Happy chatter filled the dining room of the von Trapp villa, the chatter of seven delighted children conversing together over their meals. Underneath those high tones were the low voices of adults who shared the meal and the space with them, their conversations quite apart from those of the happy charges of one certain governess who sat quietly at the foot of the table, a little girl on each side of her, murmuring responses quietly to them whenever they turned to her with sparkling eyes seeking affirmation, reminding them to tuck their elbows in and not lean on the table, but otherwise quite apart from everything around her.
The chasm between what was and what had been on a cool spring evening in early June could not possibly be any wider.
Maria Rainer looked with unseeing eyes upon the tall, dark naval captain with piercing blue eyes, his betrothed beside him, a sophisticated, glittering Viennese socialite dressed in a ruby red gown fitted to her figure, their mutual friend the impresario whose suit was much less refined but nevertheless appropriate for dinner regaling them a story. The man, these children called 'father.' The woman, she would be 'mother.' And the impresario, well, he was 'Uncle Max,' of course.
Who was she? Who was she, sitting at the foot of this table full of people, beyond the little fräulein?"
Somewhere in the hall beyond, a clock chimed the hour, and the children clamored eagerly to the ballroom to play with their puppet show.
After the children piled out, the captain and the baroness and the impresario indicated that they would retire to the drawing room for drinks.
"You're welcome to join us, Fräulein Maria," the Baroness said, in a tone that was gracious but nevertheless expecting refusal.
Maria shook her head, rising to her feet, only too happy to perform as expected. "If you'll permit it, Captain," she said, waving a hand deferentially while looking only at her feet, "I would like leave to take a walk on the grounds before the children must be put to bed."
If the governess had been watching, she would have seen the softening of the naval captain's austere expression as his eyes widened and he shook his head, saying lightly, "Of course, Fräulein, you may go."
But she wasn't watching, and she kept her head bowed as she nodded and left the room, sweeping past the aristocrats who watched her go with varying expressions of bemusement.
The clicking of the front doors as she pulled them shut behind her and the cool breeze of the night air hitting her skin was the first real breath that Maria took in what had felt like hours.
Looking around her, she glanced up at the sky and saw the moon, and decided to go around to the back, to walk in the gardens. Just as she had several weeks ago, she had slipped out the front doors in order to go unnoticed, particularly by the children. Unlike several weeks ago, she no longer wanted to run.
She just wanted to wander.
The tread of her feet on the stone path was loud in her ears. The methodic grind, twist, and lift of her shoes as they sank into the gravel and lifted away, over and over, those were the next moments she could breathe through. After that, it was the softness of her heels sinking into the grass. Beyond that, it was the cold metal of the wrought iron gate on the skin of her hands as she grasped it and looked out over the scape of the water.
The breeze was strong tonight, sending ripples across the water's surface. It caused her fringe to sweep away from her face, for the blue chiffon organza dress she wore to flutter in the wind. The wind was warm, and comforting, and it felt like a caress.
The burn of tears pricked the corner of Maria's eyes, and the emotion she'd shut off for the entire day finally welled in her chest and caused her to choke on the depth and breadth of the feeling.
She and the captain had spoken to each other that afternoon, but since then? Not a word that did not need to be spoken, and those that were had to do with the children in some way. But the words she had said—she meant every one.
Staying would be the height of impropriety. She knew her words had been right. And she'd even had a plan, a plan for herself that had fallen away the moment Brigitta opened her mouth to speak. Part of her wondered—had she always known this was how it would be? That she'd worked up the courage to take the chance because it hadn't been courage at all?
She had always known, after all, that the captain intended to marry the fine baroness that was reclining on a sofa inside the looming villa just now, holding a tumbler of scotch with just the right balance of firmness and daintiness, which gave her the indubitable airs of being a lady.
Which Maria would never be.
Perhaps returning was the thing she'd done because it was the safe thing. For although she had no clue of hide nor hair what she was supposed to do with herself now, she had known as she stepped back onto von Trapp grounds that she would never return to Nonnberg Abbey.
Why did this all hurt so terribly?
