THE RELUCTANT GOVERNESS Anne Mather
It was to get away from a troublesome love affair that Victoria Monroe had taken ...
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THE RELUCTANT GOVERNESS Anne Mather
It was to get away from a troublesome love affair that Victoria Monroe had taken on the job of governess to little Sophie von Reichstein in the Austrian alps -- but she arrived at the schloss to find another challenging situation awaiting her. The child, it appeared, had already got rid of two previous governesses and was all set to do the same with the new on. But Victoria was determined that her small charge was not going to get the better of her. Or did she have some other reason for wishing to stay on at the schloss -- such as the child's attractive, embittered father, Baron Horst von Reichstein? And if she did, wasn't it better first to find out just what was the mystery surrounding his wife?
CHAPTER ONE IT was late in the afternoon as the train left Hoffenstein and the thickly falling snow obliterated vision so that there was little beyond the misted windows of the small carriage to warrant any enthusiasm. The track wound continuously upwards, the lines of the pass sometimes disappearing beneath the white carpet of flakes until the heat of the iron wheels burnt their way through. And yet the steady rhythm of the wheels was soothing, and the softly falling flakes provided an adequate shield against what was beyond this journey. High above, the glaciers thrust their relentless peaks to the sky, looking down with what seemed icy disdain on the intruding pitiful vulnerability of the railway. Victoria flicked through the pages of the glossy magazine on her lap and then, with determination, rubbed away the mist on the glass and peered out with concentrated effort, but there was little to be seen. She sighed, and thrust the magazine to one side, exchanging a smile with a rather harassed-looking elderly woman who had joined the train at Hoffenstein and who appeared to have been shopping from the enormous basket she supported on her lap. But as Victoria did not speak fluent German and the woman was obviously an Austrian she did not like to attempt any conversation even though she would have been glad of the chance to ask how much further Reichstein was. Trying to quell the nervous tension that had gripped her since she left London the day before, Victoria tried to relax. But it was impossible to relax when every time she closed her eyes her mind ran wildly in all directions trying to find acceptable reasons for what she was doing. But acceptable to whom? she asked herself. Herself or Meredith? But why should she consider Meredith when he had shown so little consideration for her? And yet his image persisted in intruding, causing that nervous fluttering sensation in the pit of her stomach. She bit her lip. Had her actions been premature? Maybe if
her godmother had not obtained this position for her they would have been able to work something out. Other people did. Then she chided herself. Aunt Laurie had been only thinking of saving her unhappiness when she had made these arrangements, and the resentment Victoria was now harbouring was ungrateful, to say the least. It was no use, Meredith was married, and he had concealed that fact from her. She would not continue to go about with him in the face of this new knowledge. He must have known that when he concealed his marriage from her. She sighed. He was bound to look for her when he discovered she had left London. Even now, he was probably using his power and influence to find where she had gone. And when he did find her he would come looking for her because he thought she was unable to resist him. That thought calmed her. She was not that involved. Their relationship had been enjoyable while it lasted, exciting at times, and he had indulged her extravagantly, but she had never been his plaything, and for that now she was thankful. Maybe that was why he had found her so absorbing. Until meeting her he had found little difficulty in devastating his conquests. Victoria transferred her attention to the window again. Surely they must be nearing Reichstein. Of course, the train was running late with this terrible weather, but even so ... With a characteristic shrug, she gathered her belongings together and thrust the magazines she had bought for the journey into her bag. She might as well be prepared for arrival when it did come. Then she stood up and pulled on her sheepskin coat over the dark blue slack suit she was wearing. A glance into the compartment mirror assured her that her sleek chestnut hair was in order and although her lips were devoid of make-up she didn't consider it necessary to appear glamorous when her occupation was to be that of governess to the daughter of the house. Her looks were something she had always
taken for granted, for although she was not beautiful in the accepted sense of the word, good health and good bone structure accentuated the slightly upward tilt of her eyes and the generous contours of her mouth. She seated herself again, and drew on her gloves. It would be strange to be working again, she thought. Since her parents had died when she was in her early childhood and she had been brought up by Aunt Laurie there had been no necessity for her to acquire a regular job. Her parents had not been well off; her father had been a schoolteacher and her mother's parents had disowned her when they discovered her choice of husband. But Aunt Laurie had gone to school with her mother and despite Victoria's mother's split with her own family had remained her dearest and closest friend. Of course, Aunt Laurie had done all the right things. Her husband, now dead too, had inherited a title, and Victoria's status as the adopted niece of Lady Pentower had been a very comfortable one. Of course, she had missed her own parents badly at first, but after a while Aunt Laurie's indulgence and attention had dissipated her earlier sense of desolation. She had been a bright child and after acquiring the necessary qualifications had attended university and attained a degree in English which she had wanted to use but which Aunt Laurie had merely scoffed at. 'Plenty of time for wasting away in schoolrooms,' she had stated firmly, when Victoria had suggested getting a teaching position. 'Go out and enjoy yourself, then later, if you really want to teach, you can. You've worked hard all through school and now university. Don't waste all your youth, Victoria!' So, partly to please her, godmother and partly because she was young and vivacious Victoria had done as she had suggested and had a good time. Aunt Laurie had an apartment in town as well as a house in the Lake District and she had remained in London all spring and summer so that Victoria could be on hand for every kind of social occasion. In
the early autumn they had gone on a cruise to the Greek islands where Victoria had steeped herself in romance and legend and she had come back to London ripe for an affair. Then she had met a young American, Meredith Hammond, and all their problems had begun ... Now Victoria opened her handbag and drew out the envelope containing the letter which had brought her to Austria. She read the letter again, thoughtfully, trying to discover something about its author from the practically illegible print. Its heading was the Schloss von Reichstein, and the signature at the end was Horst von Reichstein. A baron, no less, or so her godmother had informed her, for it was through Lady Pentower's connections that Victoria had been offered this position. She gave a half-rueful smile, and looked out at her surroundings. She doubted very much whether the Baron von Reichstein found it particularly easy to get staff of any kind, much less a governess, in these days of high wages and shorter hours. And the surroundings, no matter how spectacular, meant little to anyone used to the life and activity of the city. But at least she had not come here with any illusions ?bout the seclusion. The Schloss von Reichstein was in a remote district of Austria and the most she could hope for in the way of civilisation was the nearby village of Reichstein where the train was due to halt any minute now. She shivered. She was apprehensive and she couldn't help it. After all, who wouldn't be? Her godmother's connections with the von Reichsteins were limited to a childhood friendship with the present baron's cousin, an elderly baroness of doubtful means, who spent most of her time staying in London and other capital cities, taking advantage of the generosity of her associates. The little she knew was not reassuring. The isolated position of the schloss inhibited communications, and although she was aware that her charge was a girl of some ten years who had recently suffered the rigours of a paralytic disease which had left her incapable of attending her usual boarding school the reports of the
child herself were daunting to say the least. She was, apparently, the apple of her father's eye, incapable of doing wrong, and in the three months since her recovery the Baron had been forced to employ a total of three governesses, which did not augur well for good relations. An ear-splitting grinding of the wheels of the carriage brought Victoria to the edge of her seat and she looked rather fearfully , at her travelling companion. The woman smiled and indicated ahead, saying simply: 'Reichstein, fraulein!' in guttural tones. Victoria heaved a sigh, and nodded her thanks, standing up to remove her suitcase from the rack. Then she looked through the carriage windows expectantly, realising with a sense of dismay that darkness had already fallen while she was wrapped in her uneasy thoughts. The station, when they reached it, was little more than a shelter, a glimmer of light from an office window indicating the presence of other human beings. Victoria swung open the carriage door as soon as the train ground to a halt, and jumping down turned to lift out her case. Her heavier luggage had gone ahead, although looking about her at the deplorable conditions she doubted very much whether it could have arrived. Still, she thought philosophically, it was no use feeling doubtful now. She was here, and here she must stay, at least until she was dismissed or dismissed herself. If the child was as objectionable as the fact of the departed governesses led one to believe, it might be a short stay. She crossed the platform, looking about her for some sign of life, but there seemed none, and certainly no one else had alighted from the train at Reichstein this evening. She felt a lingering desire to run back to the warmth and brightness of the railway carriage she had just left, but that would have been silly, as she was well aware. Even so, it did not take long for the cutting wind that blew off the glaciers above to chill her .to the bone, and with resignation she made her way to the
lighted office. As she drew near, a man in porter's uniform emerged and brushed past her, obviously intent on seeing the train on its way, and although she tried to speak to him he either did not hear her or chose to ignore her. She shrugged. A glance at her watch showed her that the train was an hour late in arriving, and surely anyone used to this god-forsaken spot would not expect her to arrive on time. She reached the office and smelt the delicious aroma of percolating coffee together with the scented warmth of burning pine logs in a huge grate. The office was empty, and she sighed, feeling resentful that the porter should have ignored her like that. In his position, she would have been more conscientious about her job. Surely the few passengers he did get were entitled to deferential service! Beyond the environs of the station yard she could see more lights, probably those of the village. The pass had widened, spilling out to form a plateau from where she was sure the view would be magnificent on a clear day. But right now the snow was persisting, and she was cold and tired and no longer in the best of tempers. Heavens, she thought with a trace of self-pity, she hadn't wanted to come here in the first place, had she? Had no one a care that she was wet and freezing to death in these temperatures? Suddenly she heard a strange sound. It was a queer, clanking, grating sound and she couldn't imagine what it might be. Even so, the sound was drawing nearer, so it might be someone from the schloss. She almost smiled, recalling old horror movies she had seen where such an entrance heralded the arrival of the monster! But her spirits were lifted and when the porter reappeared she handed him her ticket cheerfully. He took it silently, his expression uncompromising, and Victoria wrinkled her nose at him indifferently. Refusing to ask for shelter, she emerged from the station yard to look about her expectantly. The sound was much louder now, echoing in the cold frosty air, and she was unprepared for the flurry of flying snow that
swept up into her face as a heavy station wagon drew into the yard alongside her. Blinded by the stinging particles, she stepped back suddenly, tripped over her standing suitcase, and landed in a heap in a thick drift of snow. Immediately, an angry feeling of resentment welled up inside her again as she struggled to get hastily to her feet. A man leapt out of the station wagon and came swiftly round to her side, but by the time he reached her she was on her feet, a trembling mass of indignation. 'Your pardon, fraulein,' he said, in low attractive tones, that were less guttural than others she had heard, 'but,' he continued, 'you would have been well advised to wait in the office!' Victoria stiffened her shoulders, surveying him angrily in the light from the lantern hung above the station entrance. 'I was not invited to wait in the office,' she stated coldly, brushing down her coat and the trousers of her suit. 'Perhaps you would have been well advised to be here in time to meet me!' Her dark eyes challenged him. She had no intention of allowing this—this chauffeur to attempt to put her in her place. Even so, her gaze fell before the piercing brilliance of his, and a faint smile touched his lips. Victoria was infuriated by this response. Maybe it was because she had made such an ungainly entrance which was something she was unused to, while he was calm and assured and utterly unmoved by her impatience. He was attractive too, she acknowledged reluctantly; tall, and broad, and muscular with hair which she had thought at first was white but which she now realised was simply silvery fair. His brows and lashes were dark in comparison and the heavy lines that were etched beside his mouth added age and experience. Shrugging, he bent and lifted her suitcase, and was about to turn away when she said: 'Just a moment! What do you think you're doing?'
The man straightened, his muscles rippling beneath the fur parka he was wearing. His eyes were narrowed now and he frowned. 'You are Miss Victoria Monroe, are you not?' he queried softly. Victoria twisted the strap of her handbag. 'And if I am?' 'You are going to the Schloss von Reichstein. I am from there.' Still Victoria hesitated. She had no doubt that he was indeed from the schloss as he said, but some streak of perversity would not allow her to admit it. Instead, she gave him a disdainful stare, and said: 'How can I be certain of that?' Just at that moment the porter appeared from the direction of his office, swinging his lantern, obviously disturbed by the sound of raised voices. He looked up at the man beside Victoria, and touched his cap with deference. 'Es ist Sie, Herr Baron!' he nodded politely, his attitude vastly different from the way he had treated Victoria, and while she experienced an awful feeling of dismay at his words, he went on in his own language, gesticulating at the weather as he conversed with her companion. Victoria's cheeks burned. The Baron indeed! No chauffeur as she had vainly imagined, but her employer himself! Inwardly she was seething. Someone should have warned her that in Austria barons might be found meeting their employees off mountain trains! It simply wasn't done! Her experience had given her an infinitely different impression of aristocrats. And anyway, if this man was her employer someone had been misled. He was thirtyeight—forty at the most, whereas her godmother had attended school with his cousin who was easily sixty! As though allowing her time to recover her dignity the Baron continued to discourse with the station porter, and only when Victoria began to move her feet rather restlessly did he turn to her
and say: 'Perhaps you would get in the car, fraulein. Now that my— er—credentials have been shall we say vouched for?' Victoria made no reply. She was half afraid even now that her unruly tongue might run away with her, and she was beginning to blame him for the position she was in. He should have introduced himself in the first place instead of allowing her to assume he was some kind of employee himself. And yet, she had to admit, their meeting had not been entirely conventional, and she had flared at him for being the cause of her accident. The Baron put her case in the back of the vehicle, and came round to climb in beside her, bidding the porter 'Guten Abend.' As well as the thick parka he was wearing thick trousers made of some kind of skin and knee-length leather boots. Only his head was bare and obviously he didn't appear to feel the cold as she did. However, he handed her a rug from the back of the car to put over her knees, for which she was grateful. She tucked her hands inside the sleeves of her sheepskin coat and was glad of its warmth and weight. The station wagon moved away and again she heard that grating sound. She glanced swiftly at him, wondering whether the vehicle was in need of repair, and as though gauging her thoughts he said: 'Chains, fraulein! I am afraid our roads are impassable without them at this time of year.' Victoria nodded, said: 'Oh!' and then turned her attention to her surroundings. The snow partially illuminated the village as they drove along the main street. The chalets with their sloping roofs and smoking chimneys gave an impression of warmth and comfort that was far removed from the misted windows of the train. They seemed to rise in tiers up the sloping pastures of the mountain, and the realisation that people lived and worked here was warming. A feeling of exhilaration replaced her earlier resentment and she felt she had been unnecessarily ungracious.
As though attempting to reconcile her behaviour, she ventured: 'I—I really ought to apologise, Herr Baron. I was completely unaware of your identity, of course.' A smile tugged at the corners of the mouth. The Baron von Reichstein looked in her direction for an intent moment, then returning his attention to his driving, he said: 'Do I understand that that is how you treat people who are not your employers, fraulein?' in infuriatingly sardonic tones. Victoria's colour returned heatedly. 'Of course not. I'm not a shrew!' The Baron shrugged his broad shoulders. 'Nevertheless, you are quick-tempered, fraulein. I somehow do not see you and Sophie becoming the best of friends.' Victoria controlled her indignation. 'Sophie?' she queried, pleasantly. 'That is your daughter?' 'Correct.' Victoria digested this. So this man was the Baron von Reichstein. Certainly he was much younger than Aunt Laurie had suspected or she would not have been so eager to pack her goddaughter off to his isolated schloss in the dead of winter. In an effort to begin some sort of conversation, Victoria tied a scarf over her hair, put up her coat collar, and said: 'Is it far to your—er— house?' The Baron hesitated. 'Not too far,' he said at last. 'However, perhaps I should warn you, it is not a house. It is a schloss, a castle, in fact!' He glanced her way. 'Are you a sturdy female, Miss Monroe? The Schloss von Reichstein is no place for greenhouse plants.'
Victoria compressed her lips. 'Only for hardy annuals, perhaps?' she muttered, almost under her breath, but he heard her, and a faint smile touched his lips. 'Indeed, Miss Monroe. We are all hardy who live in these mountains.' Victoria sighed. They were leaving the village behind now and the road was beginning to wind through forests of pine trees thickly laden with snow. It was very quiet, very still, and as the snow was no longer driving against the windscreen she could see stars beginning to twinkle in the dark sky overhead. Clouds were rolling back to the west and the chill wind which had gripped her in the station yard became a howling gale out on the bare mountain. The station wagon progressed steadily, grinding over the frozen surface that was lightly powdered with snow. Victoria wondered if sleighs were still used in these remote districts, or were they simply a tourist attraction? Somehow she couldn't imagine the Baron von Reichstein driving a vehicle that jingled as he went. When it became necessary to break the uneasy silence which had fallen, she said: 'How old is your daughter, Herr Baron?' 'Sophie is nine, almost ten,' he replied. 'Are you used to teaching children of that age?' Victoria considered his question. 'Well, I haven't actually done any teaching before,' she confessed at last. 'However,' she added, hastily, 'I do have the qualifications. I simply haven't used them before.' There was another long silence and when she glanced across at him, half afraid of his reactions to this statement, she found he was shaking his head rather resignedly. 'Is—is something wrong, Herr Baron?' she asked, only remembering to add his title as an afterthought.
The Baron looked at her. 'Nothing,' he said, with emphasis. 'It simply seems that Sophie is doomed to be educationally sub-normal!' Victoria raised her eyebrows. 'Whatever do you mean?' She forgot his title in her indignation. The Baron lifted his broad shoulders indolently. 'You are the third governess she has had,' he explained patiently. 'The first was a woman of perhaps fifty years. Experienced with children but unable to stand the isolation, or so she said. She left without attaining her first month's salary.' He sighed. 'The second was a girl like yourself. With three years of teaching two older children behind her she should have found Sophie an easy task. But no! Her nerves would not stand it, that was her excuse. She left also.' He glanced her way sardonically. 'And now there is you, fraulein. Your first teaching position. You admit that until now you have had no cause to work. From this one gathers you have been living a socially active existence. How do you imagine you will stand up to the rigours of life at Reichstein when two experienced governesses have failed?' Victoria bit her lip. 'From what you say, I gather the others left because of the isolation. I'm not afraid of isolation, Herr Baron.' 'No?' He looked sceptical. 'Not even when this is your first teaching post? Do you not perhaps think you will require some kind of light relief after working all day with Sophie? We do not even have television at Reichstein, fraulein.' Victoria gave him an irritated stare. 'One would almost imagine you did not want a governess for Sophie,' she commented, with daring. The Baron frowned. 'You do not know me very well yet, fraulein. One should never jump to conclusions.'
Victoria bent her head and said nothing, but the ready indignation was very near the surface when dealing with this man. Presently they reached the summit of a steep incline and now Victoria could see a valley below them. Moonlight illuminated it eerily while on the far side of the valley, above the surging waters of an icy stream, stood a fairy-tale castle, its turrets silhouetted against the backcloth of dark pines. Victoria gasped, and the Baron's attention was drawn to her once more. 'Picturesque, is it not?' he queried, half mockingly. 'An enchanter's castle!' He put the car into a lower gear and began the steep slope down into the valley. 'Unfortunately, no one should judge things, any more than people, by their outward appearance.' Victoria frowned. 'You are cynical, Herr Baron. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.' 'But beauty, real beauty, is not a one-dimensional quality,' he observed bleakly. 'Beauty has depth and feeling. That is not in the eye of your beholder. That is inherent in the thing one beholds.' Victoria tried to understand what he was saying. It was strange to realise how complex their conversation had suddenly become. Somehow there was more to his words than mere cynicism and curiosity gripped her for a moment. But as they reached the valley floor and began to climb the frozen track to the schloss a feeling of awe filled her being. It was incredible to accept that she was here, in Austria, miles from London and everything she had known all her life, and almost ready to begin life again as someone's employee. They entered the schloss through a turreted gateway into an inner courtyard lit by lanterns. Obviously in days gone by, this was where the horses were stabled and where the servants had their quarters, but now it looked deserted, the windows blank and shuttered and unlit.
Victoria glanced at her companion, but he did not look her way before thrusting open his door and climbing out. He stretched for a moment, and then turned to reach for her case. Victoria hesitated only a moment before getting out also and looking about her. She was aware that the Baron was looking at her now, gauging her reactions, and before she could speak, he said harshly: 'Is something wrong, fraulein? Did my cousin Theresa omit to inform you that her cousin the Baron von Reichstein is almost as impoverished as his poorest tenant?' At once Victoria was defensive. 'I can't believe that a man who can afford a governess for his daughter is a pauper, Herr Baron,' she countered, quickly. He smiled. 'You think not? Very well, fraulein, we shall see. Come! You are cold, I can see it. At least I can promise you a good fire and a hot supper.' Victoria was impatient of his self-mockery and walked ahead of himwhen he indicated that she should cross the courtyard to the entrance. As she did so, she looked up at the tall mass of the building. It was not a large castle compared to those she had seen in England, but it was considerably larger than an average-sized dwelling. There were one or two lights in the lower windows, but the greater part of the building was in darkness and chillingly desolate beneath the eaves of snow. They reached an iron-studded door and the Baron leant past her to thrust it open. For a moment his body was close to hers and she smelt the warm heat of his skin and a faint odour of tobacco, and an awful sense of breathlessness enveloped her. Then he moved back again, and the feeling left her.
They entered into a wide hall, lit by electric candelabra. It was a nice touch, although Victoria was amazed that there should be electricity here, so far from the city. The ceiling was high and shadowy, but an enormous log fire burned in a huge grate and two wolfhounds rose at their entrance to amble across to greet their master. They sniffed Victoria's clothes suspiciously, and she remained perfectly still, terrified that they might attack her, until the Baron saw her frozen features and adjured the beasts to get back to their position in front of the fire. 'Are you scared of animals?' he asked roughly. Victoria gathered her scattered wits. 'Of course not, at least not in the normal way. They—they are rather large, aren't they?' The Baron gave her an exasperated look and then strode across the polished wooden floor shouting: 'Maria! Gustav! Ich bin hier!' Victoria hovered by the doors, unwilling to approach the fire even though she would have appreciated the warmth. She looked about her apprehensively as she waited for some sign that they were not the only inhabitants of this fairy-tale castle, noticing the shields on the walls, the swords and bunting spears, a tapestry of animals and men locked together in a grim battle for survival. It was medieval, she thought in amazement. People actually lived among such things. She turned her attention to the furniture. The only concession to comfort was a high-backed settle by the fire. The long wooden table and chairs were stark and practical. There ought to be reeds on the floor, she thought with an attempt at lightness, not these rugs, although as some were animal skins maybe they were appropriate after all. The Baron was shedding his heavy parka; flinging it over a chair and excusing himself, he strode through a heavy door to the right of the staircase which wound into the upper regions. As Victoria's eyes wandered up the staircase she saw that there was a gallery at the top
of the first flight, and even as she looked a shadow moved there, in the gloom. An icy shiver ran up her spine, and she took a step towards the door through which the Baron had passed only to be halted by the raised heads of the two wolfhounds and an unmistakable growling in their throats. Sheer panic struck her and she closed her eyes, striving for control. The night, the weather, her unhappy experience at the station, and now this strange and deserted castle were all combining to create within her a kind of nightmarish horror, and for several moments she felt petrified. But the moment passed, as all moments eventually do; the dogs were not growling any longer, the fire burned brightly, and there were no shadows when she looked again at the gallery. With determination, she began to move towards the fire. If she was to have any kind of a life here at all she must get used to these great hulking creatures. She was not naturally afraid of dogs although she had never had anything to do with them before, and who was it who had said that the larger the animal the gentler it was? She swallowed hard. Obviously they must have been talking of domestic animals, for who could consider a rhinoceros a gentle beast? And after all, these were domestic animals, not ravening wolves from the upper slopes of the Rockies. They looked up again at her approach, but at least they did not growl now and she wondered if that was a good sign. The heat from that cheerful blaze was penetrating and in no time she was loosening her coat and jacket and feeling her fingers tingle with warmth. She was shrugging out of her sheepskin coat when there was a sound behind her, and turning she confronted an elderly woman dressed all in black, her skirts almost reaching her ankles. Her grey hair was secured in a bun, but there were roses in her cheeks and she looked friendly enough.
'Guten Abend, fraulein,' she said, with a smile. 'Come! You would like to see your room, yes?' Victoria was so relieved that the woman spoke English that she nodded enthusiastically. 'My—my luggage——' she began, but the woman shook her head. 'Gustav will attend to that, fraulein. Come! All is prepared.' Victoria collected her coat and bag, cast a thoughtful glance at the wolfhounds, and then followed the older woman. To her surprise they did not climb the staircase from the hall, but went instead through the door the Baron had used earlier which Victoria now found led into a wide passageway. At the end of the passage there were lights and the smell of cooking, and she guessed it was the kitchen area. But a little further along the passage was a door which when Maria, as Victoria supposed the woman to be, opened it revealed a winding staircase. They followed this spiral staircase up two flights to a narrow landing. There were three doors opening on to the landing and Victoria was tempted to ask who else used this section of the castle but she restrained herself in time. Maria flung open one door and indicated that Victoria should enter. She did so, not without foreboding, for she was not yet rid of that unreal feeling she had experienced, and she had an awful premonition that Maria might thrust her inside and lock the door. But despite her ridiculous fears, nothing unforeseen happened and in fact she found the room quite attractive. In the passageway and coming up the stairs she had not felt the cold, she had been too engrossed with her own imagination, but now she was glad of the glowing logs in the hearth at the far side of the bedroom and moved towards them compulsively, holding out her hands. 'The bathroom is downstairs,' remarked Maria, with a trace of reluctance, as though she considered it unnecessary to discuss such
matters. 'There'll be a meal ready for you in fifteen minutes if you come down to the kitchen, fraulein.' 'Thank you.' Victoria managed a smile. 'Tell me, when will I meet the—er—Baroness and—and Sophie?' 'You haven't seen Sophie yet?' queried Maria, with a shrug. 'Ach, ach! The child is somewhere about. You will see her in good time.' She turned to go. Victoria took a step forward. 'And—and the Baroness ...' she prompted. Maria frowned. 'Baroness von Reichstein isn't here,' she muttered, with even more reluctance. 'Not here?' Victoria frowned. 'Then—who is here?' Maria's features softened. 'You are here, fraulein, and I am here, and Gustav is here, and the Herr Baron is here.' Victoria was aghast. Her godmother would be horrified to discover that apart from Maria there was to be no other woman in the house. Heavens, thought Victoria wryly, she was aghast herself. No wonder the other governesses had found the place isolated. Who would there be to talk to? The Baron? Maria? Or Gustav? Or the child, Sophie? She swallowed hard, and as she did so she realised that since leaving the train at Reichstein she had not once thought of Meredith Hammond! 'Is that all, fraulein?' Maria was waiting to go. 'Oh—oh yes, thank you.' Victoria nodded, unable to assimilate these new facts immediately. 'I—I'll come down when I'm ready.'
