Marie glanced at the kitchen clock. It was early yet, although she’d been up and about for some hours already. Andreas would be home soon: he’d promised her that he’d be back at Die Rosen long before she and Rosa were due to set off for their parents’ home in Briesau and he wasn’t one to let anyone down. His reliability was one of the reasons why Herr Doktor Russell thought well enough of him to have allowed him additional time off, in order that he might return to his home village to visit the graves of his mother and father, as was traditional on this day, All Saints’ Day.
The Russells were good employers. It was kind of the Frau Doktor to agree to her and Rosa being away from Die Rosen at the same time as each other, even though it would only be for one afternoon. Andreas would look after Gretchen and Jakob whilst they were gone: both he and she considered their children too young as yet to be joining the visit to the cemetery which would form part of the afternoon’s gathering, although Gretchen had protested loudly at the thought of being left out of any sort of family get-together.
Her daughter and son were watching her as she worked in the kitchen, rather than being in the nursery with the rest of the little ones as they usually were at this time of day. That was partly because she’d wanted them with her for this morning as she was going to be out for much of the afternoon and evening, and also because she’d thought that Rosa might appreciate having two fewer charges today. There was something of an “atmosphere” in the Die Rosen nursery at present, after the “apple-bobbing” session which Fraulein Joey and Fraulein Rosalie had organised the previous evening had ended in tears.
Sybil, who even at three-and-a-half could be a little madam when she chose to be, had decided that it would be funny to dunk her cousin Rix’s head under the water when it was his turn to try to catch one of the apples in his mouth. When he’d come up, spluttering and with wet hair, he’d retaliated by splashing her; and somehow, before anyone had known it, the water and the apples had all been all over the floor. The two miscreants had then been sent straight to bed in disgrace and the little party abandoned.
It had been a great shame really, she felt. She gathered that “apple-bobbing” was a traditional pastime in Britain on All Saints’ Eve, or Hallowe’en as they called it there; and she often thought that the Russell, Bettany and Venables children, secure though they were in material terms, missed out on something important in that they were excluded from most of the local traditions that brightened the seasons around the Tiernsee by religion and excluded from many of those of Great Britain by simple geography.
Her own children, whilst she sometimes wondered how growing up in the home of their parents’ master and mistress would affect them, were more fortunate in that respect, at least, living so close to Briesau where so many of her family lived and had done so for generations. She smiled at the two of them. She’d had to go over to one of the farms for fresh milk and eggs earlier and had taken them with her, and the walk had tired Jakob out – which was no bad thing, as it meant that he was content to sit quietly rather than running around the kitchen and opening all the cupboards as he was sometimes wont to do. Gretchen hadn’t been tired by the walk at all and had spent much of the morning asking questions about what her mother was doing and what everything she was using was called and what exactly it was for; but a bowl of raisins and sliced apple left over from the cake that Marie had made earlier on was keeping her quiet at the moment.
She was shaken from her reverie by a knock at the kitchen door. Startled, she glanced at the clock again. Anyone visiting the Russells would go to the front door, of course; she wasn’t aware that they were expecting any deliveries of any sort; and if it was Andreas back already then he would have made remarkably good time indeed.
Opening the door, she was somewhat taken aback to find that the person standing there was none other than her own youngest brother Eigen, who worked alongside their elder brother Hansi at the Chalet School. Furthermore, standing just behind him was her childhood friend Karen, the Chalet School cook and head of domestic staff. For a second she panicked, thinking that there must be bad news for the two of them to have come here unannounced on a weekday morning like this; but no, they were both smiling. And Gretchen had bounded out of her chair, nearly knocking the bowl of apples and raisins to the floor as she did so, to run to the door, hug them both, and demand to know what “Auntie Karen” had in the covered basket that she was carrying.
“Wait and see!” Karen laughed, hugging the little girl and then holding her arms out for Jakob, who’d clambered out of his little chair by this time and trotted over to the door in his sister’s wake. She turned to Marie. “Fraulein Annersley agreed that we could each have some time off today or tomorrow, provided that the work still all got done; and so I got up early this morning to make the food for Mittagessen and Kaffee und Kuchen in advance. You’ll see Hansi and Anna later; they’ll both be going straight home; but Eigen and I decided that we’d walk up here first. I hope that Herr and Frau Doktor Russell won’t mind. We can only stay for a little while, but we wanted to bring the Heiligenstriezel.”
Marie looked at the children to see if this last word meant anything to them. It didn’t seem to, but then Gretchen had only been two this time last year and Jakob just a baby: they wouldn’t have remembered much about it. Gretchen was still clamouring to know what was in the basket, and could barely conceal her impatience when her mother told her to sit down and wait whilst everyone was given a drink. It was cold out there this morning and Auntie Karen and Uncle Eigen must both be badly in need of a nice hot coffee after their walk up to Die Rosen, Marie told her daughter firmly. Gretchen conceded the point, but she was still glad when the basket was opened at last, and squealed with delight when out of it came a delicious-looking small cake in the shape of a hen, which Karen handed to her, and another one in the shape of a hare, which Eigen handed to Jakob.
