A/N: Sorry this has taken so long, but a) this last week has not been the easiest and b) this chapter marks a distinct change between two characters and I wanted to get that right and how I had imagined it. I hope you all continue to enjoy this story!
Twenty Four: Surprise Meetings
Another week passed, and once it was Saturday – once Liesl had finished the week at school – Maria and Liesl were walking around Salzburg looking through a number of shops. Liesl had first taken Maria to a small dress shop that she would often visit – and had done in the past with her birth mother – and in that particular shop, Maria had felt a lot more comfortable than she had done last week. In that particular shop, Maria had purchased three new summer dresses of light colours and thin fabrics. They suited her figure, and were similar to those she had worn – and still did wear – during the summer months.
Maria had felt a little uncomfortable when Liesl had simply told the shopkeeper – who she had been familiar with since entering the shop – to put the dresses on her father's bill. Attempting to hide her flushed cheeks, she had accepted the compliments and congratulations of the old woman behind the desk about her upcoming marriage to Georg.
The two of them had left the shop, therefore, with one large bag packed with the dresses. Often, Liesl would tell her, the dresses would have to be made, but since these were regular and simple dresses, the purchases and handing over had been relatively prompt. Somehow, Maria knew that when the two began enquiring about evening gowns, it would be a different story.
But despite the remaining caution that Maria felt in her system, she soon found herself enjoying the experience – although she determined that the factor for such a change was Liesl. The two close friends had also taken this time to talk about current situations, and for Liesl these still included Rolfe. She had voiced her remaining concerns about him, and that he was almost definitely a Nazi supporter, and even training to be a soldier, at the moment. The rumours that had been travelling around Liesl's school were finally solidified.
Maria had wrapped her arm around Liesl's shoulder as they walked, and once they had come across a wooden bench, the two had sat.
"Have you spoken to your Father?" Maria asked, placing their bags down beside her.
"Actually, yes," Liesl told her. "It was when we were discussing the Anschluss, and –"
Liesl fell silent for a moment, and it was only when Maria looked up did she see the reason behind it. A black car was slowly driving through the streets of Salzburg, and inside were at least four Nazi soldiers. The windows were rolled down, so it would have been easy to hear any person speaking.
Maria felt Liesl stiffen, and instinctively she reached out her hand and rested it across Liesl's hand on the bench.
Once the car had driven by – and once the flag draped across the back window had disappeared from sight – Liesl turned to Maria.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "But Father said people can never know."
Maria understood Liesl without her having to say any more. Georg had discussed with her on countless occasions of his concerns with the Nazi party, and the threatening impact it could have on his family if his thoughts were known.
"Well, how about if we go and look around a few more shops? I think I'm getting quite engrossed in all of this," Maria winked, causing Liesl to smile slightly and nod.
"Father did say that he expected the bags to at least take up all the room in the back of the car."
Maria laughed for a moment, joining in with Liesl, before she fell back into thought – specifically about her fiancé.
But before either could stray into their thoughts for too long, the two had stood up with their belongings and began to walk in the direction of the next shop. Liesl led Maria down another street, past a few shops in particular. But suddenly Liesl stopped after passing a few more shops and gasped, thinking something to herself. The sound had caused Maria to stop and look around at her friend and daughter-to-be and was instantly concerned.
When Liesl noticed the look of apprehension crossing Maria's face, she explained, "I forgot, there was something I wanted to do."
The particular stressing of the pronoun caused Maria to assume that Liesl wished to be alone to do this mysterious something, so she simply nodded, but with a look that explicitly told Liesl that she would find out sooner or later.
"I'm sorry, Fraulein, I just completely forgot."
"It's fine, Liesl. Go on, I'll be all right."
Liesl waved her hand absently at the shop the two had been stood outside of in that moment and then turned to head back down the street, turning a corner a few paces away with a determined look across her face. Maria watched her go, curious but still accepting of her wishes.
But after a few more moments of sheer contemplation – and after she had been twice knocked into on the pavement – Maria turned her head to look at the shop. It looked just as foreboding as all of the others had done without Liesl's presence, and somehow she found herself in need of taking a much larger breath to even take one more step forward.
Maria decided to conquer her nerves that still existed since that first trip into town and stepped forward, and she was about to reach for the door handle when an all but familiar voice sounded from beside her,
Maria stiffened in an instant. But against her better judgement – and against the memories of those previous times she had spent with this person – she turned around.
But to her astonishment, the face she turned upon was not as stern and disapproving as the one she had once seen. It was the same face, there was no denying that. But instead of the passive expression she had become so familiar with, there was instead a pleasantly surprised appearance, and Maria could only assume that was because of her.
She swallowed, and spoke up, "Good mor– Afternoon, Baroness."
Maria's confusion was laughed at by the prestigious, older woman, but her laugh was in no way harsh. "Afternoon, Maria. Although, given our circumstances, I'm sure you could call me Elsa now."
