Whether Or Not You Should
Maria Rainer could not keep still, and yet her body felt like a prison.
She had hoped, when she had walked outside into the evening air that felt both warm and cool, that she could find some peace. Instead, it seemed that her problems merely melted into the air around her, making it heavier, weighing her down. It felt as though she were walking through syrup or molasses. But if the air felt heavy, it was nothing compared to how heavy her heart felt.
I should never have come back. I should never even have come here in the first place.
Still, Maria knew that being outside was much better than being cooped up in her room, where she felt she would either go crazy or cry volumes, and she did not want to become that vulnerable. At least, not yet; she would only ever let herself do that if she felt completely safe. Maria felt anything but.
First she came onto the veranda, and then she idly walked down the path to the lake. She stood at the gates and tried to find some sense of calm or peace in the gently rippling waters. But she found none; instead, she felt…exposed, somehow, as if eyes from above were watching her closely. So instead she walked south along the lake, at the same slow, sluggish pace that so unlike her. In the past, even when she had been afraid of something, she would rush to it for fear of hesitation. Now her heart and soul, along with the problems and questions surrounding her, weighed her down as well as slowed her down.
At least I'm restless; that shows that I haven't lost all of myself yet…but who knows if I'll ever find myself again, or if I'll recognize her at all…
The twenty-two-year-old did not keep track of how long or how far she walked about the grounds slowly and aimlessly; she felt that if she stopped, her problems and questions would only become more real and start screaming in her ear to be solved when she had no solution to them. Finally, when she felt her feet becoming sore, Maria sat down on a stone bench near the gazebo. She played with her fingers and leaned her body forward, her elbows resting on her thighs. Just as she had predicted, the questions and torments of her heart became all the more audible and real in her mind.
How on Earth am I going to find sleep tonight? What am I going to tell the children when they ask me to stay? Where am I to go? How am I to live my life?
How can I ever look at him again and not feel my heart break?
Georg von Trapp did not know how to proceed.
Elsa had just bidden him farewell, giving him her silent blessing for the future he hoped for, and disappeared to her rooms to pack her little bags and return to Vienna. His eyes drifted to the grounds again, where he had been watching Maria. She had disappeared from sight, and he hoped that this did not have some sort of significance in meaning. He felt guilty enough for the way he had handled this entire situation.
I should never have proposed in the first place. I should never have brought her to Salzburg at all.
Though he knew that he was never in love with Elsa, he still felt guilty for raising her hopes and for letting it go this far, especially after Maria had come into the picture. He felt, with his history, he should have known better than to run from love, especially such a profound love as he never thought he could find in his life.
Since he could not see Maria anymore, Georg walked back inside and out of his private sitting room. When he came to the main hallway, he caught sight of Max heading for his room. Softly he called for his friend, who approached him. "Max…Elsa is packing her bags, and wants to leave for Vienna right away. Go to her?"
Max's eyebrows rose at this, and said, "Of course, but what…Oh," he finished, reading the look on Georg's face. After a silent moment, his friend sighed and nodded. "I can't say I'm surprised, but I will say that…contrary to popular belief, you're doing the right thing for the both of you. As much as I wanted all of that lovely money to stay in the family and everything…I care more about my friend being happy." He gave Georg a hard look and asked, "You do intend to be happy, don't you?"
Georg remembered why Max was still his closest friend, despite the petty frustrations: moments like this of true loyalty, and asking such a simple question that actually spoke volumes.
Knowing what Max really meant by the simple question, Georg looked Max in the eye and nodded. Max gave a satisfied nod in return, clasped Georg's shoulder, said "Good luck," and walked away towards Elsa's room.
The retired Captain gave a relieved sigh, and walked to his private study and library, a room he had always considered his sanctuary. He wanted to be out of the way when Elsa left, and he needed to think some things over, decide how he was going to proceed.
For Georg, only one thing was certain: he had to speak to Maria, and soon. His path to her was now clear, and he wanted nothing more than to run down it and take her in his arms, telling her he loved her with all his heart. But the matter was not that simple. He would have to be careful, gentle, in telling her his feelings…for he had to tell her, even if she did not return them to the same degree that he did.
But Georg felt sure that she had to feel something…He remembered their dance, and the expression in her eyes when they had been so close before fear had covered it. And when she had come back today, she had closed herself off from him completely and wouldn't look him in the eye at dinner. Though she was polite to him and cheerful with the children, she had placed a mask over her heart and emotions, which was so unlike her.
Something was wrong, and he prayed to God that he had the power to help her.
Georg remained in his study until he heard the distant sound of a motor starting up, and listened while it faded away from the villa. Now Elsa was gone, and his path was truly clear.
But do I approach her tonight? Would it not be wiser to wait a day or two? Just so I could watch her and possibly look for more signs…
This was certainly the rational, more gentleman-like way to go…but then Georg thought of Maria outside, walking so slowly and alone, as if a great weight were on her shoulders and a great trouble in her mind…
No…I will not let her go on like this, if I can help it. I have to speak to her now.
With that thought, Georg got up from his favorite armchair and walked out of his study. When he came to a mirror in the hallway, he stopped to make sure he still looked presentable. As he did so, he had to chuckle. I feel like a schoolboy all over again, about to ask the prettiest girl for a dance…I hope she will say yes.
How could I ever be happy again if I lose her?
When the grandfather clock in the main hallways chimed nine times, Georg found Maria.
By this time, the young woman had wandered aimlessly all over the southern grounds, and somehow ended up by the glass gazebo. When he first saw her, she was just visible in the moonlight, walking slowly around a large tree, loosely hugging the trunk with one arm. In this light and setting, Maria seemed almost…otherworldly, ethereal, as if made from the moonlight itself. The image was so beautiful that Georg stopped in the shadow of a nearby tree, unwilling to intrude upon this unearthly scene. Again, he felt doubt and fear rage in his heart, and asked himself why he could ever believe in the possibility of her returning his feelings.
Maria broke this illusion when, after nearly an hour of non-stop, slow and heavy walking, she finally stopped at the stone bench near the gazebo and collapsed more than sat down upon it. Her back slumped, leaning forward, fidgeting hands, and head hung low all symbolized the turmoil she had masked from him all evening. There was indeed a turmoil inside of her, for she was questioning everything: where she belonged, what she should do, what her future would be, and what her purpose in life was.
But most of all, Maria was struggling with this new feeling she was experiencing for the first time and did not like at all: heartbreak.
Seeing her like this on the bench suddenly made her appear as the human she was, capable of feeling pain and confusion. It gave him the courage to finally make his presence known to her, even though he had absolutely no idea how he was going to go about telling her all that she needed to know.
Maria immediately lifted her head and saw him. Her eyes widened in shock and she immediately sat up, back stiffened straight, gripping the bench to stop her shaking hands. Her mouth felt dry as a desert, and her stomach was filled with butterflies; her cheeks enflamed while the rest of it went white. She felt in awe that just seeing him, hearing his voice, could have such an effect on her. Will this never get any easier?
He was standing beneath a nearby tree, and had just stepped out of the shadow of it to reveal his presence. Georg tried to wear a friendly smile, but it felt anything but casual. He couldn't quite stand perfectly still, despite his best efforts, which reflected his own disquiet spirit. He saw that Maria was not going to speak in her state of surprise. So he spoke again in that friendly, care-free tone, but he couldn't help but stutter a bit. "I-I thought I…just might find you here." He used his hand and fingers, pointing to the ground, to dispel his nerves, but this made his tone of voice sound strange.
She heard it, and wished more than anything he would disappear – for he had certainly appeared quietly enough, as if from thin air – because she had a sudden urge upon seeing him to run to him. That frightened her, so she slowly got up from the bench and backed away a few steps, needing to protect herself. Like him, she too couldn't help but stutter. "W-was there, was there something you wanted?"
"Hmm?" Georg had been in a brief daze looking at her. For the first time, he could look at Maria in complete knowledge and acceptance of his feelings, and truly see her beauty in this lighting. But her words brought him back to reality, and he saw that she had backed away from him, into the shadow of a tree so her features weren't visible anymore. He couldn't have that; he would not frighten her. So he spoke in what he hoped was a reassuring manner. "Oh, no, no, no, sit. Sit down, please." He indicated the bench with his hand and took a few steps closer to the now empty bench and her.
But she didn't move at all. "Please," he repeated, nearly pleading as he indicated the bench again. He dearly hoped she was not afraid of him now; he had to make her see that she had absolutely nothing to fear from him. To his relief, she came back to the bench and slowly sat down; she did not relax, she was still on her guard, but at least she was sitting, acknowledging that she would not run away.
Georg stood by the bench for a moment, feeling awkward as he looked off at nothing in the distance. Still not finding any good words to say, he turned back to Maria and indicated the bench again. "Uh, may I?" She gave the smallest of nods, and Georg sat down on the bench beside her, facing east while she faced west. Once he was sitting, he took a deep breath and clasped his hands together, trying harder than ever to come up with the plan. Because he could practicaly feel the tension radiating from her body, Georg gave her what he hoped was a casual, friendly smile.
