The Chalet School series was originally written by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer and is currently owned by Girls Gone By Publications. I make no money from this dabbling; it's just for fun and because this was too good to resist.
Author Note: This is (or should be) part of a longer story, Promises Made, which follows up the events in Promises Kept. Owing to a hard drive failure, Promises Made may or may not be completed, but this scene's burned long in my mind and it was too good not to share.
Thekla lay in her hospital bed, eyes closed. To all the world, she seemed to be asleep, but sleep was the last thing on her mind. Time was very much on the wane for her; she knew that her doctors, the capable Dr Entwhistle amongst them, were doing all they could, but the past forty years had taken their toll. Soon the end would come, and but for leaving Marie alone, she welcomed it.
I have done much wrong,she mused. So much that I owe a debt for. So many accounts that I must settle. A faint grimace crossed her face. The time of my payment is near.
She thought of the will that only that morning she had written, with the help of a kindly paralegal from Interlaken. It gave her the knowledge that Marie would be cared for. She had spoken with the head of the Chalet School, where Marie was currently ensconced and that woman had agreed that, given the singular lack of relatives for the Schmitt family, Marie should become a ward of the school.
It had been done before, Thekla knew. She recalled the pretty Irish child, Biddy O'Ryan, had been one such. Miss Wilmot had mentioned several other instances -- Lilimani; Joanne Linders; Jaycinth Hardy. There had been even others who had, for some or all of their school career, been looked after by the school in all respects and Thekla was not worried that the school would not take good care of Marie. Who knew; perhaps the school would be able to contact the von Eschenau family so that Marie would have some family once more.
A faint smile crossed Thekla's face at that. She could, she knew, try contacting the von Eschenaus herself, but she could well imagine the reaction she would receive. Best just to let herself fade from the scene first.
The sharp tap-tap of someone's heels on hard tile floor intruded into the otherwise silent room. Thekla nodded to herself. Before she could allow herself to fade away there was one thing she had to do. One thing that she needed to do, for Marie's sake, because at some stage, Marie was bound to ask about her family.
When one is told that a dying patient has requested you visit them, it is generally a good idea to accede to that wish. Thus it was that Joey Maynard found herself walking through the quiet hallways of the Sanatorium, heading towards the room of one particular patient. She wasn't, however, terribly pleased by the request. Few people had ever roused such feelings of anger in Joey as Thekla von Stift had done in her brief two terms at the Chalet School. Joey had never had the misfortune to meet anyone else so arrogant, so self-absorbed or so thoroughly snobbish as Thekla, nor anyone who had been so concertedly unpleasant.
That the entire von Stift family disappeared during the war was something that Joey took no delight in, after all, no-one deserved the fate that disappearance implied. At the same time though, a tiny part of her had been at least relieved that the chances of ever running into Thekla again were remote.
Joey shook her head. How many times in her life had she run into people she had never expected to see again? And while most of those had been happy accidents, the chances of that always being the case were slim. And so it had proved.
Joey neared Thekla's room and made every effort to school her expression. As much as she had disliked Thekla the girl, she knew that Thekla the adult was a different creature. From the glowing ways her granddaughter had described her, from the tone of the letter of application that she had sent to the Chalet School, from the tone of the meeting Nancy had described earlier that week, Joey knew that Thekla had changed. And yet, all she could remember was the sullen, ill-tempered, spoilt girl who had attempted to get another girl expelled.
Bother Thekla!Joey decided with a reprehensible grimace. Why did she have to pitch on me for this visit? But the answer to that question was something of a mystery.
Reg, who had brought the message to Freudesheim the previous evening, had shrugged. "It's not for me to say," he had said. "But she was adamant that she needed to speak to you."
Joey paused, just out of sight of Thekla's room, and adjusted her expression once more. She had promised Reg she would do this -- he had been as adamant as his patient that Joey fulfil this visit -- and that she would do it without upsetting his patient. And that meant setting her own feelings aside.
Duly composed, Joey crossed the final few yards of corridor and then, politely, tapped on the door of Thekla's room.
The words were said with a heavy German accent, but they were English. And that, in and of itself, was an indicator of just how much Thekla had changed. The sixteen-year-old Thekla would not have deigned to speak English by choice. Stop that! Joey scolded herself.
Giving herself a mental shake, Joey entered the room, and only long experience of visiting the sick and injured prevented her from staring at the occupant of the sole bed in the room. Although she had known that Thekla was suffering from an incurable disease, seeing the younger woman lying in bed, clearly too weak to prop herself up without the aid of the wedge-shaped pillow supporting her, was a shock.
"Frau Maynard," Thekla said, nodding. "I would imagine that you do not recall me with any favour, and I do not blame you for that, nor would I have blamed you had you refused to come."
