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The Grandness of Things

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AUTUMN, 1936

When Andy von Schönfeld met the Baroness for the first time at age fourteen, she was struck by how fair the woman’s hair was amongst the sea of people in the ballroom. She spoke with elegance, calm and astute in whatever the subject of discussion was – even with members of the opposite gender – without neglecting the way a true lady would be.

With her self-assurance and knowing smirk, she was the kind of woman Andy’s friends spoke about with reverence, having recently discovered Garbo and Dietrich in the pictures that were all the rage of late. She must be Father’s friend, since he seemed to enjoy talking to her and Father didn’t allow himself to enjoy much, not after – no, Andy wouldn’t think about things like that. Mother was in a better place now, free of pain and suffering, according to the sisters at the Church, so Andy would be thankful for that.

“What are you looking at?”

“Oh, hush Ilse, or father will hear us,” she whispered, pushing back from the bannisters just in case, pulling her younger sister along.

“He will not, silly. It is much too noisy,” Ilse said, leaning forward to peer through the gaps in an attempt to see for herself what Andy had been captivated by.

“That lady there looks like a film star,” Andy said, pointing at the Baroness who was standing rather close by. In fact, she only knew the woman was a baroness from how she heard the other guests address her. Well, Andy supposed “met” hadn’t been quite the right way to put it but who is to know?

Ilse narrowed her eyes, as if in contemplation. “The one talking to Father?”

“Yes.”

“She doesn’t look too pleased with him,” Ilse said, frowning.

“Oh?” Andy crept closer to have a better look, careful to hold her breath. They were right above Father and the Baroness, and if they could hear what the adults were talking about, Andy was quite certain that the reverse would be true if they weren’t quiet.

At first glance, Ilse’s observation would have seemed correct but after watching their interaction closely, she was fairly sure that Father was trying to hold back a smile. It was a strange sight, but a nonetheless delightful one, knowing that Father was at least having a semblance of enjoyment at the party. Uncle Niels loved to throw parties and always did, whenever he visited from Vienna, but Andy knew her father had ceased to enjoy them a long time ago. He only humoured Uncle Niels because well, everyone humoured Uncle Niels. Even Father who was usually the one everyone else listened to, wasn’t immune to Uncle Niels’s whims.

Andy was glad of that fact, because now, Father was trying not to smile and that in itself, was a great achievement.

The Baroness was nothing like Mother, Andy thought, gazing at the way the woman tilted her head when Father said something in reply. Mother never said a word against Father, never narrowed her eyes the way the Baroness was doing right now. In all honesty, Andy didn’t think any woman had ever done so, not as far as she could remember.

But the Baroness had pleased Father, in some way Andy didn’t really understand, which meant something, whatever that was. Or would be.

When she crept into bed that night, all she could think about was the amusement on Father’s face, and fair hair that reminded Andy of freshly fallen snow.

 

SUMMER, 1937

At age fifteen, Andy discovered a half-written letter by Father, addressed to “Mira,” after climbing into through the window of the darkened study. It wasn’t, by any means, the best window for entering the mansion illicitly. The ledge wasn’t as wide and it did lead to Father’s study. The best window was of a seldom-used guest room, but tonight, Aunt Hildegard had taken up residence there, forcing Andy to improvise out of desperation. If Father knew she had snuck out to watch a picture with a boy who had the bluest eyes, he would probably ban her from attending school ever again and that was unacceptable.

She read the neatly written script in a rush by the moonlight, heart pounding with the fear of being caught, and then later of something else entirely.

Hurrying to her room, Andy pondered if she should stop by her sister’s, but decided against it. Ilse didn’t like the idea of anyone replacing Mother, and the last lady friend Father had introduced to them had borne the brunt of her wilful sister’s pranks. Although, Andy hadn’t been entirely too pleased with the idea of Father considering Frau Neumann as a potential addition to their family (the woman wasn’t at all sophisticated or elegant) and was secretly pleased that Ilse’s shenanigans had scared the woman away.

But after having read Father’s words, Andy harboured a great amount of conflict and no small amount of guilt within. Locking her bedroom door and throwing herself onto her bed, she closed her eyes and tried to picture the lines she had read moments earlier. Her cheeks flushed with embarrassment when she recalled the contents of the unfinished letter.

What had been written was polite, naturally, since it was her father, but it was also very friendly, with an ease Andy had only witnessed Father embody with Uncle Niels.

I hope you are enjoying the last glimpse of summer and preparing for autumn. I detest this time of the year, but I know it is your favourite and as such, have made some arrangements which would hopefully suit your preference.

So he cared very much for this person, cared enough to make arrangements for them because he knew autumn was their favourite season.

Until now, Andy had never known that Father didn’t like autumn. She had never even known that Father had feelings about any seasons of the year. He seemed to function on schedules and duties – how he felt about things were seldom a concern. Father had never spoken to her or Ilse about how he felt about things at all. Maybe he didn’t want to be reminded of Mother and as such, preferred to pretend his daughters didn’t exist.

Nevertheless, he seemed to not mind talking to “Mira”, whoever she was, about how he felt about autumn. Andy’s chest ached with longing. If only he did. If only he cared enough to ask about her lessons, or even which seasons Andy liked or didn’t like. Mother would have cared to ask.

“I have never liked winter either, but I find my tolerance for it greatly improved, as it reminds me of something I have much affection for.”

There was something inexplicably intimate about her Father’s words despite their vagueness, and they carried a clear anticipation for a response. Was Father in love with this woman? Was he capable of the affection he professed to have? The possibility of it stung, that this stranger was allowed to know her father in a way she never could.

Andy sighed.

She supposed if it meant Father was somewhat less miserable than before, she would try to understand. If she or Ilse couldn’t make Father happy, maybe they should let someone else try. And after that, maybe they could finally have him back to how he was before Mother died. When he loved them.