But this gesture did not have the intended effect. That smile caused Maria to realize that she had not once taken her eyes off him since he had made her presence known to her. She felt a heat creep up her neck in embarrassment, and the knife already in her heart begin to twist. That smile caused her to lower her eyes and turn her head away, because she suddenly wanted to cry. She very nearly did until, after a moment of silence, she heard the Captain chuckling.
Georg chuckled because he felt more like a thirteen-year-old boy than ever; he couldn't remember ever being so tongue-tied or nervous. His soft laughing seemed to be the key to finding the words needed to begin the most important conversation of his life, even if he still stuttered at the beginning.
"You know, I was…" He cleared his throat and scratched his neck. "I was thinking, and um, I was wondering, uh, two things: why did you run away to the abbey, and…what was it that made you come back?" His voice became more sure when he asked those two questions, emphasizing each word and ending by looking at her again.
Maria's expression of incredulous hurt at his laughter melted away at these questions, her mask strengthening. Like him, she chose her words carefully, but her voice was softer. "Well, I…had an obligation to fulfill and I…I came back to fulfill it." She was relieved and proud of the vague but true words she had chosen, and how she almost sounded carefree about it.
"Mmm…" said Georg, knowing this was not the entire answer. "Is that all?"
Maria sighed internally; she had hoped against hope her vague answer would be enough, but of course it wasn't. Knowing he would see through any lie she told – he was a smart man and she was one who wore her heart on her sleeve – she chose another honest answer as she looked towards the distant villa. "And I missed the children."
Though this was not the answer he had been really hoping for, it touched his heart because he knew this was true. Her love for his children he had always loved about her. "Yes…uh…only the children?"
His question just slipped out, his subconscious and his heart pushing the words out before he could stop them; perhaps he didn't want to.
And her answer just slipped out, too, despite how softly she said it. "No…Yes!" She'd realized her slip-up, and Maria felt her humiliation rising; she had to correct that slip if she were to save any shred of dignity. She looked at him again and said almost defensively, "Isn't it right I should've missed them?"
"Oh, yes! Yes, of course!" replied Georg, laughing a little, not at her but with joy. He had heard her first answer, and it gave his heart new hope to lift it. She had missed him, too, and this gave him new courage. "I was, uh, only hoping that perhaps you…perhaps you might, uh…" Might what, exactly? he thought, realizing he didn't even know what specifically he was asking of her. Stay not just for the children, but for myself, too? Return my love? Spend life by my side?
Maria had never seen him so hesitant to speak before, and it touched a place in her heart that he could be feeling just as unsure as she did, even if for different reasons. Unconsciously, she let her guard down, leaned forward towards him an inch, and asked softly but reflecting her little drop of hope, her desperate need to know what he wanted from her once and for all. "Yes?"
Georg heard her soft one-word question. He looked up and saw her eyes perfectly reflected her tone of voice: curious and vulnerable. Her powerful gaze made him even more nervous about what he needed to say to her, and looked away. He chose the best words he could think of that hopefully would not frighten her. "Well, uh…nothing was the same when you were away…and it'll be all wrong again after you leave…and I just thought perhaps you might, uh…" He braved her glanced again, feeling just how pathetic, but safe, his final three words were. "…change your mind?"
Well, his words certainly did not frighten her, but they seemed to plunge the knife already in her heart as far as it would go. Maria felt a lump rise in her throat and the need to cry again. He only wants you to stay on as governess for the children. He doesn't want to have to find a new governess while he plans his wedding…to the Baroness…before the summer is over, just as Frau Schmidt predicted. He wants order and smooth, nothing more. That is all he will ever need you for.
She had to put some distance between them; she felt her tears coming and she would not show them to him, just as she never showed them to anybody. As she got up from the bench and walked away from him, she said, "Well, I'm sure the Baroness will…be able to make things fine for you." Even though she tried to sound as neutral as possible, the lump in her throat was barely disguised.
Georg watched her walk away, and it felt as if someone were pulling at his skin, trying to tear him in half. He couldn't let her go; not again. He knew now it would destroy him as well as the children.
This stopped Maria in her tracks, shocked. He'd never called her by her name before; it had always been only 'Fraulein.' Despite the circumstances, her young heart could not help but melt at the sound of her name on his lips, and give her just another drop of hope.
He was glad to finally call her by her given name, and such a beautiful name that fit her so well. It seemed to drop one of the barriers between them; both felt a sudden but subtle shift in the air between them. This gave Georg more courage to speak, to come closer to the heart of the matter.
"…there isn't going to be any Baroness."
Maria, still in shock by hearing him say her name and confused by the quiet but powerful change in the air between them, heard him only vaguely. "There isn't?" she said so quietly, in that same sad tone.
Needing her to understand, Georg got up from the bench and approached her. "No."
"I don't understand…" she said, for she didn't. Hadn't she been told by both the children and the Baroness this very day that he was engaged to her? What is going on? What is happening?
Georg sighed to himself, knowing he had to be more specific to both clear up her confusion and reveal all she needed to know. Feeling nervous again, he walked past her and into the gazebo, willing her to follow him; she did. He didn't know why he wanted them inside the glass structure; perhaps he needed to feel the safety of being under a roof with her.
"Well, we've um…called off our engagement, you see, and uh…" Inwardly, he was cursing himself. You have no trouble facing an enemy U-boat but you find it hard to talk to the woman who holds your last hope of happiness?
Maria was, again, confused at this new Captain, one who sounded so unsure and, dare she believe it, nervous. But why? Hearing his words as she entered into the glass structure, the automatic and polite response expected of an acquaintance or employee came to her mind. "Oh, I'm sorry."
"Yes…you are?" When Georg comprehended her response, his shock was resonant in his last two words, as well as his fear. If she truly meant that, then all hope was lost. He turned his head to look at her, both needing and afraid to know if she truly meant it.
"Mm-hm," she said, in that same absent, polite tone. But then, she stopped dead in her tracks, and turned around to face him. Their gazes met, and she said breathlessly, with hope and vulnerability that could not be disguised, "You did?"
Georg had never experienced such sweet relief before when he heard those words in that tone of voice. "Yes," he said.
Their gazes locked again as another barrier seemed to fall between them, bringing their hearts closer together. Maria felt the word she could not speak aloud – why – burning in her heart and eyes, and this gave Georg the courage to answer her with complete honesty.
He walked around her until he stood right next to her by the glass wall, looking out towards the just visible lake. "Well, you can't…marry someone when you're…" He paused, feeling her powerful gaze on his face that begged for an answer. Finally, he found the courage he needed, and dropped every shield he'd used as he turned his head to meet her gaze. His eyes held nothing of his heart back, and his voice was soft, tender, and full of love for only her.
"…in love with someone else…" The sheer shock he saw in her eyes, and the absence of any emotion he'd feared, brought the smallest but most tender of smiles to his lips as he finished. "Can you?"
For the first time in her life, Maria was at a complete loss for words. And for the first time, in her mind, she allowed herself to believe in the possibility that he might, just might, be telling her what her heart so longed to hear, and mean it, too. Because she could find no words, she merely shook her head, and let her eyes reflect what she felt.
Georg was at a loss for words, too. He needed to know what she felt, and because he could not ask with words, he asked – pleaded – with his eyes. Perhaps it was just his imagination, but in her eyes and across her face, he saw her mask finally fall. And what he saw gave him the courage to act. He raised his hand and gently cupped her cheek – both were aware this was their first skin-on-skin touch – and lowered his head to meet hers. Maria did not resist him gently bringing her face to his; even if she wanted to, she couldn't, and she didn't want to.
Their eyes closed and their lips touched; their first true kiss made the rest of the world disappear and broke down every last barrier that had stood between their hearts. All that existed was each other, together. His kiss was a question, and her kiss was an answer. Georg savored how soft and sweet her lips were, exceeding every dream he'd had; Maria savored the wonderful feeling she never knew a kiss could bring, feeling as if she were no longer standing on solid ground.
Eventually, the kiss ended as gently as it had begun, and their lips parted. Georg was the first to open his eyes, and he saw Maria's dazed expression, even with her eyes closed. When she opened them, he could have sworn that stars were twinkling inside the bright blue orbs, glowing in the moonlight.
Maria almost felt dizzy from her first kiss, but when she opened her eyes and saw him, she felt steady again, as well as more relieved and happy than she had ever felt. Had he ever looked more handsome than right now? Maria didn't think so; then again, she'd always though he was the most handsome man she'd ever seen.
For the both of them, it was as if they were looking at each other for the first time, and in a way they were: through the eyes of mutual love. Both knew this was the start of something wonderful, and could feel their hearts coming together, never to be torn apart.
Georg gave Maria a small smile, and she returned it. He instinctively knew that he had to gently take the lead now, being the more experienced of the two. So, he lowered his hand from her chin to her shoulder, bringing her closer to him. He lifted his lips to her forehead, softly kissing her there, letting his lips travel along her skin. He seemed to be telling her, You're safe here with me. You have no reason to be afraid anymore. Maria's breath caught in her throat at the sensation, and finally breathed a sigh as she let her head rest on his shoulder. His arms wrapped around her, and she soon found the courage to do the same.
