My father was often heard to remark to my mother and brothers, though not, as he thought, to me, that he was bound to thank a merciful heaven that that young rogue Rupert of Hentzau had departed this world before he – my father, that is, the Count Fritz von Tarlenheim – had been so foolish as to bring a daughter into it.
I wonder occasionally what Papa made of Maria Adler. He never, I think, trusted her, from our schooldays onwards, though whether he tumbled to the secret of her parenthood I cannot say.
I wonder, too, what Maria Adler made of me. A challenge, or a comrade? A tool, or a friend? Or, perhaps, simply a diversion. Still, the question presses to the front of my mind: why me? What to her was the appeal of Elisabeth Flavia Luise Hedwig von Tarlenheim? I would almost swear that she loved me at one time, or perhaps always.
Then I laugh.
And what I made of her? My friend (though whether you will still call me 'friend' when you have reached the end I do not know), this is what I shall endeavour to tell in these pages, but until I have laid this history fully before you, let it suffice that you know that the years I spent in her company are, for good or ill, the years that rise most vividly to my memory now.
To start a story at the end, or in the middle, has always been one of my faults. Let me attempt to mend this particular occasion. For me, then, it all began when I attained the lofty age of ten years and was sent away to school in the Hauptwald, and if the need arises to tell you of anything that came before, I shall tell you when the occasion arises, and as little as possible, for I always found ancient history most indigestible.
I went to school, I say, by the reluctant agreement of my parents and myself. It was then becoming fashionable for Ruritanian girls to be educated outside the home, and my mother feared that I was running wild with only my brothers for company.
Heinrich, Leopold and Karl were better company, I maintain, than most of the girls at school (save one, whom I shall come to shortly), and I do not know that they were entirely to blame for my wildness. In all events, I ran as wild there as I had at home. I was not unhappy, as some girls were, but I found it dreadfully dull. I believe that I was quick to learn, and grew bored waiting for the others to catch up; certainly I recall interminable lessons where the nuns explained the blindingly obvious in excruciating detail, whose tedium was punctuated only by the screech of chalk. I learned to occupy myself in building ever more elaborate contraptions for the confusion of the sisters, and the amusement of my classmates.
So far as I was concerned, this life of tedium and timetables came to an end in the autumn of 1891, when an American lady by the name of Mrs Norton deposited her only niece Maria Adler into the tender care of the Reverend Mother. The timetables continued, but I paid little heed to them. Something interesting enough to occupy my whole attention had at last come into the school. And this was how she came:
It was, I have said, autumn. The leaves were falling, and the big oak tree in the garden revealed the structure of its branches in a most fascinating manner.
'I could climb that,' I said one Saturday after luncheon.
'Bet you couldn't,' Julia Czechenyi retorted, and that was enough to spur my adventurous soul. Despite the rain, despite the rising wind, I was out in the garden in a flash.
The first ten feet of a tree are always the most difficult. This one, fortunately, had a low branch that dipped down to the level of my shoulders. It creaked alarmingly as I swung myself up onto it, but held firm. Water dripped from the remaining leaves and ran down the back of my neck. I worked my way up towards the trunk until I was standing on the socket of the branch.
I looked back towards the house. Quite a crowd had gathered around the library window. My classmates Malgorzata, Julia, Sophia, Theresa, and more behind them whose faces I was unable to make out.
'Go on, Elisabeth...' Some gibe floated across the lawn. '...scared...'
I was not scared, and they knew it. I gritted my teeth and managed the next fifteen feet with no trouble beyond a torn petticoat. I looked up. There were still some big branches above me. I looked back. The girls were still urging me upwards. I carried on.
Up and up. Leaves fluttered around me, past me, blown by the November wind. When at last I could go no further, I looked again at the library window. Now they looked scared; they gestured for me to come down.
I looked at the ground, and I could not move. The tree swung in the heightening breeze. I felt a little sick, and very scared. I clung to the branch.
'Come down!' they cried. 'Reverend Mother!'
Had there been a hundred Reverend Mothers on the way I could not have come down. There was no chance now of getting back inside before someone saw me, and the fear that held me captive held more authority than that of authority itself. I moaned, and looked up. Moody clouds hurried across the darkening sky. I was soaked and filthy.
'Elisabeth...!' Someone was calling to me from below. I risked a glance downwards. Sister Paulina, with a ladder. I shuddered and clung tighter to my branch.
'Stay exactly where you are,' she called and (I believe, for I dared not look) began to set the ladder against the trunk. But a gust of wind caught and tugged at my skirt, so that I lurched. The branch broke beneath me with a sharp crack, and I fell.
I must have been stunned when I hit the ground, and when I opened my eyes I found myself under the tree, my treacherous branch beside me, and a throbbing ache in my right wrist.
'Nothing broken,' Sister Paulina said after a swift examination. She was, quite unreasonably from my point of view, furious. 'Go and wait outside Reverend Mother's study, and tell her exactly how you came to be in that state.'
My spirit broken, I trailed inside. That was how, when Mrs Norton and her niece Maria Adler arrived at the convent, I came to be dripping on the tiled floor in the corridor outside the study, my dress filthy and my petticoat torn, hair full of leaves, and with a long scratch down one side of my face and a bruise on my forehead.
Reverend Mother ignored me (indeed, what else could she do?) and the lady, occupied in discussing the curriculum with her, did not see me. Her niece saw me, however, and an air of bored sophistication was replaced – for a bare moment – by a glance of interest, as if this place might not, after all, be as dull as she had feared.
