An opportunity to speak with the governess presented itself even before Elsa had finished her morning coffee.
"Baroness Schraeder, might I have a word with you?" Fraulein Maria asked, seeming a bit nervous as she approached Elsa, sitting at the table on the terrace.
"Of course, my dear, what is it?" Elsa was intensely curious as to what the governess had to say.
"Well, I know the Captain has left you in charge of the party planning, and I was just wondering. . . .the children are so very excited, and they'd like to surprise their father and the guests with a song." She left the request hanging in the air, like wet clothes on a line.
My children do not sing in public. Georg's declaration rang through Elsa's memory, and she knew the governess remembered his words as well. She considered the request for several long moments before responding.
"I think that's a wonderful idea, Fraulein. The Captain's objection would surely not apply to them singing in their own home, for friends and family. What is it they'd like to perform?"
"I'd taught them a song a few weeks ago, and they'd like to make it a goodnight song when they are excused from the party," she explained.
Elsa smile warmly. "I think that would be lovely, dear." She paused thoughtfully for a moment. "Do they have appropriate clothing?" She wasn't sure the governess would know what was appropriate, however.
"I don't think so. They do have their play clothes, and their uniforms, but it has been rather a long time since they've needed any other attire, I'm afraid. The Captain has been so generous in providing everything I've asked of him, but since they want to surprise him. . ." Maria answered.
Elsa pondered for a moment, then had an idea. "I'm making a trip into town later today. Do you have their measurements, from when you made their play clothes? I'm sure if I return to the shop where their other clothes were purchased, I could find something suitable for them."
"Oh, that would be just wonderful, Baroness, thank you! I'll just run up and get the measurements for you now. If you'll excuse me?" Elsa nodded, and the young woman quickly hurried back into the house.
Maria moved with a grace that belied the humble beginnings Elsa had learned about her in the past weeks. Orphaned as a little girl, and then such an unhappy living arrangement with a distant relative, it was no wonder that the pretty, young thing had looked for a protective environment. What was more protected than an abbey?
Rushing back outside, Maria handed Elsa a sheet of paper. "Here it is, ma'am. All of the children's measurements. Is there anything else you think you'll need? I should get back to the children, I've left them alone long enough," she noted.
"I'm sure they'll be fine, dear, please, sit down. We haven't really gotten a chance to speak to one another, have we?" Elsa gestured to the chair across the table. "Would you care for some tea, or coffee?"
Maria took a seat, but shook her head. "No, thank you." She fidgeted a bit in the chair, crossing and then uncrossing her legs; placing her hands together in her lap, then separating them again, with one brushing a non-existent hair from her eyes, the other worrying a crease into the fabric of her skirt. Elsa sought to make her feel more at ease.
"So tell me, have you been enjoying your time here? The children do seem to be quite attached to you. You've made quite an impact here, I must say."
"Oh, yes, I've become quite attached to the children, too. They really are delightful, and never fail to give me something to smile about," Maria gushed.
"And their father? I noticed he's changed quite a bit since your arrival. You've worked small miracles with this family, Fraulein Maria. I'm quite sure they are indebted to you." Elsa didn't want to spook her by coming out directly and asking how she felt about the man.
As Elsa watched, a blush crept up Maria's cheeks, and her eyes took on a new glimmer. "I can't take much credit for that. They were a family all along, they just needed a reminder of how much they love one another," she said. Elsa couldn't help but notice that Maria tried not to make eye contact with her.
"You certainly should take credit, for much is due. I've known Georg - the Captain - for quite some time now, and I've never seen him so, ah, content, as he has been these past few weeks." Elsa leaned forward, as if confiding in the girl. "Dare I say, he's quite pleased with the way things are going. Are you certain of your plans? You know, of returning to the Abbey? It would be such a loss for them, I'm sure they'll all miss you terribly."
A passing cloud of melancholy crossed Maria's face, and she cleared her throat before replying. "Yes, I will miss them very much. But after September I won't be needed here. The children will be back at school, and you and the Captain -" Maria clamped her hand over her mouth. "I'm sorry, now I'm prying and talking of things which are none of my business. Please forgive me, but I really have to go back upstairs. The children must be finished with their lessons by now." She was gone in a flash, before Elsa could even consider telling Maria that what she'd assumed - an engagement - was no longer going to happen.
That afternoon, Max and Elsa went into town together, as they had every other day. Max had a meeting with a potential investor, though, so Elsa was left on her own to run several personal errands, and to find the shop that had supplied the clothing for Georg's children on their previous visit to town.