 

SPRING, 1938

Andy fell in love for the first time, aged sixteen and a quarter, with a boy who left her notes in the form of poetry. Sometimes, they were of his own attempts and others, he would pick out some of Rilke’s works (she had told him of her obsession over the poet’s words – he loved God, and God loved everyone so perhaps, Andy had to love Him too) or works of obscure poets she had never heard of.

She loved that he inspired her to write, even if what she produced was amateurish and immature. Whatever she had written before, he drove her to write better, because of his interest which flattered and scared her at the same time. What if he learnt all there was to know about her and found her lacking? Nathan might be just a messenger boy and Father would never approve, but at least he cared enough to get to know her. It was enough to make her heart flutter and as far as she was concerned, enough for her to spend late nights feverishly revising her own written words.

It was also around this time that Father announced his trip to Vienna casually over dinner, and that he would be returning with “someone important” he wanted them to meet.

“What’s her name?” Andy asked, ignoring Ilse’s huff of annoyance. Their father ignored it too.

“Baroness Priess is a dear friend. You have never met her, but I think you will like her.”

“Is she from Vienna like Uncle Niels?” Andy continued, careful to keep her voice neutral. It had been a year since she had read the half-letter to the woman named Mira, and wondered briefly if she was Baroness Priess. But there was no way she could ask now without inviting suspicion and bringing her past offence to attention. Andy might be rebellious, but she was smart about it and most unquestionably non-suicidal.

“Yes, Andrea. She is. In fact, she is a good friend of his as well,” Father said, expertly matching Andy’s neutrality with his own.

Ilse stared at her plate, determined to will the conversation into non-existence with her silence. Andy could feel her sister’s silent disapproval radiating off her in waves but sent a glare over to keep her sister from saying anything regrettable. She had long stopped hoping for Father to give them more devotion than what he was capable of – Andy knew that he cared in his own way – but her sister strongly believed that any potential remarriage meant even less attention and affection for the both of them.

If this meant Father would be happy again, Andy wouldn’t allow her sister to destroy it. Feeling what she felt for Nathan now, she was beginning to fathom the pain of loss her father must have felt. And with all the tension about the Germans in Austria, she could sense an uneasiness within the von Schönfeld household, from the servants to their Captain.

“Well, if she’s Uncle Niels’ friend, she cannot be all that bad,” Andy said, casually and tried not to waver under her father’s unsettling gaze. She wanted to show him that it was all right, that she would be understanding if this was what he wanted.

With the exception of the one-time blunder with Frau Neumann, Andy trusted in Father’s judge of character. On hindsight, he had picked out the Baroness, the one from that party two years ago amongst a crowd of over a hundred people, and Andy had picked her first, had found her in the crowd before Father had even approached. If another baroness had caught Father’s attention this time around, Andy could be confident that it would be someone exceptional.

“She isn’t bad at all,” Father said, looking slightly relieved at the turn of the conversation.

“How long will you be gone, Father?” Ilse spoke, perhaps encouraged by their father’s easing mood.

“About three months. I have arranged for a governess to be here will I am away. She will also tutor the both of you.”

“A governess? Whatever for?” Andy said, at once. Three precious months where she could spend more time with Nathan and Father had arranged for a governess?

“I have decided that it is best for you to stay at home for the next few months,” Father said, his thin lips pressing into a firm line. The grey at his temples, something Andy had always associated with being distinguished, suddenly made him look ten years older.

“But Father, we are old enough to take care of ourselves!” Ilse protested, opening her mouth of say something else, but Father wouldn’t let her speak.

“I do not want to hear any objections. It has been arranged. She will arrive this weekend, before I am to leave. Is that understood?”

Ilse straightened her back, ready to argue.

“There is no point for further argument. Nothing changes,” Father said.

“Yes, Father,” Ilse said, looking as if she might bolt from the dinner table at any time.

“Yes, Father,” Andy echoed, disappointed. Being tutored at home would make it much harder to slip away at night. Tonight could possibly be the last time she could see him for the next month or so. She bit her lip. “Does this mean we cannot leave the premises?”

“Not without your tutor,” Father said. “Things have been – difficult of late, as you very well know. I would appreciate it very much if you would do as I ask without protesting every step of the way,” he continued, with a finality which meant there was no questioning it further. With a sigh, he took a sip from his wine glass.

That night, when Andy slipped out into the darkness to meet Nathan at the gazebo for stolen kisses, she let his hand brush against her breasts for the first time, breaking her established rule of having hands only around each other. Before leaving, slightly before midnight, she pressed a piece of paper into his hand. Within it was a stanza, Rilke’s, naturally, in Andy’s neat, tight script.

Extinguish my eyes, I'll go on seeing you.
Seal my ears, I'll go on hearing you.
And without feet I can make my way to you,
Without a mouth I can swear your name.

It was the first time she had ever written him a note and she had written it fearful that the only person left who cared for who Andy von Schönfeld was, would be taken away, just like her Mother had been.

It was the last time she would ever see him again.

 

EARLY-SUMMER, 1938

The second time Andy met the Baroness, she came to a stunning realisation that she was indeed the “dear friend” father had wanted them to meet after a brief confusion at the hallway, and also Mira from the letter. Quite unexpectedly, Andy also realised that the woman was more beautiful up-close than Andy could recall from memory. In her sixteen and a half years of life, she had never seen anyone more remarkable in flesh and blood. The fact that she could recall so many details of the woman after this much time had passed was another unexpected matter entirely.

And her hair. It was like – snow.

It was odd. The woman wasn’t old (Father was surely older), but her hair made it difficult to determine her age. Her face was almost as lineless as Andy’s very own, but that could be a result of expertly applied, expensive cosmetics. Andy had seen some advertisements on window displays downtown for such purposes. She had to trample the urge to stare.

