The Last Dinner

Maria walked as quickly as she could into the house, without breaking into a full run. Head down, she avoided looking into the dining room where the children were having their dinner. I just have to get to my room, she thought to herself, over and over the way she would recite the rosary while worrying the beads. It was because her head was down that she did not see Herr Dettweiler, and because she did not she him she walked smack into him.

"Whoa, there. Maria? I thought I heard the children shouting your name. I'm so glad to see you've returned.," Max placed his hands on her shoulders, and have her a half-hug, which she was too dazed to return.

"Are you okay, dear?" Max looked at her quizzically. He'd have thought she'd be thrilled to be back, and was perturbed to not see a smile on her face, or her blue eyes twinkling like they always had.

"I'm just fine, sir," she answered, choking back tears. "Just a bit overwhelmed at, um, at seeing the children again. I missed them terribly." She tried desperately not to look at his face.

"I'm sure that's the case. And of course, you must know how much they, and this entire household, missed you." Max was not usually one for subtlety, but he knew enough not to say anything further lest he embarrass Maria He had no doubt that the young fraulein had missed the children, but suspected she also had missed someone else terribly as well.

"You must join us this evening, we can celebrate your return. I never did get to enjoy your company for dinner at the ball, and I would be honored if you would allow me to be your companion tonight." He looked at her expectantly, and just then Elsa and Georg entered the house through the terrace doors.

"What are you doing harassing the governess, Max?" Elsa's voice was so cold that icicles practically dripped from her mouth, yet Maria did not notice, and if Georg did, he didn't let on. His gaze was fixed squarely on the fraulein. "I'm sure she's more interested in settling back into her room than in chit-chatting with you."

"Oh, darling Elsa, I'm not harassing her. Just inviting her to join the rest of us so-called adults for dinner. The poor girl has to eat, and I missed out on her company at the ball." Max's statement wore a finality that Elsa did not dare challenge.

"Very well, I suppose that will be fine. If you'll excuse me, I'd like to go change for dinner." Elsa looked at Georg, and took his hand. Her touch seemed to spook him, and he jumped as he turned toward her.

"Oh, yes, yes, by all means," he encouraged. "I'll be going up to change myself in a moment."

As soon as Elsa was out of earshot, Max spoke. "Georg, a word?" Georg nodded his head toward his study, and the two men began walking in that direction.

"If you'll excuse us, Fraulein Maria?" Georg's other words were curt, yet her name was smooth as silk off his tongue. He looked at her, and noticed that she was trying mightily not to look him in the eye.

"Why don't you go freshen up as well, Maria? We'll see you back here, for cocktails, in about half an hour?" Max looked expectantly at her, and she slowly nodded.

"I believe I can do that, sir. I'll be back for dinner." Maria's voice was so quiet the men could barely hear her, and she climbed the stairs in a deliberate fashion, grasping the banister and praying she would not fall.

By the time she reached her room, the tears were falling freely. She closed and locked the door behind her, threw herself across the bed, and sobbed into a pillow, hoping no one would hear. Oh, God, what am I to do? How could the Reverend Mother believe that sending me back would show me my path? As soon as I saw the children I knew this is where my life is. And once I saw him...Lord, I know now that I am not meant to live my life as a nun. But if he is the one that has my heart, and he's given his to the Baroness...why, why, why? How am I to get through even one moment knowing I will never be able to share with him how I feel?

After her tears were spent, Maria sat up on the bed. Glancing at the small clock that was still where she'd left it on the bedside table, she realized that she was already late to meet the other adults for dinner. She went into the bathroom, splashed cold water on her face, and patted it dry with the fluffy, white towel that was on the stand. Even if she had any makeup, she doubted it would cover the red, puffed lids of her eyes, or the speckling across her cheeks, or...well, no use worrying about it now. Realizing there was now no time to change her dress, she smoothed out the wrinkles as best she could, took one last glance at herself in the mirror. Seeing me now will remove any thoughts of me from his mind, looking like this will just assure him that the Baroness was the right choice. The thought brought fresh tears to her eyes, but she refused to give them the courtesy of allowing them to fall. Maria took a deep breath, and, crossing herself, prayed aloud. "God, give me the strength to get through this without making a complete fool of myself. Please. Amen." She began humming the tune she would sing to give herself confidence as she left the room to make her way to the lion's den.