When she reached Bonner's Kinderladen, Elsa opened the door as a bell jingled, signaling the clerk from behind a curtain. "May I help you?" The pleasant looking woman who greeted Elsa came around the racks of ready-made dresses.
"Yes, I do hope you can. I need coordinating, formal dresses for five girls, and traditional suits for two boys," Baroness Schraeder explained. "However, I don't have enough time for custom clothing."
"Certainly, ma'am. Where are the children?" the woman inquired.
"Oh, they are at home with their governess. I only have their measurements. Will that do?" Elsa said, handing over the paper Maria had given her.
The clerk looked over the list, tut-tutting and um-hmming to herself, then pursed her lips and furrowed her brow.
"I'm sorry, ma'am, but you said you need five dresses? Which of the girls doesn't need one?" she questioned.
Elsa herself was puzzled now. "Yes, five girls. Is there a problem?"
The clerk handed her back the paper. "There are six girl's measurements here. Which ones need the dresses?"
Looking quickly over the writing on the paper for the first time, Elsa saw the names of Georg's children, listed in age order, boys first, then the girls. But tucked at the bottom of the page after Gretl's name was Maria's.
"Oh, I see. The last name is their governess. She'd been making the children clothing, at the same time she'd made herself some dresses." Elsa handed the list back to the clerk. "Just the children, please."
After several failed attempts to find five dresses in the correct size in the same color, Elsa settled on a group of pale yellow and white in a variety of styles. The boys were much easier, traditional Austrian suits with short pants being the only choice. After arranging for payment and delivery of the outfits to the villa-to her own name, so Georg would not be suspicious and the surprise be ruined-she set out for the cafe where she was to wait for Max to join her.
"Elsa, you really must help me get Georg to allow the children to sing in that festival," Max persisted, as he sipped his coffee.
"I'm afraid since we've ended any talk of marriage that I don't have that sort of sway with him, Max," she replied. "But, if it's a matter of influence, someone else may . . ."
He stopped eating strudel long enough to interrupt her. "You know something," he accused, gesturing at her with his fork.
"Perhaps . . . I think maybe the one you need to talk to is the fraulein." Elsa smiled demurely at her friend. She went on to explain what she'd noticed happening between the pair, and was relieved to find that she wasn't alone in her observations. Max had noticed the same, perhaps even more, as Georg was less guarded about his fascination with her when Elsa wasn't around.
"So, you seem to have something in mind. Tell me," he said, tossing a few marks on the table to cover the bill, and they strolled out of the cafe down the street toward Elsa's last errand, picking up her own dress after having alterations done.
"As you know, she came to me this morning asking if the children could perform," Elsa reiterated. "Perhaps when they are finished, you, his dear friend, can insist she stay for dinner," she explained. "The children will be the hit of the evening, everyone will be talking about how wonderfully they sing. I saw her face when you first brought up the idea, and she looked very pleased. Once you have her in your pocket, so to speak, it should be easy for her to get Georg on board."
"That's very clever, darling. But how do we know she'll agree to do this?" Max scoffed.
Elsa had stopped walking, as they'd reached the boutique. "I haven't figured that out yet. But I'm sure I'll think of something." She entered the storefront, as Max went on to fetch the car.
While waiting for the seamstress to package her gown after this final fitting, Elsa glanced around the small shop. It was tiny, though brightly lit, and nowhere near as elegant as the shop she used in Vienna. Her friend Lotte had assured her this woman did work that was as wonderful as any that could be found in the larger city, and Elsa was equally pleased. Apparently many others were as well, judging from the rainbow of colored garments waiting to be tended to.
A lovely gown hanging alone behind the clerk's station caught Elsa's eye, and when the woman returned with her package she couldn't help but inquire about it. "Oh, that? I had a request for it to be made for a young woman, but when she saw it she disliked that it was white, so the mother agreed to find a different dress for her. So very sad, how unappreciative children can be these days," the woman added. "I'm trying to sell it, if you know anyone who might be interested."
The idea hit Elsa like lightning, and she reached in her purse for the paper Maria had given her that morning. "Would it fit a young woman with these measurements?"
She exited the shop with the two boxes carrying two very different dresses, feeling very pleased with herself and the plan she'd come up with. Max noticed her mood immediately.
"You look like the cat that ate the canary," he remarked.
"Hah, you shouldn't be poking fun, darling," she chastised. "I've got something in mind to solve your problem, and I get to play fairy godmother in the process."