Disclaimer: I own none of the characters in this work of fiction and receive no profits from this story.
Elsa woke from a long and sleepless slumber at nine o'clock. She regretted the hour as soon as she consulted the time; she'd missed the morning mass, and she knew that Georg valued those trips to the Abbey with his children. She shut her eyes once again and lamented that her headache had not subsided. The agony of her discomfort, however, was soon blunted when she remembered the events of the previous evening.
She'd fought sleep for over an hour as she replayed the images from Residenzplatz in her mind. Like most things, the scene grew worse as she devoted more attention to its reconstruction. The fire was brighter, the flames were bigger, and the voices were louder. She'd shut her eyes and her mind when she could bear no more thoughts of the evening, but still the sound of those voices followed her into her sleep. She woke with tears on her cheeks and realized that she'd slept with her hands in tight fists for most of the night. Her fingernails had embedded frantic half-moons into the meat of her palms. She stretched her fingers and endured the tension that poured through her body.
When she finally rose from her bed, she dressed with care. Though she'd washed away the soot and smoke before going to bed the night before, she took another bath and applied her makeup with a practiced hand. She savored a cigarette by the open window as she evaluated her wardrobe and marveled that the house should be so quiet at such an early hour.
She selected a peach suit that she'd ordered from Paris. As she fastened the buttons of her blouse, she remembered the day she'd made the purchase. Margarete Brunn was with her in the Paris salon when they selected the frock. Elsa remembered how her friend had marveled that the color should so perfectly match her hair and complexion. She smiled at the memory, but then she recalled that Margarete's husband had become an officer in the Third Reich. Elsa tried to picture Lukas Brunn, dressed immaculately in his Nazi uniform, at the villa's dining room table, but it was an image too fantastic to fathom. Georg would never allow it, and Elsa again realized that her friendship with Margarete and so many others would never again be the same.
She tried to set aside her thoughts and finally traveled downstairs for breakfast. She had not had dinner the night before, and the smell of pastry and coffee filled the villa. Frau Schmidt greeted her at the bottom of the stairs and explained that the Captain had joined the children for morning mass. Elsa was embarrassed that she had not attended the service, and she blushingly explained her lingering headache. Frau Schmidt sighed sympathetically.
"If I'd endured the evening you and the Captain faced last night, Baroness, I should have stayed in bed for a week."
Elsa appreciated the woman's humor and thanked her for keeping the breakfast warm, but she was distracted from pursuing her meal by the sound of a car in the driveway. It was much too early for the mass to have concluded, so Elsa lingered in the foyer as Frau Schmidt greeted their sudden visitor.
She was startled when she heard Herr Zeller's booming voice. Frau Schmidt explained that the Captain was not at home, but the man then insisted upon speaking with Baroness Schrader. Not wanting to leave Frau Schmidt in an uncomfortable position, Elsa walked to the door and assured the housekeeper that she could attend to the Captain's guest.
"Good morning, Herr Zeller."
"Baroness." He raised his arm in a brisk salute to Herr Hitler. Startled by the man's sudden appearance and the small squad of soldiers flanking his car, Elsa raised her arm to mirror the gesture, and she saw a satisfied smile curl across the man's lips. "You did not join the family in church this morning?"
"No, I'm afraid I woke with a headache. I hope to attend a service later this evening, instead."
"I'm sorry to hear that, of course, but I hope you will take a trip into town today. You must see how last night's celebration has energized Salzburg," he said. "I understand you and the Captain were able to see some of the festivities."
Elsa paled at the mention of the events at Residenzplatz, but she answered him with a blithe smile. "We did. It was unlike anything I've ever seen before."
"It demonstrates the vigor and enthusiasm of the new Austria. Something your fiancé will be proud to defend when he takes his place with the officers of the Third Reich, I'm sure." Herr Zeller seemed to notice her surprise and grinned mischievously. "Captain von Trapp has told you that he's received orders to report to Bremerhaven on Monday morning?"
"Certainly," she lied. "I'm only surprised that the news should be public knowledge by now."
"I keep an eye on everything, Baroness, including the Captain. Besides, Austria has been waiting for him to serve his country once again. I regret only that the Third Reich had to request his service when so many others have willingly volunteered."