Now their joined heards were truly rejoicing to be in each other's arms at last, free, together. Georg lifted one hand and stroked the soft skin of her neck, ruffling the short hair so unusual for a woman but so perfect for her. At last, he could touch her like this.
Maria felt tears of joy rather than sorrow well in her eyes, and she sighed again to clear her throat, words coming out she didn't know she was going to say.
"The Reverend Mother always says: When the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window."
Her words surprised them both, and they caused Georg to smile in pure happiness and love. This was Maria, the Maria who had been in hiding from him since she came back, the woman he was in love with. Wanting to look at her again, Georg lifted her head from his shoulder, tenderly holding her face with both hands. Maria did not resist, glad to look at him again. He was smiling at her, his blue eyes glowing. The young woman noticed that he had dimples in his cheeks, his entire smile making him look twenty years younger. Now he wasn't just handsome – he was beautiful.
"What else does the Reverend Mother say?" he asked through his smile, his tone both playful and tender.
Maria smiled right back, infected by his happiness, before her expression became sincere and serious again as she replied, "That you have to look for your life."
Georg's playful smile disappeared as he heard her words. "Is that why you came back?"
Maria found herself speechless again, so she closed her eyes and nodded. When she opened her eyes again, Maria looked into Georg's eyes. The expression of them reflected his heart and his hope. "And have you found it, Maria?"
The young woman felt her knees go a little weak, hearing the man she loved say her name like that. She felt all of the gravity that came with such a simple question; like so many of the words they had spoken tonight, such simple words hid profound meanings. She could hear from his tone and see in his eyes that what he truly asked of her: Would you spend your life with me? Would that make you happy?
Maria felt her cheeks flush a little under his gentle fingers, still holding her face as if holding the most delicate, precious flower. "I think I have…" she said softly, her gaze shifting for a moment. After all, this was all so new to her, and she had only just left the only life she had ever wanted. But then Maria looked into her Captain's eyes again, and though she still had some fears and insecurities, she knew they paled compared to one simple, powerful truth: I am looking at my everything.
So she amended her words as she looked at her life: "I know I have."
At her words, Georg felt a profound sense of humility, because he could read all of her emotions in her eyes, how much she was giving up to pledge her life, her heart to him. And so he would do the same for her, using words he usually found difficult to speak, but not now:
"I love you."
Maria had the rare gift of being able to see the beauty in everything, from nature to music. But no natural landscape or musical composition had ever moved her as much as those three words from her Captain's lips – words that she could not remember anybody saying to her before – meant just for her, his eyes reflecting the heart behind them.
Maria felt suddenly more overwhelmed than she had felt all day, and that was truly saying something. She felt all of the emotions in her pour over the brim of her heart into her eyes. Unconsciously gripping the lapels of his jacket with her hands, she lifted her face to his, as if begging him to reassure her, calm her, make her feel secure. Georg saw the tears and vulnerability in her eyes and gladly granted her silent wish. His lips touched her forehead, her temple, all along her cheekbone, while his hands slipped down to caress her neck. Her skin was so soft, smooth and warm; he knew this was the beginning of an addiction and he didn't care.
"Oh, can this be happening to me?" Maria softly moaned, her knees weakening even more under these gentle kisses that felt so foreign but so wonderful. She still felt emotions overwhelm her, but she didn't want to cry anymore. She wanted to let her emotions out in another way, and so she did.
As she began to sing, Maria pressed her fingers against his chest, telling him to stop and listen to her, because that's what she needed. She needed to let her emotions out in the best way she knew how – song – and she needed him to listen, to bear witness, to be there. His lips stopped, and he pulled back so they could look at each other. His eyes never left hers, showing her that he was listening. He smiled softly, kissed the tips of her fingers, and held her hands over his heart as he listened; the loving expression in his eyes never faded. Maria knew then that she could trust him to always listen, to anything she wanted to express.
When her song ended, Georg had a small smile on his face while his eyes adored her. Is there any part of her that is not perfect or completely beautiful? Thinking back to the first day they met, Georg's smile widened. He took her hands and led her to the center of the hexagonal gazebo, saying, "Do you know when I first started loving you?"
Maria held his hands, going along with him, and shook her head slightly.
"That night at the dinner table when you sat on that ridiculous pinecone," he said, falling into laughter by the end, just realizing this himself, how adorable she had been.
Maria's eyes widened and she gasped, leaning her head forward in shock. "What?" He nodded, still smiling, and now she laughed too as he held her hands tighter. She gave him a fond smile of her own, saying her words as she realized the fact herself: "I knew the first time you blew that silly whistle."
Georg cringed slightly at that memory – what an automaton he'd been then! What could she had possibly seen in him then? How could I ever be worthy of her? His heart full, Georg lifted his right hand and caressed her cheek, cupping it reverently. "Oh, my love…"
Maria blushed under his touch and such a beautiful endearment. Very shyly, she turned her head and brushed her lips against the skin of his palm, a gentle kiss.
Georg felt a very special place in his heart move at her gesture, and somehow found the words to return her song. Holding both of her hands again, he sang her words back to her, expressing how he felt exactly the same way: I don't see how I could deserve you, but it seems a higher authority does, and I have no objections to that. She sang with him, and both stepped closer to each other until they were nearly touching. His hands still held hers, and he kissed her forehead once, twice, as she sang to him.
They stood facing each other in the center of the gazebo, moonlight streaming in through the glass to rest upon them. The two of them stood very close together now, singing together, their voices blending perfectly.
"So somewhere in my youth…"
"Or childhood…" He chuckled as he sang this, smiled and touched her nose with his index finger in a teasing touch.
This caused her to smile, and she raised the hand he had just released to hold his again, between their hearts. "I must have done something…"
Then, suddenly, the need for each other grew exponentially. As they sang the final two words of the song – "Something good" – both released each other's hands; Georg's arms wrapped around her back, and Maria's hands rose up his shoulders so her arms wrapped loosely around his neck.
Not a second passed before the last words were sung and their lips met for a second time. In this kiss, there was more urgency, more hunger, but only just; Georg managed to restrain himself from deepening it, not wanting to frighten or overwhelm his love, even though her responses made every cell in his body rejoice.
Maria felt no fear as their lips met a second time, and joyed in this urgent kiss, gladly surrendering to him as her heart took over. If all of this was only a wonderful dream – this seemed the most logical explanation in her mind – then she never wanted to wake up. When he kissed her, she was glad their arms tightened around each other, for she felt her knees go weaker than ever so she almost rested against him.
When the kiss ended, their faces remained very close together, their arms not loosening, not wanting to let go yet – or ever, for that matter. The only sounds that could be heard for a while were the crickets chirping, a soft breeze rustling the trees, and their soft, mingled breaths.
"Maria?" Georg finally breathed, his lips brushing the skin of her cheek.
"Mm?" she replied, her eyes closed as her thumb absently brushed the skin of the back of his neck; she wasn't even aware she was doing it – but he sure was.
As his lips traveled up her cheek, across her temple, and to her soft hair, he spoke softly: "Is there anyone that I should go to to ask permission to marry you?"
Maria gave a silent gasp at his words, and lifted her head so that she could look into his eyes. Their noses touched each other as their eyes met.
A small smile formed on her lips as she replied dreamily, "Well, why don't we ask –"
"The children?" he finished with her, and they both laughed softly as their smiles widened.
When their mutual laughter faded, Georg took a moment to look deeply into her eyes, which seemed to be dancing with light. Needing to gather himself for a moment after hearing her answer, Georg leaned forward and rested his forehead against hers, still holding her to him. A great part of him wanted to ask her properly to be his wife, then and there. But he kept his mouth shut; there were things he needed to do first, such ask talk to the children and find an engagement ring for her. He wanted to do everything properly, so she would have no doubt in her mind about his intentions.
For tonight, he just wanted to be with her, to make up for the pain he had caused her today. Remembering something she had said tonight, Georg got an idea. He lifted his head to look at her. "Will you help me do something?"
"Of course," said Maria automatically, looking curious. Gently, Georg unwrapped his arms from around her and took her own hands from around his necks. He took one of them and led her out of the gazebo. He remained silent, so Maria did too. His question about speaking to anybody for permission to marry her kept playing in her head. Marry me? He really wants to marry…me?
Maria felt Georg squeeze her hand, making her realize she had been lost in thought. She looked at him, and he gave her a reassuring, loving smile. Maria smiled back, holding his hand a little tighter, willing this to be real. She decided that tonight, she was not going to wonder or worry about that. She trusted him.
Georg led Maria to the edge of the lake. She looked at him inquisitively, and he looked back at her adoringly. He reached a hand inside his jacket, and from the inside pulled out something. She saw the silver of his whistle gleam in the moonlight.
Still holding her hand, he offered her the whistle and nodded his head towards the lake. "Get rid of this for me?"
She was surprised for a moment, but then she smiled and took the whistle from him. "Yes, sir," she replied with a little salute; once it had shocked him, now it made him laugh.
Maria let go of his hand and took a step closer to the lake. She took a deep breath, and threw the whistle as hard as she could. Both watched the little shining object fly and then fall into the lake with a distant splash.
When Maria turned her head to look back at Georg, he was smiling knowingly at her. "That felt good, didn't it?"