Ignoring the fact, of course, that she had never formally been introduced to Baroness Mira von Priess, and thus, had to work extremely hard at hiding her shock and pounding heart when she took the regal woman’s gloved hand in hers.

“How do you do, Andrea?” the Baroness said, her voice softer than what Andy would have imagined. Father must have explained in advance – that Andy was the one with the dark hair and eyes, Ilse with the blue eyes.

“Very well,” Andy replied, surprised at the way the Baroness had pronounced her name. It sounded foreign, unlike the way Father said it. “I hope you will like your stay here,” she added, struggling to school her features as best as she could and hoping that none of her initial shock had been visible to the woman, or God forbid, Father who was watching over their interaction like a hawk.

“I’m sure I will,” Baroness Priess said with a small smile, and shifted her piercing blue eyes onto Ilse, who shuffled her feet. “Hello, Ilse. How do you do?”

“Fine,” her sister said, showing no signs of recognition when she met the Baroness’ gaze.

Andy felt a burst of relief. It was strange and she couldn’t exactly describe why she was so nervous. Perhaps she was nervous on Father’s behalf, knowing that this woman could be his wife very soon.

She shot a glare at Ilse, and her younger sister swallowed. “I hope the trip was comfortable,” the younger girl added.

The Baroness nodded once. “It was, thank you for asking.”

At least Ilse had tried to sound sincere.

“Would you like to settle in? I can take you to your room,” Andy offered, wanting an excuse to observe the Baroness longer. She couldn’t stop staring at the hair – had it been so fair before? Recalling that night at Uncle Niels’ party, hiding behind the banisters and peering down into a world of glittering ball gowns, the only vivid image which came to mind was this woman, talking (arguing?) with Father, looking for all intents and purposes, ready to leave the party at any moment.

But she obviously hadn’t.

Because she was here, as Father’s friend, as someone important Father wanted them to meet.

As Mira.

It was a very lovely, unusual name, unlike Andy’s own guttural one. Even though Andy generally disliked when people addressed her by her proper name, she found that she didn’t mind it at all when the Baroness used it. Somehow, the way she spoke made Andy’s name sound nearly gentle.

She speaks with music in her words¸ Andy thought.

“Yes, that would be lovely,” the Baroness said, and moved to Uncle Niels to brush her cheek against his. “Thank you for the company,” she murmured as she stepped back.

The bald man flashed a brilliant smile. “Anytime, my dear,” he said, and gave Father a fleeting but meaningful look Andy caught.

“Richard, do make sure he behaves himself while I’m gone,” Baroness Priess said, a small upturn at the corner of her lips the only indication of her mirth.

“I take offense to that, Mira,” Uncle Niels said, looking every bit as offended as he proclaimed to feel. “Perhaps I had mistakenly understood the reason for my presence. Had I not been summoned along to carry out the specific duties of ensuring that the both of you –”

“Niels!” both the Baroness and Father said at the same time.

“What duties?” Andy asked, interested.

“Ah, I kid, I kid,” Uncle Niels said, putting both hands up in surrender, but Andy wasn’t sure if he was kidding at all.

It was during dinner that night, after Ilse pleaded a headache and retired early to bed, that Baroness Priess casually leaned over and said very quietly: “I remember you.”

As expected, it turned Andy’s knees to jelly and she almost dropped her soup spoon in response.

“P-pardon?” Andy chanced a look at the men at the table who were deep in conversation.

The Baroness followed her gaze. “That night at the party, where I first met your father. You were upstairs, weren’t you? I could hear you talking to your sister.”

Andy blushed bright red, mortified. Oh, heavens!

“A film star?” the Baroness drawled, eyebrow raised.

“Ah, it was just an observation. Please don’t be offended,” Andy begged. Father would be furious if he knew that she had compared a noblewoman to a common American film-star. “You see, you are just as beautiful,” she blurted, mind-racing to save the situation. And her own hide.

“As beautiful?”

“More beautiful,” Andy corrected. 

Baroness Priess narrowed her eyes, and Andy bit her lip. Then, suddenly she chuckled softly, making Andy frown in confusion.

“Baroness?”

“Hardly more beautiful, Andrea. But I appreciate the sentiment.” Her eyes twinkled with merriment. She was teasing! How cruel of her, letting Andy believe that she was genuinely offended and for God’s sake, it wasn’t as if Andy was lying. She resented it and felt that the assumption ought to be corrected at once.

“Oh. But I meant it,” Andy said, indignant.

The older woman tilted her head sideways, eyes roving over Andy’s face from under long lashes, darkened with mascara that Father would never allow her to wear. It made her face heat up, being watched like that.

Baroness Priess looked on the verge of saying something, but Uncle Niels’ interruption meant Andy was left to her own devices again. She should probably be thankful, since she couldn’t be sure what the Baroness had been about to say and it might have been a chastisement for Andy’s presumption. Maria wouldn’t have teased Andy like that, made her insides knot up like a tangled spring, but Maria was away tonight to visit an ill sister at the Abbey. 

The Baroness enjoyed word-games – that much Andy knew from observing the conversation at the dinner table – and she was sharp and blunt most times. She made a formidable opponent to Father and even Uncle Niels, men who frequently dominated opinions and conversation. It was exhilarating, to watch a woman so sure of herself and her opinions, in all her glory and more importantly, with men who appreciated it.

Andy found herself appreciating it too.

 

MID-SUMMER, 1938

Over the course of a month, Andy learnt that the Baroness could speak English and French, which would explain her uncommon pronunciation of Andy’s given name. And where she had missed how Nathan inspired her to write her thoughts when she had been trying to impress him, she now spent the hot afternoon days putting into words her abstract emotions and conflicted feelings regarding Baroness Priess after her lessons with Maria.