Elsa recognized the curious mixture of disgust and satisfaction lurking beneath his words, and she struggled to maintain her charming facade. "I'm sure you can appreciate his hesitancy, Herr Zeller. After all, he is the father of seven young children."
"Sacrifices are demanded of us all in the pursuit of what is right."
She had no response to those words. Eager to see him leave, she nodded to his bodyguards and said, "I can certainly tell Georg that you called, Herr Zeller. I expect he and the children will be home within the hour, and I would not want to detain you."
"Very good, Baroness. I only came to give the Captain a gift. Perhaps you could convey it to him on my behalf?"
Herr Zeller turned to his bodyguards, and a young soldier stepped forward carrying a bolt of scarlet fabric. The bold angles of the swastika struck her attention, and she realized that they were giving Georg the Nazi flag. "Yours is the only home in the area without the flag," Zeller explained. "Since the Captain will now be representing the Third Reich, I thought it only appropriate to help him correct his error."
"Of course," she breathed. The next words stuck in her throat, but she knew that they must be spoken. "Thank you."
"If you'd like, one of my men will install it for you. After all, I know you are not feeling well today." The offer was a challenge. Elsa knew that he was inviting her to refuse, but she was certain that such a refusal would be catastrophic. Smiling tightly, she returned the flag to the young man and thanked Herr Zeller for the suggestion. The soldier hurried past her. She closed her eyes at the echoing sound of his boots on the tile and tried to imagine Georg's anger when he learned that a Nazi soldier had walked through his home.
A few moments later, the thunder of billowing fabric caught their attention, and the group on the front lawn looked up to see the flag floating down to hang over the door. It was large, and the bold colors were a stark contrast to the villa's pastoral landscape. Herr Zeller and his soldiers saluted the flag, and finally the man turned back to Elsa.
"Now all is right in Salzburg," he said with a humorless chuckle. "Please give the Captain my regards, and as I said, I do hope that you'll feel better soon." With a brisk nod, he turned to corral his men before finally returning to town.
She sighed deeply, releasing the breath she had not realized she'd been holding, but then she looked up at the flag. A breeze caught the corner of the material, and it waved above the door. She knew that it should be taken down, but she was intimidated by the force of Zeller's words. People were watching Georg and his home, and she'd heard what happened to those who disagreed with the new order.
Casting one more glance to the red wound above the door, she retreated into the house. Frau Schmidt asked if she needed any assistance, but Elsa only shook her head and hurried to the dining room. She said nothing when the housekeeper asked about the flag, and she wearily realized that she'd lost her appetite.
An hour later, Max entered the house. "That wasn't there when we left," he said in greeting, jerking his thumb towards the door.
"Herr Zeller and his men delivered it earlier this morning. It's a 'gift' for Georg."
The sharp sound of ripping fabric pierced the silence in the foyer. Max smiled thinly. "Well, we can tell him that Georg certainly received it."
For once, she did not enjoy his humor but met his gaze with a worried frown. "Max, they've been watching the house."
"I was afraid of that," he sighed. "I'm sure they'll also find out that Georg's likely planning a little bonfire of his own for that flag. He was steaming when we pulled into the front drive."
"I didn't know what else to do," she said wearily. "I knew he'd be angry, but there were soldiers and…" Her words failed her. She tried to regain her composure, but Max clutched her hand with a friendly smile.
"You did the right thing, my dear. Let Georg fight the monsters. His dear damsel should not dirty her hands by rattling swords against the enemy."
She wanted to reply, but then the door opened as the children walked into the foyer. The muffled sound of their footsteps filled the house as they hurried up the stairs, and Liesl offered the adults a feeble wave before scuttling Gretl towards the nursery. The upstairs door closed with a click, and Elsa turned back to Max. "I suppose I should find him."
"I suppose you should," he replied. "You tame Georg, and I shall prevail upon Frau Schmidt to tame my appetite."
Elsa shook her head at her friend's wit before stepping outside. She walked down the lane and finally heard Georg's voice emanating from the carriage house, but she hesitated when she realized that he was not alone.