While the women were upstairs freshening up for dinner, Georg and Max entered the captain's study, and Max walked straight to the liquor cabinet. Pouring two scotches, he handed one to Georg as he studied his cousin's face.

"Talk to me."

Georg looked at him, confused. "Talk to you? About what?" Georg took a long sip of the amber liquid, and walked over to the windows which overlooked the lake.

"You know damn well, what," Max declared. "What are you going to do now?"

"Max, I have no idea what you are talking about." Georg continued to look out the window, avoiding looking at Max, and, more to the point, avoiding Max look at him.

"Your infatuation with Maria. Is that what this is? Or is there more to it than you're admitting? You remember you proposed to Elsa less than 24 hours ago, yes?" Max walked over to the window where Georg was standing, as it was clear to him Georg wasn't budging.

"I don't know. Yes. NO! I...I just don't know anything, anymore," Georg admitted, his voice quavering with emotion. He took a deep, cleansing breath and finally turned toward Max. "She wants to be a nun, she's here only until I can find another governess. And I won't need another governess, because I am marrying Elsa and she will be their mother. There. All done." Georg drained the rest of the scotch from his glass, and walked toward the door..

"That's quite a plan you've laid out there, my friend," Max allowed. "However, I do think you're missing a few critical facts."

"And what would those be, Maximilian, hm? Enlighten me, please," Georg tended toward sarcasm when his emotions became too much, and if ever there was a time for sarcasm it was now.

"You and the children moping around since she left? The children not wanting to sing-or even play-without her? This entire household has been under a dark cloud since she returned to the abbey. Or did you pretend not to notice?"

"I realize fully well that I...that the children missed her. Missed her terribly, in fact. She is back for the rest of the summer, then she will return to the abbey and take her vows, and everything will work itself out. Now, I will go and change for dinner myself. " Georg opened the door, and left it ajar and he walked rapidly to the master suite. His slip of the tongue hadn't passed Max unnoticed.

Max turned toward the door at the sound of footsteps in the hall. Maria stood in the doorway, not sure what to do. She quickly scanned the room, and Max noticed her discomfort.

"Maria, dear, please come in. The others haven't returned yet. May I get you a drink? A nice cocktail, or wine?"

"No, thank you, Max. Perhaps just a glass of water, if that isn't too much trouble?" Maria smiled at him, a timid smile, accompanied by another nervous glance around the room, which told him all he needed to know about the real reason she'd run away in the first place.

He handed her the water she'd requested, and she grasped the crystal glass with both hands. She worried both thumbs up and down the outside of the tumbler, not sure of what to do or say.

Max was a genius at small talk, and came to her rescue. "Maria, the children must be most excited to have you back here with them."

"Yes, I think they were happy to see me. I was most definitely happy to see them, I missed them very much," she admitted.

"I missed you too, it seems Georg's children can't sing very well without their favorite governess nearby," Max laughed, trying to draw her out. He continued making small talk with her, about the weather, the gardens, the upcoming festival, whatever he could think of really.

Their conversation ended abruptly when the captain returned to the study. Dressed impeccably in a dark suit, Maria bit her lip and inhaled deeply, to avoid gasping at how handsome she thought he looked. Georg met her gaze, and the two pair of blue eyes locked together.

At that moment, Elsa made her grand entrance into the study. She'd changed into a stunning red sequined evening gown, much more suitable for a premiere or a society ball than an intimate dinner for four at home. "Well, gentlemen, here I am. Oh, and I see Maria has joined you already." She paused. "I'm glad you'll be dining with us tonight, dear, it will give us a chance to get to know one another better," Elsa's voice dripped with sickly sweetness. Both Maria and Georg were jolted back into the room, Georg moving toward the window, Maria the opposite direction.

"Why yes, that will be lovely, Baroness," Maria answered quietly, nearly swallowing the words that stuck in her throat.

Elsa floated over to the liquor cabinet and requested Max mix her a cocktail, which he did and then handed her with a flourish.

"Your drink, m'lady," he said, bowing before her. Elsa took the glass from him and began to turn toward Georg. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Maria circling the settee, pacing nervously.

"Oh, Max, you're such a ….Oh!" Elsa turned deliberately at the moment Maria was behind her, the two women collided, and Elsa's drink splashed down the front of Maria's dress.

