgetting that fact tomorrow. Neither she nor any of the other staff were going to have a moment to spare then. Tomorrow was the last full day of the von und zu Wertheims’ house party, the day of the Grand Ball.
Marie von und zu Wertheim was Viennese by birth and upbringing and had decided on a Viennese rather than a Tyrolean menu for the Grand Ball. It wasn’t what Karen would have chosen, but she found that she enjoyed preparing the food for such an occasion all the same. Soup was served for the first course, followed by Wiener schnitzel accompanied by generous helpings of potatoes and vegetables, and then Sachertorte, the delicious Viennese chocolate cake, for dessert. There were several requests for second helpings and the maids who served the meal all reported that they had heard only favourable comments about it. Once coffee had been served and then everything had been cleared away, Karen and most of the other staff were unable to resist the temptation to sneak over to the ballroom and peep in at the dancing.
The von und zu Wertheims had hired a string quartet for the occasion, and the sound of Austrian waltzes was drifting gently from the room. How beautiful the Countess was, and her elder sister even more so. Even Paula von Rothenfels, normally so plain, looked pretty in her elegant dress, drifting around the dance floor in the arms of her fiancé; and Maria Balbini, dancing with her cousin Wolfram von Eschenau, was wearing a gown which could only have come from one of the fashion houses of Milan. Bernhilda von Eschenau looked far younger than her years in her beautiful ballgown, and Irma von Rothenfels appeared to have attracted the attention of a wealthy count from a neighbouring district.
It seemed almost impossible that this was the 1950s and that Austria was still occupied by the victorious Allied powers: it was more like a scene from the country’s nineteenth century imperial past, Karen thought. It was all so wonderfully romantic…
Her kitchen duties were over for the night, but she didn’t want to go and sit in her bedroom with a book whilst this lovely music was playing. It was a warm night and the door was open to let the air in. She slipped outside, knowing that no-one would mind her being there, and stood by the wall, enjoying the lilting sound of the waltzes and breathing in the perfumed air from the flowers in the gardens.
“It’s a wonderful evening, isn’t it?”
Karen looked up and smiled. She should have known that he’d find her there. “It’s all so lovely,” she said dreamily. “It’s like something out of a fairytale.”
He smiled back at her. “I didn’t know how I was going to react to spending a week with the nobility, but I do have to admit that I’ve rather enjoyed it. I keep feeling a bit guilty about that, but I’ve been telling myself that it’s all right because I’m here on business!”
“In that case, shouldn’t you be inside discussing travel and tourism with the local bigwigs?” she teased him.
He put his arm round her shoulders. “When I can be out here with you instead? No chance! I love you, Karen.”
She wasn’t going to start telling him about everything that was on her mind just now. Her doubts and worries had been growing all day: there just seemed to be an endless list of potential obstacles lying in their way. She kept trying to form some idea of what his life might be like, but it was very difficult when he lived in a country that she’d never been to, in a big city when she was used to living in the countryside. She couldn’t even envisage what the Boston area might look like: most of the images she had of America were those she’d seen in films, and she couldn’t recall ever having seen one set in New England. And that was quite apart from the fact that he came from a completely different background to her and must lead an utterly different life socially.
Still, tomorrow morning’d be time enough to discuss all that. She didn’t want anything to spoil this glorious fairytale evening. “I love you too,” she said happily.
There was a magnificent view out across the Tyrolean countryside from where they were, and they stood there in silence for a few minutes, both gazing out over the unmistakeably Austrian scenery. Karen saw the rather wistful look on Rudi’s face and knew how he felt. Once she got back to Switzerland she was going to be terribly homesick.
“Oh, how I miss all this, Karen,” he said. “I don’t mean the music and the dancing, this is a one-off evening, but being able to see the lakes and the mountains, and not having to remember to speak in English all the time, and just feeling like I’m where I belong. I’m going to be staying in Innsbruck for twelve weeks after I leave here, hopefully seeing plenty of my brother and his family before Gretchen’s wedding; and I’m going to listen to your advice and see if I can start to put things right with my mother and father whilst I’m here. And I’m really looking forward to having that time here in Tyrol, before I go back to Boston and the hotel and going home to my empty apartment at the end of every day.”