Maria took another deep breath. "Elsa…" The name felt strange upon her tongue. "What brings you back to Salzburg, if I may ask?" Maria surprised herself at the casual edge to her conversation, but something inside her told her to ask.
Elsa smiled. "I'm here visiting friends and was just going to visit a favourite shop of mine. I recall going there during the summer and wished to see the shopkeeper again and purchase a new dress."
Maria was too absorbed in the meeting to really respond with much interest. It took her another few moments to understand all of her words and summon a response, but even that was minimised to an, "Oh."
"And I see you have been quite busy," Elsa nodded to the bag in each of Maria's hands.
Maria nodded. "Mhm."
"Were you going in there?" Elsa asked, motioning to the shop with her hand. Maria nodded in response. Elsa seemed to absorb this answer carefully, and then spoke again, "Might I suggest some place else? I only have a few memories of here and none have been particularly pleasant."
"Urm, all right but–" But before Maria could finish her sentence, Liesl had rejoined her and was suddenly surprised to see the Baroness standing there.
"I'm finished, Fraulein. I'm sorry for– Oh, hello!"
Elsa noticed the eldest Von Trapp arriving and found herself instinctively smiling warmly. "It's good to see you again, Liesl."
It perhaps surprised both Elsa and Liesl that she had remembered her name.
"And you, Baroness Schrader."
As Elsa began to explain her recent suggestions to Liesl, Maria watched the two of them. There was an awkward sense to the air around them when she attempted to talk with the woman who had once had the intentions of marrying her current fiancé. The time she had caught Georg and herself in his study was still etched upon her mind – it was quite impossible for that night to fade from her mind – and also the way in which she had tactfully swayed Maria in the direction of the Abbey half way through the summer.
But whatever Elsa had suggested to Liesl now, the girl seemed to be all right with, because she was suddenly being taken by the arm and led in the direction of another shop. Liesl's arm was linked with her own, and the two of them were following Elsa.
The following shop in which the three of them entered, Maria was surprised to find and hear that Elsa was simply reeling off the amount of purchases which would need to be made. As well as the nightdresses that Maria was being measured for and the examples she was being shown, Elsa had also suggested some travel suits – much like the peach coloured one which she was wearing at the moment.
"What about this colour, Maria?" the shopkeeper asked after becoming acquainted with her name.
Maria looked around and saw that the shopkeeper was holding up a mustard coloured travel suit. She nodded, seemingly content with the colour, and then attempted to make sense of the whirlwind around her. Even Liesl was scattering around the shop looking for different colours.
Maria simply continued to stand there awkwardly, most of this directed at Elsa. There was so much that was left unsaid between the two of them that the eerie sense was almost palpable between them – or at least to Maria.
Before the three females left this shop, Maria owned three more suits on top of the mustard coloured one, her favourite being a light blue coloured one. Overwhelmed, Maria was thrilled to be back outside in the afternoon air.
It was not long after this when Elsa suggested that the two of them find a café.
Liesl agreed, and Maria followed with the same response. She was eager to sit down and regain her composure.
Once settled in a café on a table outside in the lovely weather, a waiter came and took their orders. Whilst Maria and Liesl had decided to share a pot of tea, Elsa had chosen a coffee and between them decided to share a plate of various, small cakes which had been on offer.
Liesl excused herself a few minutes later to visit the bathroom, leaving a silence at the table.
Maria's eyes attempted to stay anywhere but the eyes of Elsa, but it seemed that even this did not sway the older woman. There had been a keen expression in her eyes since the two of them had met in such surprising circumstances, and it was now that she took her chance.
"I must apologise, Maria."
Maria looked up of her own accord, her eyes widened. "But…"
"No," Elsa stopped her adamantly. "My actions last year were unforgiveable."
Elsa was about to open her mouth and interrupt again, but the waiter returning with their drinks had succeeded in stopping her. Once the drinks had been set at the table, along with their selection of cakes, the older woman looked back up. She seemed to take a deep breath before she spoke, gathering herself,
"The thing is, one of the first things I noticed on my visit was you and Georg. It was an act of desperation, one of the worst things I've done… I'm only relieved that you have found each other now – that you're happy."
"That was a difficult time for all of us; I could never have known that I loved Georg until…"
"Please, Maria," Elsa almost begged, almost as if to plead with her to listen, and perhaps to accept her apology.
"Did you love him?" Maria suddenly blurted, and even surprised herself. Her cheeks went red once she realised, but Elsa had filled the gap before she had too much time to become further embarrassed.
"I loved him in a way that a wife should, well, not really love a man she is to marry. We were compatible, and that was sufficient enough for both of us to begin with. We were fond of each other, some would say." Elsa paused for a moment. "But then he found you, and that difference between loving someone and being in love with someone was there – plain to see."
"That's how Georg described it," Maria responded breathlessly, recalling his words in one of his first letters to her.
"You can love someone – a friend – but of course it will never amount to anything more. You would do anything for that friend, but it is entirely different to being in love: madly, unconditionally…"
"You must know, my dear, how dreadful I felt the moment you left. When I heard from Max about how Georg and the children were handling it all."