Maria was accustomed to loss, but pain that choked her, constricted her chest, and stuck to her like molasses? She knew it, but not the way it followed her now. This pain, it had a voice, and it spoke to her in tantalizing whispers, iterating for her not what she had lost through fate, but what she had lost because of her failings. She had, after all, dared to believe she could have something that had never once been meant for her—she, Maria, wife of a nobleman?
She barked a bitter laugh. Had she learned nothing in her weeks of silence?
She kept jumping to the consummation. The Reverend Mother had been trying to pull her back from that brink for years, now, and not, she now understood, because Maria somehow wasn't categorically suited to the life of a nun, but because she, Maria, the mysterious girl of the mountains and a past no one knew, words she would not share, kept trying to leap over the mess that was the middle to arrive at the end result.
The Reverend Mother hadn't sent her to secure a marriage proposal. She had sent her to find out.
Find out if he loved her.
It had hit her, the moment Louisa confirmed what Brigitta said that afternoon, that now, she would never find out.
Her purpose for leaving and her purpose for returning were, in one fell swoop, gone.
The whispers caressed her now, and the pain in her chest tightened ever more. Oh, if she could send this pain away by rocking over the spikes of the gate she leaned against, bruising her skin and reminding her of something real, rock until she could breathe again—
Walk. She had to walk. If she walked, she would find the gazebo. Once she found the gazebo, there would be a place to sit. Perhaps, then, the whispers would go away and she could breathe again.
She looked out across the water, studying the ribbon of the moonlight across the great expanse. Slowly, with one hand, she reached out as if to touch it, but then sucked her breath in sharply, gripped with paralysis again.
Well, a walk through the gardens could at least be clarifying. The gardens from here would bring her to the gazebo and its blessed stone garden benches.
Stone. She'd gone to stone the second he'd dared speak to her. She hadn't been rude, but she had been cold. He had the right to ask why she'd left, certainly, because she was the governess and therefore supposed to oversee the care of his children. She had apologized for her fault in leaving without a goodbye, asked forgiveness, but she knew before the question came that he would ask it—who wouldn't? But she also knew that she couldn't give the answer. It would bring her to complete humiliation, and nothing in those moments before then told her that the truth was safe with him.
So she shut the door, and she laid her boundaries, and she walked away.
His eyes had pierced through her, nevertheless, and a shiver ran through her at the thought that perhaps he had read her mind anyway. Because how could he possibly have said such a ludicrous thing as the suggestion that she stay, despite the engagement, if he couldn't look into her mind and see how desperately she wanted to say yes?
The shiver was in her bones, now, and reflexively she drew her arms around herself, hugging her chest, rubbing the raised gooseflesh of her arms, feeling the silken fabric of her dress beneath her hands. In this sensory reminder, there was the pang of pain, the reminder of other times his eyes had pierced hers, but there was also defiance, there. He had dared to insult her by implying that she stay, and so, in the clearest thought she'd had in the time before their encounter and since, she'd impulsively donned the dress for dinner.
Even though she couldn't make her smile meet her eyes, she'd fastened the buttons as though she was lacing up armor, and for just a few moments, she felt strong. So, fighting back the urge to vomit, and the impulse to change into something else, she kept the dress on and went to gather the children and escort them back down to the dining room.
It had all happened so fast, and now it was dark.
Under the cover of darkness, Maria walked, rubbing her arms, feeling the fabric of her dress, a dress she had deigned to buy because he had seen her lingering over it in a catalogue of patterns and remarked that it would suit her.
She had frowned at the details, unsure if she could master the honeycomb stitching on the neck and properly fit the stiff, structural belt to her frame without help, but never one to shirk a challenge, she had bought the pattern and the fabric and had enjoyed the challenge that the dress had provided for a few weeks' worth of evenings. And then she put the blue dress on for the first time, and she felt so pretty that she couldn't help the smile that broke out, and she couldn't help but notice how she stood a bit taller and felt a bit bolder and suddenly chances weren't so scary.