Peering around the corner, she studied them for a moment without being detected. Georg stood next to the car. He gripped the door, and she noticed that the Nazi flag lay at his feet in two tattered pieces. Maria was beside him with her hand on his shoulder. She spoke softly in quiet counsel, and Elsa watched with bated breath as Georg's hand fell over the young woman's wrist. He kept his hold on her as he shut his eyes and took in all that she said. He craved her words and her presence, and he clung to her like a man seeking his salvation.
Elsa shrank in the doorway. She did not want to be caught spying on such a tender scene, but the brush of her heels against the pavement caught Maria's attention. The young woman looked up in surprise when she realized that Elsa had been watching them. She stepped away from the Captain with a blush on her cheek, and the loss of her touch drew Georg's attention to the doorway.
"Good morning, Baroness," Maria said softly.
"Good morning," she answered. "Max told me you might be out here."
Maria hurried away from the carriage house with a brief excuse about helping the children. Her absence left the couple alone in the drafty shadows of the garage. Elsa walked towards him, drawing her finger along the cool sleek edge of the car's hood. Georg collected the remnants of the flag and held them up as a silent question.
"Herr Zeller and his men brought it earlier this morning," she explained. "It's meant to celebrate your new office in the Third Reich's navy."
Georg scowled. "You heard?"
"Zeller told me. Apparently everyone in Austria knew except for me. Were you going to send me a postcard from Bremerhaven?"
"I only found out last night," he answered. "I was going to tell you this afternoon."
She nodded in understanding but noticed the circles beneath his eyes. "Georg, did you ever go to sleep last night?"
"Around two o'clock in the morning, yes," he replied. "I was up until all hours trying to decide what to do next."
"You don't plan to accept the position?"
He scoffed at the suggestion but shook his head soberly. "Surely you know that that is not an option, Elsa."
"But what else is to be done? Those men had guns this morning, Georg, and you know that two more families were arrested last week." She was terrified by the fear that gripped her body. It stifled her breath and clung at her heart, and she realized how vulnerable she was in the face of an uncertain future. "Think of the children-"
"How can I not think of the children?" His voice rose, and he raised his hands in empty frustration. "Two of Friedrich's classmates were bragging in church that they stoked the flames in the plaza. The father of one of Brigitta's friends was beaten in the streets last week on his way home from the market. My youngest girls don't understand why they can no longer play in the mountains, and I have no way of explaining that it's because I fear for their very safety in the place that they call home." He realized that he was talking briskly; he seemed to stumble on the words and gasped at their incredulity. "How is that worth fighting for?"
"So you'll simply send a polite telegram back to Herr Hitler declining the position?"
"No," he replied, ignoring her attempt at sarcasm. "That certainly will not do."
"Then what do you suggest, Georg?"
"We're leaving the country. Today."
She would not have been more surprised if he'd struck her. She'd certainly heard that many people were attempting to flee the country. Those without money and connections were rarely successful, and most ended up in the hands of the Nazi police. After that, their fates were the stuff of mysteries and rumors.
"But we're Austrians," she breathed, startled by the naïveté of her own words. "We've always been Austrians. How can we possibly…how can we leave?"
"This is no longer Austria. You saw what I saw last night."
"But to leave…our friends and our family are here, Georg. Our lives are in Austria." She recognized the steely resolve in his eyes, and in that reflection she discovered a different vein of the truth that she'd been ignoring for far too long. "My life is in Austria."
The simple substitution in pronouns surprised him, and he finally noticed the tear that fell down her cheek. She brushed her finger under her eyes, careful not to smear her makeup, but she was emboldened by the force of her own revelation. She summoned her courage and recognized that she might be losing him forever when she murmured, "Georg, are you in love with me?"
He wanted to lie to her. For the thousandth time in only one hundred days, he wished that he could look at her and promise that he loved her, but he was weary of denying the truth in his heart. He brushed his thumb against her palm and finally said, "No."
A few months earlier, his reply would have been a blow, but on this day, Elsa welcomed his confession with a smile. She loved him, but she knew that she was not in love with him, just as she knew that his heart belonged with Maria. In the breath of a single syllable, he freed them both from a future that had long felt like a prison sentence.
"Georg, please. We've spent far too much time being kind to each other and not nearly enough time being honest." She looked up at him as though seeing him for the first time. "I can't leave Austria. I know that it's the right thing for you and the children, but…it's simply not the right path for me." She held up a hand to stop him from interrupting. "I suppose I wish I were a stronger person, but I believe that things can get better here. My life is here, with my friends and…well, it's certainly no surprise that I belong in Vienna." They chuckled in spite of themselves. "I think we've both seen this coming for some time."