"I love them all so dearly," she almost whispered to herself, although Elsa heard.
"And I almost deprived them of a mother. I could not expect your forgiveness, Maria, but just so you're aware of how truly sorry I am."
Maria watched her carefully for a few moments. Not because she held any semblance of doubt, only because she had been surprised to hear the apology and was still attempting to fathom these words. The acknowledgement of Elsa knowing of her love for Georg during her time at the villa last summer had shocked her a little; aware that she had fought so strongly against those unusual feelings that she only – some weeks later – learned to be love.
"I understand," Maria spoke back softly. She spoke this with a smile too, and was about to say something further when Liesl returned from the bathroom.
The sixteen-year-old – soon to be seventeen – must have sensed that the two adults had something to talk about because she had taken longer than she would usually have done. She shot Maria a small wink as she sat back down at the table.
Small semblances of conservation continued between the three women, partly discussing their purchases so far that day and partly Elsa asking how the family had been recently.
Elsa noticed the same look of joy and pride in Maria's eyes, and through her voice, now that she had through those summer months when she talked about the children. It was evident that the seven children had taken Maria into their lives instantly, and the prospect of her becoming their new mother was a role which all children were thoroughly anticipating.
Liesl then turned the conversation onto the wedding and Maria's dress, and Elsa lifted her eyes to smile at the two of them.
"May I ask about the design, Maria?"
Maria smiled shyly, but spoke, "Well…"
As Maria began to describe her wedding dress, Elsa watched as her features lit up. Notably, there was an occasion when Georg was mentioned – something about him asking Maria and the children about the design and all those involved looking shocked and flabbergasted at his ludicrous query.
The afternoon passed fairly quickly following their lunch. Elsa had taken Maria to a couple more shops and the group had purchased a fair few more garments, so much so that Maria could barely carry the bags without assistance.
When Liesl was to one side and looking for a new dress fabric that her father had promised her for her upcoming birthday, Elsa continued to discuss the prospect of a new dress for Maria.
Maria was watching her carefully, and eventually found the courage to speak and submit her invitation, "Elsa…" she began, still becoming acquainted with using her first name.
Elsa turned her head inquisitively. "Yes, Maria?"
"I don't wish to sound obtuse…" Maria paused and found that looking down at the beautiful fabric in her hands a useful distraction. "But would you like to come to the wedding? I know it may appear quite… odd, but I know for a fact that Max would love to have you there, and I really must thank you for all you have done today…"
"You owe me nothing in return, Maria. It was I who was completely at fault."
Despite the conviction in Elsa's tone, Maria had decided to stand her ground. "Please, Elsa," she started again. "At least join us at the reception, we're having it at the villa…"
"I will join you at the reception." Elsa agreed having thought about the prospect of seeing Max again properly and also becoming reacquainted with some of her old friends in Salzburg.
Maria smiled and sighed in relief. "Thank you."
Elsa smiled back.
"I must start thinking of a suitable toast, then."
Not long after the wedding invite discussion, Liesl returned and the group decided to disband. Georg had arranged to collect Maria and Liesl at three o'clock – and it was now quarter to three – drop Maria back off at the abbey and then return home.
Elsa returned to her lodgings in Salzburg whilst Maria and Liesl walked back towards where Georg had arranged to collect them.
Maria's eyes found Georg immediately. He was stood casually against his car, leaning against it with his arms crossed. The light, summer winds had swept his hair to one side a little and Maria found herself housing an overwhelming urge to go and sweep it back into place.
She approached her fiancé with some reserve – since they were, after all, in the public eye and she knew how much Georg preferred to keep the majority of their affections in private. But once she became closer to him, Maria could no longer resist – not after seeing his wide smile once he had noticed her – and dropped her bags, instantly reaching forward with her arm to take hold of his hand.
Maria instantly appreciated and admired the impact his touch had on her, and upon catching Georg's eye she could assume that he was feeling the same.
"Well, hello," he spoke lowly, reaching one of his arms to place delicately and subtly around her waist.
"Captain," Maria acknowledged him with a playful smile.
The two adults stood there in a private moment as Liesl took it upon herself to force their bags onto the back seat of the car, and in the process squeezing herself in beside them.
As she closed the door, feeling that listening to their conversation would be an invasion of privacy, she watched them tenderly from her almost hidden position. Her father must have said something funny, because Maria was laughing; throwing her head back. In the next moment their lips had met in a tender, chaste kiss and despite looking away instantly, Liesl felt a surge of happiness rise within her, noting how happy her father looked now. No, not just her father – the whole family.
Once Georg and Liesl had dropped Maria at the abbey, Liesl switched places and moved to sit in the front seat.
Georg turned to smile at her thankfully. "And here I thought Maria was cautious about shopping," he laughed, nodding his head to the vast collection of bags that Liesl had moved away from.
Liesl laughed in response. "We had a little help here and there."
Georg's eyes widened in shock but continued to listen to Liesl's recounting of the day regardless.