'Jawohl, fraulein!' Maria smiled and withdrew, and as the door closed Victoria sank down rather weakly on to the bed. As downstairs, the lights were electric, but as she sat there they flickered rather unsteadily for a moment and she shivered again. The journey, her arrival, her surroundings, and most of all the lack of people was unnerving to contemplate, and she had the most ridiculous desire to bury her face on her pillow and cry her eyes out. But that would never do. She was not a defeatist, was she? Surely she was allowing everything to get out of hand. At least the bed felt superbly comfortable and after a night's sleep surely everything would look brighter ...
CHAPTER TWO VICTORIA rolled over restlessly, gathering the bedclothes closer about her as her movements caused a slight chill to invade the warmth beneath. She was dreaming and the dream was frightening in its clarity. She was running down a steep, snow-covered slope, pursued by hounds whose bared -teeth and slavering jowls were inches behind her. They made awful sounds of heavy breathing, panting in her ears until she ran so fast that she felt her lungs would burst. And then she lost her footing and tumbled headlong down the slope, slipping and sliding, and grappling for something to save herself from certain death. Panic penetrated her being, biting particles of snow blinded her, and she tossed about frenziedly, seeking escape from the disaster ahead of her, and then an explosion somewhere outside her realm of fantasy aroused her to a real awareness of her surroundings. With a gasp, she sat up abruptly in the bed, pressing a hand to her throat to still her racing pulse, and remained absolutely still for a moment, recovering from the shock of her awakening. As full consciousness invaded her mind, she realised that the room was no longer dark as it had been the night before. Light was penetrating the heavy velvet curtains, the brilliant sun-on-snow light that was eloquent of the mountains. A shiver engulfed her and swiftly she reached for the quilted housecoat she had laid on the end of the bed the night before. Thrusting her arms into it, she saw that her fire was dead, the ashes not even glowing in the hearth, and the room was as chill as a refrigerator. With hasty movements, she fastened the housecoat and slid out of bed, brushing her hair out of her eyes with an unsteady hand. She was still very much aware of the nightmare world of the dream and the remembrance of the explosion which had woken her seemed altogether more substantial than all the rest.
Shivering once more, she pushed aside the velvet curtains and looked out. Last night the landscape had been a white wilderness, but this morning the brilliance of the panorama hurt her eyes. Her window overlooked the rear of the castle, and towering above were the high reaches of the mountains. Closer at hand the pines were loaded with snow beyond a walled garden in which some attempt at cultivation had obviously been achieved. Away to the right the surging waters of the stream could be glimpsed, and she wondered with incredulity how it remained unfrozen in such low temperatures. The surroundings of the valley might account for some shelter, but even so it was very cold. As normality asserted itself, Victoria turned and lifted her watch from the table by the bed. It was only a little after eight, but she decided she would be well advised to put on her clothes and go and find some heating. She was pulling on thick trousers when a sound at her bedroom door brought her swinging round to face it, grabbing her sweater to hide her chest. The door creaked, halted, creaked again, and finally gave inwards to allow a small face to appear round it. Victoria heaved a shaky sigh of relief, and swiftly donned her sweater as the girl, for this must be Sophie, came reluctantly into the room. She had the feeling that Sophie had expected her to still be asleep and had not expected to be seen. 'Guten Morgen, Sophie,' she said, with a smile, congratulating herself on remembering the simple words, but the girl merely regarded her silently, neither answering her nor attempting to offer any words herself. As this was Victoria's first glimpse of her charge she decided to give her a few minutes to get used to her and began to make her bed. The previous evening had been disappointing in the respect that she had seen neither the Baron nor his daughter after her arrival, and when she had ventured down to the kitchen after unpacking her case she
had found herself expected to eat at the scrubbed kitchen table with Gustav, Maria's husband. It had all been part of the strange, unreal quality of the schloss, but this morning she refused to be downhearted. After all, the food though plain had been excellent, and she was little more than a servant when all was said and done. Even so, it was patently obvious that the schloss was no luxury country home and apart from Gustav and Maria there were no other servants. Victoria had plagued her brain with questions long after she had retired and had come to the conclusion that either the Baron was eccentric, or he really was as poor as he had maintained. Of course, if she had had any sense at all she would have suspected something was wrong. Three governesses in as many months, her godmother had said. And that poor creature, the Baroness Theresa; she would hardly live that hand-to- mouth existence if her relatives were rich landowners. Victoria smiled to herself as she spread the coverlet evenly across the width of the bed. Aunt Laurie had had no idea what she was letting her goddaughter in for. She would never have countenanced the idea had she suspected the Baron's circumstances. And yet, for all that, Victoria found the prospect of her task challenging, and it would do her no harm to have to rough it for a while. She looked across at Sophie's solemn little face. Well, she thought with insight, it was certainly to be no sinecure. When the bed was made she straightened and came round to the girl. She was small for her age, with hair several shades darker than her father's, which she wore in two plaits. She was dressed in a thick woollen dress and cardigan, black tights keeping her thin legs warm. She was not unattractive, but the plain clothes gave her a waif-like appearance. Victoria rubbed her cold hands together, and said: 'It's chilly up here, isn't it? Shall we go down?' in a brisk voice. She knew the child understood English. Before her illness she had attended a good boarding academy where English was the second language.
Sophie continued to regard her steadily, making no move towards the door. When Victoria was beginning to feel impatient with her, she said, quite clearly: 'Do you intend to stay here?' Victoria was taken aback. 'Of course,' she said at once. 'Why not?' Sophie shrugged her thin shoulders. 'Did I say you shouldn't?' she asked cheekily. Victoria compressed her lips. 'Don't you want me to stay?' Sophie's eyes flickered. 'You won't, anyway,' she replied depressingly. 'You'll be like the others. Your nerves won't stand it!' Victoria felt a trace of annoyance. 'My nerves have never troubled me before,' she asserted calmly. 'Now, shall we finish this useless conversation, and go down?' Sophie ran her tongue over her upper lip. 'If you like.' But she still made no move to leave. Instead she walked across the room to the dressing table and picked up a flagon of perfume that belonged to Victoria. Without asking permission, she removed the stopper and sniffed it suspiciously. Then, with what Victoria afterwards realised were deliberately fumbling movements, she attempted to press the stopper back in place, allowed the flagon to slide through her fingers and drop to the floor. It did not break, it was plastic, but its contents spilled out over the polished floor. With an exclamation, Victoria rushed across the room and snatched up the flagon with trembling fingers before all its contents could be lost, and turned to Sophie with angry eyes. It was a favourite perfume of hers and obviously it was impossible to replace here, miles from anywhere.
Sophie pressed her hand to her mouth. 'Oh, I'm sorry,' she exclaimed, before Victoria could speak. 'It—it was an accident!' Victoria opened her mouth to remonstrate with her, and then suddenly closed it again. Of course, that was what Sophie wanted. She hoped Victoria would lose her temper and -get angry. It would prove that she was susceptible and capable of being aroused quite easily. And maybe she wanted to find out just how angry Victoria could become. So with an immense amount of fortitude, Victoria suppressed her annoyance, replaced the stopper on the flagon, and put it back in its place. Then she turned to the girl. 'That's all right,' she said calmly, more calmly than she felt. 'Accidents will happen. Do you like perfume, Sophie?' Sophie screwed up her face. 'No,' she said violently. 'I hate it!' Victoria inclined her head. 'Indeed. Well now, shall we go?' Sophie looked mutinous for a moment, and then she turned and marched towards the door. As she reached it, she turned back. 'You won't stay, you know,' she said derisively. 'You'll be too scared!' Victoria took a step forward. 'What do you mean, Sophie?' Sophie shrugged. 'You'll find out,' she retorted, and slammed out of the room. After she had gone, Victoria found that she was trembling. Certainly she had never come up against such a strange child before, and while her anger over the perfume remained she began to wonder exactly what motivated Sophie's deliberate antagonism. With a sigh, she combed her long thick hair into place, secured it with combs, and left the room.
Down the winding staircase she smelt the delicious aroma of baking bread, and when she opened the kitchen door a wave of heat hit her. The kitchen was huge, dominated by the long, scrubbed table and wooden forms round it. Strings of onions hung from the rafters, gleaming pans adorned the shelves, and on the wide fireplace a huge kettle simmered constantly. Maria was busy taking a tray of bread rolls out of the oven beside the fireplace, but she smiled as Victoria entered the room. 'Guten Morgen, fraulein,' she said, putting the tray on the scrubbed table. 'Did you sleep well?' Victoria relaxed. 'Danke, yes,' she nodded. 'It's much warmer down here than upstairs.' Maria folded her arms. 'It is cold in your room? The fire is gone out?' 'Yes, I'm afraid so. Do—do I light it?' Maria shook her head. 'Gustav will do it later, fraulein.' She turned away to where a coffee percolator hummed on another stove. 'You would like some coffee? Or tea?' 'Coffee would be fine,' replied Victoria gratefully, seating herself near the roaring fire. 'Is it always as cold as this?' Maria spooned sugar into a cup without asking Victoria's preference, and shrugged, pulling a face. 'In May the warm days come,' she said. 'May!' Victoria shivered. It was still only March. May seemed a very long way away. 'You will soon get used to it, fraulein,' asserted Maria, comfortably, handing the girl a cup of strong black coffee. 'Wrap up warmly and you will find it is invigorating.'
Victoria sipped her coffee with some satisfaction. At least it was good coffee. She was beginning to feel hungry, too, and the sight of those golden brown rolls was very appetising. Maria put the rolls on to a wire tray, and began to set a place near Victoria. She put out some of the white earthenware plates they had used the night before, together with a dish of yellow butter and a jar of home-made conserve. Then she indicated that Victoria should sit at the table, and Victoria did so with gratitude. 'The—er—Baron?' she began, as she buttered a roll and added some conserve. Maria frowned. 'Yes?' she said uncompromisingly. Victoria sighed. 'Does—doesn't he eat here?' Maria sniffed. 'The Herr Baron breakfasted two hours ago, fraulein,' she retorted, with some disparagement. 'I see.' Victoria sank her teeth into the roll and savoured its flavour with real enjoyment. It was strange, you simply didn't get bread like this in England. Maria hesitated by the table. 'Have you seen Sophie yet, fraulein?' At the mention of the child's name, some of Victoria's contentment vanished. 'Yes, I've seen her,' she replied carefully. 'She came to my bedroom earlier.' Maria still hovered beside her. 'What did she say?' Victoria frowned. 'Very little,' she answered honestly.
Maria twisted her hands together. 'It is wise not to take too much notice of what she says,' she said unhappily. 'Sophie is a strange child. No one can get near to her. She makes up—what you would call—fantasies!' Victoria looked at Maria curiously, and then the woman's words found an echo in something she remembered from earlier this morning. 'Tell me,' she said, 'could I have heard an explosion this morning? I— I believe something like that woke me.' Maria's eyes flickered. 'An explosion, fraulein?' 'Yes.' Victoria lifted her shoulders. 'Like a shot, for example.' Maria looked relieved suddenly. 'Oh, perhaps,' she agreed, nodding. 'Gustav was out early with his rifle.' Victoria digested this, but Maria turned away, apparently willing to let the conversation end there. Victoria ate two rolls, felt pleasantly full, and accepted a second cup of coffee. She was in the process of drinking the second cup when the heavy door at the far side of the kitchen opened and her employer came in. This morning he was dressed in thigh-length boots, and a thick furlined overcoat. A fur hat resided on his head, but he drew this off as he came in and threw it to one side as he unbuttoned his coat, and unzipped his boots. Victoria gave him a fleeting glance, and then returned her attention to her coffee, unwilling to appear too inquisitive as he divested himself of his outer garments. Maria welcomed him eagerly, offering him coffee, and he patted her shoulder warmly, and said: 'Ja, good .and strong, Maria!' before transferring his attention to Victoria.
'Good morning, Miss Monroe,' he nodded, running a hand through the thickness of his fair hair. 'I trust you have spent a good night.' Victoria found herself colouring under his brilliant blue gaze like a schoolgirl, and was angry with herself for doing so. In consequence, her tones were sharp, as she replied: 'Thank you, yes, Herr Baron.' The Baron's brows drew together slightly, and he studied her thoughtfully for a moment before continuing: 'It will be necessary for us to talk this morning, Miss Monroe. I suggest you wait a moment while I have my coffee, and then we will go to my study.' Victoria lifted her shoulders. 'As you say, Herr Baron,' she answered swiftly. The Baron gave her another studied look before turning back to Maria and taking the mug of steaming liquid she handed him. Warming his hands round its width, he came back to the fire, standing, one foot raised to rest on the settle at one side of the fire, as he stared into the flames. In black vorlagers and a black sweater he was an infinitely disturbing figure, and Victoria couldn't help wondering where his wife might be. Had Sophie been more forthcoming she might have asked her about her mother, but the child had not been helpful in any way. It was possible, of course, that Sophie missed her mother and that that was why she behaved so badly. But would any woman be able to stand the isolation here all winter long? Had the Baroness merely gone to where there were lights and people and simple luxuries like central heating, for example? Victoria ventured another look at her employer. He might not be an easy man to live with; there was a touch of ruthlessness about him as well as that sardonic cynicism, and yet she was aware also of a gentleness that showed whenever he spoke of his daughter. He turned suddenly and found her eyes upon him and she quickly looked away,
but not before she had encountered the disturbing penetration of those naked blue eyes. He finished his coffee and put the cup on the bench beside a deep sink, then turned to Victoria. 'Are you ready, Miss Monroe?' he asked briefly, and Victoria got obediently to her feet. At that moment the kitchen door opened again, this time from the hall which led to Victoria's room, and Sophie came in almost jauntily. Victoria had been wondering where the child was, and now she thought there was about Sophie an air of satisfaction that had not been there before. 'Papa!' she exclaimed, when she saw her father, and rushing across to him she wrapped her arms round his hips extravagantly. 'Wohin gehen Sie?' 'English, Sophie,' said her father gently, disentangling himself from her clinging arms. 'I am going to my study. Miss Monroe and I need to discuss your tuition.' Sophie turned in her father's arms and wrinkled her nose at Victoria, but as only Victoria saw her the Baron did not remonstrate with her. 'I don't want to do lessons, Papa! I want to come out with you. Can I, Papa? Can I?' The Baron held her at arm's length, looking at her teasingly. 'Would you have it said that Sophie von Reichstein was unintelligent, uneducated, illiterate, Sophie?' he chided her gently. 'Don't you want me to be proud of you?' Sophie pouted. 'Of course I do, Papa. But you can teach me all I need to know.' The Baron shook his head, straightening. 'No, Sophie.'
Sophie's face crumpled. 'Why?' 'I do not have the time, Sophie.' The Baron sighed. 'Miss Monroe will be an admirable teacher, I am sure. Try to be good, to learn! It is no use railing against the inevitable.' Sophie sniffed, and rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. 'You don't care about me!' she accused him. Victoria felt uncomfortable and glanced across at Maria. The old woman was looking anxious and Victoria had the feeling that this was a scene she had seen many times before. The Baron frowned at his daughter. 'That is not true, Sophie, and you know it. I simply cannot devote myself solely to your education. There is much to do about the schloss as you know. It is impossible for me to be your tutor. Besides, it is better that you have the services of a—qualified teacher -' He cast a bleak glance in Victoria's direction, and she felt sure he had hesitated there deliberately. He had intended to remind her that she was not experienced. Sophie rubbed her eyes with both hands. 'Go away. I don't want to see you any more.' The Baron regarded her for a long moment, then he turned and with a gesture indicated that Victoria should precede him out of the room. Victoria did so, unhappily aware of Sophie's eyes on her back as they left. In the hall, the Baron went ahead, leading the way to the enormous banqueting hall which they had first entered on their arrival. Here there was another huge fire and Victoria reflected that at least there was no shortage of wood to stoke the flames. Only one of the wolfhounds lay before the blaze and at a command from the Baron he did not trouble them as they crossed the hall to another heavy door
leading into the east wing of the schloss. Victoria had wondered if the east wing were used at all, but apparently it was and this was where the Baron's apartments were situated. Here the floors were just as bare, but when the Baron halted before an arched doorway and opened the door into a comparatively small room, Victoria saw that at least here there were some signs of comfort. The room was lined with books so that it was more like a library than a study, but an enormous desk, littered with papers dominated the central area, and before and behind this desk were two comfortable armchairs of buttoned green leather. The floor was strewn , with rugs, and again a comfortable blaze burned in the hearth. Victoria wondered however such a place could be heated without the presence of the pine forests. To imagine such hearths filled with fuel of a harder quality was to imagine untold riches. The Baron closed the door behind them and indicated that Victoria should take the chair nearest the fire. Then he himself perched on the corner of his desk and reaching into a carved wooden box he produced a thick cigar which he proceeded to trim and light before speaking. The windows of the study overlooked the side of the schloss and from her seat Victoria could see the tumbling waters of the stream and the frosted panorama of trees and hillside. It was a very attractive room and Victoria began to relax in the warmth and comfort of her soft chair. When his cigar was lit to his satisfaction, the Baron gave her a thoughtful stare. 'You are surprised, Miss Monroe,' he remarked, half mockingly. 'Did you imagine we had only wooden chairs to sit upon and stark walls to stare at?'
Victoria felt annoyed. 'If I did, it was only what you expected me to think,' she replied carefully. 'Or should I say, that was what you wanted me to think?' 'Touché!' he murmured, with a slight smile. 'Perhaps I have been a little hard on you. But then it is always better to believe the worst to begin with. If I had misled you in an entirely different direction, you would have been horrified afterwards, do you not agree?' Victoria's mouth lifted slightly. 'So you let me believe you were a barbarian, Herr Baron?' she countered. 'Oh, not that, surely,' he protested. 'However, it must be obvious to you even now that what we have to offer here is not what you are used to.' Victoria frowned. 'You don't know what I am used to, Herr Baron.' 'No?' he shrugged. 'I have not spent all my life here, at Reichstein, fraulein. I can recognise cashmere when I see it, in your sweater, for example. And your trousers are not made of inferior yarns.' 'You can't judge a person by their clothes!' 'No, I accept that. That is why I am willing to give you a trial. Nevertheless, I venture to say that your predecessors were perhaps a little more prepared than you are for the task ahead.' Victoria felt affronted. 'How can you say that,' she exclaimed unthinkingly, 'when neither of them succeeded in their efforts?' The Baron raised his dark eyebrows. 'You see, fraulein,' he said, 'you begin to prove my point already!' Victoria compressed her lips. 'Why? Because I am without deference?' she asked stormily.
The Baron's eyes darkened. 'We will leave the matter of my position alone, fraulein,' he stated harshly, and for a moment Victoria felt completely deflated. 'As you wish,' she murmured uncomfortably, and he slid off the desk and walked behind it, lifting a letter which Victoria immediately recognised as being written in her godmother's flowing hand. 'Why did you wish to leave London, fraulein?' he asked suddenly, startling her. Victoria linked her fingers together in her lap. 'Is that of any consequence, Herr Baron?' she asked politely. The Baron flicked the letter with his thumb. 'I think so. After all, if your reasons for coming to Reichstein are to escape from something—unpleasant, perhaps, I should be aware of its nature.' 'Why?' Victoria looked up at him. 'If tie impossible happens and you are accepted here I should not like to think you would leave us again if whatever it is you are running away from resolves itself.' Victoria controlled her temper. 'How do you know I am running away from anything?' she protested. 'Your godmother's letter is vague, and yet one gets the impression that what is implied is worth more than what is actually said. However, as you seem loath to commit yourself, I must assume it is a personal matter and trust that it is nothing which might reflect unhappily upon us.' Victoria's nails bit into the palms of her hands, but she said nothing. Let him think what he liked. It was of no matter. Time would prove that she was as equal to the task as her predecessors, and if she had
anything to do with it he would have nothing to complain about. Even so, it was startling to realise that already her life in London was receding in significance and her presence here at Reichstein was the reality. Whether it was because it was all so vastly different from what she had imagined she did not know, but certainly her anxiety at parting so abruptly from Meredith had become of less importance than succeeding at this task. Of course, she had deliberately refused to think about him last night or maybe she would have felt those awful pangs of conscience, but even so, it was reassuring to know that her heart was by no means as bruised as she had believed it to be. The memory of Meredith's betrayal was still painful, but now that her pride was in no danger of being destroyed here, miles away from anyone who had known about their association, she could face the future less emotionally. In that, at least, her godmother had been right. She had said that Victoria had been hurt more by the knowledge that she would look a fool than by real heartbreak. Now the Baron came to lean against the mantel, looking down at her intently. 'About Sophie,' he began. 'I should warn you, she is not an easy child to get along with.' He spread a hand expressively. 'As no doubt you are aware after that small fracas earlier.' 'Yes.' Victoria continued to study her fingernails, unable to confront that piercing gaze. 'No doubt you consider my attitude sadly lacking in discipline, fraulein?' Victoria sighed. How was she supposed to answer that? 'I—I think Sophie is a lonely child,' she ventured, uncomfortably. 'How very diplomatic,' he commented dryly. 'No, my dear Miss Monroe, it is not just loneliness! When Sophie was ill she was given every attention. Her slightest wish was my command. She is very dear, to me. Naturally I spoilt her, and now this is the result.'
Victoria bit her lip. 'How old was Sophie when she became ill, Herr Baron?' 'Eight years of age—a little over eighteen months ago. She was in hospital for many months, and her recovery from the paralysis was nothing short of a miracle.' He flicked ash into the flames. 'You can have no conception of the relief her recovery gave to me. For a time it seemed impossible that she would ever be a normal child again.' Victoria hesitated, but the question had to be asked: 'And—and your wife, the Baroness -' He straightened. 'We will not discuss Sophie's mother, Miss Monroe,' he said harshly. 'And now—if we can decide upon a syllabus^ -' Victoria coloured and then allowed him to direct their conversation into educational channels, putting forward her opinions only when asked for and receiving his instructions in return. It was his suggestion that they should conduct the lessons here, in his study, where there was a desk and ample reference facilities in the booklined shelves. He already had textbooks in both German and English from which Victoria was able to gauge Sophie's ability and the other equipment necessary for providing writing materials and paper was present in the ample drawers of the desk. When he had completed his instructions about Sophie, Victoria rose to her feet, ready to take her leave, but he stayed her with a gesture and she sank back into her chair again. 'It is necessary now that I outline what free time you have available and how you may spend it,' he said consideringly. 'Also, if you would prefer to eat in your room, I can arrange for a tray to be provided.' 'Oh no. That is -' Victoria bit her lip. 'I don't mind eating in the kitchen. I—I prefer -' She halted. She had been about to say she preferred the company to the isolation, but to do so would be to play
right into his hands. However, before she could think of an adequate substitute, he said: 'I understand, fraulein. Do not imagine I am without feelings. I, too, need the company of—others, sometimes.' Victoria's eyes dropped before his, and a disturbing quiver rippled along her spine. Why did this man create this awareness in her? Almost all the men she had known were wealthy, sleek, sophisticated; they drove fast cars, holidayed in the Caribbean or the South Pacific, wore the latest clothes and knew all the best restaurants. The Baron von Reichstein should have been like them, but he was not, and his only concession to the present trends were the long sideburns which grew down to his jawline. His clothes were good, but practical, and there had been reinforcing leather patches on the elbows of his coat. His transport was a mud-splashed station wagon, and he was used to eating wholesome soup out of earthenware dishes at a scrubbed kitchen table. Why then did she notice every minute detail about him from the hard strength of his broad body to the sensual curve of his full lower lip? 'Now to the matter of free time.' The Baron was speaking again, and Victoria gathered her composure. 'Naturally, you will be free every day after lessons are over, which should be a couple of hours after lunch. However, I should be grateful if for a further consideration you would consider yourself Sophie's companion for some part of the day.' Victoria coloured. 'There is no need to make that concession, Herr Baron,' she said tautly. 'I'm quite willing to treat Sophie as a friend so long as she is willing. And as to free time, if and when I need any I could always tell you.'