"Oh, my goodness, Baroness, I am so sorry, I..." Maria stammered an apology.

Elsa inspected her own dazzling gown, and seeing that nothing had splashed on it, replied, "No harm done, dear, though you really should watch where you are going."

"Yes, ma'am," Maria bit back the bile that was rising in her throat. "I'll be sure to be more careful from now on. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll need to change." She looked briefly at Elsa, setting her jaw and steeling her resolve. "I'll return momentarily. Max, Captain," Maria stood as tall as she could, and made a beeline for her room.

As soon as Maria left the study, Georg addressed his fiancee. ""Elsa, really, how on earth was that Maria's fault? You could have apologized to her, as well as accepting hers to you." He grabbed a towel off the bar and tossed it on the floor, to soak up the liquid that hadn't been absorbed by Maria's dress, making a mental note to tell Frau Schmidt the carpet would need to be cleaned.

"Darling, you know as well as I do that Fraulein Maria lacks a certain, well, gracefulness, and she-"

Max cut her off abruptly, "and she makes up for it with a great deal of charm, Elsa. Instead of criticizing her, you should really begin taking note of how she deals with Georg's children, since they will soon be yours." He chuckled at his own wit, and murmured something about Elsa having seven children all at once.

"That isn't funny, Max." Elsa turned her attentions on Georg. "Darling, I just wouldn't want her lack of the social graces, or physical grace, ruining your girls for their debuts."

Georg looked at Elsa as if he'd never seen her before. "Elsa, I don't believe there will be any negative consequences regarding Maria's influence on my daughters. Besides, the only one even close to having her debut into society is Liesl. I won't entertain such notions. " He fixed his gaze and steeled his jaw, ready to argue, and defend the governess further if necessary. It was not. Noticing he'd not used 'fraulein' in front of Maria's name, Elsa backed down.

"Well, Georg, I'm sure she would never intentionally do any harm to the children, she does seem to care about them quite a bit."

Before any more could be said, Franz appeared in the doorway, announcing that dinner was ready to be served. The three of them walked, silently, out of the study and into the dining room.

Once inside her room, Maria stripped off the wet dress and chemise, and placed them in the tub. As she filled it with water to soak out the stains, she thought to herself:

Why would she do such a thing? I know she saw me, and she spilled her drink deliberately. Maria then dropped to her knees and began to pray. Oh, Lord, please help me to see the Baroness in a charitable way. I thought that she was truly trying to help me after the ball, but now... I know fully well she saw me before she turned all the way around. Why ever would she be so unkind? Please help me try not think negative thoughts. God, please give me the patience to look past any obstacles that are put in my way as I spend the next few weeks here. Please help me to concentrate on the children, and getting them ready for their new life as a family with her. Please, please, please, help me not to dwell on what can never be mine, and create in me a heart that will be ready for whatever your plan for me may be. Amen.

Maria opened the wardrobe in her room, and saw that all of her clothing was still inside, just as the things she'd left in other areas of the room had gone untouched. It's almost as if they were waiting for me to return. Shelookedthrough the dresses, and memories of wearing each one came to mind. This one when I fell out of the boat, this one when I first took the children into town, this one when we danced...she felt a shiver run up her spine, and a now-familiar warmth course through her body. And this one, the blue one, when the Captain mesmerized her by singing Edelweiss. When she was entirely captivated by the sound of his voice, the grace of his hands plucking the guitar strings, the look in his eyes, the embarrassed half-smile and shrug that told her he cared about what she thought. The one you were wearing when he couldn't keep his eyes off you. The words the Baroness had spoken to her rang loudly through Maria's head, and before she could think better of it she'd taken the blue dress off its hanger and slipped it over her head. It was a bit looser now than it had been the last night she'd worn it, the result of her fast during the time at the abbey. That didn't concern her. Maria knew it was wrong to fight back, but she also knew she had to wear it, to let the Baroness know that while she may have won the Captain, she hadn't broken Maria.

"Do you wish to hold dinner until Fraulein Maria returns, Captain?"

Georg was saved from answering by the arrival of Maria herself. She stood in the doorway, almost as if waiting to be invited into the room. He immediately noticed that she was wearing the dress, the blue dress, that she'd worn the night of the puppet show. The night she asked him to sing. The night that he knew that the words he was singing weren't just about the love of his homeland.