“No, these are to eat tomorrow,” Eigen said with a smile, when Jakob, after he and his sister had hugged the givers and thanked them effusively, asked if he could eat his cake straight away. “I’m sure that Grandma’ll send you up some Seelenbrot – that’s the special bread which we have today, Gretchen, before you ask! - to eat later, but these are for tomorrow - All Souls’ Day.”
Seelenbrot, “soul bread”, and Heiligenstriezel, “holy cake”, were both delicious, he reflected, especially when made by either his mother, his eldest sister or Karen; but when he’d been a little boy like Jakob he’d always much preferred the Heiligenstriezel simply because it came in animal shapes – hen shapes for girls and hare shapes for boys! Seelenbrot was eaten by everyone on All Saints’ Day, whilst Heiligenstriezel was traditionally presented to children by their godparents for the following day, All Souls’ Day; and he was Jakob’s godfather, as Karen was Gretchen’s godmother.
Marie was explaining this to the children; and Gretchen looked at her uncle doubtfully. “Did you really make Jakob’s cake?” she enquired.
“Er, well, no,” Eigen admitted. “Your Auntie Karen made both the cakes. I’d probably have burnt the kitchen down if I’d tried! I did carry the basket most of the way here, though!”
The children giggled; and then surrendered the cakes to Marie, who put them away for the following day, thanking her brother and her friend as she did so. How lucky she was to have a secure job – not many people would want a married couple with two young children working in their home – and yet still to be so close to her family and friends, she thought. Oh, she worked very hard, and so did Andreas, but compared to the alternatives she thought that they’d done very well to find and keep employment with the Russells. And how lucky she was too to have these two healthy, happy children.
Gretchen was asking questions. She always was, Marie reflected: she was a bright little girl and that was something that bothered her and Andreas sometimes; but Gretchen wouldn’t even be four for another two months and so worrying about her future was something that could wait for now. For the time being, all her daughter wanted to know was what was so special about today and tomorrow that meant that they had special bread and cake.
How best to explain it? She didn’t want to do too much talking about the souls of the dead: her brother Fritzl had thought it very funny to frighten his younger brothers and sisters with ghost stories when she’d been Gretchen’s age, until their father had found out and pointedly reminded his eldest son that, quite apart from the fact that he had no business frightening the little ones, these two days were solemn religious festivals.
Anyway, there would be time enough to explain it all to her children in more detail in the years to come. When Gretchen and Jakob were a little older, she and Andreas would take them down to Briesau on the eve of All Saints’ Day to join in the procession of the people of the village to the cemetery to leave lanterns at the grave sites, to help lead the way of the souls of the dead through the dark to join the living for the family celebration, the gerstermesse. And, on the afternoon of All Saints’ Day, they would gather at her parents’ home, as she and Rosa were to do today, and eat the large meal which her mother would prepare, and they would join the rest of the family for the special church services which took place on both All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
That was in the future, though. Although maybe Gretchen would be old enough next year, November 1938. She already had it in mind to take the little girl to Midnight Mass with them this Christmas Eve - as long as she’d had a good long sleep in the afternoon! But that was nearly two months away: now she must try to explain a little about All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day in a way that the children would understand.
“It’s actually a whole special week,” she told them. “It’s called Seelenwoche, All Souls’ Week, and the most important days are today and tomorrow. Today’s called All Saints’ Day – yesterday was All Saints’ Eve - and tomorrow’s called All Souls Day; and there are special church services on both days. Today we pray for all the blessed saints, and also we leave some of the special bread out and then we give it to poor people.”
Thank goodness that she and Andreas couldn’t be numbered amongst the truly poor people, she thought, and thank goodness too that times were better now for everyone that they’d been in the dark days after the Great War and again during the early 1930s. She could remember years when this time of year had become an occasion for rather aggressive begging: traditionally begging was allowed at this time of year, but the practice of people going round to houses and being given a gift of Seelenbrot in return for saying a prayer or singing a hymn had sadly, driven by desperation, got rather out of hand at times.
It was all rather more light-hearted now. The tradition of giving to the poor remained, but now anyone calling uninvited at people’s homes would usually just be excited children, singing All Souls’ songs in return for small gifts, a practice known as heischeumzugen. She looked forward to taking her children to Briesau, and seeing them and her nieces and nephews join in doing so with the children of the friends with whom she’d grown up, in a few years’ time.
“The souls of the dead get some too, of course,” Eigen said. “We’ll all leave some of the bread out for them tonight; and we’ll make sure that the rooms are nice and warm for them, and leave out some lit candles so that they can see their way. Wait until noon and you’ll hear the church bells ring: that’s when all the souls are released back to the world of the living, and then they’ll roam round the earth until the church bells ring again tomorrow. When we were kids, people used to tell us that they wandered round the woods, so if we were out and about we had to make sure we prayed good and hard to help them to move on.”