The Baron frowned. 'Nevertheless, I feel it is essential that you should not feel continually on duty. Your suggestion is appreciated, but you may find assuming a kind of family situation rather tiring.' Victoria got to her feet. She was quite a tall girl, but the Baron was over six feet in height and dwarfed her. 'Well, we shall see,' she said, rather awkwardly, and leaving him she walked towards the door. However, as she was about to turn the handle, he said: 'Your hair—is it very long?' The question was so unexpected that Victoria leant against the door in astonishment, putting up a tentative hand to the french roll she invariably wore. 'Why—er—yes,' she murmured, flushing. The Baron turned his back to her, staring into the flames. 'There are no beauty salons around here, fraulein. You may find it simpler to wear your hair short.' Victoria frowned. 'Is that a request—or a command?' Her voice was slightly uneven. 'Neither,' returned the Baron bleakly. 'It was an observation, that is all, fraulein.' Victoria straightened. 'I am perfectly capable of washing my hair myself, Herr Baron,' she said sharply. 'Is that all?' 'That is all, ja!' His tones were harsh, and with a faint shake of her head, she went out of the door. What a strange man he was. What possible importance did her hair have for him? With a puzzled lift of her shoulders, she began to walk along the passage towards the great hall. As she entered that huge apartment
she saw the wolfhound stare round at her, and for a moment her heart quickened. Then, with determined nonchalance, she crossed the hall, and as she closed the door behind her she breathed a shaky sigh of relief. She walked to the kitchen, intending to find Sophie at once and speak to her about their arrangements, but only Gustav and Maria were there, Gustav drinking a mug of coffee and smoking his pipe. He was a giant of a man, with thick grey hair, and gnarled brown features. He nodded pleasantly at Victoria, and she returned his smile. Then she said to Maria: 'Where is Sophie? I thought she might be here.' Maria sighed. 'I think she has gone out, fraulein. After you left with her father she put on her long boots and her furs and you may find her in the stables, with Otto und Else.' 'Otto and Else? Who are they?' asked Victoria in surprise. Maria smiled. 'Horses, fraulein,' she said gently. 'There are only two now.' 'Oh!' Victoria nodded. 'I see.' She looked down at her shoeclad feet. 'Perhaps I should get my boots and go and find her.' 'Ja, fraulein,' said Gustav, nodding comfortably by the fire. 'Est ist halt, aber der Schnee ist schon!' Victoria was lost after the bit about it being cold, but she agreed with him and went out of the kitchen again to go up to her room to put on her warm clothes. She ran up the staircase, reflecting as she did so how thick the walls of the schloss must be. No sound penetrated up here from down below and she half wished she had brought her transistor radio for
company. On her landing she halted breathlessly, looking out for a moment from the circular window that gave a sight of the length of the valley. In summer the pastures would be green and verdant, laced with the tiny alpine flowers that grew in such profusion in the welcome heat of the sun. Maybe there would be cows to graze on the pastures and sheep to climb the slopes of the mountain. Would she still be here then? A strange sound coming from one of the other rooms which opened on to the balcony brought her round suddenly and a ripple of apprehension slid along her spine. She had thought herself the only occupant of this small tower and knowing the whereabouts of all the other members of the household made her instantly uneasy. There was no one else in the castle so that any sounds she heard could only be made by mice—or rats! Unless, her pulses slowed a little, unless it was Sophie, trying to frighten her. The noise came again, a weird, scratching kind of sound, and a faint panting as though whatever it was that was making the sound was breathing quickly, as she was. Victoria's blood ran cold. She had not been long enough in the schloss to form any real opinions about it, and it was easy to imagine the regiments of ancestors who must have lived and died here in years gone by. Although she had never encountered any ghosts in her short life, she had a healthy respect for the supernatural, and the remoteness of the schloss and this tower in particular was not lost on her. Then she chided herself impatiently. It was broad daylight. Spirits simply did not manifest themselves in broad daylight, at least not to her knowledge. She rubbed her damp palms down the sides of her trousers. She was being altogether too susceptible, allowing her imagination to run away with her. Heavens, all she had to do was run downstairs and get Gustav to come up with her and open the door!
The sound came yet again, harder this time, as though whatever, or whoever, was making the noise was getting tired of waiting for her to respond to it. It must be Sophie, she thought impatiently. There was no one else. It couldn't be the Baron, and she had just left Maria and Gustav. That only left one person. And if she did succumb to temptation and go downstairs and fetch Gustav up here there was every chance that the child would escape in her absence and thus make Victoria look a complete idiot when it was discovered that there was frothing and no one in the room. Of course, her imagination persisted, she could go down and bring Gustav up here and find nothing there and yet still find that Sophie was outside as Maria had said. And if that happened, then whatever it was that was behind that door would have every opportunity of returning later, after dark, when the schloss was as silent as the grave, when no one would be about to assist her. Victoria trembled, her palms moist again. It was no use. Whatever it was, she must discover it for herself or she would have no peace afterwards. On slightly uncertain legs, she crossed the landing to the door and put her ear against the panels, listening intently. Immediately there was a loud sniffing and a scuffling behind the door and a long-drawn-out wail. Horrified, Victoria took a step backwards and bent forward to turn the handle and thrust the door inwards. She didn't know what awful fate she expected to befall her, for a brief heart-stopping moment she was without hope, and then she was limp and clinging to the doorpost as a huge furry body flung itself joyously upon her, licking her face with an enormous pink tongue.
CHAPTER THREE VICTORIA was shaking so much that she didn't know how she kept her feet under the wolfhound's onslaught, and yet there was absolute relief in wrapping her arms round the huge, affectionate' animal's body and burying her face in its neck. She was laughing and crying all at once, and the dog responded by wagging its tail vigorously and uttering little sounds of excitement. Presently, all fear of the beast banished by this display of friendship, Victoria thrust him away and shook her head weakly, rubbing her forearm across her hot forehead. Now that common sense was reasserting itself she realised that the dog could hardly have locked itself inside that room. Apart from anything else the staircase door was always kept closed, and all at once she recalled the light of satisfaction that had been in Sophie's eyes when she had joined her father and Victoria in the kitchen. She could have done it; in fact, she was the only person who would have done it, and a feeling of pure rage shook Victoria as she remembered those terrifying moments before she opened the door. She would have liked to have stormed out to the stables, grabbed Sophie, and given her the hiding of her life, but of course she could not do that. She had no authority to hit the child, no matter how provoking she might be. Her only course was to report the matter to the Baron and allow him to deal with his daughter in any way he thought fit. Pushing open her bedroom door, she went into her room slowly. She couldn't do that! It simply was not in her nature to tell tales, and besides, very likely that was what Sophie hoped she would do. She could always deny it, and who was to say who the Baron would believe. He might consider she had made the whole thing up in an attempt to put Sophie in the wrong. Stranger things had happened, although somehow she thought the Baron was too shrewd to be taken in like that. Even so, there was no harm done; and how annoying it would be for Sophie if she didn't mention the episode. Half the fun of
creating a situation was its outcome, and she had expected Victoria to be frightened half out of her wits. Victoria frowned. Sophie had shown perception in choosing the wolfhound for the scapegoat. Had she guessed that Victoria had been nervous of them? Suddenly, Victoria recalled the shadow on the gallery the night before when the wolfhounds had frozen her with their growling. Could that have been Sophie? Learning to know the child as she was, she thought it was more than likely. The dog was seated by the bedroom door now, obviously waiting for her to go downstairs. Victoria smiled. In fact, Sophie had done her a favour. She had rid her of any fear of the animals. With lightening spirits, Victoria pulled on her long boots over her trousers. Then she put on another sweater before donning her sheepskin coat. She had no fur hat, but a warm scarf would have to do for now. When she was ready, she came out of the bedroom and began to go down the winding staircase. The wolfhound followed her obsequiously and she smiled to herself. Was she to be provided with a ready-made bodyguard? The dog followed her to the kitchen and Maria looked at it in surprise. 'Back, Fritz,' she said sharply, but Victoria shook her head. 'Leave him,' she said quickly. 'It's all right if he comes with me, isn't it?' Maria raised her eyebrows. 'Fritz and Helga are the Herr Baron's dogs,' she Said, reprovingly. 'It is his permission you need, fraulein?' 'Ach, the dogs need exercise,' exclaimed Gustav abruptly. 'Leave the fraulein alone, Maria. Fritz will come to no harm with her.'
Maria shrugged and turned back to her baking, and deciding there was no point in saying any more, Victoria went across the room and out of the door through which the Baron had entered earlier. Fritz followed her and she closed the door behind them firmly, glad of the dog's company. Patting his head, she set off across the yard. They had emerged at the side of the schloss, but a covered way led them through to the inner courtyard where she had seen the stables the previous day. The air was freezing but clear as wine and almost as intoxicating. Picking up a handful of snow, she threw it playfully at Fritz and he barked and fussed about her with all the liberal affection of a puppy. Really, it was remarkable, she thought with some amusement, Fritz seemed to imagine she was his deliverer and his natural loyalties had been temporarily transferred. The noise of their boisterous game must have penetrated the walls of the stables, for presently a small, fur-clad figure emerged and stood watching them. Victoria straightened from fondling the dog to face her charge, and as she did so she heard Fritz growling low in his throat. She looked down at him in surprise, and saw he was staring malevolently at the child. If anything further was needed to convince Victoria that Sophie was responsible for imprisoning the wolfhound, this was proof indeed. Sophie's face grew mutinous as they crossed the yard towards her, and as though deciding that the best method of defence was attack, she said sharply: 'Fritz is only allowed out with my father, fraulein! He will be very angry when he finds out that you have disobeyed his orders!' Victoria regarded her dispassionately. 'And what if I tell you I have your father's permission to bring the dog out here?' she countered.
Sophie frowned, her eyes guarded. 'You asked my father's permission?' she questioned disbelievingly. 'I don't believe you, fraulein.' Victoria shrugged. 'Well, why don't you ask him,' she suggested lightly. 'Tell him I found poor Fritz had locked himself in one of the turret rooms, and when I released him he insisted on following me.' Sophie grew sullen. 'You think you're very clever, don't you, fraulein?' 'No. But cleverer than you, perhaps, Sophie,' replied Victoria smoothly. 'Now, I have your father's instructions regarding your tuition, and I suggest we go indoors and begin to discover exactly how clever you really are.' Sophie regarded her furiously for a moment, and then without another word she turned and flounced away, completely ignoring Victoria's words. Victoria found it difficult to remain where she was and not go after the child and force her to return with her. But something warned her that this was not an opportune moment to show her hand, so instead she turned as well and strolled towards the arched gateway that led outside the schloss. With Fritz at her heels she had no fears for her safety, and it was too exhilarating a day to spend it wholly indoors. She walked through the path which someone had cleared to the banks of the stream and looked down into the water. It was quite shallow though fast-moving, and she wondered if that was the secret of its remaining unfrozen. Later, walking round the outer walls of the schloss she determinedly put all thoughts of Sophie and her problems out of her mind. Instead, she thought about her godmother and wondered whether Meredith had brought any pressure to bear upon her to reveal Victoria's
whereabouts. Of course, it was just possible that Meredith might have taken affront at her unexpected disappearance and decided to let the matter rest there, but somehow, knowing Meredith as she did, she felt convinced he would do everything in his power to find her. Apart from a postcard from Salzburg she had made no attempt to contact Aunt Laurie since her departure and she hoped her godmother would be able to cope alone. Maybe running away had been a cowardly action, and yet had she not done so she might never have had the strength to send Meredith away. He had, she supposed, an immense amount of conceit, and it simply would not occur to him that she seriously did not intend to become involved with a married man. Possibly because divorces were so easy to come by in his country he did not consider that a great barrier, but Victoria did, and she was glad now that she had been given this chance to start afresh. She had enjoyed being a lady of leisure while it lasted, but work was satisfying to her, and talking to the Baron this morning had aroused within her all that latent knowledge which she had been taught to impart to others. Her godmother had never been able to understand that doing a job that one enjoyed and which gave one satisfaction could be a pleasure. Even now, her reasons for despatching Victoria to Austria had not been a desire to provide an occupation for her, but rather to give her time to get over Meredith before coming back and beginning again. Victoria stood staring up at the frozen peaks above her, and stamped her feet. She was beginning to feel cold now, and she turned to make her way back to the arched gateway. Fritz had got tired of gambolling about and stayed close by her heels as they crossed the courtyard to the main entrance. It was easier to enter here than to go round to the side door and although the heavy structure was difficult to manipulate eventually it swung inwards on its hinges. Victoria entered, shaking the flying flakes of snow from her clothes and removing her headscarf, and looked up to encounter the forbidding gaze of the Baron. He was standing by the wide fireplace, the
flickering flames turning his hair to molten gold. The other wolfhound, Helga, stood motionless beside him and when Fritz saw them he bounded across joyfully, rubbing himself against his master's legs. Victoria loosened her coat and said lightly: 'We've been for a walk, Fritz, and I. It's very invigorating, out in the air!' The Baron moved and now Victoria could see that Sophie was perched on the settle by the fire, warming her toes at the blaze. She had shed her outdoor things, and looked cat-like in the glowing light from the burning logs. She gave Victoria an insolent stare, and then looked up adoringly at her father. 'Tell me, fraulein,' said the Baron in harsh tones, 'did you think to make a fool of me last evening?' Victoria frowned, his unexpected remark puzzling her. 'I'm afraid I don't understand you, Herr Baron,' she replied, shaking her head. The Baron folded his arms looking every inch the feudal overlord. 'The dogs!' he said bleakly. 'You feigned timidity in their presence, and yet now you appear to be on the best of terms with Fritz. So much so that you countermand my instructions concerning the animals.' Victoria felt exasperated. 'If you don't mind my saying so, you appear to be making a fuss about nothing,' she replied shortly. 'My timidity last evening was by no means feigned, but as you can see, Fritz and I have become friends.' 'But I do mind you saying so!' The Baron was obviously unused to having his staff answer him back in this manner. 'My instructions about the animals were not made lightly, and apart from that, your position here is not to be taken with indifference!'
Victoria saw Sophie's smug little face and wanted to scream. Instead, she controlled herself and said: 'What is that supposed to mean, Herr Baron?' in rather sardonic tones. The Baron's dark brows drew together. 'After our conversation this morning I expected you to begin your lessons with Sophie, but instead you disappear for over an hour with an animal whose temperament is by no means reliable!' Victoria stared at him indignantly for a long moment, and then she turned away. 'Where are you going?' The Baron's tones were curt. Victoria turned back. 'I was going to my room,' she said, carefully. 'To pack my things!' The Baron strode across to her angrily. 'What foolishness is this?' he snapped violently. 'Is it not possible to carry on a conversation with you, fraulein?' Victoria glared at him. 'You call this a conversation!' she exclaimed. 'This—this reprobation in front of a nine-year- old girl!' 'It is an admonishment, no more,' returned the Baron coldly. 'Surely as your employer I am entitled to question your movements during the hours when I expect you to have charge of Sophie?' Victoria stamped her feet, one against the other, ridding her boots of the lingering traces of snow, and then looked up at him unhappily. 'All right,' she said at last, 'maybe I feel extra sensitive this morning.' Her eyes flickered towards Sophie and she was heartened to see that now Sophie was beginning to look discomfited.
'And what has made you—extra sensitive, fraulein?' he queried, intently. He glanced towards Sophie. 'Does my daughter have anything to do with it?' He was more perceptive where Sophie was concerned than she would have believed. All the same, she had no intention now of turning telltale and destroying her own self-respect as well as arousing Sophie's further antipathy. To her relief, the door from the kitchen passage opened at that moment and Maria came in carrying a tray on which was a jug of hot milk and another of coffee, and three beakers. She came across the wide expanse of polished floor and placed the tray on the long polished table. The Baron left Victoria and went across to Maria with a smile. 'Danke, Maria,' he nodded pleasantly. 'It is most welcome!' Maria coloured with pleasure and then looked at Victoria. 'So you are back, fraulein,' she said, with some relief. 'Gustav was about to go and look for you.' 'For me?' Victoria frowned. 'Whatever for? I wasn't lost.' The Baron dismissed Maria with a shake of his head, and after the old woman had left them he said: 'The weather is bad in these mountains. A sudden snowstorm can impair the progress of the most experienced climber, and to tumble into a drift without the knowledge of how to get out again can be fatal.' Victoria uttered an exclamation. 'But I was not climbing. I walked round the outer walls of the schloss, that was all.' 'With Fritz.' 'With Fritz, of course.'
'An animal about whom you know nothing and who last evening aroused timidity inside you!' Victoria felt slightly mutinous herself now. 'What do you want me to say, Herr Baron?' she asked impatiently. 'I'm sorry if I've caused anyone any anxiety, but that was certainly not my intention. I do have more sense than to attempt to walk far from the castle without an adequate escort.' 'Es freut mich.' The Baron looked towards his daughter. 'You will begin your lessons this afternoon, Blumchen.' Sophie slid off her perch slowly, and approached him reproachfully. 'Mir ist nicht wohl, Papa,' she said, hanging her head weakly. The Baron frowned. 'You don't feel well?' he repeated her words in English for Victoria's benefit. 'You were perfectly all right earlier.' Sophie slid her hand into his. 'It is a headache, Papa,' she said appealingly. 'May we not leave the lessons until tomorrow, seeing that the fraulein was not beginning this morning?' Victoria was aware that this whole scene was being staged for her benefit. Somehow Sophie had sensed that she did not intend to tell tales about her to her father and felt perfectly safe to continue with her lies, for that was what they were, Victoria was in no doubt. The Baron looked down at Sophie's head gently, and then looked across at Victoria, who could not entirely hide her impatience. 'Very well,' he said, with decision. 'We will leave the lessons until tomorrow and this afternoon Miss Monroe can begin to unpack her trunk which at present resides in the cupboard at the foot of the turret stairs. Gustav and I will transport it to your room after lunch, fraulein.'
Victoria forgot her impatience in her delight at finding that her trunk had indeed arrived. She had intended asking the Baron over supper the previous evening, but his nonappearance had prevented her from doing so. And this morning she had forgotten all about it. 'I was going to ask about that,' she exclaimed, with pleasure. 'Most of my clothes are in it.' The Baron gave her a wry glance. 'If the trunk is filled with your clothes, fraulein, then I fear the facilities provided in your room for storing such articles will by no means prove adequate.' Victoria compressed her lips. 'While the trunk contains most of my clothes I did not say it was filled with them,' she said smoothly. 'I anticipated that my evenings here might prove dull without some books to read or some sewing to do. 'You sew, fraulein?' The Baron sounded surprised, and she thought he was mocking her. Without replying she walked swiftly across to the door and turned the handle as he said: 'Your coffee, fraulein!' With ill grace she turned and accepted the cup he had poured in the moment it took for her to cross the hall and at his suggestion added cream and sugar. Sophie had coffee, too, liberally laced with cream, and for a few moments there was silence in the high chamber. Then Victoria firmly excused herself and leaving the hall ran up the stairs to her room. Someone had lit the fire in her absence, and it was cosily warm in her modest apartment. Victoria shed her boots and overcoat, and the extra sweater she had worn to go out and seated herself by the fire to warm her hands at the blaze. It was amazing to consider that she had been at the Schloss Reichstein for less than twenty-four hours. So much seemed to have happened that London seemed a lifetime away.
She pondered the problem of Sophie with increased intensity. No wonder her previous governesses had found the isolation too much for them. It was, in Victoria's opinion, a particularly useful excuse. The child was becoming practically unmanageable and it was difficult to decide how best to handle her. Her success at ridding herself of the other two governesses had no doubt given her a sense of her own importance that would not be easy to dislodge. Of course, Victoria was at liberty to take her problems to the Baron himself, make him responsible for Sophie's good behaviour, but that was no real solution. The girl would despise Victoria even more for being unable to deal with her own affairs. And sooner or later she would discover some way of discrediting Victoria in the Baron's eyes. She had already proved that such a thing was not impossible. But without another woman in the house it was a precarious situation. Unless Victoria was given a completely free hand where Sophie was concerned there would be no peace between them. But how to earn the Baron's confidence, that was the crux of the matter. At present she was merely an intruder, a transitory intruder, if Sophie had anything to do with it, and therefore for the present she must content herself with the task of proving she was equal to the task. She ate lunch with Maria and Gustav, but again the Baron and his daughter were absent. When she tentatively mentioned this to Maria, however, she discovered that Sophie and her father were having their meal in the study she had seen earlier. 'The Herr Baron usually dines in his study,' said Maria, carving slices of home-cured ham on to their plates. 'As a concession the little one is sometimes allowed to join him.' 'I see.' Victoria grimaced and applied herself to the delicious broth Maria had served first, but she couldn't help but feel a little resentful that this position had not been made known to her at the time he had suggested she might like to eat her meals from a tray in her room. She had believed they all ate in the kitchen, and to discover that this
was not so was rather annoying. It was the kind of situation that Sophie would appreciate, she thought perceptively. It aligned her position with that of Maria and Gustav and placed the Baron and his daughter in an entirely different situation. Then she wrinkled her nose resignedly. What could it possibly matter to her where she ate? The kitchen was as good as anywhere in this mausoleum, and at least she had company. Even so, it brought home to her the realisation that she was no longer considered as anything more than an employee of the household. She smiled to herself when she contemplated what Aunt Laurie's reactions to such a situation might be. Victoria thought her godmother might well imagine that being governess to the daughter of the Baron von Reichstein would be an extremely comfortable arrangement. During the afternoon her trunk was transported to her room by Gustav and his employer and after they had left her she opened it with interest. Outside flurries of snow scattered against the panes of the window, but inside it was warm and comfortable and she was glad to have an occupation. She hung her clothes away in the capacious old wardrobe that stood in the corner of her room, and then knelt down to examine what she had left. She had brought several books, some of them old favourites which she could read over and over again, and others which had been recommended to her but which she had never found the time to tackle before. Although she rarely made her own clothes she was quite good at sewing, and she had brought some lengths of material with her for an additional hobby. She had thought the Baroness von Reichstein, or her seamstress, might possess a sewing machine, but as that was obviously to be a vain hope she would have to be patient and sew anything she needed by hand. Possibly, she reflected, it was not a bad prospect, after all. Sewing with a machine was so much quicker that during these long empty hours she would have soon despatched all her cloth. At the very bottom of the trunk she found a small batterydriven transistorised tape recorder. She had forgotten she had put this
in, and her spirits lifted as she realised she could provide herself with some music whenever she wanted. Taking it out, she pressed the switches and presently a rather dreamy ballad which she had taped from the current hit parade filled the air. Smiling to herself, she completed her unpacking by putting the photograph she had brought of Aunt Laurie on the dressing table and laying out the set of hairbrushes she had received on her twenty-first birthday three years ago. This done, she closed the trunk and pushed it laboriously into the corner of the room, under the window. It would provide an extra window seat should she require it and it was too big to stow away anywhere else. Then she picked up one of the newer novels and settled herself by the fire. It was very peaceful just sitting reading and after a while the heat of the fire made her drowsy, and she put her book aside and closed her eyes. She must have fallen asleep, because she was startled into consciousness by someone knocking at her door and now the room was quite dark. However, it was just Gustav, come to attend to the fire, and when he asked her whether she would like to eat her evening meal up here in her room she shook her head quickly and said she would come down. Cosy as the room was, the isolation was easier to accept in small doses and she realised she would be glad to go downstairs and stretch her legs and speak to Maria. After finishing her dinner, however, she was loath to return at once to her room and excusing herself from Gustav and Maria she walked along the passage which led to the great hall. She had no intention of seeking the Baron's company, or that of his daughter, but the dogs were there and she was interested in the wall decorations. Fritz came to sniff her hand, wagging his tail in a friendly fashion, and Helga came too apparently accepting Fritz's indication that this was someone they could trust.
Victoria was in the process of examining the sheath of a steel weapon when she heard the sound of a car being driven into the yard of the schloss. She thought it might be the Baron, back from some expedition, but when the heavy door creaked open, and a youthful voice called: 'Horst! Wo sind Sie?' she realised it was not. The young man who entered was dark-haired and did not look older than Victoria herself. However, his expression changed when he saw her, and an apologetic smile spread over his attractive features. 'Verzeihen Sie, fraulein,' he murmured, with a slight bow. 'Ich suche der Baron.' Victoria returned his smile. 'I'm afraid I do not speak German, Herr ...' She spread her hands regretfully. The young man frowned, 'Ich verstehe, you are the English governess, ja?' Victoria nodded. 'That's right. I'm Victoria Monroe. And you?' The young man came towards her, taking off thick driving gloves. 'Conrad Zimmerman, fraulein. I am, as you say, pleased to make your acquaintance.' He shook her hand warmly. 'I am the doctor, from the village, you understand. The Baron and I are friends. We play chess together.' Victoria realised as he moved into the light that he was older than she had at first imagined, and she put his age around thirty. But he was slightly built and not much above average height and consequently he appeared younger. 'How do you do!' Victoria withdrew her hand from his quite firmly when he continued to regard her with interest. 'You live in Reichstein, Herr Zimmerman?'
'Yes, I do. I have a house on the outskirts of the village which I use as a surgery as well. It is not to everyone's taste to live so far from the bright lights of Salzburg and Vienna, but me, I like it.' Victoria twisted her hands together and moved away from his compelling gaze. 'I should imagine you are kept quite busy in a place like this,' she said, feeling obliged to make conversation as he made no further efforts to find his host. The doctor agreed, and went on to describe how some of his patients lived in practically inaccessible areas, and that sometimes he was forced to visit them on foot when the passes were snowbound. 'I ski, of course,' he said, unbuttoning his overcoat. 'It is not all hard work by any means, and I enjoy the exercise. Only sometimes, when I am picking myself out of a particularly wet drift, do I wonder whether I would not be more sensible to open a practice in some fashionable strasse.' He removed his coat and draped it over one of the chairs by the fire. Neither of the dogs had stirred at his entrance after ascertaining his identity and deciding he was no enemy. He looked across at Victoria speculatively. 'What do you think of Reichstein, fraulein} Do you think the situation is as isolated as your predecessors?' Victoria shrugged and hesitated. 'It is isolated,' she agreed, 'but I imagine it rather depends whether one relies on artificial means of entertainment.' 'That is true.' The doctor nodded. 'Do you ski, fraulein?' Victoria half smiled. 'Well, let's say I know how,' she said doubtfully. 'I once spent a holiday at St. Moritz, but I'm afraid I'm no expert.' The doctor listened with interest. Then he nodded. 'It is obvious we must make some arrangements to remedy that state of affairs,
fraulein,' he stated firmly. 'To me the mountains are all things, and to glide like a bird across the frozen surface of the glaciers ...' He shook his head reminiscently. 'It is a wonderful sensation!' Victoria appreciated his obvious enthusiasm, but she was just about to explain that she was not at Reichstein to enjoy herself when Maria came into the hall, wiping her hands on her apron. She greeted the young doctor in their own language and even Victoria's limited vocabulary was sufficient to apprehend that she was enquiring after his health and that of his parents. It seemed apparent that he was not married, and certainly he did not act like a man with many responsibilities. Victoria took this opportunity to say goodbye to him and she left them to go up to her room. It was beautifully warm upstairs and as it was still early she read for a while before going to bed. But even after she was in bed with the lights extinguished and silence like a cloak about her she found it difficult to get to sleep. She was plagued with thoughts of how she might win Sophie's confidence, and interspersed with these problems were disturbing images of Sophie's father. How much easier it would have been if she had had a woman to deal with instead of a man, and especially a man like the Baron von Reichstein. It was possible, she supposed, that his wife might return to the schloss at any time, but it was impossible for her to depend on this. After all, what kind of a woman could she be to leave her husband and only child in the depths of winter, alone and barely cared for, in a castle in the mountains? Was that what was wrong with Sophie? Did she miss her mother? Did she resent being left alone with her father? Victoria vetoed that idea almost immediately. Sophie was perfectly happy in her father's company; obsessively so, in fact. She was not resentful, that was certain, but something had happened to make her behave as she did, and Victoria had to find out what.