“I don’t really go home at all,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe how near my room is to where I work: every time there’s a noise in the kitchen in the night I wake up.” She shook her head, then smiled up at him. “Are you sure that you shouldn’t be inside, discussing hotels and conferences?”
“Quite sure,” he said, “I think everyone’s too busy enjoying themselves to worry about anything else! Anyway, they don’t need to convince me about the attractions of Tyrol. Quite seriously, not only does the idea of these conferences seem like a good one, but we can see that this part of Austria’s likely to become very popular for winter sports before long, and with the lakes and mountains it’ll attract a lot of summer visitors as well - certainly once the troops leave and Austria’s reunited and truly independent again, which surely can’t be much longer now.”
He paused, then started speaking again. “I want to do everything I can to help tourism in Tyrol: there’s still so much poverty here and this is something that really ought to boost the regional economy. It’s going to take much longer yet for Tyrol, for all of Austria, to recover from the war, but if there’s anything I can do then I want to do it.”
Karen wished that he’d stop talking about real life. “I’m still hoping that the school might move back to Austria one day,” she said. “I can’t see it happening, though: it would cost so much to move everything again, and the school’s got very close ties to the neighbouring sanatorium which is firmly settled in the Oberland now. So I imagine that we’ll be staying in Switzerland. I go back there on Thursday.”
Maybe it was no bad thing that she’d be going back soon, putting some distance between them whilst she tried to think. This was all getting a bit too intense, all happening a bit too quickly. She’d been in love with him for practically all her adult life, but, apart from the few hours that they’d had together over the past few days, they hadn’t seen each other for over twenty years. Even back then, they’d always had to be sneaking around behind everyone else’s backs: they’d never been able to get to know each other in normal everyday situations.
And the more she thought about her present circumstances – and it wasn’t as if she didn’t enjoy being a cook, even though she didn’t always enjoy working at the Chalet School – and about his present circumstances, the further apart they seemed. She couldn’t bear the thought of being apart from him again, but at the moment she couldn’t seem to see what the future might hold for them and she just didn’t know what to do.
Rudi hoped that he wasn’t about to make a terrible mess of things. He’d never really doubted all those years ago that he and Karen had been right for each other; but they’d both been so young then, just starting out in life. He knew from what Robert had told him that the Count and Countess had been married very young, had been engaged before the Countess had even left school; but that was all very well for people like them who hadn’t had to stop and think about where the money to support a home and family was going to come from.
It had been different for him and Karen. No-one in his family had “private means” to live off: they all worked for everything they had and were proud to do so. He might be comfortably off now, but back then he’d only just left university and had been working in his parents’ hotel, and Karen had been a kitchen maid giving almost all of the little his parents had paid her to her mother. So they’d never really talked much about the future. They should have had all the time in the world in which to have done that … but look what had happened instead. They’d lost far too many years together already. He didn’t want them to lose any more and, given what she’d said tonight, he very much hoped that she didn’t either.
He realised that there was something that she wasn’t telling him, and he guessed that she was nervous, and uncertain about what the future might hold. He could understand that, but he had a suggestion to make that he hoped might help to allay her doubts. He was a little bit apprehensive himself: this would mean big changes in both their lives and it was all very sudden …but, if he didn’t say something now, what would they do instead? Write to each other, speak on the telephone sometimes, maybe see each other once or twice a year when he could manage to get over to Switzerland? He took a deep breath.
“I was rather hoping that I might be able to persuade you not to go back at all,” he said, taking her hand. “We’ve missed out on enough time together, Karen. Don’t let’s be apart again.” Should he kneel down to ask her? Yes, he should: he wanted to do this properly. He was feeling very nervous now that the moment was here. What if she turned him down?
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.”
Karen might have been very nervous about setting foot inside the Kron Prinz Karl and seeing old Herr and Frau Braun for the first time in twenty-one years, but she was determined not to show it even for a moment.
