The first time she saw Georg he was laughing. At the time she had no idea how rare this was. It would be three years before she saw him laugh again.
Until years after her husband died, Elsa was defined by the men in her life. She was the Duke’s granddaughter, the General’s daughter, the Baron’s wife, and then his widow. It had always been assumed that one day she would be the mother of sons, and the grandmother. One link in a long chain of women, remembered through their connections, and the occasional portrait.
She had married young, married for politics, but also, surprisingly, for love. Her father was very pleased with the choice that had been made, and Elsa smiled and glowed at her new husband. He was much older, but who wanted a callow youth who had yet to wear out his wildness? They were so very happy, but times were turbulent. Their first public appearance together was at the funeral of the Archduke and his wife, as the world shifted and changed.
When the war began, Lenhard left with his regiment to fight, while Elsa stayed at home. Their country estate provided much of what they needed and she busied herself ruling the household and entertaining their friends. During the quieter times she wrote to her husband, curled up in front of the fire in the library, which was rapidly becoming her favourite room during cold days. The firelight made the corners into soft shadows, and the armchairs were so much more comfortable than the formal sitting rooms which made her feel rather alone. Lenhard was very fond of it too, and she felt close to him as she sat there, sometimes imagining him opposite her with a book. If her husband had been home he would have encouraged her to alter a room to her taste, but it seemed so important to keep everything stable for him on his return. When her family and friends visited they congregated in the drawing room, which came alive with the echoes of chatter and laughter. The library was her own private sanctuary. On finer days she rode in the park, and tried and failed to become interested in the estate farm. When the Baron came home on leave she listened to his tales with interest and a growing horror, and tried to distract him the best that she could.
Then, at the turn of the final year of the war, the telegram arrived and she departed in a hurry. Eventually they brought her husband home, gravely wounded. That was the start of a strange time, when days and weeks were measured by surgeons' visits and the efficient bustling of nurses. He lingered on for another year, before finally succumbing a few months after the armistice had been signed. There were rumours that the peace without victory had been the end, as it had been for Elsa’s father whose heart gave out shortly after the news was received. Lenhard’s wife, who had nursed him and cared for him for the long and dreadful year in which every step forward would be followed by a setback, had long suspected that there could be no happy outcome.
A widow at twenty four, she felt very alone. The house echoed with memories; of his cries of pain and frustration, of the smells of ether and disinfectant, and of the joyful anticipation of the days that would never come. Even the library was tainted. On his better days they had carried him there, but he struggled to concentrate and the books he had loved were thrown aside. It was there that she saw him weeping, angry and in pain, struggling to find the words that had been lost with the blow to the head as much as he craved the movement denied him by his damaged leg. With nowhere in the house untouched, Elsa wandered the corridors and spent hours riding, but she needed to escape, to stop the memories crushing her. When the answer came to her it was a revelation. She would move to the Vienna house, away from painful memories. At twenty five she bid goodbye to the country estate she had once loved, and tore down the dustsheets that had shrouded the rooms in town since the early years of the War.
Surprisingly, Elsa was enraptured by city life. She and Lenhard had always intended to divide their time between the two, and she wanted to experience the places he talked about so fondly. Her married sister Hilde, and Lenhard’s own sister Anna, took her to the right places and made appropriate introductions. Elsa found herself at the centre of a growing circle of friends. As her grief dulled, she learned to laugh and sparkle at parties, and her dinners after evenings at the opera became legendary. Everyone expected that she would marry again, but she was careful that her name was never linked with anyone, and no scandal ever arose. The country house received a duty visit once or twice a year, but she soon realised it was Town where she finally felt truly at home. She welcomed people who could hold a conversation, and spent a number of entertaining evenings arguing over the finer points of recent performances with a young English lord (who was very taken with one of the singers) while his uncle alternately dozed and flirted from the corner.
It was a strange and dreadful feeling to realise how different her life would have been if the War had not come. She missed Lenhard of course, but it was a distant sorrow now, unrelated to her current life. She was free to make her own decisions. She had wealth and status, and Vienna was a wonderful place to be. The great changes taking place throughout Austria, throughout Europe in the first decade after the War affected her little; she seemed to live in an enchanted circle.
She travelled too, visiting fashionable watering places and great cities: Paris, London, Berlin, Monte Carlo. She met people who fifteen years ago had been fighting against her country. It all felt so long ago... She laughed, conversed, and even flirted a little, particularly with her married friends who were safe not to take it as a sign of promises. She visited casinos and dances and theatres and bought clothes from the best fashion houses. She was very happy with her life and couldn’t imagine wanting it to change in any way. And then there was Georg.
The first time they met was at the theatre, during the interval of a play. She had seen him in the adjacent box and noticed him laughing at an obscure joke her own companions missed. During the interval Hilde hurried her over to meet someone else (“Oh look, there’s Max. Charming man, great patron of the Arts. Terribly amusing.”) and she found herself being introduced to his friend, the man who had laughed at the joke.
Even after all this time she recognised the pull of two places when she saw it in others. When she was introduced to the Captain, she sensed how unsettled he was, even though on the surface he was smiling at something said by his friend. Later Hilde murmured that he had lost his wife a year ago and had come to Vienna to escape from the memories. Elsa looked at him with sympathetic interest. She remembered the feeling well. She vaguely remembered his wife too, a pretty, gentle creature with a warm smile who had been friends with her cousin. She knew too well that witnessing death at close hand could shrivel a soul; she must see if she could cheer him as her own friends had helped her.
