At about half past seven, driving Georg's car, Max pulled up to the entrance gate of Nonberg Abbey. Standing on the other side of the gate was Maria. In her hands she carried her carpetbag and her guitar. She wore no hat, and the shapeless gray dress the poor did not want was in her carpetbag. Instead, she wore the dress that the newest postulant had arrived in. Maria loved the dress, especially the color, and knew that this one was a keeper.
When the familiar car stopped outside the gates, Maria took a deep breath before opening it and passing through. She smiled at Herr Dettweiler when he got out of the car and approached her. She hadn't had much interaction with him during her time at the villa, but he had always been kind and complimentary to her. "Hello, Herr Dettweiler," she said.
"Fraulein," he said with a smile. "This certainly is an errand I am only too happy to make." He took her bags and went to the trunk of the car. "Those seven talented prodigies at the villa simply cannot contain their excitement."
This news brought great relief to Maria. She had been afraid that the children would be angry with her; she certainly wouldn't blame them, considering the way she had left them like that. "Really?"
"Absolutely," said Max, closing the trunk. "The house has been so gloomy without you."
Maria didn't say anything as they got into the car and he began to drive away from the abbey. She didn't look back; she knew this would not be the last time she would see the building.
After a moment of silent driving, Max spoke, "Fraulein, may I ask you a question?"
"Of course," she replied. "And please, call me Maria."
"With pleasure. Well, I hope you do not mind me asking this, Maria. I've been wondering about this since you left. Did Elsa – Baroness Schraeder, that is – say anything to you which caused you to leave that?"
Surprised, Maria turned to him. "What makes you think that?"
Max shrugged, keeping his eyes on the road. "I saw her go upstairs just after you did, and only one of you came back to the party. She looked…almost pleased with herself, and wasn't surprised when everyone else found out you had gone."
Maria sighed, and looked out her window. "You could say that…" was all she said. She knew that the two of them were friendly, and didn't want to talk about the conversation she and the Baroness had that night.
Thankfully, Max seemed to get the hint, and didn't push for details. He could guess pretty accurately what Elsa had cornered Maria about; nothing else could have made Maria disappear like that. But he knew it was not his place to get to the bottom of that; this was between her and Georg. But when Georg returned, Max resolved to push him in the direction of the important conversation that needed to take place.
Seeming to be on the same wavelength of thought, Maria began, "Herr Dettweiler –"
"Please, Maria, call me Max," said Max.
"Max…do you know anything about…what is going on tonight?"
Now Max gave a very deep sigh and shook his head. "Not much more than you, I'm afraid. These people are being awfully mysterious, and the fact that Hans suspects ulterior motives does not bode well for Georg."
"Oh, forgive me. A friend of ours from our earliest navy days. He's a doctor now, with many Nazis as patients, even though he shares the same beliefs as us. He did well to warn Georg, even if he didn't know all of the information." Max gave Maria a sidelong look and reassuring smile. "Don't start worrying, Maria. If he's not home by tomorrow, then we should start worrying."
Maria gulped and nodded. She would not let her worry consume her now, and instead focused on her joyful anticipation that came with being reunited with the children.
In what seemed like no time at all, they had arrived at the villa. Looking up at the house, Maria could not help feeling a sense of warm relief. This must be what coming home feels like. Max chuckled, recognizing the look on her face. "Go on, I'll take care of your bags."
She gave him a grateful smile, and hurried out of the car and into the villa. "Hello?" she called, unable to restrain her voice as she rushed down the few steps to the main floor. Instantly, she heard the running footsteps and joyous voices of the children. In the next second, doors had burst open and they were running out of rooms. Maria smiled radiantly as she looked up, watching the children appear on the mezzanine. They all looked down and spotted her before they nearly trampled down the stairs, joyously crying her name.
When they had seen her at the abbey, their reunion had to be restrained and quiet, being in the cloistered sanctuary. Now, the children held nothing back.
The first to reach her was Louisa, and her hug nearly pummeled Maria to the ground. Brigitta was right behind her, and she clung to Maria tightly, almost crying in her happiness. Even the boys didn't hold back and try to remain dignified; both of them gave her big bear hugs. Both Marta and Gretl reached up for her, and Maria lifted both individually, so she could kiss them and spin them around. Liesl came last, happy tears streaming down her face. Maria embraced her like a sister, holding her tightly and reassuringly.
"Oh, children, I'm so glad to see you!" she said, happy tears in her own eyes.
"We've missed you so much!" said Marta, hugging her around the waist.
"Oh, I've missed you, too," said Maria, bending down to kiss her head. "I've missed all of you."
"Are you back to stay, Fraulein?" asked Brigitta, looking at her hopefully.
Maria took a deep breath. "I will stay as long as you all and your father want me to stay."
"Then…forever?" asked Gretl, tugging at her skirt.
Maria gave a shrug and smile. "Then so be it!"
All seven of the children cheered, and for just one moment in her happiness, Maria forgot about the dark cloud that hung above all of them.
Maria joyed in being with the children again, and she didn't really need to say much, as all seven of them were fighting for her attention until their bedtimes. She took her time putting them all to bed, both joying in the little rituals and delaying the time she would spend waiting nervously for the Captain to come home…hoping that the Captain would come home.