Maria chuckled and said, "Yes, quite a lot, actually."
Georg smiled at her and then sighed. "I should have asked you to do that the day I came back from Vienna. I suppose I just…forgot about it when I heard the children singing."
She returned his smile, and walked back towards him. "That was something I hoped would happen…You should have a chance to do the same."
Georg looked at her curiously, and watched as she pulled something out of the hidden pocket of her dress. He gasped slightly when he saw what it was. "Why on Earth did you keep it?"
Maria lowered her head and looked at the identical silver whistle, its black cord still wrapped around it. "My first day here, one of the first things I did when I came to my room was throw this into the back of the drawer of my bedside table. There it lay until the night of the party…I didn't realize I had taken it with me to the abbey until I got there…It hasn't been out of my reach since…This was the only thing I had to remember you by… My mind wanted to forget you, but my heart couldn't let you go completely…" Maria only realized all of this was true as she spoke the words. Her cheeks were burning and she dared not take her eyes off the whistle.
Georg felt his heart overflow as he listened, hearing how vulnerable her voice had become. He could tell that it would take some time for Maria to be truly comfortable with him, and he resolved to do everything he could to make her feel at ease. So, he reached out and gently cupped her cheek, lifting her face so he could meet her gaze. "I hope that soon you will have something better to remember me by."
Maria gave a trembling smile, blinked hard and steadied herself. She took his hand from her cheek and placed the whistle onto his open palm. "It's served its purpose, then. Now it's your turn."
Georg took the whistle, and stepped to the edge of the lake. He looked down at the whistle in his hands, its angle causing the moonlight to reflect off it brightly. This reflection was the opposite of what he saw in Maria's eyes. Her eyes had a soft, warm, comforting yet radiant glow; all this object had was a cold, steely reflection with no life. Just like he had been. Georg's hand formed a fist, closing around the whistle until he could feel the metal almost cut into his skin.
With a strength and fury he didn't know he possessed, Georg threw back that hand suddenly and threw the whistle as hard as he could into the lake; it was a powerful throw that went much farther than Maria's throw, and both of them gasped at how far it went and how hard it hit the water. Georg took some deep breaths, his hands balled into fists, for he didn't realize how much he'd wanted to do that. In that action, he had poured out all of his disgust and anger with himself for his past actions, and how much he wanted to change it.
Maria could sense all of this in his passionate action, and watched him stand tense and even shaking a little. Ever since the day of the rowboat incident, he'd done his best to make up for his behavior. The children had forgiven him, but he hadn't forgiven himself.
Prepared for a recoil or a wish to be alone, Maria stepped forward to stand by Georg's side. Hesitantly, Maria stepped around him and slipped her arms around his back, and pulled him to her for an embrace, resting her head on his chest. Relief flooded through her as she felt him relax and his arm wrap around her. She rested her ear over his heart and closed her eyes in contentment. She hadn't realized until now how long she had wanted to be in his arms.
Georg was brought back to reality when he felt her embracing him. Immediately, he relaxed under her touch and embraced her slender frame, holding her securely to him. He rested his cheek against her hair and closed in eyes in perfect peace.
Though no words were spoken by either in this silent embrace, they could understand each other completely. After everything they had been through, this moment was the perfect healing balm.
Eventually, the moment ended when a cool, night breeze from the lake hit the couple. Despite herself, Maria shivered when the cold air hit her; he was more suitably dressed for this temperature than she was.
Georg felt it and pulled his head back to look at her, keeping his arms securely around her. "Why don't we go inside, where it's warm?"
While Maria couldn't deny that being inside would be nice, she was feeling anything but sleepy. It felt like a battle to speak her next words through her blush. "I…I don't want to leave you yet."
Georg smiled at her in happiness. "Did I say I wanted to let you go now? I'm merely saying we should go inside, where you can be warmer."
Another hesitation came to Maria's mind, and made her feel quite self-conscious indeed. "But, what about Herr Dettweiler and the Baroness?"
"Max has retired for the night, and the Baroness left for Vienna just before I found you," replied Georg. "Just us two tonight, I promise."
Finally, Maria felt reassured, and closed her eyes in contentment as her Captain kissed her temple. He wrapped an arm securely around her shoulders as he led her back towards the villa. Maria still felt a little chilly, so she wrapped her bare arms around herself. But Georg's arm was warm around her, and gave her enough confidence to let her head fall on Georg's shoulder. A smile flitted across her face as she felt Georg kiss the top of her head in response to her action.
The two of them walked at a leisurely pace back to the villa, and came in through the veranda. Georg had to drop his arm from around Maria in order to lock the back doors. When that was done, he turned back to his love, who was standing by the stair and clutching her hands. She looked at him uncertainly, as if to say, Where to?
Georg smiled at her, and took her hand. "This way," he said, nodding his head towards the stairs that led down to the main hall. He led Maria across the hall to a door near the kitchen. It led to a small hallway she had never been inside before. At the end was a plain white doorway which Georg opened with a small brass key. Maria realized that, since he was using a key, this was one of his private rooms.
"Please come in," he said, opening the door and again smiling at her. Maria went in slowly but without hesitation; she knew that her Captain, a man of honor, would never put her in a position that compromised her.
Georg turned on a lamp and Maria gasped as the room came into light. The room was relatively small, compared with the other rooms on the first floor, but it was by far the most beautiful that she had seen yet. Nearly every part of the wall was covered in full bookshelves, housing beautiful leatherbound books and also treasures from different places Georg had been. There was a dark-wood, beautifully crafted desk and chair, and a plush wine-colored sofa before a small fireplace. A small bar was nearly hidden in the corner by the large window, which was covered with the drapes matching the sofa. A beautiful Oriental rug covered most of the carpet.
"Oh, my…" Maria breathed, stepping in a bit further as she looked around. "And what is this room called?" She'd been in his office before, but that was near the ballroom, and was certainly not as beautifully or lovingly decorated as this room.
"Formally, this is my private study, but perhaps the correct term is my sanctuary," said Georg, leaning against the doorway. "I am extremely selective about who I choose to bring in here."
His tone was tender and serious, rather than light and teasing. Maria heard this and turned to face him. "I'm honored, Captain."
Georg pursed his lips for a moment, and then changed the topic. "By some divine miracle, there are two sliced left to the strawberry rhubarb pie we had for dessert. Why don't I go and get them? I noticed you didn't eat too much at dinner."
Maria was thankful that his tone was not reprimanding, and felt embarrassed that he had noticed that sign of her depression. "I'm sorry, I…I didn't have much of an appetite."
Georg's eyes glowed with love for her, and stepped up to her. He took one of her hands, and lifted his free hand to stroke her cheek. "Understandable," he said compassionately. "And I'm sorry for that."
Maria shook her head. "It's all right. My appetite is back now, and that pie sounds delicious."
His smile returned, his thumb still stroking her cheekbone. "And when I come back, will you please not call me Captain?"
Maria blushed a bit and nodded. She bit her lip nervously, and then went on her tiptoes a bit so she could kiss his right cheek. It was warm and freshly-shaved smooth. Looking into his eyes again, she said softly, "I'll be here."
Georg felt his heart fill a little bit more, even though it was already filled to the brim with love for her. In acknowledgement of her gesture, Georg leaned forward and kiss her own blushing cheek. "Good," he said, before squeezing her hand, letting it go and walking out of the private study.
Once he was gone, Maria let out a long big breath and brought her hands to her cheeks. "Oh, my goodness…" she squeaked through her smile, her mind whirling as she thought over everything that had happened since she had last been alone. She twirled on the spot and giggled softly, now pressing her palms to her heart that was beating so fast.
Afraid that she might start singing for joy at the top of her lungs – thereby waking the entire household – Maria decided to distract herself by looking around this truly beautiful room. Having had the love of literature passed down and nourished by her father before he had died, Maria was as happy as a clam as she scanned the books on the shelves. When she came to his desk, she turned her attention to the pictures that stood by the lamp. She smiled at the photographs of the children she saw, especially one of a four-year-old Kurt holding a baby Marta.
Maria gasped and jumped a bit, and saw Georg coming back into the room, holding a plate with a dripping pie slice and fork in each hand.
"Oh, no, I was just looking at the photographs, I'm sorry –"
"Maria, I would not have brought you here if there were anything I wanted to keep from you," said Georg, walking to the couch and motioning for her to come there, too. Maria did, feeling relieved and embarrassed for her reaction. She took one of the pie slices from Georg and sat beside him on the sofa.
They ate their pie in relative silence, but it was a comfortable silence in which they exchanged shy smiles and looks. Besides, neither wanted to talk with their mouth full and embarrass themselves. Maria finished her slice just before he did, unaware until then just how hungry she had been. "Oh, my compliments to the cook," said Maria, setting her fork down. "I've always loved strawberries best of the fruits."
"Mm," said Georg, in the process of chewing and swallowing his last piece of pie. "They are delicious, but I've always been more partial for blueberries, but it's a bit to early for blueberry pie." He finished with a chuckle that turned into a laugh.
Maria smiled at the sight of him laughing. "What's so funny about blueberry pie?"