Why else had she dared to present her guitar to the captain that night, despite her surprise that the children had nominated their father to sing for them? Surely she wouldn't have done it any other night.
And then, for some unknown reason, he acquiesced, and took the instrument from her, and sang that song, and he had looked over at her, and again those eyes had pierced through her, and she had seen the man that Agathe Whitehead must have loved, and she fell in love with him, too.
This tough, rigid, rule-following man had softened not just at the urging of his children, but at her persistence, and it had cracked something wide open that she thought had been about him, but she knew now… well, it had really been about her.
Looking around, she saw that she had arrived at the gazebo, so, training her eyes back on her feet, she directed her path toward a bench and sat down, and hunching over, thought that perhaps it was indeed easier to breathe again.
At least, it had been for one shining moment.
The torment that followed was what to do with herself. What would she say, where would she go? Was it possible for Maria to leave this place again without full honesty? Was withholding the truth for the sake of the marriage now stretched before her like a mockery of everything she'd hoped to believe just another way of skipping through the mess of the miry clay and landing elsewhere? Was she confusing what was right for what was easy?
Panic rose up in Maria's breast, the constriction of her breathing started anew. She straightened instinctually, startled, and simply stared at the man before her. Captain von Trapp.
"I thought… I just might find you here," he said lightly, clearly in response to her reaction to him.
Maria suppressed her instinct to jump up and back away, but stood to her feet automatically, asking in a voice filled with sorrow, "Was there something you wanted?"
"Hmm—no, no, no, no!" came the hasty reply. The careless wave. "Sit down! Please."
At any other time, in any other place, Maria might have remarked to herself how odd it was that this aristocrat, this naval captain, had walked himself down to the grounds in the dark, with only the moon to guide him, to speak to the governess. Speak to her. And then invited her to sit in his presence, as though they were equals.
He advanced toward her, waving again. "Go on. Please."
But Maria thought none of these things. She couldn't afford to. Instead, miserable and wanting to be left alone, she did not rise to the bait he held before her, and simply dove beneath the intended impact that his presence and his words were surely, oh surely, meant to have. Though not able to discern the nature of the impact clearly, this much—this much, she knew. So, she sat.
He glanced around nonchalantly as she did so, but he kept glancing back in Maria's direction, and when she had settled again, he asked politely, almost gently, "Uh, may I?"
A shrewder woman than she would see this game for what it was, and make him work ruthlessly for what he came for, Maria thought bitterly, noticing how the man in her presence awkwardly sat down on the opposite side, opposite end of the bench she sat upon now, dithering. How he awkwardly leaned over his knees and wrung his hands with a small clap, gave her a nervous smile.
She caught that smile, and she couldn't breathe. Maria could barely think from the pain of it. She wanted to rock herself, could feel her body beginning to sway—oh, God, would she faint?
A small, nervous chuckle surprised her. She looked up again. If she just stared at him, perhaps she could keep her composure.
"You know, I was—I was thinking, and I was wondering, uh, two things."
Maria, in spite of herself, knowing what he would ask, continued to hold her gaze.
"Why did you run away to the abbey," he said, voice full of confidence, "and… what was it that made you come back?"
The last part was laced with obvious confusion, and faltered just slightly. Most might not notice the slight shake to his voice, but she did. He wanted to know, was eager to know… but why? It wasn't as if there was anything to gain by discovering the whole truth. He couldn't very well do anything with it. Maria, unyielding, wanting to be left alone, and wanting out of this conversation, settled for perfunctory truth, looking away as she said it.
"Well, I had an obligation to fulfill and I—I came back to fulfill it."
"Is that all?"
This man, this persistent torment of a man, looked at her so intently, that Maria knew instantly he recognized the lie beneath her words. She had given it away as soon as she shifted her gaze.
"And I missed the children." Again, Maria knew as soon as she said this, having looked away again, that the half-truth's lie was transparent as day. He wouldn't stop staring at her. And then, he closed in.
"Yes… uh, only the children?"