On the Tuesday night she’d stayed at Anna’s aunt and uncle’s home, as she’d arranged before leaving for the Schloss Wertheim the week before. She’d worn her engagement ring on a chain round her neck because she hadn’t wanted to tell them the news until she’d told Anna (which she was going to do as soon as she got back to Switzerland on Thursday), but at Rudi’s insistence it was now back on her finger. He’d spent the night in Innsbruck as he’d originally planned, having retrieved his belongings from the Schloss Wertheim late on Tuesday and apologised to a bemused Count and Countess for having left first thing in the morning and been gone all day.
Marie von und zu Wertheim, who didn’t believe a word of Rudi’s story about urgent business in Innsbruck any more than she’d believed a word of Karen’s garbled tale about the kitchen ceiling having fallen in, wondered why on earth two people should suddenly have started acting so strangely; but it all became clear when she received a letter from the happy couple a few days later, explaining everything. It might be an unconventional match in some ways, she supposed, but she hoped that they’d be very happy together and wrote back immediately to say as much. He was such a nice man even if he did have some rather strange ideas; and if anyone deserved to be happy then Karen did. She thought it was all rather lovely that, after they’d been parted all those years ago, they should have met up again so unexpectedly at her house party. It had obviously been fated.
Rudi had telephoned his mother and father on the Wednesday morning to say that he was coming to see them that afternoon if that was convenient, and that he had something important to tell them. He’d promised Karen that they could leave at once if either of his parents said anything that offended her but, having lost her own parents, she was determined to make sure that he didn’t end up being permanently estranged from his. She’d wondered about whether or not they’d realise who she was at first, but she saw recognition on both their faces as soon as she walked into the room at Rudi’s side. Then she saw in their eyes comprehension of and shock at what was going on before a word had been said, as the sunlight coming through the windows flashed on the diamond ring on her finger.
She saw them both open their mouths to speak, and she faced them with a glare that said that she wasn’t going to allow anything they said to get to her and that if they upset her fiancé then they’d have her to deal with and they wouldn’t find it a pleasant experience. Both of them closed their mouths again at once.
After that, they were all painstakingly polite to each other, but by the time they’d all seen each other on a few more occasions the atmosphere between them was beginning to ease. She got the feeling that they deeply regretted having seen so little of their younger son over the years and were anxious to make an effort to build bridges with both him and Karen, especially given that they were going to be living not far away; and for his sake she did her best to get along with them. As for the rest of his family, she found his brother and sister-in-law friendly and welcoming, and Gretchen (who insisted that she remembered Karen from the Chalet School years before and couldn’t wait to have her as an aunt) and her fiancé were both delightful and insisted that she must come to their wedding.
Anna cried when Karen told her her news, and that set Karen off crying as well. Joey Maynard came into the Freudesheim kitchen at that point and demanded to know what was going on, and was very disgruntled when neither of them would tell her. Karen wanted to do things properly and tell people at the School herself, and she knew very well that telling Frau Doktor Maynard anything was tantamount to broadcasting it on the wireless. She promised Anna that she’d write as often as possible and Anna promised to do the same, and they both reminded each other that it wasn’t that far from the Gornetz Platz to Mayrhofen.
Hilda Annersley nearly collapsed with shock when a blushing Karen came to her office (unbidden) and announced that she was engaged to be married and would be leaving as soon as was convenient. She was even more stunned to learn that Karen’s intended wasn’t some lonely goatherd or suitable similar equivalent, but was none other than the younger son of dear old Herr and Frau Braun! Whatever next? Judging by the look on Karen’s face, it was a genuine love match … which was all very well, but where on earth were they going to find someone else who’d do everything that Karen did and who’d understand all the School’s wonderful traditions? And the timing really couldn’t have been worse.
“Well, I don’t know what we’re going to do without you,” she said. “Especially this term of all terms. All the girls from St Mildred’s are moving into the main School to enable their building to be used as accommodation for visitors during the coming of age celebrations, so there’s going to be far more cooking and cleaning and so on to be done than usual; and we were taking it for granted that you’d see to it all. Then we’re expecting record numbers for the Sale, and we were assuming that you’d organise refreshments for everyone. I don’t even know where to start looking for anyone else, and it might not be all that easy to find someone who’ll appreciate all the School’s little ways.”