Georg wiped his eyes and looked at Maria, still smiling. "I just remembered a little talk I had with the children this afternoon. They had disappeared for most of the afternoon, and came back late for dinner. The excuse they came up with was berry-picking, despite the fact that they came back with no berries to show for it. Their explanation was that they had ate them all, but the funniest part of their explanation was when I asked what type of berries they'd picked. Friedrich said blueberries, but when I pointed out that it was too early for blueberries, he said that they were strawberries that hat turned blue because it had been so cold lately!"
Now Maria laughed, her smile as wide as it ever got as she closed her eyes and let her head fall back against the sofa. "B-blue st-t-trawberries?" she managed to sputter through her laughter. She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye as she calmed down. "Oh, those dear children…I should have known that they wouldn't tell you where they'd gone."
"The abbey?" said Georg, who had found the sight of her laughter without abandon so beautiful. "I had guessed as much, for I knew they missed you and would not have lied to me about anywhere else they would go."
Maria nodded. "The Reverend Mother told me they had come to see me, but I was in seclusion then so I didn't know…" Her voice faded as she thought of those lonely days she had spent in seclusion, trying to both define and deny her feelings for this man sitting beside her.
Georg watched Maria fall into silence, and wondered what she meant by 'seclusion,' concluding that it meant some kind of isolation from others. Not wanting her to fall into melancholy, he reached out a hand and gently touched her cheek. This caused Maria to turn her head back to him, but when she saw his face, she giggled. "What?"
Maria pointed to his chin. "You've got a bit of strawberry right there." Without thinking twice, Maria reached out and rubbed it away with her thumb, her other fingers grazing his jaw. Maria's actions slowed when she realized she was touching his face for the first time. She froze somewhat, not sure what to do or if what she was doing was even acceptable; she had done what had felt natural to her at the time.
Georg, however, found what she was doing very acceptable, for he took that hand and kissed her fingers tenderly. "Thank you," he said softly.
Maria blushed and lowered her head, feeling like she needed to clear it a bit. For, as wonderful as everything was, it was still unfamiliar. Remembering the empty plates and forks still in their laps, she found the perfect excuse. Taking Georg's, she said, "Here, I'll just take these back to the kitchen and clean them up. I'll be right back, I promise." She said this last sentence as she stood up from the sofa holding both plates. She didn't want Georg to think she was making a run for it or do something like that.
Georg, however, merely nodded and gave her a gentle smile. She returned it before walking out of the study. When he was alone in the room, Georg sighed to himself and got up from the sofa. He realized that this new, shy Maria was as new to her as it was to him. It could take some time before she became truly at ease and comfortable with him, as far as the physical aspect of their relationship was concerned. Georg found comfort in the fact that this was most likely due to her inexperience rather than any fear she may have of him. But Georg resolved to do everything in his power to make her feel at ease and never give Maria any reason to fear him.
So, getting a sudden burst of inspiration, Georg took off his blazer and tie. Besides the fact that he was now more comfortable, he wanted to show Maria his true self, a real man who didn't always dress and act so formally. He wanted her to see, not the Captain her employer, but Georg the man who loved her.
After throwing his blazer and tie onto his desk, Georg started a fire in the fireplace. Once it was crackling merrily, Georg went to the phonograph nearly hidden behind his desk, and picked one of beautiful piano pieces, which he put on at a low volume. When that was done, he went back to the fireplace, stood in the firelight, and waited for her return.
Maria came back about a minute later, having washes the dishes and put them back where they belonged. After closing the door behind her, she was surprised to hear the soft music, see the fireplace in use, and most of all Georg standing in the firelight, now smiling at her. She took in his new appearance, and found that he looked wonderful, more natural. She smiled back.
"Shocked that a tie is not part of my body's anatomy?" he teased.
Maria giggled. "Something like that."
Georg then held out a hand to her, and she looked at it with curious confusion. He explained: "We never got to finish our first dance."
Maria felt her heartbeat go quite a bit faster, but watched helplessly as her right hand rose and took his outstretched left hand. He gently pulled her close to him, and placed her left hand on his shoulder before settling his right hand on her waist. She felt that the heat from his hand burned through the fabric of her blue dress straight to her skin, and she was very aware of how close they were standing. "I must warn you," she said. "If you feel a pained pressure on your toes at any time, just remember you asked."
"I'll take my chances," said Georg, smirking.
"I once heard Herr Dettweiler joke that you would need to be threatened with death to voluntarily dance with anybody."
"Well, you are not just anybody," replied Georg logistically. "And besides, my preferred method of dancing requires no formal clothes, no intricate steps, and no audience. All we do is really shift our weight from from foot to the other, over and over." He began doing this slowly, and Maria easily followed him. "We turn ever so slowly." They began to turn clockwise leisurely. "See? No fuss, no trouble, just us."
Maria smiled and let her head rest on his shoulder, her eyes watching as he placed their joined hands over his heart. "Yes, this is the best way to dance…" she murmured, letting herself almost rest against them as they slowly swayed and turned to the music.
They remained silent for a while, just swaying and holding each other for a while and letting the rest of the world beyond this room disappear. This room could be out in space for all they knew. It was exactly what Maria needed: while she was kept in motion, as she always needed to be when she felt nervous or hesitant, she remained close to Georg, which she absolutely needed to be. Georg thanked God for the idea of dancing with her again, in much better circumstances, and the opportunity to hold her so close.
After a while, when they had truly become comfortable with each other and fallen into easy step, Maria tentatively broke the silence. "Georg?"
Georg felt a giddy, warm happiness run through him at the sound of his name from her lips. He looked down to meet her eyes with a smile. "Yes, my love?"
She blushed under this term of endearment, but remembered her question. "Why did you ask me to dance the night of the party?"
Georg thought about his answer for a moment before speaking. His left thumb stroked the back of her hand. "Well, there are two reasons: one I would admit to myself at the time, and one that I wouldn't. As much as I was amused watching you and Kurt trying to dance, I wanted to show the Laendler how the Laendler should be dance. It's always been my favorite Austrian folk dance."
Maria smiled at him. "Mine, too. I learned it in primary school for a festival, and it had been a long time since I'd danced it. What was the reason you wouldn't admit to yourself?"
"I wanted to be close to you," he admitted frankly. His gaze softened and warmed even more as they slowly swayed. "Maria, did I frighten you that night? Is that why you left?"
This was the third time that Georg asked Maria why she had left the night of the party, and for the first time Maria knew she could answer his question fully. But she didn't want to talk about the role that the Baroness played in it. For some reason, she didn't want to bring up her name tonight, a night that belonged only to the two of them. She had a feeling that Georg would get angry if he found out about the conversation the Baroness had with her that night, and she didn't want Georg angry tonight.
So she answered as honestly as she could without bringing Elsa's name up. "No, Georg. You didn't frighten me. It was my own feelings that frightened and confused me. When we stopped in our dance, and we looked at each other…I couldn't breathe, and I couldn't see anything but you…Not only could I not name what I was feeling, but I knew that, as a postulant, I shouldn't be feeling anything like that. So I left as quickly as I could, only just remembering to leave some kind of a note." Her eyes filled with tears of regret as she looked up at her beloved, pleading for forgiveness. "I am so sorry, Georg."
Georg shook his head before he lowered it to kiss away a tear that had escaped. "You did no worse than what I did."
Her eyes widened a bit. "What did you do?"
Georg brushed his lips against her forehead briefly before he spoke. "I discovered, even before the dance was over, that my feelings for you ran much deeper than mere friendship or affection. That, too, frightened me, for I didn't think it possible I could feel so deeply for somebody again, after all of the pain I had went through losing Agathe. Then, when I found you had gone…it felt as though God were slapping me in the face, lifting my hopes and then crushing them down, for I remembered that you were a postulant. So, therefore, I never had a chance. Deciding that the only reasonable course I could take was to go forward with marriage to Elsa, as I'd been planning to do long before I met you, I proposed.
"But when I told the children, and I saw their reactions – though they remained polite – I knew I'd made a terrible mistake. There was only one person who could fill the hole in all of our lives, and I was only making it worse by filling it with the wrong person. And then you came back that same day…" He kissed her temple. "Everything became clear when I saw you again; I couldn't deny my feelings anymore. When I saw that you had somehow closed yourself off from me, I let myself hope…I knew that I at least had to tell you how I felt, or I would regret it forever."
Maria listened to this with rapt attention. It relieved her somehow to know that he had gone through as much confusion and fear as she had, despite his experience or even because of it. She thought about the love stories she had read in books, and there seemed to be two categories: love threatened by outside forces, or love threatened by inner voices. Obviously, the two of them were of the latter category.
She sighed, resting her head on his shoulder again. "Why do people run from this?"
"I can only guess," said Georg softly, contemplating the question as seriously as Maria. "Perhaps we realize that we are being taken by a force much greater than us, and we are afraid to trust it and therefore try to resist it."
This made more sense to Maria than anything else she had read before about love. Now she wanted to tell Georg that, though she still felt insecure and shy about a lot of things, though she was going down an entirely new path she never thought she would travel, she was not so scared that she would run away again.
She stopped in their swaying, and lifted her right hand from his grasp so she could touch his cheek. Looking into his eyes, she said with all of her heart, "I love you."