"No—yes!" Maria panicked, realizing a split second too late her faux pas. "Isn't it right I should have missed them?" she queried defensively, but she could hear the shrill of her voice, and it would only be his mercy that she would come away from this conversation with some semblance of dignity intact.
She knew many things about this man, now, but mercy… that was one quality for which information was still lacking. As a war hero and an authoritarian, he would surely not be inherently predisposed toward it. But if… no. No. No. No. She would not think of love.
"Oh, yes! Yes, of course!" he assured her immediately, laughing just a bit at her distress, but perhaps not at her. He straightened, looking at her with impish, sparkling eyes that glinted icy-blue in the moonlight, fidgeted, and added, "I was only hoping that perhaps you—perhaps you might, uh…"
He was struggling now, and in spite of herself, Maria leaned toward him, grateful for the mercy of his laughter and taken by the mirth that had danced in his eyes for just a moment, and prompted in a moment of her own mercy, a probing, "Yes?"
Her encouraging, warm, rising intonation apparently bolstered him, for he tilted his head from side to side and tried again: "Well, uh,"—the slight crack in his voice nearly finished her that moment—"nothing was the same when you were away, and it'll be all wrong again… after you leave. And I just thought, perhaps you might… change your mind?"
He said it as if her leaving was the worst thing that had ever happened.
She understood that what she had done was not fair to the children. They did not deserve that behavior from her, and she would apologize to them before they said their final farewells. But this? This was incongruent to the situation, in her view. He wasn't a child.
But the way he looked at her just now, oh, damn him! He looked just like a child, one who was accustomed to getting his way! One she wanted so desperately to take in her arms, whose arms she wanted around hers, whose lips—
He wanted it both ways, she finally understood. She could not have him—she never could—but if he was in love with her the way the baroness had said… he thought he could somehow have her.
Her heart hardened in the face of his plea, and Maria stood and moved toward thee gazebo, away from him, serving up her biting reply: "I'm sure the baroness will be able to make things fine for you."
Her emphasis had been well-placed, drawn out and scathing, but even she could hear how her voice shook when she said 'you.' Why couldn't she master her emotions? if only she could manage it for five minutes, this would be over!
"Maria," he said, and something in his tone denoted urgency, now. He had never said her name, before. Stopping short, Maria felt her heart jump to her throat as her chest constricted again. Please don't, she begged in her mind. Please don't say it. I cannot bear it.
"There isn't going to be any baroness."
Relief flooded her, relief that he hadn't said the fateful words of love. Ones she couldn't accept. Without a thought, she replied automatically, "There isn't?"
"No," he said, and she could hear him rising and walking to her.
He was so near. Her heart was pounding, and oh, how Maria wanted to feel his touch against her, without gloves impeding him, and without the limits of a dance. She could smell a hint of his cologne, and how desperately she wanted to lay her head against his chest to breathe it in in great gasps.
"I don't understand," she said, and she meant it. In the next breath, she moved away from him. Except that his stride was longer than hers, and he walked with her, in front of her, alongside her. So, she walked with him, wanting to understand, to the door of the white, glass-paned gazebo.
"Well," he explained, "we've called off our engagement, you see."
"Oh, I'm sorry," she said instinctively, not really hearing the meaning behind the words.
"Yes," he said, following her same script, but then there immediately followed a shocked, "You are?"
As if she was an automaton, she replied, "Mhmm," but it was his shock that collided with Maria's dawning comprehension, and she said with surprise, stumbling over herself, "You did?!"
And once more, she turned and looked at him. Expectant, but not hopeful.
"Yes!" he repeated, earnestly. He was gazing at her the way he had just moments ago, when he'd implored her to change her mind and stay.
Dare she hope? Please, say something, she prayed. Anything. Filled with equal parts dread and anticipation, the moment between his affirmation and his explanation was an entire eternity.
"Well," he said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, "you can't marry someone when you're…"
The pause as he gathered himself was where Maria felt the full force of joy and terror, and she did not know what was worse.
"…in love with someone else," he finished, turning his head to look at her.
Oh, the intensity of his gaze, it split her in two. She would do anything, if only he asked. She almost didn't hear his question.