She shook her head in bewilderment. She was going to have to have a strong cup of coffee, maybe even one without any cream in it. “This is all very sudden. Are you sure that you wouldn’t like to wait a little while longer? You could wait until the School chapels are built and then have the wedding here: we’d let you use the Speisesaal for the reception.”
Karen was fuming. She’d wanted so much to leave on good terms, and she really had done her best to try to make that possible. She hadn’t told anyone at the Gornetz Platz, apart from Anna, her news before she’d told the Head: she’d offered to stay on until they could find someone else: she’d even offered to write notes as to how everything worked in case they were of help to her successor. Over twenty years she’d worked at this School, and this was the thanks that she got for it. She wished that she’d brought her sharpest knife from the kitchen with her, and told Hilda Annersley exactly where she could stick it.
“Do you have any idea of just how much work I’ve put in at this School over the years?” she demanded furiously. “Not just me, but everyone who works with me as well. I bet you don’t even know half their names: they just get referred to as “Karen’s minions”! Being treated as if we haven’t got an ounce of intelligence between us.” That was something that really rankled with all the domestic staff - the patronising way in which they were spoken to, as if they were all stupid.
“Constantly being short-staffed because you’d rather pay for new gym equipment or extra pianos than employ enough domestic staff, even though you don’t pay anything like as much as the hotels do. Being told what sort of oven blacking we should and shouldn’t use: I’d like to see you even try to clean an oven! Providing mugs of hot milk all round every time one of the girls decides to disturb all the others in the middle of the night. Cleaning the floors for a second time in one day when they’ve all been out in the snow and then tramped through the corridors in their wet boots, on their way to spending the rest of the afternoon sitting around drinking hot chocolate which we’ve had to make. Not to mention her next door giving me her special recipe for fruit juice – which I know for a fact is actually Anna’s recipe anyway! – and then expecting me to make enough of it for the whole School and everyone at Freudesheim besides. Twenty-one years I’ve been here, and I’ve given my all to this School, because I was grateful to you for employing me when I was a young girl from a poor family during difficult times and later because I liked to think of it as my home; and you can’t even manage to be pleased for me when I tell you that I’m getting married.” She was too upset to say any more.
Hilda, temporarily rendered speechless by this tirade from someone she’d always thought secretly worshipped the ground she walked on, was now feeling very guilty at her insensitivity. She thought of the way that Karen had worked to keep the school well-fed throughout the years of rationing, of the times that Karen had managed to put meals on the table even though the snow had been so severe that it had been impossible to get fresh supplies for days on end, of all the cleaning and washing and ironing that was done daily, of the picnic meals that were always made ready at short notice on days when the girls and the teaching staff went off on rambles or expeditions and the domestic staff were left behind at the School, and of all the rest of the hard work that she and all the other “upstairs” staff so often just took for granted.
“I apologise,” she said. “You’ve been with us for so long and it never occurred to me that you might want anything more than to carry on doing what you have been doing. I’m sorry. I should never have said what I did. I want you to know how much we appreciate everything that you and the rest of your department have done for the School over the years, and I regret the fact that that hasn’t been made clear. I’d be very grateful if you’d stay on for a few weeks whilst we try to make alternative arrangements and I’ll be very sorry for the School’s sake to see you go, but I wish you every happiness in your new life. You deserve it.”
The reaction that Karen got when she shyly told the rest of the domestic staff her news surprised and touched her. Although she’d always got on well enough with them all, she’d never really been sure what any of them really thought of her, the foreigner in their midst who ruled the kitchen with a rod of iron. The maids and Gaudenz’s wife Lisa all told her how much they were going to miss her, in between sighing sentimentally about how lovely it all was. Even Gaudenz said gruffly that he supposed he’d miss her ordering him about and that this Austrian fellow had better look after her.
The girls, from the Juniors to the Sixth Formers, all thought that it was wonderfully romantic; and went on saying so for days on end, until Matron declared that she’d never known such an outbreak of soppiness at the School in all the years that she’d been there and Joey Maynard got quite jealous because no-one had made this much fuss when she’d got engaged to Jack.