Georg, too, stopped in their dancing upon hearing the sweetest words she ever could have given him. Wrapping both of his arms tightly around her, Georg leaned his head down and kissed her, starting slowly and then growing more passionate than ever before. Maria responded on instinct, letting both of her hands cup his face now. Her mouth opened naturally, and Georg couldn't help but deepen the kiss, the need to taste her overwhelming him. But when their tongues met, Maria unconsciously stiffened in his arms and Georg immediately gentled and ended the kiss.
Maria's face was flushed red, her breathing was heavy, and she dropped her hands and eyes from his face, overwhelmed and surprised. Wanting to put her at ease again, Georg rested her head on his chest and held her in a comforting embrace. "Forgive me, love," he said. "Hearing you say those words almost made me forget to control myself."
He felt Maria shake her head. "No, no, don't apologize," she said, her voice still a bit breathless from the kiss. "I…I liked it, and the fact that I liked it was what surprised me. I didn't even know that people…Is that, um, normal?"
Georg chuckled and kissed her head. He realized fully just how innocent she was in terms of love, especially the physical aspect. Well, he vowed to himself that he would guide her as best he could and not frighten her away. "For people in love and who want each other, it is completely natural and normal. But Maria, never be afraid to tell me if I'm going too fast or do anything that you are not wholly comfortable with yet."
Maria lifted her head so she could meet his gaze. "I promise I will, but I want you to know that I trust you. I wouldn't have come back if I didn't. And, please let me know, in turn, if I make a mistake, since I am very new to all of his and I only want to make you happy."
Georg gave her a soft smile, and then gave her lips a soft and gentle kiss which she gladly returned. "The fact that I have the trust and love of the woman I am in love with is enough to keep me happy for ten lifetimes."
Hearing this, Maria smiled and hesitantly reached up her hand towards his hair. "May I?" she asked.
Georg smiled excitedly. "Yes, ma'am."
Maria giggled briefly, and then raised her hand to touch his dark hair. It was thick, just as she expected, but soft as well. Gently, she combed her fingers through it. Georg closed his eyes, loving her gentle touch. Though Maria loved his hair and how it was always so neatly combed back, a favorite memory of hers spurred the young woman on in her mission. Gently, she combed his hair with her fingers until the front locks fell forward onto his forehead. She smiled at the result and gently caressed his cheek.
"Do you know for how long I've wanted to do that?" she asked, a new confidcnce about her but still a bit shy.
"Please enlighten me," said Georg. He took her hands and led her to the sofa in front of the roaring fire. Their hands remained joined after they sat close together.
"You remember that day when you were playing a ball game with the children after your first picnic with us?" asked Maria.
Georg laughed and rubbed the back of his neck. "Ah, yes, I do. I also remember you couldn't stop laughing when the little ones tackled me to the ground." He tapped the tip of her nose again, a pouting smile on his face.
Maria just looked innocently taken aback, but her eyes gleamed mischeviously. "Well, it was impossible not to laugh at such a sight."
Georg laughed again and kissed her cheek. "Sorry for interrupting, darling, please continue."
"Well, after I finally finished laughing, I saw the result of the tackle, including how messy your hair had become. The sight was…very endearing to me. Ever since them, every time I saw you, I had the urge to mess up your hair again."
"Well, you have express permission to touch my hair any time that you want," said Georg. "And I'm glad to know this feeling is mutual. For the longest time, I've wanted to run my fingers through your hair…may I?"
Maria nodded, and Georg raised a hand to her head. He slipped his fingers into and through her silken golden strands, as he've wanted to for longer than he dared admit. Maria leaned into the touch and closed her eyes, much like a purring kitten. When she opened her eyes, Maria saw that Georg was now leaning back against his corner of the sofa with his arms outstretched to her. Maria gladly went to him, resting her head on his chest as his arms wrapped around her slim frame.
As the two of them lay on the sofa, silent and in each other's embrace, Maria watched the dancing fire. She felt so warm now, thanks to that and her love's embrace. As Maria listened to his steady heartbeat beneath her ear, the reality of all that had happened washed over her. Just a few hours ago, she had been so lost and sad about everything. And now she had found happiness.
"Can we do this every night?" asked Maria softly.
"Of course," said Georg, kissing her head. "I've wanted this for a very long time, to have you all to myself and in love."
Maria smiled and snuggled against his chest. But one insecurity remained, and she knew that if she didn't voice it now, it would just grow like a poison inside of her. "Georg?" she whispered.
"Hm?" His hand rubbed her back.
"Are you sure?"
His hand paused. "About what?"
Georg put a finger underneath her chin and lifted her face. Looking into her eyes, he asked softly, "Why on Earth wouldn't I be?"
"First, I'm a dirt-poor mountain girl. Second, I'm a failed postulant. Third, I know as much about the upper-class as I do about South America. I want to be a credit to you, Georg, not a stain on your family's name." The words were very difficult for Maria to say, but she forced them out.
Georg listened to all of this sadly, and was determined to get these silly thoughts out of Maria's mind. "Maria, you could never be a stain on my family's name. This wouldn't even be a family anymore had you not come into our lives. I would still be a shadow of a man, empty, hurting, and alone…but you saved me, my love. You've saved all of us. And now that I know you love me too…how could I ever regret being with you, my angel?"
Maria's eyes filled with tears at his words. "Oh, Georg…" she whispered, looking into his eyes. Georg immediately captured her lips with his, both to keep her from crying and to reassure her that he meant what he said. The kiss was strong but still innocent, for Georg did not want to make her uncomfortable or unsure again.
When their lips parted, Georg caressed her cheek. He had an insecurity that he needed to voice, as well. "And you, Maria? Are you sure? Your whole life would change if you chose to stay with us. Everything would be different for you, and I wouldn't want you to regret leaving your life at the abbey."
After hearing this, Maria looked at him silently for a long moment before she spoke quietly but with resolution. "When I left, I expected to come home to the abbey. Only when I came to the abbey did I realized that I had left home behind. And by home, I mean with the children and with you. I know that a lot of things will change, but I'll be home. How can I regret coming home?"
With that, Maria rested her head back on his chest and held him tighter. His embraced tightened around her as well, and both fell into comfortable silence, holding each other and watching the fire…
Georg hadn't quite kicked the navy habit of waking with the dawn, even after retiring. So, when five o'clock came, he woke up, albeit slowly. The first sensations he became aware of were very pleasant ones, such as the scent of the woman he loved and a soft, warm body in his arms. His vision clearing, he saw that the fire in the grate had shriveled down to dying embers, and thereby discovered that he and Maria had fallen asleep.
Maria…she was still asleep in his arms, her head on his chest, wearing her blue dress. Then last night hadn't been a part of his wonderful dreams…He smiled sleepily and kissed the crown of her head.
His shifting and kiss brought Maria out of her sleep. She softly groaned and rubbed her eyes before opening them. She stayed still, aware of being wrapped in something wonderful and warm. Inhaling, she could smell the scent of Georg, and she could hear his beating heart. Blushing, she realized that she had fallen asleep, and raised her head to look at Georg.
When she saw he was awake and looking at her, she didn't know what to say. A fresh blush filled her cheeks, and she could barely see him in the dark room except for his glittering eyes.
He, in turn, saw her glowing ones in the dim pre-dawn light coming in from the window. "Good morning," he said, his voice husky from sleep and love.
"Good morning," replied Maria, enraptured by his eyes and still sleepy. "Am I still dreaming?"
Georg smiled. "If you are, then we're sharing this dream, my love."
Maria smiled back, but only for a second before she gave a big yawn that she couldn't quite hold back. "Sorry," she mumbled, trying to keep her eyes open. "What time is it? How long did we sleep?"
"Just before dawn," said Georg, looking at her closely. "You're still tired." Georg brushed some hair off her forehead. In his mind, which was more alert than hers given his experience, he formulated a plan. "Why don't you go back up to your room and sleep for a while longer?"
Maria fought to open her eyes. "What about the children? They'll be waking up soon."
"Don't worry, I'll get them up," said Georg, stroking her hair. "I want to talk to them alone. After what happened with the Baroness, I have to make it up to them. And I'll ask for the permission I need, too," Georg finished with a smile and a kiss on the tip of her nose. He helped her get to her feet and walked her to the door.
She stopped them at the door. Her eyes were still half-closed, but she was relatively alert. "I can make it on my own now, Georg…I don't know who else is up and walking around."
"Sleep for as long as you want," said Georg, rubbing her arms.
Maria managed to open her eyes fully, and looked up at him with love. "Thank you."
"What for, love?" asked Georg, wrapping his arms around her.
Maria smiled. "That, for one…and for finding me last night."
Georg leaned his head down and kissed her lips lingeringly, savoring the sensation as Maria responded, her hands rising to his shoulders. When their lips finally parted, Maria smiled and touched his cheek.
Georg kissed her palm. "I'll see you soon."
Maria nodded, reassuring. "Yes, you will." It took all of Maria's willpower to step back from his loose hold and withdraw her hand from his face. Before she closed the door between them, they exchanged one more smile.
She practically floated back to her room, a dreamy smile on her face. That smile remained as she slipped out of her dress, into her nightgown, and between her sheets. She was peacefully asleep just before the sun rose.