"Perhaps," he confessed. "It's not that I don't care about you, Elsa."
"I care about you, too," she replied. "But I need someone who needs me desperately, and after these past few months, I know that I'm not that person for you."
"I don't want to leave you behind. It's not safe here."
"Darling, it isn't safe anywhere. And if you'd paid attention at any of those dinner parties I took you to, you would have learned that there is one thing, and one thing only, that the Nazis truly respect," she said coquettishly. "Money. I will be safe, I promise you."
"But if…when we leave, they'll come to you to find out where we've gone," he argued.
"Then you mustn't tell me anything. I will see you off to Bremerhaven, believing that you are leaving to join our 'illustrious' navy, but then I will be shocked when you fail to report for duty. I can be quite persuasive as an actress, you know. Give me a week and all of Austria will believe that I am your jilted lover, cast aside because I refused to adopt your rouge, traitorous beliefs." She spoke with a dramatic tone, and he could not resist his own laughter at the idea of such a performance. A few moments later, her own laughter abated, and she spoke again with heartfelt sincerity. "But in reality, I'll be praying for you all each night, hoping that you reach safety and find the lives that you were meant to live. And that I mean with all of my heart."
Moved by her sentiment and liberated by the kindness of her words, he pressed a soft kiss to her hand. Like Elsa, he knew that they would have been pitiful partners in marriage, but he regretfully acknowledged that his departure would almost certainly mean an abrupt end to their friendship.
"When will you leave?"
"Soon after three o'clock. There's a train to Bremerhaven leaving from Innsbruck, so that's where I am bound, for all intents and purposes," he explained. "If you don't mind, I'll keep the other details to myself, if only so you can honestly say that you knew nothing of my plans."
"Of course," she smiled. "I do hope this all works out for you, darling." She kept her hold on his hand when she asked one final question. "Will you be asking Fraulein Maria to join you?"
If it hadn't all been so terribly tragic, she would have laughed at the shock and guilt that clouded his eyes. While she'd been initially jealous of his affections towards Maria, she was now powerless to deny that he was in love with her. He'd been a different person ever since the young woman returned from the Abbey, and the man he'd become was one whom Elsa barely recognized. She watched them together, envious of the way that they clung to each other with their words and their eyes, and she finally accepted that he drew his greatest strength from Maria's spirit.
Collecting his composure, Georg opened his hands in a silent apology. "Elsa, I never-"
"You forget that I was married to a navy man myself once upon a time, Georg. I know that you're a man of honor." He was grateful for her conciliatory tone, but still she continued, "That doesn't mean that you don't need her, though, and you do."
He recognized the pain in her voice and knew that it had taken considerable strength for her to concede his love for another woman. Bowing his head, he decided not to contest the truth and quietly replied, "I could never ask that of her."
"You could, and she would agree." Fresh tears filled her eyes, and she glanced back towards the house with a defeated smile. "Women will do terribly foolish things for the men they love." His eyes widened at the implication of her words, but she bowed her head with feigned coyness. "Only a suggestion."
He wanted to reply, but distant bells from Salzburg announced the turn of the hour. He hesitated in his steps and realized that time was passing quickly, but Elsa recognized the urgency in his gaze. His journey would begin soon, and time would not wait. She held him close, whispering goodbye before pressing a kiss to his cheek, and finally she stood back to let him go.
A/N: 1) Apologies for my delay in posting this. I'm getting into the thick of final exams, and I wrote and scrapped four different versions of this chapter before finally settling on this. I hope it is satisfactory, as it is this story's very own so-long-farewell to Elsa Schrader. 2) I was going to include Georg's conversation with Maria about leaving the country but decided to save it. My reasons are both selfish and artistic: writing Georg/Maria scenes is a perfect respite from studying, and this chapter was simply becoming too unwieldy to also include that scene. Long story short, stay tuned for angst and romance in the next chapter! 3) Meaningless trivia: I had that song "Danke Schoen" stuck in my head the entire time I wrote this. 4) Thanks, as always, for your kind words and encouragement! -CH