While her admiration for the Viennese socialite grew, so did her appreciation for her young governess. This made things difficult, because both women could not be further apart in terms of personality and opinions. Maria clashed increasingly with Father but what was even more outlandish was how Father would give in.

And the more he did, the more he changed.

The shift in their little family was for the better, Andy told herself. Ilse thrived, enjoying the attention of a nurturing governess but Andy had grown up without such affection, and had become accustomed to life without it. Even more alarming, was how Father wasn’t necessarily changing into another person. He was reverting to who he had been before Mother had died, the father Andy had grown up wishing for and had gone without.

Privately, Andy struggled to reconcile the aloof man she had known to the warmth she only remembered in her early childhood. She felt no small amount of guilt regarding her resentment towards the overt attention she was being given, as if her father was trying to compensate for all those years absent. There was no way to emphasise this dilemma to her father or Maria without hurt feelings involved, and as such, Andy decided that the best course of action was to bear the attention patiently whenever she needed to. It was not to say that she did not appreciate their efforts. She was glad that Father was happier than he had been in a long time.

Another puzzling development was her tendency to gravitate towards an enigmatic Baroness.

Dinner table conversations were lively, with Ilse and Maria frequently joining in dialogue now, but Andy had a distinct feeling that the Baroness was being deprived from the intellectual debates which had undoubtedly attracted her to Father in the first place. Even outings to town occurred in a troupe of six, instead of a threesome of adults as was the case when Baroness Priess first arrived.

For all the affection Father had professed to have for the Baroness, he wasn’t doing a good job at noticing the small things which gave her away. Even without words, Andy knew that the Baroness was not keen on the governess’ presence at all times. Andy had become attuned to identifying when the Baroness was irritated if a conversation happened to drag on too long (usually after the 5-minute mark) – she ground her teeth, and a muscle on her cheek would twitch tellingly. On occasion, she subtly brushed her hand against her temple which indicated a headache and Andy would offer to bring a cold water “for the heat”. A woman who spoke sparingly, elegantly, it wasn’t any wonder at all that she couldn’t enjoy the mindless prattling at dinner. Andy would bet that only Uncle Niels, aside from herself, noticed the Baroness’ quiet despondency since he seemed to spend more time talking to her than Father himself did.

More than once, from the window of her bedroom, Andy watched the woman prowling the gardens below or walking along the lake alone, as if restless. She reminded Andy of a caged exotic animal – majestic, beautiful, and so very lonely.

From time to time, Andy joined the Baroness on her walks, usually to escape the onslaught of over-exuberant affection for a bit of peace and solitude. Typically, their interactions consisted of a brief greeting and a casual comment on the weather, before falling into a silent companionship. Every so often, Andy would make a passing remark of not much importance, and used the Baroness’ response to gauge the mood she was in and if she was amenable to some conversation. They never spoke much, except when Andy wanted an opinion on books or essays she had read, or if she wanted to know the current political situation – unfortunately, Father still operated on the belief that Andy was five instead of nearly seventeen.

The first time Andy brought an English novel with her (she had been reading it over tea, had seen the Baroness leave the house and proceeded to go after her, book in hand), the older woman asked to take a look. It was the first time the woman had initiated dialogue and Andy fought to keep her elation hidden as she calmly handed over the object requested.

“Ah, this,” she said, and then returned the slim volume.

“Have you read it?” Andy asked, enjoying the sound their footsteps made on the stone pavement. They walked well together. Her longer strides against the Baroness’ shorter but purposeful ones painted a rhythm unique to her ears – a duet, a companionship.

“Yes, but many years ago, when it was first published. A friend brought a copy from America.”

“I got mine at the second-hand bookstore down town. I have always wanted to visit America.”

“Then you better brush up on your English first,” the Baroness teased, pushing her hands into the pockets of her trousers – this was also one of the many things which fascinated Andy, her penchant for trousers.

“I am,” Andy said, lifting up the novel for proof.

“Rather, the wrong side of paradise,” the Baroness mused, eyes caressing the novel’s cover. She turned and looked out over the lake after a while. The water glittered in the sunlight, like a million diamonds, and casted a flickering glow on her pale face.

Andy wanted to ask further, but wasn’t sure if what she heard had been intended for her ears. So instead, she casually leaned closer so her arm brushed against the other woman’s, in an attempt at comfort. To Andy’s substantial pleasure, she turned with a soft hum of surprise, and returned Andy’s encouraging grin with an almost-smile.

“I’m learning as fast as I can,” Andy said, feeling quite marvellous. “I’ve read two chapters.”

“You don’t have to rush,” her companion said. “It might be a while before you’d make it over there. I have heard some things,” she added, but did not elaborate.

A rustle of leaves hinted at an incoming draft, and Andy closed her eyes, savouring the cool air as it ghosted against her skin and hair. “All right. I shall take your word for …” She opened her eyes to see the Baroness pull her hand back and gasped. “Ah – what –”

The woman quirked her lips, clearly amused. “There was a leaf in your hair,” she offered and slipped her hand back into her pocket again, walking on ahead, leaving Andy to catch up.

The next time Andy joined the Baroness again, she worked up enough courage to ask her a question which had been plaguing her since breakfast. They walked in comfortable silence amongst the trees, towards the gazebo, until Andy broke it finally. “Uncle Niels says you won’t be joining us later. Why not?”

Baroness Priess shrugged an elegant shoulder. “I don’t feel like humouring a crowd. Besides, you know how loud the marketplace is. It gives me a headache.”

“But Father is going,” Andy said.

“Indeed he is.”

Had it really come to this? Andy’s majestic Baroness, withdrawing from them, in her loneliness? She had hoped that her companionship would help, even if she was not much of a match in the way Uncle Niels or Father was. “What if we went someplace else?” Andy asked, suddenly inspired.