The trouble was there was no one she could ask questions of. The Baron clearly did not intend to discuss his personal affairs with her, and Maria was too devoted to her employer and his daughter ever to think of gossiping about them. It seemed an impossible situation. Then she suddenly remembered Dr. Conrad Zimmerman. Of course I He was the ideal person to talk to. A friend of the family, living in Reichstein, he was bound to know the Baroness, and his connections were without sentimentality. Perhaps she ought to have taken him up on his suggestion of skiing lessons. When she knew him a little better he might prove an admirable confidant...
CHAPTER FOUR THE following morning Victoria rose early, eager to start the day. She dressed, as the day before, in thick pants and a sweater, this time choosing a turtle-necked jersey with Fair Isle patterning round the welt. Brushing out her hair before securing it in its pleat, she recalled the Baron's strange remarks of the day before and was tempted to leave it loose to see if it produced any further reaction, but common sense prevailed and she looked cool and businesslike when she entered the kitchen. As the bathroom was on the ground floor, Maria had provided her with a jug and a bowl of water for her room and consequently her first wash of the day was icy cold and invigorating. In England, such a practice would have horrified her, but here she accepted it as part of their way of life. Maria provided her with breakfast, and when Victoria brought up the doctor's visit of the previous evening, Maria became quite expansive, telling her how popular he was in the village, and how his parents had worked hard to save the money to send him through medical school. 'Of course, the Herr Baron helped,' she said, with obvious satisfaction, 'and Herr Conrad does not forget.' 'You mean Dr. Zimmerman has lived in Reichstein all his life?' asked Victoria. 'Ja, when he qualified he came back to take over from Dr. Klein who was already past retiring age.' Victoria sipped her coffee. 'He seems a nice young man,' she ventured. Maria nodded vigorously. 'A real credit to his parents.'
A cold draught of air heralded the arrival of the Baron. As on the previous day he had already been about outside, and his hair was damp with droplets of water. He nodded politely to Victoria, and threw off his outer garments briskly. 'Good morning, Miss Monroe,' he said, coming to warm his hands at the blaze. 'I see you are ready for work early this morning.' 'Yes, Herr Baron!' Victoria felt obliged to answer him. Sitting on the settle by the fire, sipping her second cup of coffee, she couldn't help but notice how brown and slender were the hands he held out to the flames, a gold signet ring, inset with a ruby, glittering on his third finger of his left hand. A wedding ring, perhaps? she wondered curiously. Maria handed him a mug of coffee and received the usual warm attention. Then he turned once more to Victoria. 'I am afraid I have some bad news for you, fraulein,' he said, frowning, and while Victoria turned anxious eyes up to him he went on: 'Sophie is unable to attend lessons this morning. You may recall that she was unwell yesterday. She is still not herself, and I am loath to force her to work when she looks so pale and wan.' Victoria was relieved it was nothing more serious that he had to tell her, but even so she felt a rising sense of frustration that Sophie had again succeeded in avoiding her tuition. Unable to suppress her natural reaction to this news, she said: 'How very fortunate for Sophie!' in rather sarcastic tones. The Baron looked down at her with narrowed eyes, and even Maria stopped what she was doing to turn and stare at them. 'Exactly what do you mean by that remark, fraulein?' the Baron queried icily. Victoria returned his look fearlessly, anger strengthening her resolution. 'I should have thought it was obvious, Herr Baron,' she
returned smoothly. 'Sophie has again succeeded in ducking her lessons!' 'What do you mean—again?' Victoria's cheeks burned. She had not meant to say that, but now she had the Baron looked absolutely furious. Bending her head, she sipped her coffee, trying desperately to find a way to retract that statement. 'Well, fraulein? I am waiting!' Victoria lifted her shoulders helplessly. 'I meant yesterday afternoon, of course,' she answered, rather lamely. The Baron's expression hardened. 'You mean when she was suffering from a headache?' 'I suppose so.' He stood his mug of coffee on the mantelshelf with a distinctive thud. 'You are perhaps insinuating that Sophie is not ill?' Victoria had had enough of this. She looked up at him defiantly. 'I am—perhaps—insinuating just that!' she declared. 'But of course I'm a stranger here, I don't know Sophie as you do, and naturally if you say she is ill then I must accept it!' The Baron's eyes were black with anger. 'You are a particularly offensive young woman, Miss Monroe!' he snapped violently. Then he remembered the presence of Maria. 'Maria! Leave us! What I have to say to Miss Monroe would be better said in private!' 'Ja, Herr Baron!'
Maria scuttled from the room like a frightened rabbit, and even Victoria felt an alarming quake in her lower limbs. As usual her tongue had run away with her, but she was still convinced that she was right. The Baron waited until Maria had closed the door, and then he turned back to Victoria. His face was like a thundercloud. 'Fraulein, I am not a difficult man, I am in many ways a patient man, but of one thing I am certain, I will not have a young woman like yourself call me a liar in front of my servants!' Victoria coloured, getting to her feet to reduce the disadvantage of height. 'I didn't call you a liar, Herr Baron I' she asserted bravely. The Baron glared down at her. 'No? You think not? To tell me that you consider my daughter is making a fool of me!' Victoria bent her head unhappily. 'If you want me to apologise, I will. In front of Maria, if that will appease you!' The Baron uttered an angry expletive. 'Appease me!' he exclaimed savagely, breathing heavily. 'What am I? Some child who needs reassurance in front of my nurse? No, fraulein, I am not. I am a man who demands that while you are an employee of mine you will refrain from making insinuating comments about my judgement, and accept what I say as being the truth as I see it!' Victoria bit hard on her lips to prevent herself from retaliating. 'Well, fraulein? What have you to say?' Victoria shrugged. 'Nothing, Herr Baron.' The Baron chewed on his lower lip for a minute and then turned away, snatching his coffee cup and swallowing a mouthful
impatiently. 'Tell me, fraulein,' he said bitterly, 'how soon may I expect your resignation?' Victoria's heart skipped a beat. 'You want me to resign, Herr Baron?' He turned towards her with obvious reluctance. 'No,' he said, in harsh tones. 'That was not my intention. But your over-confidence leads me to believe that you will not succumb to censure willingly, and I am not so foolish as to imagine that the conditions here are so unparalleled that no amount of provocation would induce you to leave.' 'You think I'm irresponsible, don't you?' Victoria held up her head tautly. 'I think your present attitude is not conducive to peaceful relations,' he observed bleakly. 'And while I can sympathise with your position, which is obviously alien to your nature, I feel that perhaps you might have found a less demanding post more to your taste.' Victoria shook her head helplessly. 'Herr Baron! If, as your words suggest, you imagine that my circumstances forced me to take a position, any kind of position, you couldn't be more wrong! I am very keen to begin teaching, and if my attitude is disrespectful, then I must change it.' The Baron looked sceptical. 'You are willing to remain here at Reichstein and subjugate yourself to my wishes?' He shook his head and turned away. 'Whatever drove you from London, fraulein, must be quite something.' Victoria stiffened. 'Nothing drove me from London, Herr Baron.' The Baron shrugged his broad shoulders. 'Very well. It is obvious that for the present you are determined.'
Victoria replaced her coffee cup on the table. 'Are you disappointed, Herr Baron?' she murmured, almost inaudibly, and although he stiffened and she heard his swiftly indrawn breath, he did not reply. He walked swiftly across to the door through which Maria had disappeared, and opening it, called: 'Maria!' sharply. Victoria rubbed the palms of her hands against her elbows. Now that it was all settled another long day stretched ahead of her, and on impulse, she turned to the Baron and said: 'Tell me, as Sophie is— indisposed—is there anything I can do around the schloss? I mean— are there any paths that want clearing, or perhaps you have some clerical work which I could help you with?' The Baron frowned as Maria came into the room, and she quickly went to get on with her tasks, casting a curious glance in Victoria's direction. Victoria smiled at her, and Maria looked positively astounded. Victoria was sure she had expected to find the new governess reduced to tears. 'While I appreciate your offer, fraulein,' the Baron said at last, 'I do not even allow Maria to clear the paths. Gustav and I are perfectly capable of performing such menial duties. However, your abilities have been noted if ever I require any assistance.' Victoria sighed. 'Surely there's something I can do.' The Baron considered her carefully, then he smiled, transforming his features completely and causing Victoria no small surprise. 'I am driving into Reichstein, this morning, fraulein. Would you care to come along? It is a small village, as you know, but there are a few stores and you might enjoy the drive.' Victoria's eyes widened. 'I'd love to come,' she agreed enthusiastically, aware that Maria had stopped what she was doing to
stare round at them. Then, muttering to herself, she went on with her work and Victoria wondered whether she was just not the slightest bit disappointed that their confrontation had ended so amicably. 'Would you like to see Sophie before we leave?' suggested the Baron suddenly. 'She is feeling rather sorry for herself at the moment.' Victoria hesitated. 'If you think it's a good idea,' she consented carefully. He gave a faint inclination of his head, and after giving Maria instructions to pass on to Gustav he walked across to the passage door indicating that Victoria should accompany him. As they walked along to the hall, he said: 'You have shown little curiosity about the schloss, fraulein, or do old buildings have no fascination for you beyond a cursory exclamation at their outward charm?' Victoria looked up at him rather indignantly. 'I was under the impression that most of the schloss was unused,' she stated firmly. 'I noticed on my walk yesterday that part of it seemed entirely deserted.' The Baron nodded. 'Yes, that is true. Apart from the kitchen quarters, which incidentally provide adequate quarters for Maria and Gustav, the tower where you are accommodated, this hall,' he opened the heavy door into that apartment as he spoke, 'and Sophie's and my quarters beyond, we have little use for the other rooms. Unfortunately, because they are unused, they are naturally unhealed, and I am afraid nature is beginning to take its toll.' 'Has the whole of the schloss been fully used in your lifetime?' she asked, with interest, and he shook his head.
'Not entirely, although during the war it was taken over by the German forces of occupation and consequently most of the apartments were opened up. But as a mere residency for the Barons von Reichstein, it is something of what you would call—a white elephant.' He sighed, opening the door into the, other wing. 'The upkeep of such a building is beyond the means of most of us, and I am well aware that to sell the place to some syndicate or perhaps speculate myself and convert it into an hotel for tourists would be more businesslike.' He shrugged. 'Unfortunately, I am not by nature a gregarious man, and the prospect of filling the building with chattering holidaymakers, clad in their so-elegant apres-ski finery, fills me with horror. So instead we live modestly, without the usual accoutrements of modern-day society.' Victoria listened intently, and he regarded her rather cynically. 'Do you consider that stupid, fraulein?' he queried, walking down the long hall, past the room which she recognised as being his study, to where a shallow flight of stairs led up to the first floor. Following him up the stairs, she refuted his question. 'On the contrary,' she said, 'it's unusual to find someone who considers some things more important than money. It's an admirable trait.' 'Are you sure you are not mocking me, fraulein?' he murmured lightly. 'Surely money is the religion of the times.' Victoria smiled. 'I suppose it is, although to be fair, most people find it impossible to live under today's stresses and strains without security, and money does provide stability.' The Baron nodded. 'Yes, perhaps that is so. In any event, the schloss is my home and I am prepared to do almost anything to keep it so.'
While Victoria digested this remark, the Baron had halted outside one of the doors which opened on to this landing and pushing it open he allowed her to precede him into Sophie's room. It was quite an attractive apartment, with patterned wallpaper on the walls, and a fitted unit capable of containing most of her toys. Her bed, like Victoria's, was huge, and she looked lost in its depths. She did in fact look rather pale, but Victoria suspected this was because there was a huge fire burning in the room and it was practically airless. Sophie's expression darkened when she saw who was with her father, however, and Victoria half wished she had made some excuse not to come here. The Baron approached the bed and sitting down beside her said: 'Are you feeling any better, liebling?' Sophie grasped his hands, and looked at him adoringly. 'I am all right, Papa,' she said softly. 'You know how bad these headaches can be sometimes.' 'I know.' The Baron ran a gentle hand over her forehead. 'You are hot! Stay where you are and I will get Maria to bring you something cool to drink.' Victoria, standing by the door, felt de trop, but presently Sophie's father turned and said: 'Look, Miss Monroe has come to see how you are. She is most disappointed that you are not to begin your lessons today.' Sophie sniffed, but said nothing, and Victoria managed a faint smile. But she still had the distinct impression that Sophie was merely playing for time, and consequently it was difficult to express a sympathy she did not feel. Instead she said:
'It's very close in here, Herr Baron. Don't you think a little air would do Sophie good?' The Baron released his daughter's hands and got to his feet. 'Yes, perhaps you are right, fraulein. It is unhealthily hot in here. Would you like a window opened, Sophie? Maria can always close it again when she brings your drink.' Sophie's brows drew together. 'You are not staying with me, Papa?' 'No. I am going into Reichstein,' returned the Baron, with a smile. 'We cannot all spend our days in bed. There is work to be done.' He spoke briskly, as though attempting to cheer her up. Sophie's face dropped. 'Oh, but Papa, you promised to take me with you the next time you went to the village,' she exclaimed. 'I know. But you cannot come today, can you?' asked her father reasonably. 'There will be other times, never fear. Now we will leave you to rest.' He bent and kissed her cheek. 'I hope the headache is soon better.' Sophie pouted, and would not respond, and with a sigh the Baron indicated that Victoria should precede him outside. Once in the corridor again he shook his head heavily. 'These headaches Sophie gets—they are a great trial to her.' Victoria hid her exasperation. 'Has she seen a doctor?' she asked. 'Oh yes. But to no avail.' 'So it's nothing serious, then. Perhaps she needs glasses.' The Baron gave her an amused glance. 'Such a suggestion would not be popular with my daughter, fraulein,' he observed dryly.
No, thought Victoria, with conviction, it certainly would not. Yet she could not help a fleeting sense of compassion for the Baron who was genuinely concerned about his daughter. Sophie might have a headache, indeed in that airless room it was a distinct possibility, but Victoria doubted that it was as disabling as Sophie would have her father believe. Later, driving into Reichstein with her employer, Victoria's spirits lifted considerably. It was a beautifully crisp morning, the sun glinting on the frosted snow, and casting deep shadows among the tall pines that grew thickly over the slopes. The snow-ploughs had been out, and there were deep piles of snow at the sides of the road, narrowing the space between. But there were not many vehicles about, and Victoria appreciated the lack of being hurried along by someone pressing behind. Instead, she was able to enjoy the scenery and from time to time the Baron pointed out places of especial interest. Driving to the schloss in the darkness of early evening had curtailed any chance of observing her surroundings two days ago. The area was a series of valleys, some higher than others, with narrow passes between. Once Victoria pointed out a stone-built tower, visible above the trees, and the Baron told her it was a monastery, but on the whole there were few dwellings. The sloping roofs of some farm buildings caught her attention mainly because of the smoke drifting upwards from the chimneys. With a frown, she said: 'Are there many farms hereabouts?' The Baron swung the station wagon round a sharp curve before replying, then he said: 'There are several, but the terrain is such that they are not all visible from the road. During the summer months, you will see a great deal more activity. At present the animals are in their byres, and the soil is lying under several feet of snow.'
Victoria glanced back over her shoulder. 'And these farmers? They are your tenants, of course.' She nodded her head. 'I should have thought of that before.' The Baron gave her a brief glance. 'It is of no importance. My tenants, as you call them, have a free hand with the land. This is no feudal system where the pick of the crop is naturally given to the overlord. But I am loath to sell the land. So much has already been sold. Once the estates of the Barons von Reichstein stretched for many miles in every direction. It was an empire, ruled with a rod of iron, no doubt.' He smiled sadly. 'Those days are gone for ever. Whatever my faults, I believe in freedom, fraulein, and it is as well my ancestors are not here to deal with me.' Victoria linked her fingers together. 'Anyone can rule with a rod of iron, Herr Baron. Fear is a powerful weapon. But strength lies in respect and loyalty and love; not in violence!' The Baron's dark brows arched. 'You are a philosopher, Miss Monroe,' he commented wryly. 'It is gratifying to know you do not consider my attitude a sign of weakness.' Victoria's eyes widened. 'I would not consider you a weak man, Herr Baron. On the contrary, I feel you have strong convictions about the role you should play.' 'You are right again.' The Baron changed into a lower gear as they began to descend into the valley where the village had mushroomed. 'I am afraid some of my contemporaries consider my methods rather eccentric. It is simply not done—to till one's own fields, to feed one's own animals, to work until one's back is aching! I am the Baron von Reichstein, and therefore I disgrace my birthright.' He shrugged. 'But I am a man, and thank God, a healthy one, and I enjoy my labours. I am not naturally a sybarite, although I have heard it said that I should sell the schloss, the estate, everything!'
'Why?' Victoria stared at him. The Baron shrugged casually. 'With the money I would get from selling up I could find myself a service apartment in Vienna, or Paris perhaps, and join all the other impoverished barons and baronesses of Europe who haunt the fashionable resorts in the hope that one day they will win a fortune at the tables, which would enable them to buy back their estates and restore them to their former glories!' His mouth twisted cynically. 'I cannot see myself in that role. I can only feel pity for their foolishness. We may be poor at Reichstein, but at least we are not in debt. Why should I sell the thing I love most next to Sophie?' Victoria was puzzled, not so much by what he had said, as by what he had not said. Never at any time did he mention his wife, the Baroness, and that was strange. Where was Sophie's mother? Why was her name never mentioned? She couldn't be dead, or they would have said so. So why all the secrecy? It was most disturbing and Victoria, used to her godmother's confidence, found it all most intriguing. On the outskirts of the village was a small church, whose Gothic spire and arched facade gave it a medieval appearance. However, the Baron said that while the foundations were very old, most of the stonework had been rebuilt and was not original. Even so, it was an attractive example of Austrian architecture which Victoria always thought seemed typically baroque. So much detail and flamboyance of sculpture so often resulted in ornamental excess which happily was not in evidence here. The village of Reichstein comprised of a main street, fronted by several shops, and some tall narrow houses with balconies and window boxes. The central point was a square which supported a stone memorial to some obscure saint, and it was here that people gathered to talk. There was a small inn, with a swinging sign, behind
a row of bare trees, and a schoolhouse with an adjoining play-yard. It was all very compact and self-contained, and for all its size it had all the attributes of a small town in England. The Baron parked the station wagon in the square, and fastening his coat and turning up his collar he slid out. The chill air his departure introduced into the vehicle caused Victoria to turn up her collar too, and she slid out to join him forestalling his intent to open her door. She looked up at him as he closed the door firmly behind her and couldn't resist saying: 'I suppose I ought to be opening your door, Herr Baron!' in an amused tone. He frowned however, and said, rather brusquely: 'I have some calls to make. What will you do?' She shrugged, glancing about her, aware that their arrival had aroused a great deal of interest from the passers-by. Most of them spoke to the Baron with warmth and politeness, but they looked rather speculatively at Victoria. 'I'll look at the shops,' she said, at last. 'There are one or two things I need. That will be all right, won't it?' He regarded her intently for a moment, and then he inclined his head. 'You don't mind being alone?' he queried quietly. Victoria's colour deepened. 'Of course not. You won't be long, will you?' He continued to study her for another suffocating moment and then he shook his head. 'No, I shan't be long,' he agreed. 'If you meet me back here in say ...' he consulted the gold watch on his wrist, '... say forty-five minutes, we could have a drink together before returning to the schloss.'
Victoria thrust her hands deep into the pockets of her coat. 'That would be lovely,' she nodded. 'Sehr gut!' The Baron gave her a faint bow of his head and strode away. After he had gone it took her several moments to compose herself. Whether he was aware of it or otherwise, he had the most disturbing effect on her when he chose to exert his personality, and while she was convinced that his manner was the same to everyone he came into contact with, she was unable to prevent the surge of excitement his presence evoked. Shaking her head impatiently, she began to walk round the square. Because of her emotional involvement with Meredith, which had been so summarily ended, she was susceptible to a physical awareness of any attractive male. And the Baron was so utterly different from any man she had ever known that she was doubly sensitive. Even so, she had not felt any disruption of her emotional system when Dr. Conrad Zimmerman had spoken with her, and he was infinitely more handsome than her employer. Maybe it was simply a case of pique because the Baron seemed so entirely, indifferent to feminine company. And in any case, like Meredith, he was married, and these speculations were not only stupid, they were dangerous. With determination, she put all thoughts of the Baron aside and halted outside a store whose window was filled with a variety of goods. She wondered if she might conceivably buy a present for Sophie, something which might arouse her interest and enable Victoria to persuade her into starting her lessons with enthusiasm. But she was at a difficult age, neither young enough for dolls nor old enough for teenage pursuits, and somehow Victoria didn't think she would appreciate books which seemed the only sure choice.
But at the back of the window display there was one item which Victoria thought might appeal to her. It was a sewing basket complete with silks and cottons, tape measure and scissors, needles and pins, and even some lengths of material suitable for making up into doll's clothes. Under Victoria's guidance she would be able to produce several small garments and the experience would be useful when it came to making clothes of her own. In fact, it was just the kind of practical instruction Sophie needed to go with her more academic studies. The shopkeeper spoke reasonably good English, and Victoria was able to tell her exactly what she wanted. While the woman was wrapping the basket up Victoria wandered round with interest, examining the titles of a fixture of paperbacks, and noticing the wide variety of sheepskin goods that were on sale^ She thought she would buy some gloves for Aunt Laurie another time and send them on to her as a surprise. The other customers viewed her with curiosity, and she felt sure she would be the subject for gossip after she had left the store. After she had paid for her purchase, she made her way to the post office and bought a letter card to write home. It was difficult to know what to say really. She had no intention of revealing her circumstances to her godmother or it would result in Aunt Laurie demanding that she should return to England at once. And as for mentioning Sophie, she decided to merely state truthfully that she had not yet begun teaching her as the child had been taken ill, but added a rider that she expected to begin tomorrow in case Aunt Laurie thought it was anything serious. She didn't mention Meredith at all, nor did she mention the mysterious absence of the Baroness, and finished by hoping her godmother was well and assuring her that she was very happy in her new position. By the time she had written the address and paid for the stamps, time was getting on, and she posted the letter-card before walking back to
the car. The Baron had not yet arrived, and she stood, stamping her feet and hoping he would not be long. He eventually arrived, ten minutes late, when her fingers and toes were beginning to feel numb. He came striding towards her looking big and powerful in his thick fur parka, his hair contrasting sharply with the darkness of the coat. He had not the usual fair skin that goes with a fair complexion and his face was quite brown, due no doubt to the long hours he spent in the open air. He seldom wore a hat, and he never seemed to feel the cold, while she felt positively pinched. 'I am sorry, fraulein,' he said apologetically, as he reached her. 'But I am afraid I do not normally keep to any schedule and in consequence my associates see no harm in delaying me.' He opened the car and thrust some packages inside as he spoke, and at his suggestion Victoria put her parcel on the back seat also. Then he slammed the door again, locked it, and said: 'Now—shall we have that drink?' Victoria shrugged. 'Have you time?' she queried, rather coolly, for his casual assumption that she would understand his unpunctuality annoyed her unreasonably. It was a unique experience for her to stand waiting for any man, least of all in the freezing cold. The Baron's eyebrows lifted at her tone, and he smiled faintly. 'I see I have provoked you, fraulein,' he remarked, beginning to walk across the square so that she was forced to accompany him to hear what he was saying. 'However, it was unavoidable and not intentional.' Victoria glanced up at him and encountered his amused gaze. She was behaving boorishly, and she knew it, just as she had done on that first evening when he had been late meeting her train. Even so, she wondered what his argument would be if she brought that instance up as a second example.
To her surprise the Baron led the way into the inn at the far side of the square, walking along a stone-floored corridor to a comfortable bar parlour where a good fire blazed in solitary state. As they entered the room a man bustled through from the front of the inn and spoke with excited deference to her employer. He was a small man, broad of chest and stomach, and sporting an enormous moustache. He kept glancing towards Victoria with obvious interest and eventually the Baron drew her forward and explained in his own language that she was Sophie's new governess. 'Willkommen, Fraulein Monroe,' nodded the bartender politely. 'Ich freue mich, Sie zu sehen.' Victoria smiled awkwardly, and the Baron said: 'He says welcome to our village.' He nodded to a banquette in the corner by the fire. 'Go and get warm. I will bring you something revitalising.' He came over to her a few minutes later with quite a tall glass of some amber-coloured liquid which she took rather suspiciously. He was having a simple beer, but obviously she was having something stronger. 'There is meat and cheese or sausages if you are hungry,' he said, indicating that she should taste her drink. Victoria shook her head. 'I'm not hungry,' she replied, and raised the glass to her lips. Her first impression was that it was very sweet, perhaps a sweet wine of extra strength, but the taste it left in her mouth was definitely that of brandy. The Baron watched her tentative experimentation and said: 'It is quite safe, fraulein. You will not disgrace yourself by becoming intoxicated.'