With those two words, she witnessed in the captain's eyes the spark of longing turn to desire, and her breath caught in her throat, and somewhere deep in her belly, beyond all reason, beyond all words, something pulled behind her navel and gave a powerful lurch, and she knew that she wanted him. She wanted him so badly that she thought she might be on fire, that desire would consume her, and so thoroughly overwhelmed, rendered speechless by the sheer force of this phenomenon, she could only shake her head in answer.
His hand reaching for her chin was gentle, but firm, and altogether too slow, and when the captain's fingers touched her skin, she felt flame burst to life. The kiss was tender, and probing, so filled with promise, and the only thing that Maria could do as he pulled away, his eyes stating the unsaid question of whether she would have him, was stare with wide eyes, filled with wonder and awe.
He seemed to understand, for he then began to nuzzle her, and she was saved from the need to use her words. She didn't have words, she only had feelings, and the panic and the terror of the past minutes, hours, days, flooded out to make way for an astounding wave of gratefulness, disbelief, and unadulterated love.
His breath was soft, his touch was gentle, and the caresses against her skin so clearly bespoke his reciprocated desire. What one might do with this powerful feeling, Maria was finding herself not altogether sure, but she did have some idea, and the comfort of knowing the man surrounding her had even more of an idea filled her with boldness, and she returned his affections, leaning in, wrapping her arms around him, taking part in a dance as old as the dawn of time.
When she thought she might buckle beneath him, Maria drew her hands down to his chest and leaned her head there, gasping in the scent of this man, a scent so strong that she knew if she ever happened upon this strange mixture of musk, sandalwood, spice, and sea elsewhere, she would think only of him.
She could feel a trembling in her hands, in her legs, and was keenly aware of her captain's arms around her, supporting her and holding her up. Hit by the absurdity of this, all of this, with a wavering voice she could not help but remark, motivated In part by the need to say something and in part to mete out her overwhelm, "The Reverend Mother always says, 'when the Lord closes a door, somewhere He opens a window.'"
Immediately Maria heard how unfitted such a statement was for this momentous occasion, but when her captain took her face in his hands to look into her eyes and she saw such overwhelming affection in his smile, she knew her broken, messy soul was safe with him.
"What else does the Reverend Mother say?" he asked, and Maria heard the plea. Somehow, she realized, he knew that Maria had not returned of her own volition, and that her choice of utterance had revealed her guiding hand.
That was to say, it had not been Fate. It had been something far better: love, compassion, mercy, and wisdom.
Maria smiled up at him, studying those blue eyes, grasping that he understood her impulsive statement, so contrary to the weight of the moment, and that he understood how for a fleeting moment it felt to her foolish to say it, but that in her shaky, disbelieving voice, was layered trust for the chance she had taken to speak the thing that had come to mind. She had taken that risk, and in her risk had she yielded a precious fruit.
So, she replied, "That you have to look for your life."
Maria saw in his expression that he comprehended before he asked. But he asked anyway: "Is that why you came back?"
Closing her eyes, Maria nodded, concentrating on the feel of his hand on her cheeks, held steadily in place as she confirmed his question, a question that was not really a question at all. When she opened her eyes, she was ready for his next query.
"And have you found it, Maria?"
When she answered this question, no matter what lie behind… there would be no return. She knew it. She was certain, she could feel it in her gut. This was it.
"I think I have," she uttered, and with one nod, said firmly, "I know I have."
If the desire she'd seen light in his eyes only moments before could be outstripped, it was only by the slight pull back of the naval captain's head as the impact of Maria's words were absorbed. And then, without skipping a beat, he stated plainly:
"I love you."
The words had now been uttered upon which everything before this moment and after this moment were predicated.
Eyes full of unshed, disbelieving tears, Maria drew into the embrace of Georg von Trapp again, needing to make this all real and true, and whispered, "Oh, can this be happening to me?" marveling even as she felt the realness of him surrounding her, human, alive, warm, and true, that either of them had dared, at various intervals throughout the last half hour, to say something when saying nothing was the chasm between here and where they were meant to be.