He watched as she scanned the room, and saw that the place set for her was directly opposite him, as always. She bowed her head, and quickly walked to her place, as Max and Georg stood. Maria sat, and placed her napkin in her lap-he remembered how Gretl had taught her that, and how to tell which utensil to use with which course. He smiled at the memory.

"Maria, would you like to say the blessing?" Georg asked, knowing she wouldn't refuse. It didn't pass his notice that Elsa ever so slightly rolled her eyes before lowering her head.

"For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful. Amen." A low murmuring of 'amen's buzzed through the room, as Klara placed the first course in front of each of them.

Max tucked into the Eachtlingsuppe quickly; Elsa paced herself, trying to keep Max engaged in conversation; Georg and Maria both barely touched the soup. When Klara returned to remove the dishes, she asked if everything was satisfactory. In tandem, Maria and Georg both announced they just weren't terribly hungry, which caused them to look in surprise at one another. Georg offered a slight smile at the fraulein, which she returned while at the same time averting her eyes. Georg motioned to Klara to refill all of the wine glasses.

The main course was Wiener schnitzel, Maria's favorite, but once again she barely touched the food, mostly pushing it around on her plate. This course, Georg busied himself eating, which helped him avoid commenting on most of Elsa's gossip. She was sharing tidbits of information with Max, who knew all of the people she was discussing; and she eagerly named those she thought would be glad to sponsor some of the musical groups he'd booked into the festival.

"Why, Maria, dear, have you ever thought of singing as a career? You do have such a lovely voice, it will be a shame to hide it away in the abbey. Perhaps Max could be your manager." Elsa smiled at the young governess, hoping that she would continue to hold the secret of what Elsa had said to her the night of the ball. Elsa had been rash in spilling the drink, and deeply regretted it, now that Maria was in that cursed blue dress.

"Oh, no, Baroness, I don't think that I could do such a thing," Maria admitted honestly, though she stopped at saying anything more. "I enjoy singing, and I am happy to sing with the children. But thank you for such a gracious compliment." She swallowed hard, and looked quickly around the table.

Frau Schmidt then entered the room.

"Excuse the interruption, Captain, but the children have requested that Maria come tuck them into bed this evening."

"I do believe that Fraulein Maria is still having dinner. Tell them to go to bed, and perhaps she can tuck them in when she is finished?" He ended with a question, looking at Maria as he did so. She took the invitation to speak.

"Frau Schmidt, I would be glad to tuck them in. I've finished here, so if you don't mind Captain, I'll just go see to them now." Maria stood, and waited for a response.

"Of course, Fraulein, of course. I'm sure they are beside themselves with excitement, go please, don't delay on our account." He stood as she exited, as did Max.

"Good night, Maria," Elsa called after her. "Georg, do you think that since Maria has returned, we might spend the day tomorrow, just the two of us? I'd dearly love to have you accompany me into town, there are some errands I would like to take care of. Then we could have a nice, romantic little lunch."

"How romantic would it be with me along, Elsa?" Max joked with her.

Maria climbed the stairs, heading for the children's rooms. First she stopped by Liesl, who gave her friend a tight hug. "Oh, Fraulein, I'm so glad you're back!"

"Oh, Liesl, I'm very glad to be back. Now, don't stay up too late, okay?" Maria smiled, and stroked Liesl's thick, brown hair. "We'll make sure to have some time together, just the two of us, to talk soon."

"I'd like that, thank you." Liesl gave her governess a kiss on the cheek. "Good night."

"Good night, dear." Maria shut the door behind her, and went across to the boys' room. She knocked, then opened the door to peer in.

"Boys? Are you in here?" Maria looked about but didn't see them.

"We're here, Fraulein," Maria recognized the voice as Friedrich's, and followed it to the alcove near the window, where the he and his brother were engaged in a chess match.

"Oh, wouldn't your father be so pleased to see you engaged in a chess match!" Maria's observation piqued Kurt's curiosity.

"Really? You think father would enjoy seeing us play chess?"

"Yes, Kurt, I do, and I think he may even enjoy playing a match with you some time."

"Fraulein Maria?"

"Yes, Friedrich?"

"We're happy you're back."