Victoria was not so sure. The little she had drunk had warmed her stomach instantly, and as she took a little more a glow began to spread along her arms to the extremities of her fingertips. The Baron satisfied himself that she wanted nothing else and then seated himself beside her, regarding her intently. 'Now,' he said, 'am I forgiven?' Victoria coloured. 'Of course, Herr Baron.' She considered him covertly through her lashes. 'After all, I am hardly in a position to object to anything you do, am I?' The Baron uttered an impatient exclamation. 'Do I give you such an impression?' he questioned harshly. Victoria felt ashamed. 'No, of course not. I was merely baiting you, that's all. I won't do it again.' He bent his head and studied his glass thoughtfully for a moment, and then he lifted his shoulders in an eloquent gesture. 'I am afraid I am out of practice when it comes to sophisticated verbal fencing,' he said. 'But seriously, I do not feel that you regard me as someone to be feared.' Victoria finished her drink. It had certainly improved with each mouthful and had warmed her through and through. She was feeling comfortably relaxed, so much so that a distinct drowsiness seemed to be stealing over her in this firelit room. The Baron was staring broodingly into the flames and she wondered what thoughts occupied his mind. She found it difficult to understand why his wife seemed to play little part in his life, for he was obviously an honourable man, capable of strong emotions, a man it would be fatally easy to love ...
With determined effort, she got hastily to her feet, and he looked up at her in surprise. 'There is no hurry, fraulein,' he commented, his brilliant blue eyes surveying her with appraisal. Victoria shivered suddenly, and turned away, drawing on her gloves again. Maybe it was because he was not the kind of man to indulge in any kind of light verbal flirtation that she found him so dangerously disturbing. Glancing at her wrist witch, she said quickly: 'By the time we get back to Reichstein, Herr Baron, it will be lunch time, and I want to see Sophie this afternoon.' With a sigh, he finished his beer and rose to his feet, looking down at her as she fastened her headscarf over her hair. 'Tell me, fraulein, is your hair naturally that colour?' he murmured, startling her. Victoria found it difficult to get her breath. 'Why—yes, of course,' she answered uncomfortably. 'The severe style suits you,' he remarked, his eyes enigmatic. 'But I should like to see it loose.' Victoria swallowed hard. 'It's very straight,' she strove for lightness. The Baron put up a hand as though he would touch one of the tendrils that curled in front of her ears, and then, when Victoria's heart palpitated wildly, he dropped his hand again. 'Come,' he said roughly. 'You are right. It is getting late.' And with those words, he turned and strode out of the parlour. Heaving a shaky sigh, Victoria followed him, and all the way back to the schloss she was aware that she had in some way displeased him. She wondered whether he had recalled that he had suggested that she should have her hair cut, but whatever it was he was abrupt to the
point of curtness whenever she attempted to make some casual remark. She left him in the courtyard after thanking him for taking her. But he barely acknowledged her courtesy, and she snatched her parcel from the back seat and walked quickly into the schloss. She chose the main entrance to avoid Gustav and Maria. They were bound to have heard the car anyway, the distinctive sound of the chains on its wheels making it an unmistakable vehicle, and she had no desire to have to conduct a conversation about her outing with them right now. She ran swiftly up the stairs to her room, and breathed a sigh of relief as she swung open her door. And then she stopped dead, as her eyes surveyed the chaos that greeted her. The room was in complete disorder. All drawers had been pulled out of their holes and the contents emptied haphazardly on the floor. Her wardrobe had been opened, and all the hangers cleared, her suits and dresses strewn in every direction. The bed which she had made before breakfast had been stripped, and even her shoes had been scattered. Nylon tights had been wrenched violently out of their plastic cases, and draped carelessly over her trunk so that Victoria doubted whether any of them could be free of ladders. She had no doubt who was to blame. Only one person at the Schloss Reichstein had in her the spite to do such a thing, but that didn't make it any the easier to take. On the contrary, Victoria felt like nothing so much as sitting down and weeping. Either that or go for the Baron and show him what his precious daughter could achieve!
CHAPTER FIVE ENTERING the room, Victoria closed the door and leant back against it wearily. It would take her hours to sort out the mess. She supposed she ought to feel grateful really that Sophie didn't appear to have done any actual damage to anything. She could so easily have taken her action to extremes. Or was that part of her cunning? Unless Victoria chose to go now and find her employer and bring him here and show him the mess, she had nothing to prove what had happened. A ripped dress, or an ink-stained suit, was quite another matter. No, Victoria had to admit, Sophie didn't take chances. She was gambling on Victoria not reporting her to her father, and her reasons for doing such a thing might well have to do with Victoria accompanying the Baron to the village this morning while his daughter had been confined to her room. It was all part of a plan to make Victoria think twice about remaining at the schloss, and while the incidents were childish they were also upsetting. She threw her parcel on the bed, and as she did so she realised that it was not her parcel at all. The work basket had been rather carefully wrapped by the shop assistant giving her time to study Victoria with minute attention to detail, while this parcel, though of a similar size, was roughly drawn together and the impact of its weight against the mattress had dislodged a corner to reveal the binding of several books. In her haste to escape from the Baron's ill-humour, she must have inadvertently snatched the wrong parcel, and this was one of his. With a sigh, she reached across the bed and lifted the parcel again. She had better return this to the Baron at once before he, too, discovered the mistake. Her hand was actually reaching for the door handle when there was a sharp knock on the outer panels. Victoria drew back, pressing her
hand to her throat instead. What a situation! she thought grimly. Well, he should not learn of his daughter's deceit from her. 'Who—who is it?' she called faintly. 'Reichstein!' came the Baron's distinctive tones. 'I believe you have taken a parcel of mine in error for your own. I have yours here.' Victoria licked her dry lips. 'That—that's right,' she conceded, awkwardly. 'But I'm—er—changing right now.' She quickly unzipped her boots and kicked them off so that they fell heavily on to the floor. 'Could—could you just leave the parcel outside, Herr Baron, and I'll bring yours down in a few minutes?' There was a moment's silence, and then he said: 'As you wish, fraulein!' in a brusque voice. 'Thank you.' Victoria stepped away from the door with relief, but as she did so her nylon-clad foot came into contact with the sharp corner of one of the drawers which Sophie had left lying so carelessly on the floor. Victoria uttered a startled cry, lifting her injured foot painfully, holding on to the bedhead to prevent herself from falling. But even as she stood there, stork-like, the door was thrust open and the Baron stood on the threshold, his eyes darkening with incredulous anger as he surveyed the scene. Victoria closed her eyes for a moment. The worst had happened, and she was wholly unprepared for any argument. 'God in heaven!' he muttered, his eyes travelling over the tumbled mass of clothes and drawers and hangers and coming to rest on Victoria's discomfited figure. His eyes softened slightly. 'Are you all right?' he questioned harshly. 'You hurt yourself!' Victoria shook her head weakly. 'I stubbed my foot, that's all. Against a drawer.'
The Baron entered the room, bending to lift the offending drawer on to the bed out of harm's way, before approaching Victoria. Going down on his haunches, he said: 'Let me see!' and without asking her permission he took her foot into his strong, long-fingered hands. He probed the flesh experimentally, and finding only a graze allowed her to draw her foot away. Rising to his feet, he shook his head rather incomprehensively. 'It is as well it is not more serious, fraulein,' he said roughly. 'I am not a violent man by nature, and yet I am finding it difficult at this moment to suppress that very emotion.' He raked a hand through his thick hair. 'This is Sophie's doing, of course, before you attempt to explain otherwise. I am not entirely blind to my daughter's failings, but this time she has gone too far!' Victoria put her foot to the floor and found the pain was quickly evaporating. 'Please,' she began, lifting her shoulders helplessly, 'you should not have seen this -' He swung round on her. 'You would have kept this to yourself, fraulein?' he exclaimed fiercely. Victoria coloured. 'It is between Sophie and myself. Obviously she had a reason for doing it, and that is what I intend to find.' The Baron uttered an angry expletive in his own language. 'The child has been allowed too much of her own way,' he snapped angrily. 'She is of the opinion that she can do no wrong. That attitude must be changed.' Victoria sighed. 'Yes, I agree. But will you change it by invoking your will upon her?' 'You seek to defend her, fraulein?' He was incredulous. Victoria sighed. 'I suppose I do, in a way. Oh, I don't pretend to know everything about girls of her age, but there are few children who are
naturally spiteful. I realise she hopes she will induce me to leave by causing me so much discomfort that I simply refuse to take any more, but there's more to it than that.' The Baron regarded her sombrely. 'And will she eventually induce you to leave, fraulein, as perhaps she induced those other two unfortunate females I employed?' Victoria half smiled. 'I doubt it. I am not of a naturally nervous disposition, and I should hate to think I was forced to leave my job because I couldn't handle a ten-year-old girl! Besides, my upbringing has been such that I, too, can behave selfishly and spitefully, and Sophie has never yet, I think, encountered anyone who could retaliate in kind.' The Baron frowned. 'What do you mean, fraulein?' Victoria lifted her shoulders. 'Your daughter depends entirely upon your love—your affection—for her. To her, you are the focal point of her small world, and while she might behave outrageously to me or to anyone else who attempted to impose some restriction upon her, she would never do anything to destroy your faith in her -' The Baron threw out a hand impatiently. 'And this?' 'As I said before, you weren't meant to know about this.' 'But you could have come and told me!' 'But she knew I wouldn't.' 'Why, for God's sake?' Victoria sighed. 'It's difficult to explain without involving a lot of lengthy explanations. Let us just say that after two governesses she imagines she has developed an immunity against being found out.'
She rubbed the side of her nose thoughtfully. 'No one—no one worth their salt anyway, would want to come to you with tales about your daughter. To begin with, you are intensely protective towards her, and besides, she could always deny the whole thing.' 'How could she deny this?' The Baron ran a hand over his forehead wearily. Victoria bit her lip. She realised this was all painful to him. For so long he had believed Sophie to be trustworthy— beyond reproach. To have someone who had only known the child two days systematically destroying all his illusions about her was obviously distressing for him. She wished there was some way she could soften the blow, but it was better that the scales should be shed now than later. She bent and began to pick up the strewn garments, putting the filmy articles of underwear beneath the bedcovers to avoid embarrassment. The Baron was patently striving for control, and at last he said: 'So what do you suggest, fraulein? That I forget all about this? That I refrain from chastising my daughter in the manner I crave?' Victoria was conscious that in her stocking-clad feet he seemed to tower over her, putting her at a distinct disadvantage. But she looked up at him quickly and said: 'Yes. That's exactly what I want you to do.' He shook his head. 'You are a courageous woman, Miss Monroe. You have no idea what Sophie may try next.' Victoria smiled now. 'If you will allow me a free hand with your daughter, Herr Baron, I don't think Sophie will be so eager to thwart me.'
He frowned. 'You intend to punish her yourself?' 'Yes. But not in the way you think. I promise you, Sophie will come to no lasting harm in my hands.' A faint comprehension lifted the corners of his mouth. 'I revise my opinion of you, fraulein. Courageous was perhaps the wrong word. I substitute clever instead.' Victoria coloured. 'No, not clever, Herr Baron. Merely logical.' He shrugged his broad shoulders. 'And this mess?' He glanced round, 'Come! I will help you, or would you like me to ask Maria -' 'I can manage,' she said firmly. 'And please, you won't reveal any of this to—to anyone?' The Baron inclined his head. 'It shall be as you wish. I only hope I can carry it off. Obviously Sophie's headache this morning was assumed as you suspected -' 'I didn't say -' 'Oh, I know, fraulein. You were very discreet. Nevertheless, I am not entirely without sensitivities myself, and your attitude was very clear to me.' Victoria bit her lip. I'm sorry.' 'Don't be. It is good that we understand one another.' His eyes bored into hers for a moment, and then he abruptly turned away. 'I must go. Maria saw me come up here. She will begin to suspect our relationship.' Victoria's colour deepened again, and her slightly tip-tilted eyes avoided his, seeking some point beyond the Baron's muscular figure.
He must not suspect the effect he had on her and his presence in her room dwarfed its almost generous proportions making her supremely aware of him as a man. To her relief he stepped out on to the landing, and, glanced back at her doubtfully, standing there amid the upheaval of her belongings. 'Fraulein -' he began huskily, and then with an enigmatic lift of his shoulders he turned and began to descend the staircase. Victoria closed her door and leaned back against it unsteadily. Altogether the morning had been too full of incident.
It took her over two hours to restore order to her room. Before tackling the mess, she went down to have lunch with Maria and Gustav. She had no desire to have one of them come looking for her because she was late for the meal and thus expose what Sophie had done. Even so, it was not easy to talk casually with them about her impressions of Reichstein and the inevitable possibility of more snow that day when all she wanted was to finish her meal and escape to her task. Maria had made a delicious apfel strudel for dessert which she maintained was Sophie's favourite. 'The poor child has been confined to her room all morning,' she confided, with obvious concern. 'And she does so love my strudel.' Victoria guarded her tongue and merely smiled and congratulated Maria for producing something so delicious, but she wondered how the Baron might react to such reproach. He was so closely involved, and was not a man to take to intrigue happily. But when Maria returned from serving her employer and his daughter she seemed contented enough, and Victoria could only assume that the Baron had
succeeded in putting all thoughts of what had occurred to the back of his mind. It was late afternoon by the time she finished tidying her room and she looked about with some satisfaction when she had completed the restoration. Everything was as it should be, even the photograph of Aunt Laurie had taken no harm, and her precious store of perfumes had been untouched. Satisfied that no one could now notice anything amiss, she went down the stairs to the hall and halted uncertainly. At this hour of the afternoon, when the light was beginning to fade, the bright warmth of the kitchen seemed infinitely inviting. But she knew she would have to make the effort and go and see Sophie before her determination wavered. The hall was deserted, the wolfhounds absent from their usual sprawling posture on the hearth, and the logs in the grate glowed welcomingly. Despite the height and length of this apartment, it had an air of intimacy about it in the fading light and Victoria thought how easy it would be to become attuned to this place. But she did not linger and went instead through the door into the east wing where the Baron and his daughter had their apartments. An aroma of tobacco hung in the corridor and she guessed the Baron had been smoking one of his cigars when he passed along here quite recently. She hoped he was not with Sophie. Sophie's room was not too difficult to find, although it would be easy to mistake one door for another in this light, she thought. However, she tapped lightly on the panels and entered the room, only to find that it was empty. Heaving a sigh, she looked about her. Now where was the child? With her father, perhaps? Or was she with Maria, bent on some new mischief? But even as Victoria stood there in the gloom a thought occurred to her. Perhaps this was just the opportunity she needed. Why hadn't she
thought of it at once? She knew exactly how to begin with Sophie! With a slight hardening of her features, she closed the door, and set to work. It was quite dark by the time she made her way back to her own room and she realised she would have to hurry to wash and change before dinner. But she did comb out her hair and was in the process of brushing it before the dressing table mirror when the door burst open and Sophie stood glaring at her from the threshold. Her two plaits were partially unfastened, wisps of hair sticking out comically in all directions, her dress and tights were askew, while her face was bright red and contorted with fury. 'Katze! Schwein! Sie sind gehassig! Sie -' Victoria's limited knowledge of the language was sufficient to comprehend that Sophie was saying some very insolent things to her, but she controlled her features, and managed a faint raising of her eyebrows. 'What's the matter, Sophie?' she queried calmly. 'Is something wrong?' Sophie bit hard on her lips and took several deep breaths, realising that Victoria was not prepared to listen to her in her own language. Clenching her fists, she said: 'I hate you I You're horrible! My father will dismiss you for this!' There was an angry sob in her voice. Victoria put down her brush and examined her face minutely in the mirror, pretending to be studying her skin. 'Whatever is the matter, Sophie?' she said, almost indifferently. 'You are upset!' She turned with a slight smile to face the child. 'Heavens, I'm the one who should be upset. Do you know what happened today?' She raised her dark eyebrows, and when Sophie continued to stare mutinously at her, she went on: 'Someone turned over this room while I was out
with your father this morning. Isn't that dreadful? I mean—who would want to do such a thing?' Sophie did not reply, but her teeth were clenched tightly together and Victoria knew she was getting through to her. 'But as you can see,' she added, 'I've managed to clear up the mess. It took me ages. All afternoon, in fact.' She linked her fingers together. 'Now, what's your trouble?' Sophie gave her a malevolent look. 'You'll find out!' she stated violently, and without another word she turned and stormed away. Victoria closed the door after her and stood for a few moments staring into space considering Sophie's reactions. Then with a characteristic shrug, she resumed her hair- brushing. Later, she went down to dinner thoughtfully, wondering what the child's next move might be. It was certain that with Sophie one could never be sure. Maria served the meal as usual, and there was nothing in either her or Gustav's attitude to indicate that Sophie had said anything to them about what had happened,- But as the meal was finishing, the door from the hall opened and the Baron himself entered the kitchen, accompanied by Sophie. His eyes sought Victoria's, and when he encountered her steady gaze, he said: 'May we have a few words with you, fraulein?' Victoria inclined her head, and pushing back her chair rose to her feet. She looked far calmer than she felt, for even now she was doubtful of the Baron's support. In dark trousers and a wine-coloured velvet smoking jacket, a dark polo- necked shirt complementing his silver-gilt hair, he looked different somehow, and she began to wonder whether she had been optimistic in imagining that someone in his position could ever approve of the way she thought his daughter should be handled. Sophie herself looked quite attractive in
a dark blue velvet dress with long bishop sleeves and a roll collar. Her plaits had been combed out and re-braided, and her face had a clean, scrubbed look. Victoria preceded them both into the passage and from there into the hall. The wolfhounds were back in their usual position, and Fritz took the trouble to come across and lick her hand. The Baron watched this display of affection with narrowed eyes, and Victoria was tempted to tell him exactly why the animal treated her as it did. But instead, she folded her hands behind her back, and feeling rather apprehensive, said: 'Is something wrong, Herr Baron?' in what she hoped was a steady voice. The Baron took up a position before the fire, feet apart, hands in the pockets of his smoking jacket, and then he said: 'Sophie has complained to me that her bedroom has been deliberately overturned!' Victoria felt her cheeks colouring and was angry. Did he have to say it like that? She was right to feel apprehensive, she thought with sinking spirits. 'Oh yes,' she replied now. 'How unfortunate!' Sophie stood in a central position, glancing from one to the other of them with malicious enjoyment. Even Victoria's sarcasm was lost on her. 'Is that all you have to say, Miss Monroe?' The Baron's eyes were enigmatic. Victoria's nails bit into the palms of her hands- 'What would you have me say, Herr Baron?' she countered grimly.
'Sophie tells me that you are responsible,' he replied smoothly. 'She maintains that no one else had either the inclination or the opportunity.' Victoria looked at Sophie. She was positively revelling in this confrontation, and Victoria felt a sense of resentment that the Baron should choose this method of dealing with the matter. She had no idea what his intentions might be, and it was infuriating to realise that he could confuse her in this way. 'Well, Miss Monroe?' It was the Baron again. 'You have been accused of a spiteful action. Have you nothing to say for yourself—in your own defence?' Victoria compressed her lips. 'I'm afraid not,' she replied sharply. Sophie did a little skip. 'I told you, Papa! I told you! She did it!' The Baron drew out his case of cigars and putting one between his teeth he lit it with lazy deliberation. 'I wonder why,' he murmured slowly, inhaling deeply. Sophie, who had been staring scornfully at Victoria, jerked her head round to gaze at her father curiously. The Baron regarded his daughter with slightly raised brows, and Victoria sensed the sudden charging of the atmosphere. Sophie transferred her gaze to Victoria and there was a puzzled expression in her eyes, Victoria could almost feel sympathy for the girl's incomprehension. Then Sophie looked again at her father. The Baron removed his cigar from his mouth and studied its glowing tip with concentration. 'It would seem,' he said, 'that Miss Monroe is unrepentant, Sophie, so perhaps she had a reason for remaining silent. Do you suppose we should ask her what that reason is?'
'I don't understand, Papa.' Sophie shook her head, her brow furrowed. 'Do you not?' The Baron frowned. 'Then that is indeed a pity.' 'What do you mean, Papa? You know the fraulein turned my room upside-down! What more is there to say? She hates me!' Sophie glanced at Victoria spitefully. 'She doesn't want to teach me! She's like all the others, she only wants to hurt and humiliate me -' 'Genuge!' The Baron's voice was bleak. 'Do you take me for a fool, Sophie? Fraulein Monroe is here to teach you, and teach you she will, whether you like it or not; whether you pretend any more illnesses; whether you attempt to evade any more lessons! If necessary, Fraulein Monroe will report to me any further efforts on your part to create disruption of our lives -' 'Papa -' broke out Sophie, only to be silenced by the coldness of his expression. 'Go to your room, Sophie!' he commanded grimly. 'Put your things in order and then sit down and consider what you have just heard and what construction you may place upon it.' Sophie's face crumpled. 'But you've seen my room, Papa,' she exclaimed. 'I didn't do it. You don't mean this, Papa -' 'But I do,' retorted the Baron, striding across the room and swinging open the door to the east wing. 'At once, please, Sophie,' he said, indicating that she should leave them. 'But, Papa -' Sophie made one final attempt to gain his confidence, but the Baron's expression froze her pleas for indulgence. Instead, she ran quickly out of the hall, her shoulders hunched, a pitiful little figure, her thin shoulders shaking.
When the door was closed behind her, Victoria turned away feeling positively vindictive. Sophie was only a child, after all. The Baron came back across the room and resumed his position by the fire, regarding Victoria's stiff back with narrowed eyes. 'Well, fraulein,' he challenged her. 'That was what you wanted, wasn't it?' 'Oh yes—no—that is—I don't know.' Victoria swung round to confront him noticing the brilliant blue eyes were harsh and accusing. 'But did you have to do it that way?' 'What other way was there, fraulein?' His voice was chilled. Victoria compressed her lips. 'You made us both feel like prisoners at the bar,' she responded defensively. 'I don't want Sophie to imagine we are aligned against her. I just want her to realise that you will not always take her part against me.' She sighed. 'Oh, it's difficult to explain, I know, but—well, you humiliated her.' 'As she would have humiliated you, fraulein,' he reminded her. Victoria bent her head. 'I suppose you're right. Do you deplore my methods?' He shrugged his broad shoulders and turned to stare into the fire. 'Who am I to deplore your methods, fraulein? Mine have not proved to be particularly successful.' Victoria bit her lip. 'But Sophie depends upon you, entirely,' she ventured quietly. The Baron raised his head and stared at her almost arrogantly. 'I know that. I am not without awareness of my responsibilities.' Victoria coloured. 'I didn't say you were, Herr Baron,' she replied stiffly.
His features relaxed slightly. 'Forgive me, fraulein. I am tired, and not particularly good company.' Victoria managed a slight smile, and began to walk across the room to the door. Obviously he wished to be alone, and her presence was an unnecessary annoyance. But as she was about to reach for the handle, he said: 'These have been tempestuous early days for you, fraulein. I trust you will not be discouraged.' Victoria turned to face him, shaking her head. 'Sophie presents a challenge,' she said carefully. 'It may be that she will come to realise soon that I am not her enemy.' She ran her tongue over her dry lips. He looked so attractive standing there in the firelight, and she wondered if he was as unaware of his disturbing personality as he appeared to be. Surely sometimes he desired the company of a woman—any woman. Her cheeks burned, and to hide her confusion she hastened into careless speech. 'I'm sure that Sophie was not always so antagonistic towards her own sex. Perhaps the fact of her mother's absence -' She halted abruptly, pressing her palms to her burning cheeks. The Baron's expression had hardened again. 'I do not think my personal affairs are any concern of yours, fraulein. I appreciate what you are trying to do for Sophie, but there are some things which do not come within the realm of your role here.' Victoria sought escape, her hand on the handle of the door. 'Of course,' she said uncomfortably, 'I'm sorry, Herr Baron -' He threw the butt of his cigar into the fire. 'And you will bring any further problems you have to me, is that understood, fraulein?' Victoria nodded. 'Very well, Herr Baron.' She hesitated. 'May I go?'
He gave her a brilliant look, his eyes disturbed and disturbing. 'Of course,' he replied impatiently, and with relief she drew open the door and passed through the arched aperture.
CHAPTER SIX THE following morning after breakfast Victoria made her way to the Baron's study where the lessons were to be conducted. Sophie had not, as yet, made an appearance, and Victoria wondered whether this was to be another fruitless day. She dreaded having to approach her employer again in defeat. But to her surprise and delight she found Sophie already seated at the desk in her father's study, idly flicking over some papers that were strewn there. She looked up as Victoria entered, but only a faint flicker of her eyes showed that she acknowledged her governess's arrival. Undaunted, Victoria closed the door and said briskly : 'Good morning, Sophie. Are you ready to begin?' Sophie slid off the chair and stood beside it. 'Papa will be out for the whole day,' she said, in a small, taut little voice. 'He told me to tell you that we might work all day if you wish.' Victoria raised her eyebrows. 'I see. But that doesn't really answer my question, does it? I asked if you were ready to begin.' Sophie pouted her lips. 'I know all I need to know,' she replied rudely. 'I can read and write in both English and German. What more is there to learn?' Victoria gathered together the papers on the Baron's desk and making a neat pile placed them in one of the drawers. When the desk was clear, she began to take out the textbooks and writing materials from another drawer. 'And what about maths; history; geography; biology?' she asked quietly. 'Are you proficient in those subjects, too?'
Sophie shrugged. 'What use are they to me? We live here—at Reichstein. I don't ever intend to leave! I'm not interested in history or geography. And I can do sums. You ask Papa!' Victoria sighed and straightened regarding the child with curious eyes. 'Look, Sophie,' she said carefully, 'let's get something put right. For some reason, you don't want me here. I don't believe it's because of the lessons. I don't believe an intelligent girl like yourself could honestly deny any interest in learning. You read, don't you? You have dozens of books in your room -' 'All of which you threw about the floor yesterday,' Sophie accused her angrily. 'That's right!' Victoria shrugged. 'But not before you had done exactly the same thing in my room.' Sophie clenched her fists. 'That's different! Grown-ups don't do things like that.' 'Why not?' Sophie lifted her shoulders quickly and let them fall. 'It's—well— childish!' 'Exactly.' Victoria leant on the desk, looking at her intently. 'It's not only childish, it's malicious—spiteful. Stupid, even!' Sophie unclenched her fists. 'Why did you tell Papa?' Victoria straightened. 'I didn't. He came to my room with a parcel I'd left in the car. He saw it for himself.' Sophie tugged at one of her plaits. 'But he didn't beat me.' Victoria was horrified. 'Does he ever?'