For my part, I was smitten that instant by the kind of fervent admiration that occasionally afflicts a small girl when she comes across an older, more glamorous, one. Maria (though I would not know her name until the next day, and would not meet her until I had completed the forty-eight hours in solitary confinement that was the punishment for my escapade) was perhaps two or three years older than me, tall, with a mop of dark curls and a confident set to her head. She moved with a rangy grace, though her skirts seemed to impede her somewhat. (I inspected the tear in my petticoat with disgust. I would no doubt be spending much of the evening mending it.)
Two days on my own, with not only my own mending to do, but three ripped sheets, and, when I had done those, the hateful, hateful embroidery. It was slow work with my wrist aching, and I frequently laid it down and gave way to tears of fury. All of that would have been far more bearable, though, had it not been for my burning curiosity about the new girl.
At last, those tortured two days over, I met Maria Adler. Her parents were both dead, she told us; her father had been an American – the brother of the aunt I had seen – and her mother Ruritanian. She refused to be more specific than this, and we, unwilling to pain an orphan, did not press her. (And indeed, America was a long way away, a place where dynasties were founded in five minutes and into which our own Ruritania might have been fitted thousands of times over. Whoever Maria's mother had been was immaterial; she must surely have turned into someone else the moment she stepped off the ship. America! It invested Maria with a sort of glamour, and, after all, who cared who her mother was? 'It must have been one of the Eschenbauer girls,' my cousin Theresa von Strofzin concluded eventually, and the rest of us, Maria included, came to accept this. It was as likely a story as any; the Eschenbauers were numerous and given to wandering, and the Strofzins were inveterate gossips and generally knew what was what.)
I addressed myself devotedly to securing her attention. Though she was a new girl, and therefore at a disadvantage, she was two years older than me, and therefore had no reason to take an interest in me. She was a bad girl; and might therefore see me either as a potential ally or a potential rival; or she might think me too insignificant to bother with at all. That thought was not to be borne.
She had noticed me when I was drenched, filthy and in disgrace. That much I was sure of. But how to repeat the performance without appearing unoriginal? (And, I am ashamed to admit to thinking, how to repeat the performance without having to climb that tree again? The very thought made me feel sick.) Most of the schemes that came to my mind involved climbing. I could, for example, climb out at the landing window at midnight, down the gutter to the floor below, and into the senior dormitory. Maria would be bound to notice me. (So, too, would the prefects, but that worried me but little.) If I had thought I could do it without looking down I would have tried. But no – I was no longer sure of my ability to tackle heights, and to try and fail, or to turn back at the last moment, was unthinkable. It would have to be something else.
The idea came to me one Friday. Small girls are fond of their food, and the insipid fish soup was hardly capable of keeping me from dreaming of beef, potatoes and apple tart. I had not much idea as to what happened in the kitchen, but it seemed likely that it contained more interesting food than was served up to us on fast days. I resolved to investigate.
To resolve was to take action. My opportunity presented itself the very next day, shortly after morning prayers, when Sister Hildegard was taken ill on the way from the chapel to the classroom. Sophia Helsing and I were dispatched to tell Reverend Mother and beseech her to take our lesson. I persuaded Sophia that going round by the kitchens would hardly take any longer than going straight to her study and, indeed, that would have been true had I not taken advantage of the situation and divested the larder of as many choice dainties as I could carry.
Sophia refused to help me carry any of the food (which I considered hypocritical in the extreme, since she was all too happy to share in the spoils later in the day) so I sent her on to Reverend Mother's study while I concealed it in my bed, to the great detriment of my sheets. There it remained through the first lesson of the day, until, Reverend Mother safely out of the way, I swept my classmates upstairs, where we proceeded to devour the lot.
All of it? Nay: one or two of (what were in my ten year old eyes, at least) the most delectable items I wrapped up in a handkerchief and brought to the common room, where I knew Maria would be, along with the other seniors. Boldly I tapped at the door, boldly I walked in, and boldly I presented my idol with a magnificent slice of cold raisin pudding. It was only mildly damaged, and she received it in the spirit in which I intended it – accepted it graciously, expressed her utter lack of intention of sharing it with her classmates, and bestowed upon me a gracious smile and a boiled sweet. I retired well pleased.
Retribution was swift. My raid had deprived no one of her luncheon, but in the process of preparing supper my crime came to light. Consequently, we were made to stand behind our benches and look at our unappetising meals cooling slowly on our plates, until the culprit owned up.
I had, I maintain, always intended to own up, and I considered that it was decidedly unnecessary of Theresa von Strofzin to hiss, far too audibly, to her next-door neighbour, 'It was Elisabeth, you know!'
I glared at her across the table. 'Sneak!' I growled, also too audibly, and suddenly Sister Paulina was at my elbow.
They put me on Friday rations for a week and confined me to the sanatorium for three days. I had expected nothing less, and so bore my punishment with equanimity. Besides, I considered it no punishment at all when, on the first night of my imprisonment, as I lay in bed and looked at the cracks in the ceiling, I heard a gentle tapping at the window.
I sprang out of bed, and saw to my delight that my plan had succeeded beyond my wildest hopes. The face at the window was Maria's. I opened the casement and she slipped inside.
'Whew!' said Maria. 'That was a climb and a half.'
I gazed at her in admiration. 'Did you come up from the herb garden?'
'Well, there's no other way, is there? The ivy's quite solid, really. Here -' she drew a large paper package from her pocket – 'I thought you might be hungry.'
I was. I opened the package and found bread, cheese, a little ham, fruit, and cake. Evidently Maria had made her own raid on the kitchens. I asked, 'Did you look behind the door?'
'No,' she said. 'Why?'
I grinned – cheekily, it may well be said. 'It's worth a look, next time you're down there.'
She laughed. 'I'll bear that in mind. But perhaps, next time, you'd like to show me? I can promise I'll be more efficient than that Helsing kid.'