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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. 

 

 

 




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