Now, the woman looked intrigued. “Oh?”

“We don’t have to go to town with everyone else, if you don’t want to. We can take a different car.”

“And where do you propose we go?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe you’d like to visit a bookstore or buy a new dress. We can have coffee too. I know a place.”

The Baroness hummed, in that way that made Andy’s belly flutter with anticipation.

Realising that her offer was being considered, Andy perked up. “Or we could catch a picture, if you’d like. We won’t go near the market, and I promise to be quiet so you won’t get a headache. But you would have to drive because it is too far a distance for me.”

At that, the Baroness’ lips quirked. “I will drive if you promise to stop this nonsense about being quiet, silly girl.”

“But you don’t like pointless chattering,” Andy protested, feebly.

“No, I don’t. But I don’t believe you do such a thing.”

“Oh.” Stunned for a moment, Andy grinned at the compliment when she grasped what was being said, despite the way it was worded. “I’m glad.”

“As you should be,” the woman declared, a small smile playing on her lips and Andy felt like she had scored another success in her endeavour to make the Baroness Priess a little bit happier by the day.

They ended up visiting several dressmakers and boutiques, and a bookshop (not a second-hand one) before settling down in a quiet bistro for a very late lunch.

“This place reminds me of a coffee house I visit often at home. There are many places there like this. You would appreciate it, I think. Sometimes, one may even see important people there, writing their next masterpiece,” Baroness Priess said, languidly, still looking pleased about her new clothes. She had never quite lost the gleam in her eyes, even after they had decided to rest for nourishment.

The Baroness certainly had a healthy appreciation for clothes, a fair bit more than other people, Andy had to admit. But she did look spectacular and very chic even when it would seem she wasn’t trying, so it wasn’t for naught. She had tried to purchase Andy a few things, all very fashionable and unquestionably expensive, but Andy’s protests about ruining them with her clumsiness finally succeeded in making her reconsider.

“I have only been to Vienna once, a long time ago,” Andy said. A different lifetime ago when Mother was still alive. She barely remembered how the place looked like now.

“I would not be adverse to a visit from yourself after summer,” the Baroness said, slicing into her steak with relish.

Andy’s mouth ran dry. After summer? But Father had said that Baroness Priess was important. There was supposed to be an engagement, wasn’t there? Uncle Niels had admitted as much, when Andy had not-so-subtly questioned him weeks ago. They were supposed to announce it after summer, once the Baroness was comfortable enough in Salzburg.

“But won’t you stay here after Father –”

The older woman’s shoulders tensed visibly, and Andy immediately knew she had been unwise.

“I meant to say…”

“I know what you meant to say,” the Baroness said, nonchalantly, waving a hand as if to brush Andy’s concerns away. “Did you find anything you liked from the bookshop?” she said without missing a beat, effectively brushing Andy’s words away as well.

Deciding to graciously allow the change in topic, Andy grabbed onto the conversation. “Oh, Baroness, I did! They had a very good selection, some books I had never seen here before. Many languages, even Spanish – at least, I think it was. I can’t imagine anyone here knowing a word of Spanish!”

“You may be surprised. Any English books?”

Andy shook her head. “Not any that I was interested in. Did you find anything you liked? I saw you talking to the owner. What did you buy?”

“Ah,” the other woman said and leaned over the other chair at their table where her parcels sat. She picked out the second one from the top. “Something for you,” she said, and offered it to Andy.

Andy hesitated. “I couldn’t…”

“Really, Andrea. It is rude to refuse and you have already done so once. You cannot tell me that you would ruin books by being cumbersome as well. What a silly idea.”

Andy flushed and took the proffered gift. “No, no, it wasn’t my intention to be rude. I apologise for that. Of course, I will accept. Thank you very much, Baroness.”

“You are welcome,” Baroness Priess said.

And all throughout lunch, Andy must have looked like a fool, smiling endlessly, but she didn’t care.

We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fhragilely –

Fragile-ly.

…fragile-ly bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ayar –

Ajar.

Ajar and gl-gleaming – whie-ter-

White.

Andy huffed and closed the book, her index finger functioning as a temporary bookmark. “It’s harder to read aloud.”

The Baroness smirked, but kept her eyes on the road. A scarf secured her hair, with the exception of her beguiling forelock which refused to stay in place. “Says the girl who is learning as fast as she can.”

“I am!” Andy said, at once. Undeterred, she flipped the book open again. “Gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curt-curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flecks –

“Are you sure it says flecks?”

“F-l-a-g-s.”

Flags.

Flecks.

Flags. It isn’t sharp at the end.”

Flags,” Andy said, testing it out on her tongue.“Flags.

“Yes.”

Like pale flecks – flags. Like pale flags … twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the zeiling –”

“Ceiling.

“...of the ceiling and then rippled over the wine-coloured rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.” Andy sucked in a lungful of air, feeling out of breath. “It sure sounds like a grand place.”

“It is grand. The entire story is about the grandness of things and people, and the emptiness within,” the Baroness said, glancing at Andy from the corner of her eyes. “Much rather like our very own world.”

Andy held onto the book so tight, she didn’t realise she had bent the corners. “What about you?”

“What about?”

“Do you feel empty?” Because the Baroness was possibly the grandest person Andy had ever met.

The Baroness said nothing, but Andy saw her grip on the steering wheel tighten. Moments passed, along with countless trees along the road, until Andy let out a breath she hadn’t even realised she had been holding. She gradually returned to her book, unable to bear the agony of the silence without a means of distraction. It was only as Andy approached the end of the first chapter that she received a response to her question at last.

“Perhaps.”

It was said so softly, that it could have been the wind who spoke, instead of the blue-eyed, blue-blooded woman beside her. It might well have been the case, since when Andy turned to look at her, it was as if she hadn’t spoken at all.