Sophie made an involuntary gesture. 'No.' She looked up. 'But he might have.' 'Rubbish! I don't believe your father is a cruel man.' Sophie looked at her through her lashes. 'But you don't know him very well, do you, fraulein?' Victoria sighed. This was getting them nowhere. 'I suggest we leave the subject of your father and begin finding out how much you really do know,' she said briefly. 'Now, we'll have a mental arithmetic test. I'll give you ten sums which you can do in your head, and you write down your answers and we'll check them all at the end ...' To Victoria's surprise, the morning passed reasonably quickly and reasonably successfully. After an initial attempt to pretend ignorance, Sophie was persuaded to pit her wits against Victoria's and after a while a natural interest asserted itself, and the challenges Victoria presented could not be refused. When Maria brought hot chocolate for them both at eleven, she found them hard at work, and Victoria thought she glimpsed a faint disappointment in the old woman's eyes, as though she had wanted the young governess to fail as the others had done. Probably her affection for Sophie was such that she objected to anyone attempting to alienate even a part of it. They both had lunch in the kitchen with Maria and Gustav and although Sophie looked longingly at Gustav as he donned his long boots and overcoat after the meal preparatory to going out about his duties she made no demur when Victoria suggested that they get back to work. As Victoria had thought, the child was immensely perceptive, and capable of picking things up very quickly. It was early days yet to make any judgements, but she thought that Sophie might well recoup any retardation her illness had produced in a very short period. Her
questions were intelligent, and although from time to time Victoria sensed her eyes upon her rather speculatively, in the main their relationship was the businesslike one of teacher and pupil. In the late afternoon, when Victoria was considering packing up for the day, they heard the sound of the station wagon entering the courtyard, the chains on its wheels clanking in the clear air. Sophie immediately stopped what she was doing and looked up eagerly, her eyes eloquent of her feelings, and with understanding, Victoria said: 'You may finish now, Sophie. Do you want to go and greet your father?' Sophie's eyes brightened excitedly, and then her face grew sullen. 'He won't want to see me,' she said miserably. 'I am in disgrace!' Victoria sighed. 'Oh, nonsense, Sophie! You aren't in disgrace! Not now. You've done as your father said and worked hard all day. Don't you want to tell him what we've been doing?' Sophie grimaced. 'No!' Victoria sighed again. 'Honestly, you really are a baby, aren't you?' Sophie's brows drew together furiously. 'Of course I'm not a baby. I'm almost ten—almost an adolescent!' Heavens! Where did you get that word from?' exclaimed Victoria with a smile. 'Then stop acting like a baby! Your father isn't a man to bear grudges!' Sophie scowled at her. 'So much you know, fraulein!' she retorted insolently. 'Don't try to tell me about Papa! I know him better than you do—better than anyone.'
'I doubt that,' returned Victoria reasonably. 'You're not old enough for one thing, and for another, your mother is far more likely to fit that category!' 'My mother!' Sophie exclaimed scornfully. 'You don't know a thing about her!' Victoria grew impatient. 'If she's anything like you, I shouldn't want to!' she retorted, rather childishly. Sophie threw down her pencil and made for the door, but before opening it she turned with her hand on the handle and regarded Victoria rather slyly. 'Anyway, fraulein,' she said, in a low, mysterious voice, 'you really ought to take care how you treat me, or I might have you locked up in the north tower as well!' Victoria swung round wearing a rather sceptical expression. 'Oh yes?' she queried, with some sarcasm. 'As well as whom?' 'My mother, of course,' answered Sophie, pulling an ugly face at her, and before Victoria could protest, she darted out of the room slamming the door behind her. Victoria raised her eyes heavenward with exasperated annoyance. Really, the child was impossible! Just as you thought you were making some headway with her, she could accomplish a complete volte-face, leaving you with the unhappy realisation that you had achieved absolutely nothing. With a sigh, she gathered their paraphernalia together, taking time to read some of Sophie's work. Her writing was extraordinarily good for a child of her age, but it was obvious that towards the end of the day she-had grown less interested. There were more mistakes, more untidiness, and little evidence of comprehension. Victoria shrugged. Considering Sophie had had little educational discipline for so long
she had done quite well, and if one could dismiss her parting accusations as so much defiance it had not been an unsuccessful day. When the desk was cleared and the room was tidy, Victoria walked back along the corridor to the hall. She half expected to find the Baron and his daughter there, but it was deserted and she could only assume they were still outside or perhaps in the kitchen. Not wanting to intrude, she went up to her room and without switching on the light she sat down in the glow of the fire to relax for a while before dinner. It was snowing again, but only gently, and she let her thoughts drift back to England and her life there. Had Meredith succeeded in discovering her whereabouts yet? Surely he could not have done or he would have come after her. Or was she being unnecessarily conceited? He might consider her actions as a kind of betrayal; he might even now be back in the States. But somehow she knew this wasn't so. Meredith was not a man to give up so easily, and he had believed his power over her to be absolute. She gave a half-mischievous smile as she tried to imagine his immediate reactions to her disappearance. On her way to Reichstein it had been a little frightening to consider them, but now, after several days of self- analysis, she had realised how stupid it had been. After all, Meredith wasn't the first man in her life, or anything momentous like that. There had never been a man who meant that much to her. In her position as Lady Pentower's godchild, she had had plenty of opportunities to meet eligible bachelors, young and old, or rather middle-aged, but she had soon realised that there was much more to living with a man than merely running his home and bearing his children. And money had very little to do with that. When all the exciting places had been visited, and all the fashionable clothes bought, money became unimportant. All things were relative, she had discovered, and in six months all things became commonplace, no matter how exotic. It was one of the depressing anomalies of life which had to be experienced to be believed. She sighed, feeling a
sense of gratitude towards Aunt Laurie for securing her this job. She admitted honestly to herself that she had been reluctant to come, but now that she was here she found it infinitely more satisfying than anything else she had ever attempted. Whatever their deficiencies, the people at Reichstein were real people, and not just cardboard imitations, manipulated by competitive relationships, with all the restrictions of convention breathing down their necks. Here life was a much more basic structure, and each day was more than just a struggle for survival in a power-controlled concrete jungle She thought of what the Baron had said about his contemporaries, how they despised him for working at his inheritance instead of selling out and living a life without point or ambition. She could not imagine the present Baron von Reichstein being content with such a useless existence. Doubtless if such a situation had been forced upon him he would have taken up some other form of occupation, car-racing for example; anything to which he would have to pit his strength and intelligence, and possibly his life. She leant forward to throw another log on the smouldering embers and saw that it was already dark. The snow was thickening and she reflected that her employer had just arrived home in time before it began. She wondered where he had been. To he away all day meant further than the village, she thought. And where was he now? With Sophie, no doubt, listening to her exaggerated descriptions of the work Victoria had made her do today. She was a strange child, so absorbed with creating difficulties that she forgot to enjoy living. Victoria hoped to change that in time. She had no illusions that her task would be an easy one, but at least today they had made some progress. To actually get Sophie working at a desk was no small achievement. As usual, her thoughts turned to the puzzle of Sophie's mother. She had discounted completely Sophie's allusions to her imprisonment in the north tower. This was just another attempt on the child's part to disturb her, for obviously Sophie was not yet convinced that Victoria
was any different from her predecessors. All the same, the absence of the Baroness was curious, as was the Baron's refusal to discuss his wife. It seemed likely that they were estranged and maybe it was as yet too painful to talk about, although she could not be certain of that either. The Baron in the main did not appear distrait as he surely would have done in those circumstances. Victoria sighed and lay back in her chair. It was nothing to do with her really, as the Baron had said, except in so far as it impinged upon Sophie's actions. Even so, she was curious in spite of herself, and her interest had little to do with the child. It was her employer himself who intrigued her, and the knowledge was rather disturbing. But then the Baron was rather a disturbing man ... She dressed for dinner with especial care. She told herself she was doing this simply out of the aesthetic pleasure it gave her, but subconsciously she was aware that at some time that evening the Baron would send for her to discuss Sophie's behaviour, and she wanted to look her best. So she chose a long velvet gown in a particularly attractive shade of amber that highlighted the tawny threads in her hair. With a faint grimace at her reflection, she decided to leave her hair loose, and it swung in a bell-like curve to her shoulders. When she entered the kitchen, Maria stared at her in astonishment, and. even Gustav removed his pipe from his mouth and rose to his feet gallantly. Victoria felt suddenly ridiculous. She was the employee here, not a guest, and her appearance must seem particularly futile to these two old servants. But Maria swiftly recovered herself, and with a shrug of her bony shoulders, returned to her task of stirring the soup on the stove. Victoria hesitated, on the point of making some excuse to return to her room when the door opened and the Baron came in. He had been
outside, his hair flecked with snow, and she shivered in the blast of cold wind his entry admitted into the warm room. His eyes went straight to the slim figure in the amber gown with its high caftan collar and long wide-cuffed sleeves, and a flicker of something stirred in his brilliant blue eyes. Victoria inclined her head awkwardly, and then turned away, moving to Maria's side, and saying in a low voice: 'Is there anything I can do?' Maria gave her a speculative look. 'In that dress, fraulein? I think not.' She glanced round at her employer. 'You are ready for supper now, ja?' Her voice was warm and welcoming. ']a, Maria. Jetzt!' The Baron removed the thick sheepskin coat he was wearing to reveal dark trousers and a thick green polo-necked sweater. He hung his coat on the hooks by the door, and then glanced across at Victoria again. 'You are going out, fraulein?' he questioned, frowning. Victoria turned, hoping he would think the colour in her cheeks had been made by the heat of the fire. 'No, Herr Baron. This—this is a warm dress. And I felt like a change from—from trousers.' The Baron shrugged. 'You do not have to explain yourself to me, fraulein,' he remarked bleakly, but she knew he was not pleased with her appearance. 'However, as you are obviously—unsuitably dressed for the kitchen of the Schloss Reichstein, I suggest you join me in my study for the meal.' Victoria made a deprecatory gesture. 'I—I didn't expect that, Herr Baron,' she protested uncomfortably. He gave her an eloquent look. 'Did you not, fraulein? Nevertheless, we will eat in my study. You have no objections, Maria?'
The old woman's lips thinned, but she managed to make some indifferent response, and with a deliberately exaggerated bow, the Baron indicated that Victoria should precede him from the room. Victoria hesitated, glanced once at Maria, who seemed absorbed in her task, and then with a sigh walked ahead of her employer into the corridor beyond. She expected Sophie to be waiting in the Baron's study, but she was not, and when she made some polite comment on this, he said: 'Sophie was tired. She had her meal earlier than usual, and is already in bed. I promised to go and say goodnight to her on my return from attending to the animals. Perhaps you will excuse me while I attend to that small task?' 'Of course.' Victoria spread her hands in an expressive movement, and with a slight bow of his head he left her there, closing the door firmly behind him. After he had gone, Victoria seated herself in one of the leather armchairs, drawing it near to the roaring fire. It was a very comfortable room with the heavy curtains drawn across the tall windows and a standard lamp providing the only illumination apart from the flames. It looked entirely different from the schoolroom it had served as all day, and she wondered if the Baron spent all his evenings here. It seemed likely. The great hall was not the kind of apartment a person alone would choose. It was out of all proportion for everyday needs. It needed crowds of people, and maybe a small orchestra to play in the gallery. Victoria could picture how colourful the scene must have been years and years ago when the Barons von Reichstein were in their prime. There would be masques and balls, and the women would wear exquisite gowns made of brocade and silk. And the men's clothes would be colourful, too, and sometimes perhaps a member of the royal family would stay and all the rooms would echo to the sound of the servants' orders ...
She was lost in thought and when the door of the study reopened to admit her host, she started involuntarily, unable for a moment to assimilate her surroundings. Then realisation came to her and she made her back a little straighter as the Baron came across to the fire. He had changed his thick sweater for a white shirt of heavy satin worn with a dark blue tie, a sleeveless embroidered jerkin of black velvet overall. He looked younger out of his dark clothes and Victoria wondered whether he had changed for her benefit. Somehow she doubted it. 'Well, fraulein,' he said now, in a cool tone, 'can I offer you a drink before the meal? Wine, or perhaps a Martini?' Victoria shook her head. 'Thank you, but no, that's not necessary,' she replied quietly. 'I don't drink a lot.' The Baron shrugged, and after giving her a brief speculative glance he went to pour himself some whisky. He came back to the fire with his drink, and stood sipping it, staring into the flames. Then his gaze travelled to Victoria again, and his eyes narrowed. 'Sophie tells me that you have worked hard today—both of you,' he added briefly. Victoria folded her hands in her lap. 'Sophie has worked very hard,' she agreed. 'She is by no means as behindhand as your words had led me to believe. She'll catch up in no time. Her handwriting is particularly good.' The Baron considered the liquid in his glass. 'So you would say the first hurdle has been successfully negotiated?' 'I think so, Herr Baron.' Victoria frowned a little. 'But please don't imagine that I am under any misapprehension regarding Sophie's
attitude. I know there is still a long way to go. She is in no way convinced that I am any less susceptible than the other governesses.' The Baron swallowed the remainder of his drink, and turned to pour himself another. 'And you are, fraulein?' he queried, rather sardonically. Victoria coloured. 'I think so.' The Baron turned back to her. 'You are certainly different, fraulein,' he conceded, his eyes surveying her intently. 'Exactly why did you choose to change for dinner?' Victoria got to her feet, unable to sit still under such minute scrutiny. 'As I told you, Herr Baron, I was tired of wearing trousers. And this dress is not particularly formal.' 'A long dress is not formal?' 'Of course not,' she retorted defensively. 'In England long dresses are very fashionable, for breakfast as well as dinner.' 'Indeed? As you can see I am very out of date.' Victoria could have said that his clothes were not particularly oldfashioned. On the contrary, he always looked right in what he wore, but that was because he had the height and breadth to wear almost anything with elegance. But she refrained from commenting on this, and said instead: 'Actually, I wanted to ask you about Sophie's clothes, Herr Baron.' His eyes were bleak. 'Oh, yes?' 'Yes.' Victoria hesitated, choosing her words with care. 'Her clothes aren't exactly—well—attractive, are they?'
'Maria makes her dresses. She is an admirable knitter.' Victoria sighed. 'But do they have to be so plain—so practical? She needs bright colours to take away the sallow- ness of her complexion! Something with style!' 'Sophie has been complaining?' The Baron was aloof. 'Of course not. Sophie wouldn't complain of anything to we! Heavens, I'm still arch-enemy number one!' The Baron's lips twitched slightly. 'So this is your idea. Another attempt, perhaps, to win her confidence?' 'Something like that.' Victoria hunched her shoulders. 'Oh, what's the use, I can tell from your expression that you're not impressed.' The Baron's eyes darkened. 'Is this also the way one addresses one's employer in England?' he enquired icily. Victoria bent her head. 'I wouldn't know,' she replied, impatiently. 'I never employed anybody!' 'You are insolent, fraulein]' His nostrils flared and she was reminded of a story she had once read about a prince and a peasant girl. Certainly the present Baron von Reichstein had his moments of dignity and this was one of them. With a sigh, she said: 'I don't mean to be. I just find your attitude rather stultifying!' The Baron's face was forbidding. 'Stultifying, fraulein? In what way is this so?'
Victoria felt as though she was wading deeper and deeper into icy water. 'Well,' she began awkwardly, 'Sophie's problems can't all be solved in the schoolroom -' 'But they are the only problems which need concern you, surely, fraulein?' he snapped. Victoria stared at him impatiently. 'Why is it that one minute you can be calm and reasonably pleasant, and the next you positively blow up in my face?' she cried. 'I'm not trying to, probe into your private affairs, I just want to help Sophie in every way I can!' The Baron was absolutely furious now. She could see it in the brilliant glacier quality of his eyes, in the harshness of his mouth, and in the deep lines etched beside it. He swallowed the second glass of whisky he had poured himself at a gulp, and replaced the glass on the table with a definite click. Then he straightened. 'You can best help Sophie and yourself, fraulein, by confining your activities to academics!' he bit out harshly. 'I will not be dictated to by a slip of a girl who has not been at Reichstein a week yet!' Victoria compressed her lips. 'I was not trying to dictate to you,' she protested resignedly. 'It's simply that while I believe in my methods, you have to believe in them, too!' 'What is that supposed to mean, fraulein?' he queried coldly. 'I couldn't possibly expect you to understand,' she retorted, losing all patience. Twisting her hands together, she crossed the room restlessly, her hair swinging silkily against her cheek. 'I think it would be as well if I ate in the kitchen after all.' The Baron moved swiftly for such a big man, and he was at the door before her, leaning back against it, his arms folded. 'Oh no, fraulein,'
he said, regarding her with dispassionate appraisal. 'In spite of your youthful audacity, you intrigue me, and besides, we cannot waste that gown, can we?' Victoria's cheeks burned. 'You are mocking me now, Herr Baron,' she said, in a taut angry tone. 'Please move away from the door. I wish to leave.' The Baron hesitated for a moment, and then with a slight movement of his shoulders he stepped aside. But even as he did so, there was a knock at the door, and Victoria turned hastily away to the fire as her employer stepped forward to open it. Her knees were shaking a little and she had no desire for Maria to witness her distress. Maria came into the room carrying a large tray and deposited it on the desk. 'I'll bring your coffee later, Herr Baron,' she said, casting a look in Victoria's direction with ill-concealed curiosity. 'Perhaps the fraulein will serve the meal.' The Baron gave her a warm smile. 'I am sure we can cope, thank you, Maria,' he said gently, and Victoria could hardly believe that this was the same man who had been verbally lashing her a few moments ago. The elderly servant departed and the Baron closed the door firmly behind her. 'Well, fraulein,' he remarked sardonically, 'it appears you are not to have a choice regarding your place of eating dinner. Unless, of course, you wish to brave Maria's wrath by carrying your meal back to the kitchen.' Victoria bent her head. 'I'm not particularly hungry, Herr Baron,' she retorted tightly. The Baron came across to the desk and examined the contents of the tray. 'Come, fraulein,' he chided her mockingly, 'Maria has prepared us a delicious meal. There is a good beef broth and an Austrian
speciality—Wiener Schnitzel. Have you ever tasted Wiener Schnitzel?' Victoria gave him an exasperated stare. 'I take it our disagreement has been dismissed,' she asked daringly. The Baron gave her a faint frown. 'Eat,' he said briefly. 'Then we will talk.' In spite of her reluctance, Victoria could not help but enjoy the meal. After the Wiener Schnitzel, tender slices of veal steak dipped in egg and breadcrumbs and fried to a crispness, there was Palatschinken, dessert pancakes filled with honey and nuts. It was all very rich and very satisfying, and Victoria reflected that she would have to take care that she did not put on too much weight. Her host seemed to have no such anxieties and did full justice to the food. But he had not an ounce of spare flesh on his body, which no doubt was due to the energetic life he led. Maria brought in the coffee, just as Victoria was lounging back in her chair, replete. She gave the girl a rather considered stare and took away their dirty dishes for washing. 'Will you be wanting anything else, Herr Baron?' she asked politely. The Baron shook his head, getting to his feet to close the door behind her. 'No, danke,' he murmured. 'That was absolutely delicious! Nowhere in Austria could the Schnitzel have been bettered.' Maria flushed with enjoyment, and Victoria hoped her pleasure in the Baron's compliments would dissipate the obvious aversion she had felt at having to serve the governess. She would hate Maria to turn against her.
After the housekeeper had gone, the Baron came back to the desk where Victoria was now standing, and said: 'Is something troubling you, fraulein?' Victoria shook her head. 'What could be troubling me, Herr Baron?' she asked, rather sardonically. Then she sighed. 'If you'll excuse me now, I'll go to my room.' The Baron poured two cups of coffee and handed one to her. His expression was quizzical and she thought rather childishly that he could afford to be generous now that he had had his own way. She drank her coffee quickly, burning her mouth, and when he offered her a second cup she refused. He moved towards the fire, warming his hands at the blaze, and frowning slightly. 'It would seem that you are not to be placated, fraulein,' he remarked suddenly, surprising her. 'Must you always have your own way?' Victoria felt embarrassed. 'It's not a question of having my own way, Herr Baron,' she protested. 'I just—well—find it difficult to adhere always to your jurisdiction !' 'Come, come, fraulein, you make me sound like a dictator,' he exclaimed mockingly. Victoria gave him an angry look. 'And aren't you?' The Baron turned, resting his arm on the mantel above the fire. 'I do not care to be seen in that light,' he averred sharply. 'In fact r would go so far as to say that no one else sees me that way. If I appear so to you, it must be because you persist in behaving in an importunate manner. My previous experience of governesses has been that they look to me for guidance rather than the other way about.'
Victoria lifted her shoulders helplessly. 'What you mean is that no matter what I say you will ultimately do as you wish.' 'I am trying to be patient with you, fraulein.' His voice was a little harder now. 'But I find it extremely difficult. Must I repeat that your duties here are limited?' 'But where is the harm in making Sophie look a little more attractive? She's far too absorbed with herself in other ways, and maybe interesting her in pretty clothes would limit her use of her imagination -' 'And exactly where do you propose to get these clothes for Sophie?' he enquired harshly. 'Must I remind you that here at Reichstein durability counts for more than superficial prettiness!' Victoria shook her head with a sigh. 'Things can be attractive as well as durable!' she exclaimed. 'And I have brought some material with me. I could make her a couple of pinafore dresses and blouses. Anything to make a change from those interminable woollen dresses!' 'Are you telling me you actually sew, fraulein?' He was mocking. 'Of course.' Victoria held up her head. 'Well, Herr Baron? Have I your permission?' The Baron heaved a sigh and straightened from his lounging position. He studied her challenging face for a long moment, and then he made an impatient gesture. 'Very well. If it will amuse you to do so.' He flexed his shoulder muscles. 'Naturally I shall pay you for the material you use.' Victoria linked her fingers. 'That won't be necessary, Herr Baron.'
'But I insist. You must have bought this material for your own use. We may be poor, fraulein, but we are not yet ready to accept charity!' His voice was cold. 'Very well, if you insist,' she answered uncomfortably. 'Tell me.' He was very close, looking down at her with intent blue eyes. 'There was a man in England, was there not? A man from whom you wished to escape. Tell me why!' Victoria's face burned. 'Aren't you being a little importunate yourself now, Herr Baron?' she countered, rather unevenly. 'Perhaps,' he agreed, his voice husky. 'But such a beautiful young woman would not seek the isolation of the Alps in winter unless she wished to escape from something and it seems reasonable that it should be a member of my sex.' Victoria focussed her eyes on one of the pearl buttons of his heavy satin shirt and refused to meet his gaze. He was deliberately turning the tables on her, she thought, using his not inconsiderable charm to reduce her to a trembling mass of nerves. He could not have lived almost forty years without becoming aware of his physical attraction, and a strange thought passed through Victoria's head. The Baron was married, just as Meredith was married, and had a daughter moreover; yet would she have found it as easy to leave him when she discovered that fact as she had Meredith? Somehow she doubted it. Right now she was in possession of all the facts, and yet if he had chosen to bend his head and put that rather sensual mouth against hers she would not have put up too much opposition ... Suddenly there was the harsh grating sound of a car with chains on its wheels being driven into the courtyard and abruptly the Baron moved away from her, his expression enigmatic.
'It seems we have a visitor, fraulein,' he said, pushing a log further into the fire with the toe of his suede boot. 'No doubt it is Dr. Zimmerman. You must stay and meet him.' Victoria was about to say she had already met the doctor, but the Baron strode swiftly across the room and went out of the door before she could begin, leaving Victoria feeling strangely disturbed. It was quite unnerving to realise exactly how disturbed she actually was. When the two men returned, entering the room together deep in conversation, Victoria felt de trop. Like Maria, the doctor would not expect to find the governess in the Baron's domain, but apart from a slight widening of his eyes Conrad Zimmerman made no comment on this. Instead, he smiled warmly at her, and said: 'Why, my dear Fraulein Monroe! It is very pleasant to meet you again. You slipped away so abruptly the last time I came that I almost believed I had imagined you.' The Baron gave Victoria a cold speculative stare and then turned his gaze back to Conrad Zimmerman. 'You know Fraulein Monroe?' he queried, bleakly. 'But of course, my dear Horst. We met on my last visit to the schloss. Indeed, I might go so far as to say Fraulein Monroe welcomed me on that occasion.' 'Oh, really,' began Victoria, feeling rather embarrassed. 'I was simply in the hall when you arrived -' 'And a very welcome sight you were, too,' murmured Conrad teasingly. 'Eh, Horst?' The Baron raised his dark brows indifferently. 'I was unaware of the occurrence,' he commented smoothly.