Karen had agreed to stay on at the School for another four weeks, but, although in some ways she supposed that she’d miss the place, she was counting down the days until she could go home to Austria. There were all the wedding preparations to see to, and a lot to be done in Mayrhofen; and, more than that, she was missing Rudi very badly. It was impossible even to have a private telephone conversation at the Chalet School. She was very glad when, during her second week back at the School, he said that he’d drive over to Switzerland on the Friday evening, stay overnight in Interlaken, and come to the Gornetz Platz on the Saturday to take her out for the day. Miss Annersley, who’d been showing the domestic staff rather more consideration since Karen’s outburst in her office, had agreed to let her have the day off.
She’d put on her Sunday-best dress and shoes, but when she saw him standing there by the car she forgot about trying to look dignified and ran straight into his arms. “I’ve missed you,” she told him. “I’m beginning to wish that we’d decided to get married straight away now.”
“I’ve missed you too … what’s the matter?” She’d gone bright red and pulled away from him. She realised that someone must have heard her asking Lisa if she’d oversee the domestic arrangements on Saturday and explaining why and from what time, because there seemed to be dozens of faces staring out of the School’s numerous windows to see what her fiancé was like. Oh no. This was so embarrassing!
“Let’s get away from here very quickly!” she muttered. “Everyone’s looking at us!”
“Oh, let them look!” he said. “Anyway, I thought we’d spend the day in Interlaken if that’s all right with you, but I was hoping you’d show me a bit of the School first. You did say that you thought of it as your home. And I’d like to see where you work, so that I’ll be able to envisage where you are when I’m thinking about you during the daytime over the next couple of weeks.”
“Oh well, all right then,” she said. “Just quickly, though. And none of your militant socialist talk in my kitchen, please. I can just see the mistresses’ faces if all the domestic staff walked out on strike!” Then she giggled. “Actually, on second thoughts...! No; maybe better not!”
Karen finally left the Chalet School after over twenty years with one or two tears but definitely no second thoughts. She’d worked extra hard during her last few days there, determined that no-one would ever be able to say that she hadn’t left everything exactly as it should have been. They still hadn’t succeeded in sorting out a permanent replacement for her and, although it was no longer her concern, she was going to be interested to know how things turned out. Anna had promised to keep her posted as to everything that went on there.
Robert Howard, Rudi’s business partner, had said that he was happy to leave the arrangements for the hotel in Mayrhofen to Rudi and Karen, pointing out that they both knew far more about the area than he ever would. They were lucky in finding a hotel that had enjoyed a good reputation before the war but had somewhat fallen into decline in recent years: the elderly owners, who were now going to live with their daughter in Salzburg and were eager for a quick sale, had rather let things go. The building was structurally sound and perfectly designed for a hotel; but everything was going to need painting, a lot of the furniture and all the linen and bedding needed replacing, and Rudi had to squeeze Karen’s hand tightly to stop her from saying exactly what she thought when she saw the state of the kitchen.
It took a lot of hard work, but eventually things reached the stage where the place was going to be ready for them to move into after their wedding at the end of the summer, and to reopen for guests not long afterwards. They nearly came to blows a few times over the décor, the staffing and various other things: after years of being able to get the rest of the School’s domestic staff to do her bidding with a well-chosen word or a certain look, Karen at first found it quite a culture shock having to share the decision-making with someone who was just as determined as she was; but they both adapted to their new situation soon enough, and anyway she didn’t mind the odd argument as long as they could kiss and make up afterwards.
Once everything had been painted and all the new furniture and so on bought, Karen, ably assisted by the hotel’s female staff and various of her own and Anna’s female relations, and even by Rudi’s mother, set about cleaning the entire building to within an inch of its life. Rudi, the male staff and several male relations were instructed by the women as to where to put all the furniture, under the eagle eyes of Frau Pfeifen, Frau Braun and Karen’s aunt with whom she was staying, all of whom were getting a little too old to be on their hands and knees cleaning for too long.