Joey was rarely at a loss for words but this calm and humble speech from the German left her completely bereft of speech, not that Thekla really gave her time to respond, for she was hastily continuing,
"But I am grateful, very grateful that you have honoured my request. While my days at Briesau were not my happiest, one thing stands clear in my memory and that is of you and your tremendous capacity for understanding. You understood Joyce and helped her so much that I was moved to total jealousy..." Thekla closed her eyes a moment. "Looking back," she whispered, "I do not know if I was jealous of losing Joyce's regard or jealous that you had chosen to help her and not me."
"Would my help have made a difference to you?" Joey was moved to ask.
Thekla paused a moment, then opened her eyes, still the strong Prussian blue they had been those years ago. "No. Not in all honesty."
Again, Joey was unable to find words to say.
In a less contemplative tone, Thekla said, "Bitte, please, have a seat, Frau Maynard." Mechanically, Joey sat. "Though she has not yet done so, I believe that Marie will one day wish to know her family. I am not long for this life and I do not wish Marie to grow up not knowing where her family came from...the mistakes they made. For after all, those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it."
There was nothing in that statement that Joey could refute.
"Also," Thekla added, "I believe that you may be the only person who can truly comprehend the awful thing that I did."
That made Joey feel awkward. It was not in her nature to ignore such a cry for help as that was, and yet... "Are you sure a priest..." she began.
Thekla chuckled. "I am a Protestant; for me there is no confessional. Besides," she added, a faint smile lighting her face, "I have met the Protestant minister here. He is a very nice man, but also young enough to be my son. He does not recall what I wish to speak about, but you do."
Mentally kicking herself for forgetting the disparity of their denominations, Joey gave a slight nod. "I understand -- and I will do what in me lies."
"Just, bitte, listen," Thekla begged. "And when the time comes, please tell this to Marie."
Silently, Joey nodded.
There was a moment of silence as Thekla gathered her thoughts. Her next words were so soft as to be nearly inaudible. "My brother was a Nazi," she began. "He was the reason, I suspect, that my father sent me to your school when he did. My father, doubtless, hoped that I would not develop the same leanings as Kurt. I discovered that Kurt had been at Nürenburg at the rally there. In fact, I discovered much about Kurt after the war." Thekla paused. "Little of it complimentary. My only relief is that, by grace of marriage, I do not bear his surname..."
"You are not responsible for what your brother did," Joey interposed. "We do not choose our blood relatives." Here she felt a frisson of déjà vu; forty years earlier she had said much the same thing to Marie von Eschenau about Thekla's own actions.
Thekla perhaps guessed Joey's train of thought for her next words were a shade more jovial. "And did Cousin Marie heed those words when you spoke them of me?" Joey blushed. "You are, of course, quite correct, but familial pride and honour are something that the von Stifts have much of, and though I have not bourn that name in nearly forty years, I am and will be a von Stift until I die. Besides," Thekla continued with a sigh, "Kurt was not alone in disgracing the familial name. I did as much. Perhaps, I did more."
But now, Thekla seemed at a loss for words. Quietly, Joey said, "Begin from the beginning."
With a small smile of thanks, Thekla nodded. "My father feared that Kurt would corrupt me," she said softly. "He was right. Kurt did. Two terms -- but two terms! -- at your school had shown me everything that was wrong with Kurt's outlook, but I was a stupid, arrogant child of seventeen. He and his black uniformed friends brainwashed me, and I willingly let them. I let them fill me with their hates. Their beliefs. Their desires. I knew, at heart, that it was wrong and I still listened. I was married at eighteen, because every Deutsche Mädchen desired to bring Kinder into Der Führer's land, and Werner was more than willing to assist in that."
Thekla halted and met Joey's horrified gaze.
"I do not know if you can understand this part," she continued, "for I know that the relationship you have with Herr Maynard is a good one that has stood time and trial. Werner and I... I did not love him. I am not sure that I even liked him much. He chose to marry me because I represented an advancement for him. I chose to marry him because it was my duty and I could do no less. Love did not enter into it. It was a wicked, repellent relationship. Perhaps it was all I was capable of; I feel sure it was all Werner was capable of. We used each other and I hated it. I tried to take solace in the knowledge that I was doing as Der Führer commanded but..." Thekla stopped. "I may just have been the only happy Stalingrad widow."
"He was there?" Joey murmured, feeling sick at the thought.
"He was," Thekla confirmed. "The Russians killed him. I was glad. You see, by that time, it was not just that I hated him for the way he used me, I had been forced to open my eyes to the wrongness of everything that he and that Kurt believed. Had he survived the war, I would surely have begged for a divorce, you understand?"
Joey tried to put herself in the position that Thekla had been in, but in truth, and even with her famed insight and imagination, she could not begin to comprehend it. She could imagine the blessed relief of someone's death, though, and at least that gave her some context.
"My rude awakening came many, many months before Stalingrad," Thekla continued. "I was, in most other respects, a good little Nazi. I even had a child to show for it, although it was just the one. That, perhaps, is something I am glad of. Wanda was everything I could have wished for; just as lovely as her namesake." Thekla smiled briefly. "A shame she had such an ugly spirited mother, no?" Joey had no response to that comment, so filled with self-loathing. "A shame such an intelligent child had such a stupid mother." Thekla's gaze dropped to her hands. "Have you heard much of what life was like within Germany then?"
