“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?