“You don’t have to work as hard as you have been doing, my love,” Rudi pointed out to Karen one evening when the staff had all gone back to their homes or the various other places in Mayrhofen where they were staying until the reopening, everyone else had gone back to Briesau ahead of them and she’d insisted on carrying on working after they’d all left. He’d been back to America after his niece’s wedding to deal with everything there, but now they were both back in Tyrol and not intending to live anywhere else ever again. It had been a tiring few weeks for both of them: he’d had to keep going from Briesau, where he’d accepted his parents’ offer to stay with them until the wedding, to Innsbruck to deal with various financial matters and then to Mayrhofen to see to things there, and Karen had been working all hours at the hotel, as well as making the final preparations for the wedding.
“I want to,” she said.
“I know you do.” He put his arms round her. He knew exactly what it was: after years of working at the Chalet School and before that at his parents’ hotel, this was the first time that she’d ever had anywhere of her own to look after. It might be a hotel, but it was going to be their home as well. “We’re going to get someone else to give the place one last cleaning and dusting before we move in after the wedding, though,” he told her firmly. “I’m taking you on a long, relaxing honeymoon, and you’re not going to be lifting a finger to do any cooking, cleaning, ironing or anything else like that all the time that we’re away.” He kissed her. “And that’s an order!”
Karen snuggled close to him. It was hard to believe that she’d ever been so nervous at the thought of being his wife. She couldn’t wait for their wedding day now.
Karen had insisted on adhering to the old tradition whereby a bride made the shirt that her bridegroom wore for their wedding herself. She was determined that it was going to be as near to perfect as she could get it, and consequently she’d made Rudi try it on so many times that everyone who knew about it had started teasing her, him included.
“There can’t possibly be anything left to do to it!” he protested when she’d made him put the much-discussed shirt on for what she’d promised would be one last time before the wedding, with a week to go until the big day.
“I’m not having you getting married in anything that doesn’t look just right, especially not when everyone’ll know that I’ve made it!” she said firmly. “And will you keep still for two minutes? How am I supposed to see if it looks all right or not when you keep wandering round the room?” She looked at him critically, then nodded her head in satisfaction. “Yes, I think it’ll do; even if I do say so myself.” Then she burst into tears and threw her arms round him.
“Hey, what’s brought all this on?” he asked gently, stroking her hair. “Come on, Karen. You shouldn’t be crying like this when we’re getting married next week.”
Karen dried her eyes. “We used to play at being brides when we were little girls,” she said. “Marie and I. Madel and Anna and Rosa were all younger than we were, so we used to make them be the bridesmaids. Then, when I met you, I used to daydream about us getting married, even though I suppose I knew that we probably never would do … and now we are doing, after all this time. Sometimes I still can’t quite believe it.”
“Well, do believe it!” he told her. “We’re getting married exactly one week from now!”
Karen looked at him again. “Look what a mess I’ve made of your shirt now,” she said. “It’s absolutely full of creases. You’d better go and get changed, and I’ll ask your mother if I can borrow an iron.”
“Yes dear.” He wasn’t going to tease her this time: he’d heard enough about wedding shirts over the past few months to last him a lifetime! He smiled at her. “It’s you whom everyone’s going to be looking at, you know, not me. You’re the bride!”
Karen smiled back at him. He’d invited a few people from Boston to their wedding, and she supposed that they’d be expecting the bride to be wearing white as was customary over there. Then again, maybe they’d realise that she wouldn’t be. She hoped that she’d look all right in her traditional Tyrolean dress. Madel had assured her that it suited her very well, but she’d never had much confidence where her appearance was concerned.
She saw Rudi looking at her and realising what she was thinking. “You’ll look even more beautiful than usual on our wedding day,” he said. “Especially to me.”
Things had changed in Austria since Karen had been a young girl daydreaming about marrying the man who was now her fiancé. In those days, couples whom she’d known who wanted to get married had just gone to see the priest. She vaguely remembered that Miss Bettany and Dr Russell, as they’d been then, had had a civil ceremony as well as a religious ceremony, but that had only been because there’d been no system by which a Church of England ceremony could be registered in accordance with Austrian requirements.
