The next several days were spent with Georg becoming reacquainted with his children, and Elsa nervously trying to remember all of their names, let alone which name belonged to which child. She'd learned that the littlest one, the one who'd given her the nosegay, was Gretl; but she only remembered by associating with her favorite fairy tale from her own childhood. More often than she should have, Elsa would claim a headache, or fatigue, and retire to her room or a quiet corner to avoid the whole situation.
What made it worse was that when she did stay, each time she looked to Max for support, he appeared to be laughing. At her or with her, she could never really tell. As for Georg, well - Elsa may as well have stayed in Vienna. She was used to his undivided attention and she wasn't happy about sharing it.
"Oh, Elsa, why so glum?" Max queried, as the two sat in the drawing room after dinner one night. "You've hardly touched your port."
Elsa looked at the glass in her hand, and swirled the brownish liquid. "Oh, nothing. Nothing I can articulate, anyway," she answered. Georg had taken to going up to the childrens' quarters at their bedtime, tucking them in and reading stories. Why in the world he needed to do the job the governess was hired to do, and did alongside him, was both curious and unnerving.
"No need. You don't like sharing, and now you're having to share Georg. Any fool could see that. Even me," he added, raising his glass as if in a toast.
She looked at him plaintively. "I suppose that makes me an awful person, doesn't it? Begrudging him time with his children?"
"Not awful, no. Unrealistic, perhaps. Though I can certainly understand why you feel that way, considering he barely acknowledged them these past few years. You certainly didn't see things changing on your first visit here." Max took a long sip of his own port. "I know I certainly didn't expect it. Makes one wonder what in the world that little governess said to him outside that first day, doesn't it?"
"You really think it was something the governess said? I can't imagine he'd take anything she said seriously, she's barely out of her teens herself." She paused, sipping from her glass. The young woman was more than capable, and certainly seemed to have the young ones firmly wrapped around her finger, they followed her as adoringly as puppies. And it hadn't passed her observation that Maria was also quite pretty, kind, bright, and charming. "Regardless, I guess I'll have some more kindergarten time tomorrow. Georg mentioned something about taking the children shopping in town."
Max lit up. "Oh, really? That sounds like a fascinating outing. I do believe I will have to join you in that excursion."
The next morning Elsa rose early, cursing the ungodly hour Georg had asked for breakfast to be served. She could see how important this outing was for him, so she was willing to go along, even if she had to pretend to be happy about it.
By the time she reached the dining room, everyone but Max were in their regular places. Georg stood and pulled her chair out, then returned to his own seat.
"Good morning, darling, did you sleep well?" He inquired.
"Yes, for as long as I slept." Elsa looked around the table, suddenly feeling out of place. "I, ah, I'm not used to rising so early," she explained. The children continued to look blankly at her, while their governess managed a small smile.
"Oh, perhaps you'll be able to get a rest in this afternoon, Baroness. The Captain says we'll be returning home right after lunch."
Elsa turned back to Georg. "Is that so? I had hoped to be able to do some shopping while we're in Salzburg. Perhaps Fraulein Maria and Max can return with the children, while we stay in town?"
"Max will do what, you say?" The impresario blew into the room as if he'd been awake for hours, which Elsa couldn't imagine.
"If you've been talking about me, I do hope it was something terribly exciting," he said, taking his place at the table across from Elsa, between Georg and little Marta, Max tugging the little girl's braid and making her giggle.
"Just that perhaps you could accompany Fraulein Maria back here with the children after lunch, while Georg and I spend some time together," she told him, raising an eyebrow in case he didn't understand that it was not a request but a command.
"We can certainly discuss that later, darling," Georg interrupted. "Now, Fraulein Maria, if you will say the grace we can all eat and be on our way."
Elsa didn't have much appetite for food at such an ungodly hour - why, it wasn't even nine yet! - so simply sipped her coffee and picked at a pastry. The children were chattering wildly amongst themselves with occasional comments from Georg or the governess. In between dealing with the children, they would share a look, or a smile, just between themselves. She continued observing their interaction, wondering what it was about. Halfway through her second cup of coffee, she noticed Max watching her.
"What?" she asked quietly.
"I just find it amusing, seeing you in this little family tableau," he smirked. "You're adorable when you are so completely out of your element."
Elsa shushed him, as she noticed Georg begin paying attention to their conversation.
Once in the heart of the city, Georg made sure that each of the children got a new set of clothing appropriate for outdoor play that wasn't made of old drapes. He then allowed each of them to choose a shop to visit, reflecting their own interests. Elsa learned through listening in on his conversations with the governess that the Fraulein was encouraging him in this manner, making suggestions as to what each of the children enjoyed. Elsa, too, tried to pay attention to what each of them liked, but most of it was so deadly dull it was increasingly difficult as the morning wore on.
What did fascinate her was the difference she was seeing in Georg. Since their arrival from Vienna there had been an incredible transformation. Perhaps fascinate wasn't the right word, though; that implied that it was a change she enjoyed, or at least could live with. It was becoming very obvious to her that the chances of getting him to agree to boarding school for the seven children was unlikely.