Over the years he gradually became a fixture at her gatherings. They grew closer, and she was careful not to express surprise when he mentioned his children. He spoke of them so rarely that she had no clear picture of them in her mind. Although she had once assumed that she would become a mother, the idea now held very little appeal. Her sister’s children were attractive enough, but wouldn’t become interesting for a few years yet, and beyond that she had met very few. Georg’s brood seemed settled in the country with their governess, and his life in Vienna affected them very little, which suited her well enough at the moment. Occasionally she sent pretty things for the older girls, but was mostly content to keep her distance.
After four years of friendship, Elsa was aware that Georg cared for her very much, and to her surprise she found herself contemplating a life with him. The status and wealth from her late husband and father meant she would never be accused of gold digging (a luxury so many women were denied), and when he spoke she was ready. It seemed so clear in her mind, and (she thought) in his. They would live permanently in Vienna, the children growing up in the country so their lives wouldn’t be disrupted. The older ones at least would be at school, and she and Georg could visit them regularly, especially in the holidays. It wouldn't be long before they were ready for concerts and parties, and it would be rather amusing to introduce them to the city. She had no idea how to be a mother, but as a society guide and hostess she would excel.
She had imagined quiet, polite, obedient children, much as she and her sister had been. The wild group dressed in bright colours who waved from the treetops, and then emerged dripping from the lake, were certainly more entertaining than her niece and nephews. She wanted to laugh at their cheerful, soaked figures, but one glance at Georg's face had told her this was a bad idea. Later she wondered whether it would have made all the difference. She saw a completely different side of her fiancé when he chastised the children soundly, and wasn't quite sure she liked what she saw. She greeted them gravely, biting her lip at their serious expressions and watersoaked figures.
When left alone Elsa had no idea what to say to them. They were like their father in some ways; sharp and awkward. Surely like him they would embrace social conventions and enjoy a taste of adult life? It was certainly very strange to see the sixteen year old playing with the children rather than learning to take her mother's place as the woman of the household. Their governess was a odd thing, and so very, very young. Knowing the difficulty in acquiring suitable draperies Elsa was alternately horrified at the thought of blithely cutting up curtains for clothing and amused that the child had stood up to the Captain at his fiercest. Elsa watched from a distance, with a vague feeling of dread. Georg claimed he had first fallen in love with her during a raging argument. Then the children reappeared and they drew her into another room to hear them sing.
Family life was not what she had expected. The countryside was stunning, the house was a perfect escape from the city, and the children were really rather lovable when one was used to them. The littlest cuddled close to her on occasion, and it was a surprisingly nice feeling. The news of the puppet show was greeted with an inward grimace, but it turned out to be charming (especially after the glass Max had pressed on her in advance). Maria continued to make her uneasy, with her connection to the children and utter lack of deference. Georg appeared both appalled and increasingly fascinated by her, which was disturbing in itself. Elsa couldn't help but make the occasional barbed remark, and she wasn't sure whether the child ever noticed.
When she saw him singing with the children, it was a revelation. In Vienna he was opera, grand, stately and mildly frivolous. Here in the country he was growing softer and warmer. The sharp wit was ebbing away and he was becoming more like the folk songs he was singing now. She watched him with his children, and realised that she had never seen him look happier. This unsettled her. She had known that he would never be happy while he had a foot in each home and his heart in none, but she had assumed that their home would be Vienna and his heart would be there. She began to suspect this would not be so.
The party was supposed to clarify her place in Georg's life, and in an unexpected way it did. Rarely had she seen anyone glow as much as Maria did while she danced with her employer, and he looked strangely content as they swung in the lamplight. It was an infatuation, Elsa was convinced. Georg's passing fancy would fade and the child would be hurt, unable to remain or to return to the Abbey. By speaking to her, Elsa was convinced she was sparing Maria pain, as well as preventing an embarrassing situation. The atmosphere without the governess was strained, and the children withdrew from her, from Max, from their father. That ghastly game was supposed to provide the opportunity to laugh and be silly, but instead they had turned away. Gloom filled the house. Georg watched the children from a distance, uncertain how to talk to them. Elsa watched Georg.
Maybe if she had had a different nature she could have pulled them all to her, coddled the littlest and taken the older girls to concerts and bought them pretty clothes. Maybe she would have told them stories and won their hearts, bringing Georg back to her and joining them all as a family. Elsa Schraeder was not that woman, and could not pretend to be, not even for the man she loved.
She was so sure she had been doing the right thing when she warned away the naïve child who looked after the children, and who was clearly in love with the Captain, but now… Georg would probably end up falling utterly in love with the devoted young thing and they would stay in the country and grow old together. This was a life she had once imagined for herself, years ago with Lenhard, when she was not much younger than Maria. It was completely alien to her life now, and she was not willing to compromise. Elsa knew when it was time to step gracefully away, to return to town, and to feel grateful for her narrow escape. He would stay there singing pretty, gentle tunes and she would return to the concerts and opera that she loved.
The last time she saw Georg, he was smiling. He turned away to embrace his future. Elsa moved forward to hers.