 

LATE-SUMMER, 1938

Andy had seen it. Ilse had seen it as well, much to the girl’s delight. Uncle Niels had seen it, looking uneasy and rather concerned.

And the Baroness had definitely seen it.

They had formed that wretched circle, with Father seeing nobody but Maria in his arms as they danced, Ilse watching them, the Baroness watching all three of them, and Andy and Uncle Niels watching the Baroness watching them.

Suddenly, it all made sense. Andy had always wondered, in the privacy of her own thoughts, why the Baroness had always held a barely perceptible aversion towards Maria. Now, she understood that it wasn’t just the lack of ability to dress oneself well and low-born status, as Andy had initially assumed. She had noticed this thing, perchance even before Father or Maria had.

Andy was only glad that their guests hadn’t seen a single thing, since everyone who was invited to the party knew that Baroness Priess was a guest at the von Schönfeld home and had already formed their own speculations as to the reasons why.

The evening had taken an instant dive, morphing into a painfully awkward session, with Maria fleeing once she noticed the Baroness, and the Baroness avoiding Father ever since. While Andy would be happy for Father if he had indeed found happiness, she felt uncomfortable that of all the times for Father to take leave of his senses, it had to occur with a hundred guests present, where it would mean the Baroness’ humiliation if anyone had seen what Andy had.

Perhaps Andy had also taken leave of her senses as well, since this was the fifth time she had checked the foyer for any sign of a navy blue gown or pale hair. It was absolutely frustrating that the Baroness could choose to disappear in Andy’s very own home undetected. She was beginning to believe that the woman might have left the premises.

Walking out onto a nearby balcony where a few men were smoking cigars, Andy scanned the back gardens and areas of the piazza that were visible from where she stood. Sighing in chagrin when she couldn’t see anyone, Andy almost gave up, before noticing a glimpse of white disappear under a tree by the lake.

“Oh!” she exclaimed, attracting the attention of the men who had paid no heed to her before.  They raised their eyebrows at her. “Please excuse me, gentlemen. I thought I saw a swan in the lake,” she lied.

They smiled at her, placating, as if humouring a child. Andy couldn’t bring herself to bother as she hurried from the ballroom.

Stepping into the softness of the grass and relative darkness of the night, she could see the pale back of a dark form sitting on a marble bench, and knew she hadn’t been mistaken.

“Baroness Priess?” Andy said, softly.

The woman barely turned to acknowledge Andy’s presence but a slight tilt of her head indicated that she had heard.

“Do you mind?” Andy tried again, once she had approached the bench.

“No, of course not,” the Baroness said, impassively, still gazing ahead.

“I must confess, I hadn’t expected to find you out here,” Andy said, taking a seat and careful not to wrinkle her dress.

“Why not?”

“I thought you had left.” Left me, Andy didn’t say.

“Hmm.”

“Are you cold out here?”

“Not really. I enjoy the cool weather.”

Briefly, vague phrases of autumn and winter and affection surfaced in Andy’s mind. Words her father had written – they couldn’t mean much now, considering the current circumstances. “I like autumn,” Andy said, meaning nothing in the remark, but realising how true it was the moment she heard her own words.

“I do too,” the Baroness said, and fell silent again.

Andy wanted to reach out, but didn’t dare. “Baroness, I –”

“No. Do not say it. I do not want to hear it.” A change in expression settled across the statuesque face, the only indication that she wasn’t as calm or relaxed as she appeared to be.

“But –”

“No. Don’t you dare pity me,” she whispered sharply without turning her head.

Andy sighed. “I don’t.”

“Let’s keep it that way.”

The Baroness was a proud woman. So proud that she couldn’t accept kindness even when it was needed, it seemed. How torturous, it must be, to bear the burden of hurt and pain in isolation. Andy knew what that felt like, her misery in the first few weeks of not being able to see Nathan when Father had been in Vienna and having absolutely nobody to confide in. Andy barely thought of him now, preoccupied by other matters entirely, but she still remembered.

“Won’t you come back inside? People are beginning to realise you aren’t there.”

“Let them,” the Baroness snapped, and then pinched the bridge of her nose. “I apologise. That was very rude of me.”

“It’s all right,” Andy said, gently. Ploughing ahead, she added: “It just seems a bit sad, don’t you think? To remove the most beautiful and charming woman at the party, and leave our guests wanting and bored. I’m certain half the people in there came just to see you, Baroness. Are we honestly to leave them to fend for themselves with Uncle Niels?”

Mercifully, the older woman chuckled and looked at her incredulously.

“Oh my, aren’t you the shameless flirt? I am sure the gentlemen of Vienna could learn a thing or two about pleasing a lady from you.”

“Ah, so I pleased you then?” Andy said, exultant at her tiny victory. The silence went on a little too long, and Andy began to worry that she had said the wrong thing again, only to find the other woman gazing at her contemplatively. Aided by light spilling from the open windows and doors, Andy could see a faint pink on normally pale cheeks. It was unusually charming to see such a look on the habitually unfazed aristocrat.

“Baroness?” she prompted.

“Let us save our guests from Niels, shall we?” the woman in question said, and made to stand. She smoothed out an imaginary wrinkle on her pristine dress.

“Yes,” Andy agreed, standing up as well.

“It seems our dear Andrea’s treasure hunt has proven fruitful,” Uncle Niels said, just as they re-entered the ballroom.

“So fruitful in fact, it is amazing that she hasn’t found your hair,” Baroness Priess quipped, giving her friend a look.

Uncle Niels laughed, but Andy had a feeling that the woman had been chastising him in some way. Imaginably she didn’t appreciate his comment on her disappearing act. The Baroness Priess did not simply back down from anything and she most certainly did not hide. He moved closer and Andy pretended to be distracted by the people around them, as if looking for a face in the crowd.