After Maria left him, Georg felt anything but tired. He'd never felt so refreshed and so pleasantly energized. He had a sudden impulse to run out of the villa, strip off his clothes and jump into the lake from joy. He'd done it before, when he'd been younger even than Maria, except it had been into the Mediterranean in Greece with a bunch of other cadets; they'd been celebrating their victory and safe docking.
However, Georg knew that now would not be a good time to follow that particular impulse, so he decided to compromise. When he was sure Maria was back to her room, Georg left and locked his private study and went to his own chambers (he had to refrain from whistling happily). There he changed into his swimming trunks, and then went outside for a good swim in the lake. He always did this on mornings that were not cold, and it kept him in very good shape considering his age and retirement. After his swim, he took a shower, shaved, and changed into a light suit before going to wake up the children.
Maria had once told him that Marta was a very early riser, which meant that he had passed down this gene to her. So he went to the little girls' room first, and opened the door quietly. He found Gretl still sound asleep, snuggled with her favorite doll Hedwig. But Marta was sitting up in her bed, her blanket in her lap, and an open book before her. She was reading carefully from the picture book, silently mouthing the words as she followed along with her finger. Georg smiled at the sight, and made his presence known with a "Psst!"
At the sound, Marta immediately lifted her head and her eyes found her father. She smiled widely, and her father did the same as he quietly approached her. "Good morning, my sweet heart," he whispered, kissing Marta's head.
"Good morning, Father," said Marta, her smile showing her missing front tooth. "Do you wake up early, too?"
"Oh, yes," said Georg, sitting on the side of her bed and wrapping an arm around her. "All my life, I've been a bit of an early riser, so never fear. This is an inherited trait."
"I'm happy I'm not the only one," said Marta, snuggling against her father. Suddenly she gasped and looked up at Georg. "Father, where is Fraulein Maria? She is the one who comes and wakes us up. Is she…gone?"
"No, Marta," said Georg reassuringly. "She's still sleeping. I told her she could have the morning off after the journey she made yesterday. So don't worry, she's still here."
The scared expression on Marta's face melted into relief, and she snuggled closer to her father. "Can you ask her to please never leave again? I want her to stay forever."
Georg didn't want to tell Marta before his other children, but he also knew that she was one of the few of them who could keep a secret. Looking into Marta's hazel eyes, he said, "So do I, little one; I promise I will do all that I can."
This reassured Marta and she smiled again. "Will you finish reading me this story before everyone else gets up, Father?" she asked; with six siblings, Marta savoured every moment alone with her father.
"Of course," said Georg, getting on the bed beside her and taking the book. "Which princess are you reading about this time?"
"Beauty and the Beast."
A little over an hour later, Georg was leading all seven of his children downstairs to breakfast. It had been quite an adventure, getting them all out of bed, cleaned and dressed. He found himself wishing that he had asked for a warning from Maria about what to expect. Thankfully, he was in a good mood and Georg always enjoyed a challenge when in a good mood.
When the eight of them all sat down at the breakfast table, Georg asked Liesl if she would say 'grace' for everybody. But Liesl hesitated, and the seven siblings exchanged looks of surprise of confusion. Their Uncle Max always slept in, and their father told them to let their Fraulein sleep in this morning, but what about the Baroness?
"Father," said Liesl, speaking for her siblings as well as herself. "Should we not wait for the Baroness to come down?"
Georg unfolded his napkin and settled it on his lap casually as he spoke. "She returned to Vienna last night, children."
The children exchanged another surprised look. "When will she be coming back, Father?" asked Friedrich.
"I'm afraid she won't be," said Georg, looking at his children. "We called off our engagement." Seeing all of his children looking not only more surprised but also very curious, he said in a final but gentle tone, "I'll explain everything after breakfast, children. But, for now, let's say the prayer and eat. You'll learn everything soon."
After breakfast, Georg led his children into the drawing room where he had sung 'Edelweiss' to them for the first time. When all of the children had taken seats around him, Georg sat down, folded his hands and began.
"I want to apologize to all of you. When I asked Elsa to marry me, I did not do it for the right reasons. The truth is, I'd been planning to ask her to marry me for quite a few months, but not because I thought she would make a good mother to you all or because I loved her…because, in fact, I don't. That is why we called off the engagement; it should never have been done, and I'm sorry."
Brigitta was the first child to speak after the moment of silence following their Father's short speech. "It's all right, Father, if this is really what you think is best."
"I do," said Georg, before he took a deep breath. "That having been said…you should know that there is someone that I would like to marry."
Now the children looked even more surprised, but Liesl and Brigitta both got sparks of hope in their eyes. "Oh, really, Father?" asked the eldest, the smallest of smiles on her lips.
"Yes," said Georg, who couldn't help but feel a little nervous. "But I will need your permission first."
"Do we know who she is?" asked Brigitta, her smile showing now too.
Georg returned her smile, feeling relief that at least some of his children seemed to know where he was getting at and didn't seem to object to it. "Yes, you do. You know her very well. She is, I realize now, the only person who could complete our family and make it truly happy."
Now nearly all of the children were smiling hopefully at their father. Louisa simply couldn't contain the question: "Is it Fraulein Maria, Father?" The little ones gasped hopefully hearing this, now understanding like their older siblings.
Georg let his smile relax and widen. "Yes. I would like your permission to marry her, so we can keep her with us forever."
All of the children gave joyful exclamations, and those closest to him reached for an embrace, the others following after. Georg felt relief beyond measure that this was their reaction to the news; he hadn't realized how nervous he'd been until now, for if the children had not reacted positively, he was sure he would not know what to do.
Liesl was the last to embrace him tightly, and when they broke apart, she asked, "Do you love her, Father?"
"Yes, Liesl," he replied sincerely. "I love her very much."
Liesl appeared satisfied, and Brigitta laughed. "Of course you do, Father! And she loves you back! It's so obvious, especially when you two danced the night of the party." Most of the other children nodded in agreement.
Georg just couldn't help but laugh at his middle daughter, and he recalled the words that his love had once shouted at him in a justified rage: She notices everything.
"Well," he said happily. "Now that I have the permission and approval I need, all that remains is to ask her!"
"She'll say yes," said Brigitta knowledgeably.
"Are you sure?" asked Kurt. "We can't lose her, she's too important."
"Yes," said Gretl. "I love her so much that to me she is a mother."
"It's the same with all of us, Gretl," said Liesl, stroking Gretl's long hair.
"Ask her soon, Father," pleaded Marta, taking his hand. "Ask her today, please?"
"That's exactly what I plan to do," said Georg. "But I'm going to need your help."
The children all nodded and gave their promises to help all they could; they gathered around their father as he began to describe his plan.
It was nearly lunchtime when Maria finally woke up. After so many troubled nights and days, Maria had truly needed a long night – and morning – of peaceful, deep, healing sleep. So, when she finally woke up, she felt refreshed and very content. When she opened her eyes, the first thing she saw was something glowing on her night table in the light of the late morning sun: a little bunch of edelweiss flowers.
Maria reached out and took the flowers. Smelling their sweet scent, Maria realized who must have put them there as memories of the previous night all came back to her.
So it really wasn't a dream after all…Smiling and still smelling the flowers, Maria closed her eyes and gave a silent prayer of gratitude to God before getting up.
When she got out of bed, she saw the time on the little clock in her room and gasped. She couldn't remember the last time she had ever slept so much of the morning away, but she remembered Georg's words last night: Sleep for as long as you want…She also remembered him saying that he would get the children up and talk to them alone, about them…
Maria suddenly felt very nervous as she washed and changed for the day. How would the children react to this new relationship between her and their father? Would they want this at all? A governess was one thing…a new mother was another.
Knowing that no good would come of worrying herself into a state, Maria focused on getting herself ready for the day. Her stomach was full of butterflies at the thought of seeing Georg again, in the light of day, with their feelings revealed and acknowledged. Maria chose to wear the dress she had worn to the party, and she knew that was no coincidence. Taking a deep breath, Maria left her room and went to go find the children.
The big house was quiet, so it took a while for Maria to find them. Finally, she found the seven children in their schoolroom, working at their daily lessons: Liesl was helping Gretl with her alphabet, Brigitta was reading her French novel quietly by the window, Friedrich and Louisa were working on their arithmetic problems together, and Kurt was drawing with Marta.
"Glad to find you all so busy and productive this morning," she said with a smile, leaning against the doorway.
All seven children looked up and smiled at her, exclaiming her name joyously. The little ones all went to hug her and kiss her.
"Well, what a wonderful way to be greeted!" said Maria, looking down at the little ones. "Is this just because I slept in and let you all have the morning free – though I'm glad to see you put it to good use."
"You're glad we did our lessons on our own?" asked Marta, looking up at her hopefully.
"Very glad!" said Maria, rubbing Marta's head affectionately. "I wish you were all so eager to do your studies every day!"
"Well, now we're finished," said Liesl, approaching her with a smile. "Father had an errand to run in town, but he asked us all to meet him at your spot near your mountain for a picnic."