Conrad grinned. 'We were discussing the possibilities of my teaching the young lady how to ski,' he said, glancing at Victoria encouragingly. 'Weren't we?' Victoria had the feeling that her employer was controlling his temper with difficulty. The way Conrad Zimmerman was talking was tantamount to treating her like the Baron's guest and not his employee. 'I really must go,' she said now, looking apologetically at Conrad. 'Enjoy your game!' She made for the door. 'Oh, I say -' began Conrad protestingly. 'Don't go! Can't we fix something up?' The Baron stood with his back to the fire, hands thrust deep into the pockets of his trousers, regarding them both with narrowed eyes. Victoria was amazed that Conrad seemed indifferent to the atmosphere which she could sense almost tangibly. 'I really think we'll have to leave it for now,' she answered. 'I-—er— well—don't have a lot of free time.' 'Hey, Horst, are you a Menschenschinder?' Conrad quipped. The Baron gave him a dark glance from beneath his thick lashes. 'A slave-driver?' he queried, with a frown. 'No doubt Fraulein Monroe would say so!' Conrad grinned. 'I don't believe it, Fraulein Monroe! Won't you take pity on me?' Victoria wished the floor would simply open up and swallow her. 'I'm sorry,' she said, with a regretful shake of her head, 'flow, if you'll
both excuse me. Herr Baron.' And with what she hoped was an apologetic smile, she left the room. Outside in the corridor, she took several deep breaths to calm herself. What a disastrous few minutes! No doubt now the Baron would imagine she had asked the doctor to teach her to ski. Conrad Zimmerman had made it sound as though they had had a long conversation, whereas it had all happened in the space of about five minutes. She began to walk along the corridor towards the great hall. Still, she reflected, it was perhaps as well that Dr. Zimmerman had arrived as he did to interrupt the Baron's questions about her reasons for coming to Reichstein. Her employer was altogether too disturbing when he chose to be so, and she was becoming far too aware of him as a man ... She found herself wondering what it would be like to get behind that facade he presented to the world. He was by no means as dispassionate as he would like to believe, and it would be dangerously easy to forget that he had ties and responsibilities. Discovering that Meredith was a married man had turned her against him, but somehow the Baron's unattainability merely made him more attractive. She knew that if she had any sense she would avoid being alone with him again. It wasn't that he was the kind of man who might forget his responsibilities and try and take advantage of her; he was far too honourable and serious-minded to act like that. But what she was afraid of was that she might be tempted to arouse him in a way he could not avoid, and thus make him despise her for destroying his own self-respect. She thought he was half unaware of his own emotional potentialities. Whoever his wife had been and wherever she was she had barely stirred the surface of his passions. She could not be the kind of woman who cared greatly for anyone or anything or she would not have deserted her husband and daughter so
carelessly, creating a situation into which Victoria had plunged without being at all forewarned of its undercurrents...
CHAPTER SEVEN THE next few days passed almost uneventfully. Sophie seemed for the present to have accepted Victoria's role as her governess and she applied herself to her lessons with restrained enthusiasm. Victoria sensed that the child secretly enjoyed succeeding at the tasks which were set her, and blossomed like a flower under encouragement. Outside of the classroom, however, it was a different story. Sophie spurned Victoria's friendship, and spent most of her time alone, either in the stables with the horses, or elsewhere about the estate. Sometimes she was with Maria in the kitchen, or accompanying Gustav about his duties, but never with Victoria. However, Victoria did not get angry as she knew Sophie hoped she would. She was prepared to wait. She had the child's undivided attention for at least five hours every day and she could not expect instant capitulation in every direction. Victoria's days were filled with teaching Sophie and preparing lessons for the following day. She continued to eat her meals with Maria and Gustav in the kitchen, and made no further attempts to dress for dinner. She avoided her employer as best she could, only speaking to him when he asked for information about his daughter, and as he was invariably absorbed with his own affairs these sessions were not a frequent occurrence, much to her relief. She had a letter from her godmother a few days later. It was characteristically long, involving a much drawn-out description of the events of the past couple of weeks since Victoria left England. She mentioned every social occasion she had attended, gave a detailed list of the guests, and even enumerated the dishes which had been served.
Victoria read it with a certain degree of impatience, knowing that her godmother was deliberately leaving all mention of Meredith until the end. When she eventually came to his name, she read on with undisguised curiosity: You will, I know, be eagerly awaiting my news concerning Meredith Hammond. What can I say? How can I fail to underestimate the conceit of that man? He seems to imagine he has some divine right where you are concerned. He has persisted in bullying and badgering me until I don't know whether I'm on my head or my heels ... Victoria smiled at this. She could not imagine her godmother permitting anyone to bully or badger her. On the contrary, she had a particularly strong will of her own, and this was simply an effort to show Victoria what kind of man Meredith really was. She read on: In any event, he has made himself most objectionable, and I cannot begin to see what it was that attracted you to him. He is money-conscious to an almost vulgar degree, and seems to think that everyone can be bought for a price! Just imagine it! But so far as I know, he has made no success of his efforts to find you, and quite honestly I find this little bit of intrigue rather exciting. Covering one's tracks, so to speak. But how about you? Your letter-card gave little information, as I am sure you are aware. What is the schloss really like? You must know I'm avid for information. And what about the Baron and his wife? Are they kind to you? I suppose you're treated as a member of the family. Not that I should suppose they entertain a lot. There won't be many opportunities in the Alps in winter. Although, I suppose there are winter sports centres, and that sort of thing. Tell me, my dear, have you met any nice young men? I do hope you won't go getting involved with any more unsuitable people.
You must write me, too, about the child, Sophie. I suppose by now you're quite firm friends. I always think girls are so much easier to get on with ... There was more in the same vein. Aunt Laurie's letters were always more like epistles, and when Victoria had been at boarding school she had treasured them, reading them again and again when she felt homesick. But right now she had other things on her mind, and she merely skimmed the last two pages before thrusting the letter back into its envelope. Still, it was a relief to know that Meredith would not be suddenly appearing out of the blue, intent on taking her back to London. It made her feel more secure somehow, although she knew that even if he did come she would be perfectly capable of dealing with him now. The following day Maria informed her at breakfast that the Baron was driving in to Reichstein and taking Sophie with him. 'The Madchen has not had a break for many days,' she averred firmly. 'It will do her good to get out with her papa.' Victoria cupped her coffee cup in her hands. 'I have no objections,' she commented wryly. 'I am not a slave-driver.' Maria raised her eyebrows and plunged her hands into a bowl of dough, kneading it expertly. 'Nevertheless, since you came, fraulein, the Baron has had little time for his daughter.' Victoria felt indignant at this accusation, but just then the Baron came through from the hall and gave her a polite greeting. 'Has Maria told you I am driving into Reichstein?' he asked, reaching for his heavy sheepskin coat. Victoria wetted her lips with her tongue. 'Yes, Herr Baron.'
'Good, good! It is an invigorating morning. Sophie will enjoy the ride.' 'I'm sure she will,' said Victoria dryly. 'You are ready, fraulein?' He surveyed her critically as he buttoned his coat. 'Me?' exclaimed Victoria ungrammatically, her eyes going swiftly to Maria. 'Naturlich!' The Baron frowned. 'You do not wish to come?' Victoria made an involuntary gesture. She sensed Maria's eyes upon her and realised that earlier the old woman had been attempting to suggest that she, Victoria, ought to allow the Baron and his daughter to go out alone. She didn't know what to say or do. It was very awkward. At last she said: 'I think it would be better if I did not accompany you, Herr Baron.' Maria's expression lightened considerably, but the Baron did not appear to share her feelings. 'Sophie is aware that you are to accompany us, fraulein,' he stated harshly. 'There will be no trouble from that quarter.' Victoria flushed. 'Please,' she began. 'I'd rather stay here. I have things to do—my room to tidy—some washing -' 'Sehr gut, fraulein,' he snapped violently. 'Ich verstehe!' Then, without another word, he strode out of the kitchen. After he had gone, Victoria heaved a heavy sigh. It was the first time she had known the Baron refrain from using English, and she thought
he must be very annoyed. But why? Because she had refused? Or because she had again chosen to disobey his commands? She looked at Maria. The old woman was absorbed with peeling some potatoes and seemed unwilling to talk now. Probably she was quite content with the outcome of her insinuations. The Baron and Sophie had not returned at lunchtime, and after the meal Victoria felt at a loose end. She had done her chores, tidied her room, prepared lessons for the following day and checked what Sophie had already done. Apart from sitting over the fire and reading, she had nothing to do, and somehow on a day when the sun was gilding the high peaks to a golden icing, and making the frost sparkle jewel-like on the ground, it was too beautiful to stay indoors. She hesitated about asking Gustav whether she might be allowed to take Fritz for a walk. After the last occasion, she had grown more cautious. But she longed to be out in the air, taking some exercise. The sound of chains on a car's wheels brought her to the window of the hall, and she looked out to see Conrad Zimmerman climbing out of his station wagon. He waved when he saw her, and came striding over to the main doors swiftly. Victoria drew back, doubtful of making him welcome when the Baron was not here, but the young doctor came straight in as usual, and grinned cheerfully at her. Victoria returned his greeting, and said: 'I'm afraid the Baron is out.' 'I know. I saw his car in Reichstein this morning. He was on his way to lunch with the Baumanns who live in the valley beyond the village.' 'I see.' Victoria nodded. 'So why are you here?' 'To take you skiing!' He bent to pat the dogs. 'I thought to myself, there is Horst and Sophie away for the day. My dear Fraulein Monroe will have nothing to do. I shall entertain her.'
Victoria couldn't restrain the smile that sprang to her lips. 'I couldn't possibly go out while the Baron is away,' she exclaimed regretfully. 'Why not?' Victoria swung round. Maria was coming through the door from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. She nodded pleasantly at the doctor, and then went on: 'Why can't you go out, fraulein? If the Baron has gone to see Frau Baumann, it will be dark before he returns. Where is the harm in going out and getting some fresh air?' 'My sentiments exactly,' said Conrad enthusiastically. 'Come along, fraulein, wouldn't you like to be out there—on the slopes?' Victoria smiled. It was exactly what she would like. 'I suppose so,' she admitted slowly. She turned to Maria. 'What if the Baron returns while I'm out?' Maria chuckled. 'I will tell him where you have gone, fraulein, never fear. The Schloss Reichstein will not crumble in your absence.' Victoria sighed. 'Oh, very well then. Will you wait while I get ready? I have no equipment, you know.' Conrad shook his head. 'I have enough for two,' he affirmed, with satisfaction. 'Now, hurry! We don't want to waste the light.' It was an exhilarating afternoon. Conrad drove to the head of the valley to where the mountains formed gentle slopes, ideal for beginners. It was some distance from the schloss in a direction Victoria had previously not traversed, but from the heights of the pass she could see the turreted chimneys of the schloss below them. The slopes were interspersed with pines, but only at the lowest point were they sufficient to warrant caution, and Conrad explained that
Victoria should swerve round as she neared them and so halt herself. As it was very gentle, she found little difficulty in accomplishing this, although Conrad himself, who climbed much higher than she did, seemed to narrowly avoid being in collision with a particularly broad tree-trunk near the outer environs of the copse. Of course, his speed was greater, and she held her breath a number of times as he came hurtling down from above. He grinned at her horrified expression, however, and told her he had skied here since he was a child. Victoria tired first. It was exhausting; trudging up the slopes sideways seemed to take ages, and then one skied down again in a matter of seconds. Her only experience of skiing had been at St. Moritz where there was a ski-lift to transport one up the mountain. Besides, it was some time since she had done anything so energetic. However, when she asked if she might sit down for a while, Conrad suggested they went back to the car and there produced a flask of coffee and some cream-filled pastries which he said his mother had packed for them. Victoria accepted the coffee enthusiastically, and sat, her fingers cupping the beaker, staring out at the limitless expanses of snow on mountain. Conrad lit a cigarette, and it was very companionable sitting there in the fading light. He was an undemanding young man, and she had enjoyed his light- hearted company. 'Tell me,' he said presently, 'are you happy at Reichstein?' Victoria turned to him with a smile. 'Of course. Working with Sophie is very challenging, but very satisfying.' Conrad nodded. 'She has become quite a problem child,' he agreed. 'Since her illness, she has had little discipline.' Victoria wrinkled her nose. 'So I've gathered.'
'But paralysis in a child can be very distressing. In an adult one feels less sympathetic, I think. Thankfully, Sophie has made a complete recovery, due in no small way to Horst's patience. He spent hours encouraging her—teaching her how to have confidence in the exercises the physiotherapist set her. Her limbs are still painfully thin, but they respond co-ordinately. 'Sophie never mentions her mother,' murmured Victoria tentatively. Conrad gave her a speculative look. 'No,' he agreed heavily, 'I don't suppose she does.' Victoria studied the coffee in the bottom of the beaker. 'Did you treat Sophie when she was ill?' 'No. Dr. Klein was here then. He treated her. Naturally, that was how it should be. He had attended her birth.' Conrad tapped ash out of the car's window. 'Why?' 'I was just curious, that's all.' Victoria bit her lip. It was difficult to find ways to bring the Baroness into their conversation. Obviously Conrad, like everyone else, was loath to discuss her absence. 'Sophie was born at the schloss, then?' 'That's right.' Conrad was regarding her rather warily, she thought. 'Did you live in Reichstein at that time?' 'I imagine I was away at university. Ten years ago I was nineteen.' Victoria nodded. 'Of course.' She compressed her lips. 'I suppose you think I'm being very inquisitive.' Conrad frowned. 'I think you're trying to find out about Elsa, aren't you?' Victoria coloured. 'Elsa?'
'Sophie's mother.' 'Oh!' Victoria was disconcerted. 'Well—yes, perhaps I am.' 'Why?' Victoria considered his question. 'I'm just trying to fit things together,' she said carefully. 'I think Sophie's attitude is due in some way to her mother's absence ...' Conrad threw the butt of his cigarette out of the window. 'Do you know something, fraulein?' he asked dryly. 'I think you could be right.' Leaning forward, he inserted his keys in the ignition and switched on. The engine roared into life and Victoria looked at him swiftly. 'Are we going?' Conrad gave her a smile. 'Oh yes, I think so,' he said. 'You're angry with me?' He shook his head. 'Not at all. However, this conversation is getting us nowhere, and while I would like to help you I do not feel I can betray confidences carelessly.' 'What do you mean?' Conrad sighed. 'It is not up to me to tell you about Elsa, Victoria,' he said softly. 'Horst will tell you in his own good time, no doubt.' Victoria felt impatient. 'Can I not be trusted with confidences?' Conrad put a hand over one of hers as it lay on her knee. 'Victoria, were this my concern, I would not hesitate. But try to understand my position.'
Victoria managed a faint smile. 'I'm sorry—Conrad.' His eyes twinkled. 'I was mistaken when I said our conversation was getting us nowhere,' he remarked lightly. 'Already you use my name and I use yours. That is good, ja?' Victoria chuckled softly. 'If you say so, Conrad,' she answered laughingly, putting all disquieting thoughts of Elsa von Reichstein to the back of her mind. When they arrived back at the schloss it was already dark, and Victoria was horrified to discover that it was after six. 'Time flies when you are enjoying yourself,' commented Conrad gaily. 'We. will do this again, and next time we will talk about ourselves. You have not told me anything of your life in London, and I want to know everything about you. Perhaps we could have dinner with my parents afterwards, eh?' Victoria stepped out of the car. 'I don't think we should make any definite arrangements until I know when I'll be free,' she temporised. 'You're bound to be here during the next few days to see the Baron. Perhaps we can arrange something then.' 'Very well, Victoria.' Conrad accepted his dismissal good- naturedly. 'But you agree we will do this again?' Victoria allowed him to take her hand and raise it almost to his lips. 'I hope so,' she agreed gently, as a sudden harsh beam of light illuminated the courtyard. The wide doors of the great hall had been thrown open, and their silhouettes could be clearly seen from its threshold. Victoria saw the Baron standing by the door, the wolfhounds at his heels, and unaccountably, she shivered.
'Hallo, Horst, mein Freund!' Conrad called cheerfully. 'Did you worry about us?' The Baron did not move. 'You are late!' he said bleakly. Conrad was unconcerned. 'We were enjoying ourselves, Horst. We have been up to Glockenberg. I have been teaching Victoria to ski.' The Baron frowned. 'The Glockenberg is dangerous,' he said coldly. 'There are too many trees!' Conrad grimaced. 'I can take care of myself, Horst. As for Victoria, she did not climb very high. There was no danger.' Victoria withdrew her hand from Conrad, and with a slight smile said: 'I must go in. Thank you for taking me, Conrad.' Conrad watched her cross the courtyard and then said: 'I won't stay, Horst. I promised my mother I would be back in time for dinner.' As her employer had made no suggestion that he should stay, Victoria thought Conrad was seizing a chance to escape. But even as she reached the warmth of the hall, the Baron strode past her, accompanied by the dogs, obviously intent on speaking to the young doctor. Victoria hesitated, but the Baron did not so much as accord her a passing glance, and with a faint twinge of alarm she turned and walked swiftly inside. In her room, she changed her. clothes for emerald velvet slacks and an embroidered black sweater of heavy jersey. She combed out her hair and secured it with a black band, and then went back downstairs. She had heard the car depart while she was washing, and hoped that the Baron had not found it necessary to catechise Conrad for taking her to the Glockenberg.
In the kitchen, Sophie was perched on the settle by the fire, talking to Maria. She was flushed and attractive, and only the clinging brown merino dress she wore spoiled her appearance. Tomorrow, thought Victoria with decision, she would tackle the question of clothes. Until now she had not discussed it with the child, but perhaps the confidence she was slowly building up would be sufficient to convince Sophie that Victoria only wanted to help her. 'Hallo, Sophie,' she said now, as she came across to the fire, the natural focal point in these huge apartments. 'Have you had a good day?' Sophie gave her an indifferent stare. 'Yes, thank you, fraulein.' 'Good.' Victoria smiled. 'It has done us both good to get out in the air. Your cheeks are positively glowing with health.' Sophie bent her head. 'You've been out with Dr. Zimmerman.' 'That's right. He took me skiing.' Sophie studied her nails. 'Papa was angry,' she said insinuatingly. 'He had not given you permission to leave the schloss.' Victoria sighed. 'I am not a prisoner, you know, Sophie. I don't have to have a pass to come and go as I please.' She looked pointedly at Maria, 'isn't that so?' Maria shrugged. 'If you say so, fraulein.' 'Oh, for heaven's sake, what is this!' Victoria's nerves were a little on edge to begin with after the Baron's forbidding welcome, and now this was absolutely the end. 'You said it would be perfectly all right for me to go with Dr. Zimmerman. You practically encouraged me to go.'
Maria folded her arms. 'I'm not denying anything, fraulein.' 'Not much!' Victoria moved impatiently. 'Anyway, it's done now, and can't be undone! What are we having for dinner?' Sophie looked up. 'You're scared of Papa, aren't you, fraulein?' Victoria glared at her. 'Don't be so ridiculous! Of course I'm not scared of him!' Sophie smirked. 'Well, why are you so upset, then? Just because I said Papa wasn't pleased about you going out with Dr. Zimmerman.' 'I don't like being treated like a child, Sophie! If I choose to go out, I shall go. Is that understood?' Victoria was breathing hard. 'Perfectly, fraulein,' answered a deep, cold voice, which she instantly recognised. 'However, I hesitate to remind you that you are hardly a free agent!' Victoria turned, aware that both Maria and Sophie were watching her. They would enjoy this, she thought angrily. 'You were away for the day, Herr Baron,' she replied, equally coldly. 'I saw no harm in accompanying Dr. Zimmerman to—to -' 'Glockenberg,' supplied the Baron briefly. 'That's right.' Victoria clenched her fists. 'I expected to be back before you and Sophie. Maria knew where I had gone.' The Baron raised his dark brows. 'Do you know Dr. Zimmerman well enough to spend several hours alone in his company?' he queried icily. Victoria sighed. 'I don't know what you mean.'
'You know nothing about Dr. Zimmerman. He is an acquaintance, no more. Hardly sufficient background to estimate his trustworthiness!' 'Oh, really!' Victoria stared at him. 'This is not the Middle Ages! You don't really expect me to believe you were worried about my morals -' The Baron's lips thinned. 'Are you contradicting me, fraulein?' 'Yes, I am.' Victoria seethed with indignation. 'Conrad Zimmerman is a friend of yours. He's also a doctor. Do you expect me to believe a man in his position would run the risk of ruining his reputation by taking advantage of one of your —your—servants!' The word stuck in her throat. The Baron chewed his lower lip. 'All right, all right, I'll accept that Dr. Zimmerman is a trustworthy young man. That does not also make him wholly responsible. He has had accidents before on the Glockenberg. He once broke his collar-bone there. Did he tell you that?' Victoria frowned. 'No,' she admitted. 'But there was no danger today. We did not climb very high.' The Baron uttered an exclamation. 'You cannot say that with all certainty,' he snapped. 'In any event, I forbid you to go skiing with that young man again.' Victoria was flabbergasted. 'You forbid—me?' 'That's right, fraulein. So long as you are in my employ, you will obey my commands.' Sophie's face mirrored her delight, and Victoria felt incensed. 'You cannot control all my movements, Herr Baron,' she retorted. 'In my free time, I will do as I like.'
The Baron's eyes glittered. 'I will not be treated in this manner, fraulein. Whether you like it or not, you will do as I say!' Victoria held up her head. 'And if I refuse? What then?' She brushed past a startled Maria and walked stiffly to the door. But before leaving the room, she turned, regarding the Baron disparagingly. 'I suppose if I disobey you, I'll find myself locked in the north tower,' she remarked tauntingly, and with that she left the room before anyone could stop her. It wasn't until she was in her room that she realised the enormity of what she had done. She had ridiculed the Baron in front of Sophie and Maria, and made a fool of herself into the bargain. Why had she let his arrogance get under her skin? He knew as well as she did that he could not prevent her from going out with Conrad if she wanted to, and she should have allowed him his moment of anger and then forgotten it. As it was she had created an impossible situation, and she wasn't at all sure how she was going to get out of it...
CHAPTER EIGHT VICTORIA didn't go down for dinner after all. It was cowardly not to do so, she supposed, but somehow she couldn't face Maria after her argument with the Baron. By now, Maria would have regaled Gustav with the story, and while they might not say anything, there would be an interchange of glances every now and then, and Victoria would know what they were thinking. At half past seven, she knew she would have to go and see her employer. There was nothing else to do, and unless she did, she would not rest. With palpitating heart, she descended the tower stairs and turned left towards the great hall. The Baron was obviously dining in his study, for the hall was deserted apart from the dogs. Pushing open the door to the east wing, she stood for a moment in the corridor, calming her nerves, and mentally going over what she would say. Then she walked determinedly to the door of his study before she was tempted to turn back. She tapped lightly on the panels, half hoping he would not hear her and therefore enable her to give up her intent with an acceptable excuse. But the Baron's ears were very acute, and she heard his brief: 'Herein!' a moment after her knock. With trembling fingers she turned the handle and pushed open the door. Taking a step inside, she said: 'May I have a word with you, Herr Baron?' The Baron was lounging behind his desk, the remains of his, and Sophie's, meal spread about its surface. Sophie was curled up on a rug in front of the fire, glancing through a magazine.
The Baron got abruptly to his feet at Victoria's entrance, drawing his brows together in a deep frown. 'Ja, fraulein!' His voice was emotionless. Sophie looked up, regarding her governess challengingly, and Victoria knew it was going to be much harder apologising in front of the child. She might just as well call Maria and Gustav in here too, for Sophie would find great pleasure in relating all this to them. Now she realised the Baron was regarding her with some impatience and wetting her dry lips with her tongue, she hastened into speech: 'I—I wanted to talk to you—I mean— I wanted to—to—discuss what—happened earlier.' The Baron inclined his head. 'Indeed, fraulein?' 'Yes.' Victoria bit her lip, and took a deep breath. 'What I mean to say is—well -' She broke off unhappily, and her employer turned and glanced down at his daughter. 'Sophie,' he said, 'I think Fraulein Monroe would find it easier to talk to me if you were not present.' Sophie looked up with indignant eyes. 'But, Papa,' she exclaimed, 'I'm not listening to Fraulein Monroe! I'm reading.' The Baron's lips formed a slight smile. 'I find that difficult to believe,' he murmured softly. 'Now, run along like a good girl. It is almost your bedtime, after all. Go to your room and I will join you there in a few minutes. When I have heard what it is Fraulein Monroe has to say.' Sophie wrinkled her nose. 'Do I have to, Papa?' she asked appealingly. 'Ja, you have to, Sophie.' The Baron was firm.
Sophie got disconsolately to her feet, and gave Victoria an angry stare. 'I hope she's come to tell you she's leaving,' she said rudely. The Baron's expression grew grim. 'You will apologise for that remark,' he snapped shortly. Sophie rubbed her nose with her finger. 'Oh, all right,' she said unwillingly. 'I'm sorry!' But she wasn't, and her tone did not deceive either Victoria or the Baron. 'Go to your room at once,' thundered Sophie's father violently, and with a half-scared backward glance Sophie went out. As usual, when she had gone, Victoria felt herself the instigator of Sophie's naughtiness, and in consequence it weakened her defences towards the Baron. 'Now,' he said, closing the door on his daughter, 'we are alone. What is it you have come to say? Was Sophie right? Are you coming to tell me you want to leave?' He leaned back against the door, his arms folded. Victoria twisted her hands behind her back. He was certainly taking no chances that she might walk out on him again, she thought. She was, for the present, trapped. 'No,' she said now. 'I—I came to apologise!' The Baron looked slightly sceptical. 'Yes, fraulein?' 'Yes.' Victoria moved uncomfortably under his intent gaze. 'I—I shouldn't have said what I did. My—my tongue ran away with me.' The Baron regarded her appraisingly. 'I see,' he said, straightening and moving away from the door.
Victoria waited uncomfortably for him to go on. It was unnerving standing there waiting for his reactions. Her nails bit into the palms of her hands as she watched him take a cigar out of the box on his desk and light it with deliberation, exhaling aromatic fumes into the air. Then he walked to stand with his back to the fire looking strangely saturnine in spite of the lightness of his hair. Victoria could stand it no longer. 'Well, Herr Baron?' she urged. 'Is my apology acceptable?' The Baron removed his cigar from his mouth and tapped ash into the fire. 'Am I to understand that you are prepared to take back everything you said?' he queried, his brilliant eyes holding hers. Victoria compressed her lips. 'Not—not entirely,' she answered unhappily. He frowned. 'No?' 'You're making it very difficult for me,' she exclaimed impulsively. 'Am I?' He was sardonic. 'Oh!' Victoria clenched her fists. He was impossible. He was deliberately making it harder for her to be conciliatory. 'I couldn't in all honesty completely submit to your terms of employment.' The Baron's expression was forbidding. 'I have noticed.' Victoria sighed. 'It would not be possible for me to make any headway with Sophie without a will of my own, Herr Baron.' 'Is that intended to be an explanation of your refusal to accept authority, fraulein?'
