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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.”

 

 




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