"Thank you boys, it's nice to be back." She bent down to ruffle each boy's hair, and bid them goodnight. "Lights out in fifteen minutes, yes?"

"Yes, Fraulien Maria."

She pulled the second door closed as well, and moved on to the third bedroom. Brigitta and Louisa were already in their beds, each with a book. She smiled at the girls, who looked so very different from one another yet were so very close as sisters. "Are you girls already tucked in? Here I thought I'd be getting that privilege this evening." Maria walked over to Brigitta first, straightened her covers, and leaned over to place a kiss on her forehead. "Good night, dear. Sweet dreams, hm?" Brigitta smiled at her governess, and Maria saw the love in her eyes, which made her own fill with tears again.

"Are you okay, Fraulein Maria? You look sad."

"I'm fine, Brigitta. Just a bit overwhelmed at being back here with all of you." Maria touched the girl's cheek, and moved over to Louisa's bed.

"Fraulein Maria, we're so glad you're back," Louisa whispered, hugging Maria tightly about the neck. "I hope you'll stay with us." Maria looked at the blonde girl's face, and gave a small smile.

"I'll stay here until September, Louisa, just as I had planned. And I promise I won't leave again without saying goodbye." The two blondes hugged, and Louisa settled her head on her pillow.

"Goodnight, girls. Pleasant dreams." Maria gave the girls a reminder to turn off the lights when they were done reading their chapters as she closed that door.

Maria paused for a moment outside of the room where the littlest girls slept. This was going to be the most difficult of all, both in saying goodnight tonight, and for the day she would have to say goodbye. The governess took in a deep breath, opened the door, and went inside.

The sight before her warmed her heart. Marta and Gretl were waiting, both in Gretl's bed, with a space between them for Maria and a storybook on Marta's lap.

"Hello, my little sweethearts, I'm sorry you've been waiting so long for me," Maria said, slipping off her shoes and onto the bed between the two sisters.

"That's okay, Fraulein Maria. If we get you last, you don't have to go so fast!" Marta replied happily, smiling her charming, now gap-toothed smile. She snuggled closer to Maria, and leaned her head on Maria's shoulder. Maria planted a kiss on top of her head, and turned to Gretl as the littlest von Trapp wiggled her way under Maria's arm for a hug. She turned her sweet, chubby cheeks up to look at her governess' face, and Maria saw in Gretl's expression all of the love held in her five-year-old heart. She kissed Gretl, too, and asked Marta to open the book.

"What shall I read tonight, ladies? Have you chosen your story yet?"

"No, Fraulein, we were waiting for you to choose. We want you to read us the one that was your favorite." Maria turned to the page where The True Bride began, and started to read.

By the time Maria reached the happy ending where the beautiful young girl won back her prince from the king's daughter and married him, Gretl was asleep and Marta was not far behind. She climbed out of the bed, helped Marta across to her own, and made sure that she was tucked beneath the covers. Another kiss to her forehead, and a whispered "goodnight," Maria crossed back to Gretl's bed, making sure she was tucked in as well. She turned off the light, and quietly left their room, closing the door silently behind her.

Maria stood in the hall for a moment. She was worn out, but not tired, and knew that attempting to sleep now would be futile. Deciding that a walk on the grounds would do her some good, she went downstairs and through the french doors out to the terrace, and down toward the lake.

Just after dessert, Elsa excused herself from the table to freshen up, leaving the two men at the table with their schnapps.

They sat together for a few, long, quiet moments. "Well, it's been a long day, Georg, I think I'll be turning in soon," Max offered in an effort to break the silence.

"Mmmhmmm," Georg grunted his response, swirling the cordial glass, watching the clear liquid bounce and bob.

Max stood, then drained his glass thoughtfully before speaking again. "You know, Georg, you've fought a lot of battles in your life. But I think one of the worst battles you'll ever have to fight is what you know in your head against what you feel in your heart. Good night, my friend."

Georg waited until Max's footsteps could no longer be heard on the marble floor of the hall, before rising and leaving the room. His cousin's words continued to echo in his head. He walked up the stairs, intending to head up to his suite, then followed a sudden impulse to walk out onto the second floor balcony. As he went through the doors, movement down near the iron gates caught his attention. At first he didn't believe it, but as he watched he knew.

It was Maria.