“Are you quite all right, Mira? Do you want to leave?” she heard Uncle Niels say, so quietly that if Andy hadn’t been straining so hard to hear, it was unlikely that she would have heard anything.

“No, not yet, not tonight. I think it best to sort some matters out first. A bit more time.”

Andy fought against the urge to look, training her eyes on a particularly graceful couple on the dance floor as her heart thudded loudly in her chest. Not yet, please. Not yet. Time was something Andy needed rather desperately as well.

 

EARLY-AUTUMN, 1938

“Baroness?”

The woman stopped in her tracks. Her face was hidden, although she had turned slightly at the sound of her title. A soft breeze loosened the hair she had tucked behind her ear, hiding her face further.

“Are you –” Andy paused, fumbling for the correct words to say when she recalled how the Baroness didn’t take well to sympathy. “I saw Father leave just a moment ago. Are you all right?”

She had seen them talking, by the lake, had watched them until she saw the Baroness put a hand on Father’s arm and said something, nodding. Her father had bowed his head, kissed her cheek and then disappeared into the house, leaving the woman on her own by the lake. Andy had raced downstairs then, recognizing the interaction for what it was – a farewell.

“Of course,” the Baroness said, almost dismissively. As if Andy had been silly to be concerned. “I have been away from Vienna for far too long and it is time for me to return to where I belong.”

“So soon?” Andy asked. “I thought …”

Baroness Priess turned fully, levelling an even look at her. “No, no. Hold that thought. You and your sister will be pleased to know that your father has found someone he truly loves. I have decided that it is best for me to leave. It has been in good fun and I have enjoyed your company Andrea, but I do not enjoy being foolish and I have been foolish for far longer than I care to admit.”

Heart sinking, Andy felt the hot prickle of tears. She had so many things to show the Baroness, so many things to tell her. She had just finished the poem she had started writing and wanted desperately to read it to her, perhaps by the lake. She had imagined another trip downtown, where she could read aloud for the older woman to correct her, words lost in the wind. She needed more time – oh God, her heart ached and she was astonished by exactly how much.

“Perhaps you could stay until the end of the week?” she ventured.

The Baroness pursed her lips and Andy knew what the woman’s answer would be.

“No. That would not be wise. I have released your father from his obligation, and it would not be appropriate for me to stay here any longer. I will leave tomorrow morning and really should start packing,” she said, stiffly.

It was all so terribly unfair and Andy selfishly wished for a time before Maria had waltzed into their lives and turned everything upside down. Maria was kind, gentle, pure, and brought with her a simplicity that members of the aristocracy could never manage. She was like Mother in many ways and Andy could understand Father’s change of heart. Even so, she hated how Father’s happiness had simultaneously meant hurting the woman standing before her.

“I’m sorry about it all,” Andy said, lowering her eyes.

Something flashed in the Baroness’ eyes and she lifted her chin. “There is no need. We all do what we must. She will be a better mother to you girls than I ever will. It is for the best.”

Andy wanted to protest, but found the sentiment to be partly true. The Baroness, in all her sophisticated beauty and cunning intelligence, could never make the sort of parent Maria would (and Andy was sure Father would marry Maria now, more than anything). Try as she might, she couldn’t imagine the Baroness condoning Ilse’s penchant for climbing trees or Andy’s own preference for window ledges. That said, it didn’t actually mean that she would have made a bad mother.

“I know this won’t matter much now, Baroness, but I’d like to think you would have been a very good mother,” Andy said, taking a few steps forward to narrow the gap separating them. It felt odd, speaking to someone at such a distance but she regretted it as soon as she realised that her movement had resulted in the other woman taking a step back.

Andy halted, anxious that this could possibly be the last physical conversation they would ever have.

“That is very kind of you to say,” the Baroness replied, smiling tightly. “However, I am not sure that being your mother is something which would suit me.”

It was as if someone had thrown a particularly violent punch at her gut. The disappointment must have shown on her face, for icy eyes softened for a brief moment.

“Friendship would simply be more interesting, wouldn’t it, Andrea?” the Baroness said. She did enjoy having fun at Andy’s expense with her little word games and enigmatic smiles which teased of knowing and yet, revealed nothing.

Oh! “Yes, yes, it would,” Andy said, nodding enthusiastically with considerable relief. Her stomach hummed with a pleasurable warmth, seeing that some of the defeat had left the proud woman’s posture.

“Good. I am glad we agree on some things. I should go in. Goodnight, Andrea,” the Baroness said, dipping her head slightly. Her forelock fell over her left eye and Andy absently wondered how it would feel like to brush it aside.

Before she could return the wish, the woman had turned and walked away, footsteps echoing in the desolate night.

Friendship with the Baroness, Andy thought that night, turning the word over and over in her mind for the umpteenth time. How unexpected, but not exactly unwanted. She hadn’t been entirely sure what she had been seeking from their association – mother or friend – but Andy couldn’t bring herself to care so long as there was still a reason to keep up their acquaintance. After all, the woman was the only other person, apart from Nathan and maybe, Maria, who had demonstrated interest in Andy’s thoughts and unimportant little self. Oh, Father was important and everyone listened to him, but Andy von Schönfeld was just the Captain’s daughter, whose opinions would never matter in the grand scheme of things.

She opened her notebook to the page marked by a well-worn piece of Father’s stationery, folded to form a stiff makeshift bookmark. She tore the page out, the ripping paper loud in her quiet room.

Baroness Priess’s guest room was on the West Wing, the other side of the mansion. It wasn’t an area Andy frequented, but she supposed that had been the whole point. Ironically, Father had intended to shield her from Ilse’s tricks, learning from the experience with Frau Neumann but he could never have foreseen that it was the Baroness’ heart which had required guarding – and from himself, no less.

