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.