After traipsing through a toy store where the two little girls chose identical baby dolls, a cartographer's shop where the older boy opted for a compass, and then on to the bookstore where it took an absolute dog's age for the three middle ones to make their choices, Elsa was relieved when the oldest girl, Liesl, asked to go to the milliner's for a summer hat. At last there would be something she could browse at while the girl made her selection.
Along the way to the hat shop, however, the entire procession came to a halt, when the governess stopped in front of a large display window. "Oh, it's still here! Captain, do you suppose we could bring the children in for a look?"
Elsa glanced at the sign next to the door. Professor Kohner's Puppetry. Without intending to, she let out a deep sigh, causing Max, Georg, and the governess to turn in her direction. Fortunately, Gretl began begging her father to let them see the puppets, and Elsa was grateful for the distraction.
"You go on, Georg, take the children in. I'll just sit over there, in the shade, and wait for you," she offered.
He looked at her curiously. "Are you sure, Elsa? We'll only be a minute or two," he said, as Gretl gently tugged on his hand.
"Of course, dear. You all go on," and she stepped over to the small bench on the sidewalk.
The minute or two dragged on and on, until Elsa could stand it no longer and made her way back over to peer in the window. The children were merrily engaged in looking at a variety of marionettes, while the three adults conferred behind them, Max gesturing wildly, Fraulein Maria looking pleased as Punch, and Georg smiling broadly. She continued watching as Max disappeared toward the back of the store, and Fraulein Maria leaned in to whisper something to Georg. He then did the same, whispering to the young woman, and as he did so, he placed his hand on the small of her back. The governess smiled brightly at him before she began gathering the children together and leading them to the exit. And Elsa was left pondering why Georg touched the governess in such an intimate manner, and more, why it didn't bother her as much as she thought it should.
By the time the large group had finished lunch, it was long after the noon hour. Everyone, adults and children alike, agreed that it was best to head home, and spend a leisurely afternoon recovering from the morning's activities. They were all piling into Georg's car, when a thought occurred to him. "Elsa, I apologize, did you want to spend more time in town, just the two of us? I know you'd mentioned that this morning," he remembered.
She almost accepted the offer, then demurred. "No, it's all right, really. After waking so early this morning, I could use some rest myself. We can come again another time, darling," she reassured him.
Max guffawed. "Elsa, turning down time alone to shop in town with our wonderful host? You must have a fever."
Elsa scowled at him. "It's nothing of the sort." She slid to the middle of the wide front seat, and Max joined her, closing the door after he was safely inside.
"Well, what is it then? I've never known you to be too tired to shop."
"Nothing. Well, nothing I want to talk to you about right now, with everyone here eavesdropping,"
"We're not eavesdropping, Baroness," piped up a small voice from the backseat. "We can't help but hear," the voice continued.
"Kurt, now sit back, and don't be rude," Elsa heard the governess say. "Even if you can overhear, it isn't polite to comment on other people's conversations."
Elsa was impressed at the young woman's disciplining of the youngster, but even so, told Max she'd speak with him later on, and settled in for the drive back to Aigen.
Upon arriving at the villa, Max, Elsa and Georg exited the car first. Five of the children popped quickly from the enormous backseat, Liesl holding her finger to her lips. "Fraulein Maria has fallen asleep along with Marta and Gretl, Father," she said quietly.
"Thank you, Liesl, you go on. Uncle Max and I can carry the girls, and I'll wake Fraulein Maria," he told her.
Elsa peeked into the back of the car. Gretl was snuggled up on Maria's lap, her head tucked into her governess' neck, Maria's cheek resting on the little girl's head. Marta was tucked beneath Maria's other arm, the girl's arms around the young woman's waist. To Elsa, they looked for all the world like a mother and daughters from some sort of painting. Her heart caught, and she looked away briefly.
"Fraulein? Fraulein, wake up, we're home," she heard Georg say softly, so as not to startle the young woman. Elsa watched as he lifted Marta first, and handed her off to Max, who carried the still sleeping girl into the house to continue her nap. Fraulein Maria reached out, having immediately woken as Marta left her grasp. She visibly relaxed as Georg reassured her the girl was in Max's safe possession.
He next tried to disentangle Gretl from her governess, but she yelped loudly in her sleep, which made him stop. She clung more fiercely to Fraulein Maria, but didn't wake. Maria assured Georg that she could manage with the youngster, if he could just help her from the car. Elsa watched as he carefully supported her as she stepped out, and assisted her in standing against the weight of the sleeping five year old. Once the fraulein was steady on her feet, she thanked Georg in a whisper, and carried the little girl into the house. Georg's gaze followed the young woman with his daughter in her arms, until Elsa cleared her throat.
Elsa and Georg simply looked at one another for a long moment, before Elsa broke the silence.
"It seems the children are quite comfortable and attached to this governess. You must find that to be quite a relief." She smiled gently at him, and he took her arm, steering her toward the house.
"Yes, they seem quite enamored of Fraulein Maria."
"And you? What do you think of her?" Elsa asked before she could begin to wonder if she wanted the answer or not.
"Well, she's a lovely young woman, and she cares deeply about my children. I can't really ask for more than that I suppose," he replied, his voice drifitng off.
Elsa considered his response. "No, I, ah…. I don't suppose you can." They'd reached the entry foyer, and she turned to him, kissing his cheek. "If you'll excuse me, darling, I'll go up and rest now. I'll see you at dinner."