Grateful to have the conversation move away from the awful way in which Thekla regarded herself, Joey nodded. "I have," she admitted quietly.
"I applauded preventative arrest. Arbeit Macht Frei was the motto of the camps and I believed in it. In the heady days just after my marriage, someone said to me: You will not be so pleased by it all when they come for you or yours. But I was arrogant. Stupid. It could not happen to me or mine. We were Aryans. We were 'pure'."
Joey swallowed. She suddenly realised where this was going to be going.
"It was at a party, of all things. SS men and their wives. I was young and naïve. I repeated some of the things my mother had said of the regime. I didn't think. I merely thought my new friends would find her views quaint -- and so they did."
"But the Gestapo heard those views too," Joey completed when Thekla couldn't continue. Silently, the German woman nodded. "They took her away?"
"She was put into one of the camps, and there she died. They took my father away too, but he survived. I never dared to contact him afterwards; I could not bear to face him knowing that it was my careless words that had brought him to that awful, awful place."
Silence fell over the little room. Having guessed that this was the likely ending of the tale, Joey had at least had some measure of preparation for it, but even so she was at a loss as to how to respond. Part of her was repulsed by it all, but the greater part felt a great swell of pity for the woman in the bed whose own hubris had cost her both parents, if not in fact then in spirit.
Quietly, Thekla began to speak again. "When I heard that my parents had been taken away, I knew what had to have happened, but it took me several days to realise that it was my words, spoken even in jest, that had the power to do such a terrible thing. When that realisation hit me, it was as if scales had fallen from my eyes. I saw everything for what it was. I saw Werner for the pile of Scheiße that he truly was. I wasn't at my most coherent, but that letter I sent to Mademoiselle contained the truth; I truly did comprehend what she had tried to teach me. Too late for my mother, but not too late for Wanda.
"When war came, it took Werner away from our home and out of his sight, I began to teach Wanda how life should be. Two terms was not long, but it taught me much and I did my best to teach that to Wanda. I think, perhaps, I succeeded, too." Thekla smiled briefly. "You would have liked Wanda," she said. "She was a good woman -- far better than I and proof that, perhaps, something good may come from something bad." Joey said nothing. "She married young, just as I did, but for Wanda, it was a marriage of love; of equals. Marie came not many years into the marriage."
"She's the same age as my first granddaughter," Joey put in at this juncture.
Thekla smiled again. "Ah yes, I believe I have met Maddy Entwhistle. She is a good child and a good friend to Marie."
Joey managed a grin at that masterly understatement. "Thick as thieves, those two," she commented. "And with my other eldest granddaughter, Megan, they look as though they're well on the way to being a nice little chummery."
"It is good," said Thekla.
There was an awkward pause.
"You must think me a monster," Thekla said presently.
"No," said Joey instantly. "Not a monster. Misguided, perhaps."
"The blame is mine," Thekla returned. "You cannot say otherwise. I did not have to say those words; I did not have to do those things."
"But when all around you are losing their heads, it is difficult not to drift with their madness," Joey pointed out. "It doesn't make it right," she continued softly, "and it doesn't excuse it, but it doesn't mean the blame is yours to shoulder alone."
"That is charitable, but your pity and your charity are not what I want," Thekla answered, though she smiled and Joey guessed that she didn't intend her words to sound as rude as they had started out. "I am sorry," she added, confirming Joey's guess. "I did not mean that quite as it sounds. It is difficult. I have had forty years to learn how to manage my grief and shame and guilt." Joey nodded. "But that is forty years in which I have never spoken of this to anyone." Joey nodded again. "So please, bear with me this little while."
"Of course." And Joey found she meant that.
"What I would like," Thekla continued, "is that you tell Marie this when she asks."
"All of this?" Joey asked. And for the first time, Thekla faltered. "Perhaps you feel that you do not deserve it, Thekla, but to Marie, you are her heroine. You are the person who has looked after her for her whole life. You've bandaged her skinned knees, you've helped her with her maths prep...does she need to know of mistakes you made when you were barely older than she was?"
Thekla pursed her lips and Joey realised that the younger woman was considering that point. Eventually, and with a degree of wonder, she said, "Perhaps you are right."
"I promise," said Joey, "that Marie will never wonder where she came from."
"Thank you." Thekla smiled. "Thank you Frau..."
"Joey," insisted that lady, firmly.
Thekla smiled again. "Thank you, Joey, then. Thank you for everything that you tried to do for me when we first knew each other. Thank you for everything that you have done for me today. Above all, thank you for everything that you will do for Marie tomorrow."
Thekla settled back against her pillow.
Her tale was told. That Joey would not keep her word did not even enter Thekla's mind; she remembered Joey Bettany, the Head Girl who was firm but fair. Marie would know everything she wanted to know when the time came, and all would be well.
Thekla closed her eyes and let herself drift away. Yes; all would be well.