What helped was that Marta wanted Maria to stay with her until she had fallen asleep. So Maria sat beside her bed, holding her little hand between her own. Marta's free arm held her doll, Mina, close to her. "Fraulein Maria?" she asked, her tiny voice tired.
"Yes, Marta?" Maria replied softly, aware of Gretl sleeping in the next bed.
"Why did you leave us?" she asked innocently. "Did we do something wrong?"
Maria's eyes filled with sad tears at this question. She had been expecting one of the children to ask this now, since she had avoided the question that morning, when it had been asked by Brigitta. They would want to know now especially, since she had returned to them indefinitely.
"I will always regret the way I left, Marta…" she said, trying to find the best words to use in order to give an honest explanation the seven-year-old could understand. "It may sound confusing, but I left because…I loved you all too much."
"Too much?" asked Marta, who was indeed confused.
"Yes," said Maria patiently. "I felt more at home here, with you, your siblings and your father, than I had ever felt at the abbey with the nuns. Because I had planned to become a nun, that frightened me. Today I realized that being a nun was not what I was meant to be, and when your father called and asked me to come back, I accepted the fact that right here, with all of you, is where I am meant to be."
Marta nodded her head, her confusion giving way to understanding. "I don't remember my mother. She died when I was three years old, Liesl told me. I wish I could remember her…" She then smiled at her beloved Fraulein. "I didn't know what it was like to have a mother until you came."
It took all of Maria's will-power not to cry at this. So she smiled back, bent down and gave Marta a tight hug. "Thank you, Marta."
When they let go of each other, Marta asked with a yawn, "Will you sing me a lullaby, Fraulein?"
"Of course I will," she said, smiling down at Marta. After a few moments of thought, Maria began to sing one of her favorite hymns softly to the little girl:
I will come to you in the silence.
I will lift you from all your fears.
You will hear my voice.
I claim you as my choice.
Be still, and know I am here.
I am hope for all who are hopeless.
I am eyes for all who long to see.
In the shadow of the night,
I will be your light.
Come and rest in me.
Do not be afraid – I am with you.
I have called you by your name.
Come and follow me.
I will bring you home.
I love you – and you are mine…
By the time Maria had finished the entire hymn, Marta was sound asleep. After turning off Marta's bedside lamp, Maria looked back down at the little girl and caressed her face with a feather-light touch. Her comment about seeing Maria as a mother had given the young woman such a full feeling, her heart hurt. Looking at the sleeping little girl, Maria knew that she loved her and her brothers and sisters as much as if they were her own children. She hoped, in the deepest part of her heart, that someday they would be.
Maria bent down, kissed Marta's forehead, and whispered, "Goodnight, my sweetheart."
She kissed little Gretl one more time, too, tucking the covers more securely around her sleeping form. As soundly as Gretl slept, she could sometimes move restlessly when she dreamed, making her covers go askew. She gave a loving look at the two little girls before softly closing the door behind her.
Turning to the hallway, she saw Frau Schmidt approaching her with a smile. The two women had always gotten along, and became quite friendly with each other during Maria's time here. Maria returned her smile as the older woman stopped in front of her.
"It certainly is good to have you back here, my dear," she said. "Would you follow me?"
Maria nodded, wondering what Frau Schmidt was up to. They didn't walk very far, staying in the family wing of the villa. Frau Schmidt stopped at a room just across the hall from the Captain's rooms, and opened the white door. Looking inside, Maria saw a bedroom, just as big as one of the children's rooms and beautifully decorated. She also saw her carpetbag on the bed and her guitar case propped at the foot of it. "What's the meaning of this, Frau Schmidt?"
Frau Schmidt smiled at her. "The Captain had me fix this room up for you before you came. He wants you to stay in the family wing of the house from now on. I must say, I quite agree with him; when you left, we all realized just how much a part of this family you have become."
Again, Maria felt so touched she felt choked up. The two women embraced each other. Frau Schmidt then said a little soberly, "Herr Dettweiler wanted me to tell you to settle in and sleep. He knows you must be tired, and he will wait up for the Captain."
Maria felt her stomach drop a bit at this, remembering the circumstances of her return. But she merely nodded and wished Frau Schmidt a good night. Once she was alone again, Maria took her time unpacking her things, changing into her nightgown, and admiring her new room. The window had a beautiful view of the lake, and on her bedside table, she saw, in a tiny blue-and-white vase, a bouquet of edelweiss flowers.
Somehow, Maria knew that it hadn't been Frau Schmidt who had put those flowers there. Seeing those flowers gave Maria fresh hope that the Captain would come home sooner rather than later, and she would find the courage to tell him how she felt. With the scent of the flowers in her nostrils, the happy memories of the children that evening in her mind, and that hope in her heart, Maria was able to fall asleep easily.
Unfortunately, that hope would not last past the next morning.
A/N: Please read the second part of the story "Buttons" by Mie779 and post a review for it! I helped beta it, and it's one of the best wedding night stories I've ever read. It's nice and long, just as M&G fluff should be.
*The song used in this chapter is called "You Are Mine," a Catholic hymn I have loved since childhood.