It took a whole minute after Andy’s tentative knock, to hear the lock turn.

“Andrea.”

“Good evening.” Standing before the woman, Andy had to admit that she had been hasty. “I just wanted to – well –” To ask the Baroness to stay? That would not do, Andy thought, berating herself. What had she been thinking?

“Would you like to come in?” the Baroness asked, as if obliged. She pulled her bathrobe closer to her body.

“Oh, I didn’t mean to interrupt anything. I only –” Miss you already. “Do you have everything you need?” Andy asked, instead, parroting what their Butler normally said.

“Yes,” the woman said, flatly.

Andy cringed. “All right. I should – um –”

“For heaven’s sake, just come inside and stop babbling,” the Baroness said, rolling her eyes and stepping inside, leaving Andy to follow.

“Oh,” Andy said, stupidly, and stepped inside the elaborate guest room. It was the grandest one in the mansion, befitting its grand guest.

There were some silk clothing items over the chaise and an open suitcase, but otherwise, most of the packing seemed to be done.

“Will you stay for breakfast?” Andy asked, standing awkwardly near the door.

“No, I don’t think so.” The Baroness ignored Andy, folding a silk shirt as she spoke. Her glossy manicured nails reflected the warm glow of the room’s electric lamp with each movement of her hands.

“Why do you want to return to Vienna? I have read that the Germans are not very friendly to people like you.”

If the Baroness had been offended by what Andy had said, there was no indication of it. “My dear, you needn’t worry your pretty head about me. I am well-aware as to what I am returning to, but Vienna is where my home is. Not Salzburg. Certainly not with your father, as we had established earlier. Think nothing of it.”

Think nothing of it? If only she knew how impossible the request was. Despite the fact that it was all Andy could think about, she only managed a muted nod. The page she had torn out of her notebook was crumpling more and more in her sweating palm with every passing minute. Dear God. It was now or never, as people liked to say.

“I have something for you.”

“Do you?” the Baroness said, finally ignoring her unpacked articles of clothing. She straightened, and Andy closed the distance between them in one long stride. This time, Baroness Priess stood unmoving where she was, regal and imposing.

“Yes,” Andy said, reckless and confident now that she knew for certain that the Baroness was leaving (and wasn’t running away from Andy like she had been only hours before). She held the page out, folded into half so the writing wasn’t visible at first glance, and saw cold blue eyes tracing the jagged edges where the page had been torn out.

A moment passed, long enough for a clap of thunder to echo through the walls, before the Baroness took what was offered.

“Don’t read it yet, please,” Andy whispered.

Baroness Priess looked down at the paper she clutched, and Andy felt very, very sad. On impulse, she reached out to touch a cool hand.

The Baroness shuddered, small and imperceptible, but Andy felt it under her fingers all the same. A raw hunger roared through her, resonating within her ears like the constant lashing of rain on the window panes, and she recognized the trembling in her own body as well.

“I’ll miss you, Baroness,” Andy said, leaning forward to brush her lips against a soft, warm cheek.

“Silly girl,” the woman said, but her words held no rebuke.

“I am, probably,” Andy said, taking a regrettable step back. But her heart was full and she burned with the desire to touch her lips to the other woman’s painted ones. She wouldn’t, though. She shouldn’t. “Undeniably.”

“Silly girl,” the Baroness repeated and pressed her red lips to Andy’s.

Her senses were on fire as she breathed in the aristocrat’s heady scent. She ran her tongue against soft lips, and felt them part for her. The Baroness herself tasted sweet, emphasised by an underlying note of something alcoholic. It made an intoxicating combination, and Andy’s head swam. Oh God. Silly, she had been utterly foolish, convincing herself that she had been in love with that boy. Nathan – Nathan had been nothing compared to this and she was never gladder to have him gone.

And then, someone was pushing at her shoulders, and Andy’s eyes snapped open to stare into sad blue ones. She felt it in her chest before she even heard the words.

“Andrea,” Baroness Priess said, resolute, still holding Andy’s fragile gift in her hand. She lifted a hand to wipe at Andy’s lips with her thumb, shakily removing traces of red lipstick and whatever strange connection that had transpired between them. Her hand lingered. “My dear girl.”

“May I write you?” Andy whispered, leaning slightly into the warm touch.

The Baroness dropped her hand, and smiled her almost-smile. “Would that be wise?”

“You offered your friendship, Baroness. Are you rescinding your offer?” Andy said, defiant. Everyone was worried about potential war, even if they pretended that they weren’t and if there was potential death involved, at least she would die knowing that there were at least two people in the world who had gotten to know her heart before it stopped beating.

“No, I am not,” the Baroness said, acknowledging Andy’s point with an elegant nod. “Of course, you may write.”

“Thank you. I shall leave you to finish packing?” Andy said, quietly.

“Yes, it is getting late.”

A pang of regret shot through Andy’s chest. “All right. Have a good journey tomorrow,” she said, heart aching.

“I will. Goodnight, Andrea.”

“Auf Wiedersehen, Baroness,” she said, and slipped out the room without waiting to hear a response, terrified to hear what it would have been.

It wasn’t goodbye. Not if she could help it.

Andy hadn’t fallen in love for the first time at sixteen. No, she had been fourteen and wildly infatuated with the idea of the Baroness that night she had first laid eyes on her, carrying around vivid memories of striking fair hair ever since.

In her fitful sleep that night, Andy dreamt of soft feathers brushing her cheek and piercing blue eyes.

The next morning, she woke up to a hollow sense of abandonment and a piece of paper which had been slipped under her door. On it, hastily scrawled was a brief note in English and a promise.

 

Thank you for a grand time.

It was most assuredly not empty or lacking in any manner.

Auf Wiedersehen.

 

M.v.P.