Maria wanted to ask if Georg had talked to them yet, but decided not to and just go along with whatever Georg had planned. "All right, why don't we all go pack up the picnic baskets?"
In a gesture that touched Maria, all seven children changed into their playclothes that she had made for them out of her old drapes. They had become almost a uniform for going to her mountain. The merry group of eight walked from the house, to Salzburg, to the train that would lead them to Maria's mountain.
And waiting for them at the end of the dirt road leading to Maria's spot, leaning against his elegant black car reading the paper, was Georg. He smiled at the sight of the children and Maria approaching.
"Father! Father!" they all shouted, rushing towards him happily. Maria came last, holding Marta's hand and also a picnic basket. Once she spotted Georg, her eyes never left him. And his gaze never wavered from hers once he spotted her. When she stopped in front of him, surrounded by the children, their beloved little ones seemed to fade a bit as they saw each other again in the bright light of day.
"Hello," he said, his melting half-smile on his face just for her and his voice deepening a timber.
"Hello," she replied, her voice a bit breathless as she returned with a tiny smile.
The sound of barely suppressed giggles made them both remember that they were not alone and break eye contact. All seven children were looking at them knowingly, trying to cover their smiles and silence their giggles. Blushing furiously, Maria tried to act normally, for she didn't even know how much Georg had told the children about her and their father.
"Well, Captain, thank you for waiting for us! I hope your errand in town was successful."
Georg almost chuckled at the forced formality in her tone, happy to know what it was trying to cover up. Playing along, he said, "Thank you, Fraulein, it was indeed a success. And I thought I might get lost trying to find the spot without your expertise, so I felt it wisest to wait for your arrival."
Now it was Maria who had to make an effort to suppress her giggles. "I'll lead the way, then. Spit-spot!" she exclaimed, beginning to walk – almost march – ahead, knowing that the children and Georg were all silently laughing along with her.
Oh, I feel so jittery and jumpy! This must be what a schoolgirl feels at her first dance, waiting for a boy to ask her for one.
Georg felt exactly the same kind of excited nerves, walking with his children behind Maria. I feel just like the nervous schoolboy again. Good Lord, I'm really going mad, aren't I?
Meanwhile, the seven children walking with him were all looking ahead at their governess, hopefully future mother, and wondering such things as When is he going to ask her? Will she say yes? What can we do to speed this process along?
This same aura of excited anticipation lay over the entire picnic. Even as the children merrily chattered with their newly-returned governess and beloved father, even as the both of them talked just as merrily with them, the gazes the two would share echoed the big question that had yet to be asked. However, there had never been a merrier or happier picnic among the family. Somehow everyone knew, even in the anticipation of the day, today marked the beginning of a much happier chapter in all of their lives than the previous one had been.
After eating a big lunch, the children all asked their father to play a ball game with them. Since the game required an even number of players, Liesl said to her governess, "Fraulein, why don't you go to your brook nearby? I know you like to collect the prettiest stones you can find there."
Maria was surprised, to say the least. Usually, when on her mountain, the children never let her out of their sight. There would always be at least one of them insisting she play with them, or help them, or talk with them. But perhaps the presence of their father – who had not been here with them before – was enough. Though Maria didn't want to go farther from him – just being near him soothed something in her – she decided to take advantage of this rare opportunity. Also, it would give Georg the opportunity to talk to the children…if he hadn't yet already.
"Why, thank you, Liesl, I will," said Maria, shifting her gaze from Liesl to Georg. "That is, if your father is sure he is up to it? I know how competitive you all can get."
Georg smirked at her teasing, and teased right back. "Oh, don't you worry about me, Fraulein. Where do you think they get that competitive nature? I intend to not only win but secure the sweetest prize imaginable."
Maria didn't know why she blushed at his words, but merely nodded and walked away in the direction of her brook. And she could have sworn she heard the children all beginning to whisper to their father about something…
"What are you waiting for?"
"Please, ask her now!"
"Hold on, children," said Georg, stopping his children's whispered orders. "You wanted to play a ball game, and we will play a ball game first. I have some nervous energy I need to get out of my system."
"You're nervous, Father?" asked little Gretl. "Why?"
Georg chuckled. "You all would be too, believe me. Now, let's play!"
Thankfully, the game was short but very energetic, and Georg felt a little more confident. Not that he really thought she would refuse him outright, but perhaps she would like more time, or he would get so tongue-tied that the question wouldn't come out. He still felt a bit nervous, but his children would not let him play another game, and practically pushed him in the direction that their governess had gone. He almost laughed, but he still felt nervous.
When Georg came over the crest of a little hill and heard the brook, he became even more nervous when he saw it. Maria was in a state of bliss, he could tell, in her own little world. She had taken her shoes off, and was skipping along some stones in the brook until she came to the bank closest to him. As she bent down to examine some rocks, she hummed to herself. Georg approached her slowly, quietly, and couldn't help but think of the previous night when he had approached her. How different she appeared now, but no less beautiful: then she had been melancholy, somber, at one with the moon and star light; now, the sun seemed to radiate from her as she hummed and moved lithely and happily.
Georg felt his stomach fill to the brim with dancing butterflies such as he hadn't felt in years. If he were about to jump off a cliff into the sea, he wouldn't feel any different than now.
Maria's humming ceased, and she nearly jumped as she turned around to find Georg nearby and watching her. She smiled at him. "They tired you out already?"
Her tease seemed to loosen his nerves, and he smirked. "No, I just decided that, right now, I would rather play with you instead." Just as he had hoped, Maria blushed, but he wanted to keep her at ease with him. "May I join you?" He indicated the brook.
"Of course," said Maria, and bent back down to dip her fingers into the shallow, clear water. "See how the sun reflects off the stones? I've done this since I was a child. I used to imagine, the way the sun sparkled off them in the water, that there were jewels hidden there, too."
Georg felt a smile spread across his face. She had just given him the perfect opening. Gathering all of his courage, Georg bent down and mimed taking something out of the water while his other hand took something out of his pocket and transferred it to his wet hand, his fist closing around it tightly. "I think I may have found one."
Maria turned around, eyebrows raised. Her eyes met Georg's as he walked towards her with an outstretched fist, the expression in his eyes one that took her breath away. When he stopped right in front of her, Maria managed to look down at his closed fist.
It opened and she gasped. Lying on his now flat palm was a gold ring, with a diamond surrounded by tiny sapphires and aquamarines. "Georg…" she breathed as she felt her voice fly away from her.
"It belonged to my grandmother," said Georg softly, watching her face as she looked at the object in his hand. "I went into town to get it out of a safe deposit box at the bank. I also spoke to the children this morning, and gladly gave me the permission I needed in order to do this." As he spoke the last words, Georg, still holding out the ring for her, got down onto his right knee.
"Oh!" Maria gasped as her eyes filled with tears and her fingers covered her mouth.
"Maria…will you marry me?" Georg asked. He had wanted to say more, about how much he loved her and how he would understand if she would want more time, but he could only ask the question that needed to be asked, pure and simple. He let his eyes speak the rest.
Overwhelmed, Maria closed her eyes as tears spilled down her cheeks. She knew her decision would change her life forever, and she listened to her heart's answer. It took less than a second. Maria opened her eyes and dropped her fingers, revealing her radiant smile. As she slid the proper finger through the beautiful ring Georg was now giving her, Maria looked into his eyes and exclaimed with all of her heart:
The most beautiful, radiant smile lit up Georg's entire face. Without warning, Georg got up, wrapped his arms around Maria's waist, and lifted her clean off the ground as he spun her around. Maria gave a shriek of laughter as she wrapped her arms around his neck, holding on for dear life. Soon they were both laughing joyously. Georg let her back down when the sound of the children's cheers nearby came to their ears. Of course they had been watching from a safe and nearly undetectable distance.
Maria blushed and buried her face on Georg's shoulder for a moment, while Georg simply laughed, waved for the children and exclaimed, "Come and welcome your mother!"
Like an avalanche, the children all rushed to them and nearly fought each other to hug and kiss Maria. More than a few happy tears fell as hugs and kisses were passed around, more from Maria than anybody.
"Now you will stay with us forever!" said Marta joyously as she hugged her mother.
"Yes, darling, forever and ever!" said Maria, kissing her dark head.
When the embracing had calmed, Georg said to the children, "All right, go back and clean and pack everything up."
The children groaned. "Do we have to?" groaned Kurt.
Georg raised an eyebrow at them. "Either that or you can watch while I thoroughly kiss your mother."
The boys and little ones went "Eeeeewwww!" while the older girls giggled before they all raced back to the picnic site.
Without further ado, Georg turned to Maria, smiling, and wiped the happy tears from her cheeks. Maria smiled too, her eyes shining brighter than the sun. "Oh, Georg, I'm so happy!"
"You get the happiness that you give, Maria," he said tenderly, now wrapping his arms around her, bringing her closer as his voice reflected the depth of his heart. "I love you so much."
"I love you too," she managed to say before Georg's lips crushed hers passionately.
And so their new lives began as their hearts became one. They held each other close and kissed passionately, conveying all of their happiness and love that destroyed all loneliness and pain of the past, with their children close by, the brook singing and the sun shining down upon them in blessing.
No sunrise could have been more beautiful.