Now, though, it was all different. Since 1938, the only marriages in Austria valid in law had been those carried out by an official of the Standesamt, the registry office; which meant that what was required to be officially married was a civil ceremony. She’d known that she wouldn’t feel truly married without having a religious service as well and that she wouldn’t feel comfortable going to live with him without being married in church; but she’d known that Rudi had never had much time for organised religion – she remembered, when she’d known him in their youth, being shocked at first by some of his comments about the reactionary attitude of the Church hierarchy – and she’d hoped desperately that they weren’t going to disagree about something that was so important to her.
However, when she’d broached the subject and nervously referred to some of his past comments, he’d reassured her at once. “None of that means that I’m a non-believer, Karen,” he’d said quietly. “In fact, I suppose that I’m much more of a Tyrolean Catholic at heart than I’d ever have admitted back then. Of course I want us to have both services as well.”
She’d told him mischievously about Miss Annersley’s suggestion about the school chapel. “I did say no,” she’d added hastily, and they’d both laughed. Countess von und zu Wertheim had written to offer them the use of the chapel at the Schloss if they’d like to have the wedding there, but added that of course she’d understand if they preferred to have the wedding at the Tiernsee. Karen had been touched by her kindness, and had written at once to thank her, but to say that they did indeed want to get married in Briesau, where they’d both been born and brought up and where they’d first met all those years ago.
Karen was trembling when she left her aunt and uncle’s house on her wedding day; and her nerves only began to settle when she arrived at the registry office and saw Rudi there waiting for her. The civil ceremony lasted about quarter of an hour, after which they left the building a few minutes apart to make their ways separately back to Briesau for the religious service.
By the time she reached the church, Karen’s feelings of nervousness had gone, and she gave her responses as clearly and calmly as her bridegroom did, although she was overcome with emotion and broke down in tears when the ceremony was over and Rudi kissed her as her husband for the first time.
Only a few people had attended the civil service with them – Anna, Karen’s aunt and uncle and Madel, Rudi’s parents and brother and sister-in-law, Gretchen and her new husband, Rudi’s friend and business partner Robert Howard, and Karen’s old friend Marie and her husband Andreas who’d managed to come to Austria for the first time in many years for the wedding. Karen was sad that her parents and brother hadn’t lived to see this day, but she was sure that they were watching over her and that they were happy for her.
Then the entire Chalet School domestic staff (it being school holiday time), the rest of Karen’s family, various relatives of the Brauns, many old friends from Briesau, a few friends from Boston, and some of the people they’d started to get to know in Mayrhofen also joined them for the church service and for the reception that followed. So too did the Count and Countess von und zu Wertheim, much to the delight of the elder Brauns who years later were still telling people about how there’d been titled guests at the wedding of their son and daughter-in-law.
The reception was in all the best traditions of the North Tyrol, although, once the meal and the speeches were over and the dancing started, Karen did insist on varying matters slightly by insisting that a few Viennese waltzes be included as well as the Schuhplatter and the other traditional Tyrolean dances.
“Please will you tell me where we’re going now?” she asked Rudi as they were getting ready to leave. He’d kept their honeymoon destination a closely-guarded secret and had refused even to say yes or no to any of her guesses.
“Innsbruck first, just for tonight,” he said. “It won’t take us long to get there, and I didn’t think we’d want to be travelling far tonight. Don’t want to be getting to our hotel room too late, do we?” He smiled at her.
Karen blushed deeply; but she smiled back at him. “Then where?”
“Italy. Well, South Tyrol, but it’s legally part of Italy even if most people round here do still insist that it ought to be part of Austria! We’re having a few days there, then we’re going to Lake Garda for the long, relaxing break I promised you. Then we’ll be coming back to Tyrol to start our new life.” He pulled her into his arms. “Little did I know when I came back to Austria in the spring that by the end of the summer we’d have found each other again and we’d be husband and wife and looking forward to spending the rest of our lives together.”
“Nor did I,” Karen said. She looked up at him. “But maybe some things are just meant to be.”
He held her close and she reflected that, although they’d had a very long wait, it was never too late to find true happiness and everything had come right for them in the end.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.