“What, you mean ghosts!” Gretchen gasped. “There’ll be ghosts wandering about?”
Marie looked at Eigen furiously. “Of course there are no ghosts wandering about!” she said firmly. “Well, not scary ghosts anyway. Eigen Pfeifen, you really might try to think a bit more carefully before you speak, especially in front of the little ones. Honestly! Men!
“What Uncle Eigen means is that today and tomorrow the souls of people whom God has taken away are especially close to us,” she told the children. “We say prayers for them, and what Uncle Eigen meant was we pray especially hard for those people who have left our world but are still waiting to get into heaven, so that we can help them to get to heaven more quickly. We go to the cemeteries to visit the graves of our loved ones whom God has taken, and we leave flowers and candles there to make everything nice for them. When you’re older then you’ll be able to come too, but you’re still a bit little for it all at the moment.”
“I’m not little,” Gretchen said indignantly. “I’m nearly four. Jakob’s little, but I’m not. I’m not little, am I, Auntie Karen? Uncle Eigen, am I little?”
They were saved from having to answer that question by the inside door of the kitchen opening. Marie hoped that Frau Doktor Russell wouldn’t mind her having visitors; but it wasn’t Frau Doktor Russell; it was David, the Russells’ five-year-old son.
“Rosa said that I could come and get a drink, because I said I was thirsty,” he announced. He looked round the room and saw Eigen and Karen. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t know you had company.” He’d got that word from his mother, whom he’d recently heard tell his Auntie Joey that it really wasn’t polite to appear at the dinner table with ink all over her hands when they had company. “Company” at the dinner table generally meant some of the other doctors at the San and their wives, or sometimes some of the mistresses from the Chalet School. David regarded all of them as honorary aunts or uncles, although he only had two proper aunts and no proper uncles here at the Tiernsee, unlike Gretchen and Jakob who seemed to have loads of them.
“Hello,” he said politely to Eigen and Karen, both of whom he knew well. Then he seated himself at the kitchen table, and Marie poured him a glass of milk and handed it to him. “Thank you!” he said. He lowered his voice. “I could have waited until elevenses really,” he confided, “although I was thirsty so I wasn’t telling a fib. But really I just wanted to get away from the nursery to get some peace and quiet.” He’d got that expression from his father, who was frequently to be heard talking about wanting to “get some peace and quiet”. “Rix and Sybil keep squabbling ‘cause Sybil says it’s Rix’s fault that they got into trouble last night and Rix says it’s Sybil’s, and Rix thinks I should be on his side ‘cause we’re both boys and Sybil thinks I should be on her side ‘cause she’s my sister; and I keep telling them both to shut up but they won’t.
“And it was both their faults really, and it was a shame because we were all enjoying the apple-bobbing until then, and now we’ll have to wait a whole year to do it again because it’s something you’re supposed to do on Hallowe’en.” He looked at Gretchen. “That’s what yesterday was called – Hallowe’en,” he explained.
“We call it All Saints’ Eve,” Gretchen informed him. She’d memorised everything that her mother had told her, very carefully. “And we’re going to have special bread today, because it’s All Saints’ Day. And we’re going to have special cake tomorrow, because it’s All Souls’ Day: Auntie Karen made it, and she and Uncle Eigen brought it up here for us specially. It looks lovely.”
She smiled at him. She liked David: he didn’t try to boss her about like Rix did, or tell her that she shouldn’t be in the nursery because she was only the daughter of the servants like Sybil did. “We’ll do apple-bobbing again next year,” she said. “And, next year I’m going to go to Grandma’s with Mummy and everyone else; and I’ll ask her if you can have some of her special bread if you’d like.”
David nodded happily. “I’d like that,” he said.
It was to be twenty-four years before the two of them were to spend Seelenwoche together in Tyrol again. By then, the cemeteries around the Tiernsee were far fuller than they’d been in 1937, as were all of those right across the rest of Europe, Britain and many other parts of the world. They’d lost touch with some of the people whom David had regarded as honorary aunts and uncles, and in some cases they were never even able to find out what had happened to them.
They never did play at apple-bobbing as children again. In Guernsey on October 31st 1938, with Jem Russell saying that he didn’t believe for a minute that the Munich Agreement signed just over a month earlier would do any more than delay the outbreak of war, no-one really felt like organising it; in the six years that followed it didn’t seem appropriate; and by the time the war was over David was away at Winchester and would have considered himself too grown-up for such things anyway. And Gretchen never did have her chance to walk through Briesau singing songs with the other children, in the time-honoured tradition of heischeumzugen, because by the time she was able to spend that time of year in Briesau again her childhood days were behind her.
But their children were to have the chance to do both. And they did.