'No, of course not.' Victoria spread her hands expressively. 'I do accept authority. I just feel that what I do in my own time is my business.' The Baron studied the glowing tip of his cigar. 'While you are staying at Reichstein, you are my responsibility, fraulein. This—this godmother of yours—she would not like anything to happen to you?' 'Of course not.' Victoria moved her shoulders helplessly. 'Then perhaps you will accept that I know what is best for you.' He made a sweeping movement with his cigar. 'These mountains—they are dangerous, unpredictable! I know, believe me, I know. Dr. Zimmerman is not a suitable escort. Oh, I agree, he is a charming young man, and no doubt you are flattered by his attentions, but he disregards the dangers -' 'I was not flattered by his attentions!' stated Victoria, with tight lips. 'No?' The Baron's eyes narrowed. 'Why not?' Victoria heaved a sigh. 'Dr. Zimmerman is not the first attractive man I have ever known, Herr Baron. I am not a schoolgirl. I do know other men ...' The Baron looked distantly at her. 'Oh, I believe you, fraulein,' he returned, and the way he said it made it an insult. Victoria took a deep breath. 'You have no right to catechise me like this!' she said irritatedly. 'If you intend dispensing with my obviously—irresponsible—services, then please get it over with!' The Baron stood a step towards her, clenching his free hand. 'You see,' he said tautly. 'Always so ready to attack! It may interest you to know that I do not wish to dispense with your services. On the other hand, you may force me to do so.'
'Why?' The Baron threw his cigar into the fire and resting his arm on the mantel for a moment watched it burn, engulfed in seconds by the flames. Then he turned to look at her broodingly. 'This man you knew in London,' he said. 'Why did you run away from him?' Victoria felt the hot colour sweep up her throat to her face. 'Is this also part of my terms of employment?' she countered, taking refuge in brittle sarcasm. The Baron moved nearer to her, regarding her with the icy intensity of cold steel. His gaze followed the line of her velvet lounging pants, the soft concealing contours of her sweater, to the full parted awareness of her mouth. 'Tell me,' he said commandingly. 'Or is the subject too painful? Is it possible you are hiding a broken heart, Fraulein Monroe?' Victoria stiffened her back. 'Don't mock me, Herr Baron,' she said, uneasily aware that the situation had suddenly become infinitely dangerous. He halted about a foot from her and Victoria hoped he was not aware of the thunderous pounding of her heart. She was aware of everything about him, every minute detail, from the soft sleek blue of his navy silk shirt, to the narrow cut of his cream pants. His eyes were veiled by the long black lashes, but she was still conscious of their scrutiny. She didn't exactly know what he intended to do, but whatever it was she ought not to be this close to him. She had the strongest desire to put up her hands and hold his face between them, smoothing the silver sideburns that grew down to his jawline. She wanted to twine her fingers in the thick strength of his hair which although it was straight was inclined to crinkle when it was disturbed. And she
wanted to feel the hard passion of his mouth upon hers and make him lose that distant controlled politeness once and for all... 'I was not mocking you, fraulein,' he averred slowly. 'As I told you once before, you intrigue me.' 'My life before I came to Reichstein can hardly interest you,' she murmured, endeavouring to bring a sense of normality back to their conversation. 'But, as it happens, I did know a man in London. Unfortunately, he was married.' 'I see.' The Baron's eyes narrowed. 'And what made you suddenly decide you should not be involved with a married man?' Victoria straightened her shoulders. 'I didn't know he was married— until just before I left I' she replied shortly. 'Now, is that all, Herr Baron? Or will you please tell me whether I should go and pack my cases?' The Baron frowned. 'Do you want to leave?' Victoria sighed exasperatedly. 'You know I don't.' He suddenly turned away. 'Perhaps you should, fraulein,' he muttered harshly. Victoria shook her head in bewilderment. 'Why?' He glanced round at her. 'Go, fraulein. Your apology is recorded!' His tones were abrupt and cold. With a painful pounding in her forehead, Victoria moved to the door. She was disturbed and ill at ease. The Baron's sudden changes of mood were bewildering, and although he had dismissed her, she had the strangest feeling that there was something more he wanted to say.
But he made no attempt to detain her, and with a brief: 'Goodnight, Herr Baron,' she left the study.
The following morning the Baron came to his study while Victoria and Sophie were engrossed with their lessons. It was the first time he had interrupted them, and Victoria looked up warily, wondering why he had chosen to do so. It had been more difficult than usual arousing Sophie's interest, and she had just succeeded in getting the child down to some serious work when her employer entered the room. Sophie looked up delightedly, and smiled at her father. 'Have you come to take me out again, Papa?' she asked excitedly. The Baron shook his head. 'No, at least, not now. I wondered if perhaps this afternoon you and your governess might enjoy a trip down to Hoffenstein. I thought we could take the train that leaves just after noon. We could have a late lunch in Hoffenstein itself.' Victoria tortured the pencil in her fingers as Sophie nodded vigorously. 'Oh yes, Papa, do let's do that. Fraulein Monroe—you don't mind, do you?' It was the first time Sophie had shown any attempt to ask her governess's permission, and Victoria appreciated it even if it was inspired by her father's presence. But Victoria herself felt less enthusiastic. She was thinking far too much about the Baron von Reichstein already, and several hours spent in his company, with only the child for distraction, would be a dangerous situation. 'Sophie can go, of course,' she said now. 'But if you don't mind, I'll stay at the schloss.' She cushioned her refusal with a smile.
But the Baron was not put off. 'But I do mind,' he insisted, his eyes bleak. 'The expedition was to have been a useful lesson for Sophie. There is a museum in Hoffenstein, a very interesting museum, with some excellent examples of Byzantine art and culture.' Victoria compressed her lips. 'I am sure Sophie will enjoy it equally well with you,' she said carefully. 'After all, your knowledge of such things must be far greater than mine, Herr Baron.' The Baron folded his arms. 'Why do you persist in thwarting me, fraulein?' he asked angrily. 'What possible excuse have you for remaining here at Reichstein when I am offering you an opportunity to see a little of the scenery of my country?' His brows drew together. 'Unless, of course, you have made a further assignation with your friend the doctor!' Victoria rose to her feet. 'I have made no assignations, Herr Baron.' She gripped the edge of the desk tightly. 'I merely believe that my accompanying you will serve no useful purpose!' 'And what if I insist that it will?' he snapped brusquely. Sophie was staring from one to the other of them curiously. She sensed that there was more to this argument than the question of the trip to Hoffenstein, and she tugged her father's sleeve. 'If Fraulein Monroe wants to stay here, I don't mind, Papa,' she said. The Baron looked down at her with enigmatic eyes. 'Do you not, Sophie?' He snapped his fingers. 'Very well, we will go alone!' Sophie's eyes widened. 'Oh, thank you, Papa.' The Baron shook his head, casting a chilling glance in Victoria's direction. 'Don't thank me,' he said dispassionately, and went out without speaking to Victoria.
After he had gone, Victoria re-seated herself and said: 'Well, as you are to be out this afternoon, you had better get on this morning, Sophie,' in a brisk tone. Sophie nodded, tapping her pencil against her teeth. 'You don't like my father much, do you, fraulein?' Victoria flushed. 'I neither like nor dislike him,' she stated dismissingly. Sophie frowned. 'The other governesses liked him,' she observed. 'Then perhaps they were different from me,' remarked Victoria dryly. 'Yes, perhaps they were,' murmured Sophie thoughtfully. 'You don't like me either, do you?' Victoria sighed. 'Of course I like you, Sophie. At least, I could if you would stop behaving like the heroine from some Gothic novel!' 'What does that mean?' Victoria shook her head. 'Oh, nothing! You don't like me—so you can't expect me to go into raptures over you, can you?' Sophie wrinkled her nose. 'Well,' she said slowly, 'sometimes I find you funny.' 'Oh yes?' 'Yes. Like when you stand up to Papa. Last night, for instance.' 'Last night was very unfortunate.' 'Why? Because you had a row with Papa?'
'I suppose so. Even so, I shall come and go as I please, so don't imagine because I apologised that I submit to all your father's dictates.' Sophie cupped her chin on her hand. 'I've never seen Papa so angry as you make him.' 'Indeed.' Victoria bent her head. 'Shall we get on?' Sophie shrugged. 'I suppose so.' She bent to her work for a moment, and then she looked up again. 'Lessons aren't so bad, are they?' 'If you say not.' 'Did you like school?' 'Not particularly.' Sophie grinned. 'Didn't you? Gute, I thought you would say you loved it.' 'Why should I say that?' 'People always say they liked school. Adults, I mean.' Victoria had to smile. 'I've told you, I don't tell lies.' Sophie looked at her textbook again. 'If you do stay here, how long will you stay?' Victoria raised her eyebrows. 'Until you're ready to attend a proper school again.' 'A boarding school?'
'I suppose so. They're very good usually. I went to one. Holidays soon come round.' 'Did your parents come to see you?' 'My parents died when I was very young. My godmother brought me up.' 'You have no father or mother?' 'No.' Victoria was guarded. 'Why?' 'Oh, nothing.' Sophie chewed the end of her pencil. 'Tell me about your school.' 'Some other time,' said Victoria firmly. Then she relented. 'Tell me, Sophie, don't you ever wish you had any pretty clothes to wear?' Sophie looked up. 'Maria knits my dresses and cardigans,' she said. 'I know. But don't you ever wish you had some skirts— and blouses? And perhaps some trousers?' Sophie sniffed. 'Maria couldn't knit trousers.' 'I know.' Victoria bit her lip. 'But I could sew you some.' 'You?' 'Why not? I have some material.' 'Do you?' Sophie was interested, in spite of herself, Victoria could tell. 'Why should you make me clothes?'
Victoria sighed. 'Because I'd like to make you look more attractive,' she replied. 'Spring is coming. You can't wear knitted dresses for ever.' 'I have some cotton ones,' said Sophie. Victoria could imagine what they would be like. 'Oh, well,' she said, with feigned indifference. 'If that's all you want -' 'I didn't say that,' Sophie amended. 'So?' Sophie frowned again. 'Could I see the material?' Victoria nodded, feeling quite pleased. 'If you like. But not now, and this afternoon you're going out with your father. Tomorrow perhaps.' 'All right,' Sophie nodded, and with a faint smile on her lips she hunched her thin shoulders over her book. Victoria heaved a sigh of relief. Little by little, she thought wryly. The Baron and his daughter left soon after eleven, but as Sophie had worked for two hours before leaving, Victoria could not complain. The child was beginning to show interest in things outside of her own personal problems and that was good. Sooner or later she would fully accept Victoria's position in the household, but it could not be rushed. She was still very suspicious of Victoria's motives. After lunch Victoria read for a while in her room, but as the sun was quite brilliant, she decided to go for a walk. She ventured into the kitchen in search of Gustav and found only Maria, knitting. 'Do you suppose it would be all right for me to take Fritz for a walk?' she queried lightly.
Maria looked up in surprise. 'I don't know, fraulein. The hounds are the Herr Baron's concern, not mine.' Victoria compressed her lips. 'Well, I can see no harm in it,' She murmured, almost to herself. Then: 'Where is Gustav? Perhaps he would give me permission.' Maria shrugged. 'He's about somewhere.' Victoria sighed. 'I shan't be long, you know.' Maria shrugged again. 'Fraulein, if you wish to take out the dogs, we cannot stop you.' Victoria digested this as a small reminder that Maria had been present the previous evening when she had been arguing with the Baron. Obviously, the old servant did not intend to get involved again, and she would rather Victoria did not involve Gustav either. 'Very well,' Victoria said now, 'I'll go and get my coat.' 'Ja, fraulein.' Maria returned to her knitting, and with an impatient gesture Victoria went out. In her room she pulled on warm boots and her thick coat over a double thickness of sweaters. Her trousers were replaced by black vorlargers which she had brought with her because they were so warm. The dogs were both in their usual position by the fire, and when Victoria whistled Fritz, Helga came too. Both dogs nuzzled her hand welcomingly and she could not in all decency take one without the other. 'All right, all right,' she said, with a smile. 'You shall both come. Would you like a walk?'
The dogs wagged their tails as though they understood and Victoria walked briskly across the hall to the heavy front door. Outside, the air was freezing, but wonderfully invigorating. The dogs trotted along beside her obediently, and she felt quite important, having such a lordly escort. There was no sign of Gustav, but as Maria had said, she had to decide for herself what she ought to do, and while the Baron had maintained that the dogs could be unpredictable, she had her doubts. Certainly, Fritz seemed to feel he owed her something, and if Helga bounded on ahead, he rarely left Victoria's side. They took the road that she had followed in the car with Conrad the previous day. It wound up into the mountains, but at least it was quite clear, and there was no sign of any more snow in the blue, cloudless arc above her. As they climbed higher she noticed details with more clarity than on the previous day. For one thing she had more time to absorb the scenery, and appreciate its beauty. High above towered the high peaks of the Alps, while on the lower slopes the brilliant whiteness of the snow was muted by the dark foliage of the pine forests. From time to time, the dogs seemed to sense the presence of some wild animal, and then Helga would go bounding away, barking excitedly, to return moments later covered with snow, which she .sprayed liberally over Victoria as she shook herself. There was no doubt that they knew this journey well, and were used to making noisy skirmishes into the drifts. Victoria laughed at their antics, and gave them encouragement when they returned carrying various booty to strew at her feet. They brought her twigs and small branches, and Victoria lifted them and threw them high into the air for them, so that the hounds began racing each other to fetch the missiles back. Presently they came out above the slopes where she and Conrad had skied the previous afternoon, and Victoria saw in astonishment that the schloss was far away down the other end of the valley. She had been so intent on her game with the animals, she had forgotten to take the time factor into account.
She glanced at her watch, and saw with dismay that it was well after four-thirty. Heavens, she had been walking for over an hour I It would be almost six by the time she got back. With a sharp whistle, she attracted the dogs' attention, and Fritz came bounding back to her. But Helga stood in several inches of snow, some distance from the road, and seemed impervious to Victoria's commands. Victoria sighed. 'Helga!' she called impatiently. 'Come here at once. Come on! Good girl!' Helga merely barked at this, wagging her tail vigorously, poised ready to fetch the twig Victoria had in her hand. With an exclamation, Victoria flung the twig down at her feet, but Helga just barked once more and scratched rather disconsolately at the snow. 'Come along, Helga!' Victoria shouted loudly. 'Heel, girl, heel!' Helga sat down at this, arid Victoria heaved a sigh and looked down at Fritz beside her. 'Well, Fritz,' she said resignedly, 'what shall we do? Go without her?' Fritz wagged his tail, but when Victoria began to walk away from him down the road, he whined rather doubtfully. Victoria halted. 'Come on,' she said. 'We can't stay here. She'll follow us. Come on, Fritz.' Fritz hesitated, and then trotted obediently after her. But when they had gone a few hundred feet, he stopped again and looked back up the road, mournfully. Obviously he didn't like leaving the other dog behind. Victoria halted, too, buttoning her coat tightly about her throat. It was very cold, and getting much colder. Thank goodness, the Baron had
gone down to Hoffenstein and would not be back very early. She did not desire to encounter his anger once more. She looked back to where Helga was now standing, and whistled. But Helga refused to obey her signal, and Victoria wondered whether Fritz sensed that his counterpart could not survive alone out here. But she didn't really have time to go back and persuade Helga to come with them. It was getting dark and a glance at her watch was not encouraging. And yet she could not go back without her. They were the Baron's dogs after all, and he would not understand why she had disobeyed him and taken the beasts out in the first place. She sighed again. What a situation! She was some miles from the schloss by road, and if she hurried back and asked Gustav to come out with her to fetch Helga home, she might easily disappear into a snowdrift… 'Oh, Fritz,' she said unhappily. 'Whatever am I going to do?' Fritz sniffed her hand in a friendly fashion and then trotted a few yards back up the road, stopping and waiting for her to accompany him. Victoria frowned. 'Oh, all right,' she said resignedly. 'I'll just have to get her, I suppose.' Helga wagged her tail excitedly as she saw them coming back. Luckily the snow was illumination enough to see her in the encroaching gloom and Victoria whistled encouragingly, hoping the dog would come to her with some piece of wood and enable her to grasp the heavy collar she wore. But Helga seemed unwilling to leave her position, and Victoria was forced to tread across the thick snowcovered surface of a slope to reach her. But even as she got near enough to grab hex, Helga moved away, and Victoria gritted her teeth in annoyance. So this was what the Baron had meant by unpredictability! She had imagined he meant something entirely different. But it ought to have been obvious that neither of the dogs was at all vicious.
'Helga,' she tried persuasively. 'Come here. Look!' She produced a paper tissue from her pocket and waved it tantalisingly. 'Come and see what I've got.' Helga barked, and inclined forward, sniffing suspiciously, Victoria smiled. 'Come and see,' she encouraged. 'Look. What is it?' Helga took a step towards her, obviously interested, and Victoria lunged forward to grasp her collar. But the icy surface beneath the snow was more slippery than she had thought, and she lost her balance and with a gasp of dismay tumbled down the slope away from where Helga had been standing. She groped helplessly for something to prevent her headlong slide, but she gathered momentum as she went and she was incapable of doing anything except feel a terrified horror of falling over the edge of some unseen precipice. She saw the trees looming up ahead of her and desperately tried to twist her head round, but even so a trunk caught the side of her head as she turned, and she knew nothing more ...
When she opened her eyes again, her head was pounding sickeningly, and the world was a whirling mass of snow and pine forests. She had no idea how long she had been unconscious, but as realisation of her surroundings' came to her, she tried to struggle into a sitting position. She was chilled to the bone, and her fingers felt quite numb, but she knew she could not have been unconscious very long or she might easily have died of frostbite. Her watch had stopped, damaged no doubt by her fall, but apart from a lump on her head that felt enormous, she seemed otherwise unharmed.
Then she suddenly became aware that part of her was warmer than the rest, and as she struggled round a wet, cold nose was pushed against her cheek. 'Fritz!' she exclaimed, in astonishment. 'Oh, Fritz!' The dog had been lying beside her, warming her body with its furry bulk. Victoria rolled over and hugged the beast. 'Oh, Fritz,' she said again, 'wherever are we?' She managed to get unsteadily to her feet, stopping every now and then to allow her head to slow its pounding, and looked about her helplessly. She appeared to be at the foot of the ski-slope that she and Conrad had used the day before. The road was up above them, but there was no sign now of Helga. Victoria heaved a sigh and shook her head slowly. Whatever happened now she was going to be terribly late. The Baron was sure to find out that she had taken his dogs and possibly even lost one. The prospect of his anger was frightening in her weakened condition. It was one thing to stand up to him when she felt fit and well, but right now she felt dreadful. Slowly she and Fritz made their way back up the slope and eventually reached the road. Victoria sighed. After the struggle up the bank, walking downhill would be easy. With a hand on Fritz's collar she set off, all thoughts of finding Helga abandoned. They had been walking for perhaps half an hour when Victoria heard the grating sound of chains on a car's wheels. The sound was coming their way, the engine roaring powerfully up the road towards them. There was the sweep of headlights over the ridge ahead of them, and she drew Fritz automatically to the side in case whoever it was should be driving fast. The vehicle swept over the brow, illuminating their stretch of road brilliantly. Immediately there was the scream of brakes, and the car stopped abruptly, skidding only slightly on the frozen surface. The headlights were not dimmed and Victoria blinked painfully in their
harsh glare. Fritz bounded joyfully towards the man who got swiftly out of the car, but Victoria felt too weary to care if it was her employer. However, Fritz only received the most perfunctory of greetings before being thrust aside and the man strode into the beam of his headlights and straight towards her. She could see now that it was indeed the Baron and although his face was in shadow she could sense his anger. He reached her quickly, grasping her shoulders in a grip like iron, and said thickly: 'Mein Gott, Victoria, I have been half out of my mind! Where have you been?' Victoria swayed slightly and was glad of his supporting hands. 'I fell -' she began unsteadily, but the Baron was not listening to her. Instead he lifted her bodily up into his arms and carried her across to the car, thrusting her inside and sliding in after her. In the light from outside the car she could see his face was drawn and his eyes glittered brilliantly. 'You are frozen,' he muttered fiercely, unbuttoning his thick sheepskin coat as he spoke. 'I'll be all right,' she said weakly, thinking he intended taking off his coat and giving it to her. 'Please -' 'Please what?' he asked harshly, and almost before she realised his intention he put his arm round her, drawing her close against him, inside the warmth of his coat and jacket, against the soft satin of his cream shirt, so that the heat of his body burned into hers, enveloping her in delicious inertia. He put her arms round his waist, and then closed the coat about her with his other arm. It was difficult for Victoria to think coherently. The nearness of the Baron, the clean male smell about him, made it impossible for her to think about anything but him. The feel of his hard body against her
cheek was at once comforting and disturbing, and she trembled slightly in his grasp. At once he forced her chin up to look into her face, and said: 'You are still cold?' in a queer, uneven tone. Victoria swallowed hard. 'No,' she murmured, unconsciously snuggling closer against him, for the moment uncaring that this man was just as unattainable and twice as dangerous as Meredith Hammond had been. The Baron's fingers moved lingeringly over her chin and throat as he looked at her. 'We thought you could be dead!' he groaned huskily. 'When Helga came back alone -' 'She came back?' exclaimed Victoria shakily. 'Of course. When I arrived back from Hoffenstein both Maria and Gustav were frantic with worry. Gustav had searched the immediate grounds thoroughly, but of course you were not there!' Victoria shivered, but not with cold. 'I—I—I suppose I should apologise -' she whispered, supremely conscious of the rhythmic probing of his fingers around her ears. The Baron did not reply; his eyes were narrowed and moved over her face intently, noting the purplish swelling on her right temple, and the paleness of her cheeks. He seemed totally absorbed with the moment, and Victoria began to realise that the pressure of his body against hers was increasing as he held her closer. 'Don't apologise to me,' he said passionately, 'You're alive and that's all that matters -' and he bent his head and put his mouth to the bruised area above her right eye. His touch was light and Victoria knew he was controlling himself with his usual iron self-will.
But she found she didn't want him to control himself. Now that life and warmth and emotion was flooding her body she wanted more than featherlight kisses from him. Her whole body ached for much more. But what could she do? She should draw away now and he would drive her back to the schloss and that would be the end of it. He would excuse his momentary weakness as relief at finding her safe, and she would always wonder what it would have been like to arouse him into passion. With almost involuntary movements, she moved, sliding one hand up the hard strength of his chest to his face. She put the palm of her hand against his cheek, and immediately he would have drawn away. 'Victoria!' he snapped huskily. 'I realise the events of the past hour have caused us to be emotionally distraught, but there are limits to even my endurance -' 'Are there, Herr Baron?' she asked softly, rubbing her hand against his face. 'Yes,' he bit out harshly, 'and stop calling me Herr Baron!' Then he grasped her hand and turned its palm to his mouth, his eyes surveying her with burning intensity. His lips were hard and warm, and Victoria's lips parted as she looked at him. With an exclamation, he released her hand and putting a hand behind her head brought his mouth to hers. There was no gentleness in his kiss, only passionate demand, and Victoria closed her eyes, sliding her arm around his neck and pressing her body against his urgently. She had always known that there were depths of passion in him that he had never probed and which he was scarcely aware of. But right now he was aroused to a point where his basic inhibitions had been destroyed by the anxiety he had suffered not knowing whether she was dead or alive. The kisses he was bestowing on her willing mouth
were hardening and lengthening, creating a delicious languor within Victoria that took the place of her earlier tension, and she knew she was now the one who was in danger ... After all, he was very much a man, and he was experienced. There was no doubt that Sophie was his daughter, and whether his feelings for his wife had been anything more than a sexual relationship was immaterial. His wife ... Victoria gave a little gasp, and tore herself out of his arms, buttoning her coat with trembling fingers. Her hair which had been secure in its pleat had been loosened by her fall, and was now in complete disorder, and her mouth felt bruised from the pressure of his. She felt sick and dismayed. Was this the kind of creature she was, willing to allow a married man to make love to her? What must he be thinking of the abandoned way she had effected to arouse him? She cast a swift glance in his direction. He was staring bleakly through the windscreen, his face brooding, while he too fastened his coat. His ash-blond hair was ruffled where she had threaded her fingers through it, and it seemed incredible to imagine how violently passionate he had been a few moments ago. Now he was again the Baron von Reichstein, and she felt uncomfortably as though he was already regretting his temporary loss of control. 'So now, fraulein,' he said harshly, 'you have discovered that I am little different from my ancestors. I am capable of behaving ruthlessly and irresponsibly!' He turned on the car's ignition. 'I apologise, of course. My actions were the result of over-charged emotions. You have every reason to despise me.' Victoria digested this. Then she bit her lip until it bled. If he could be distant, so could she.
'There is no need to apologise, Herr Baron,' she said carefully. 'I—I invited your—your attentions. However, nothing more need be said of it. Nowadays such—such an incident— is not regarded as anything more than promiscuity -' 'Genug!' The Baron's tone was violent. 'I do not wish to hear about the so-called permissive society in which you have lived. I have apologised! If it is at all possible, I wish you would forget what happened completely!' Victoria's face muscles felt stiff. 'Yes, Herr Baron,' she managed tautly, and without another word he opened the rear door, allowed Fritz to climb inside, and then turned the car expertly before driving swiftly down the road towards the schloss. As they entered the courtyard of the schloss, he glanced briefly at her. 'We have a house guest,' he informed her coldly. 'A friend Sophie and I met in Hoffenstein. She has come for the weekend. Maria will attend to your forehead, if you will excuse me?' Victoria stared at him in amazement, trying desperately to gather her scattered composure. The Baron's unexpected statement had made her supremely conscious of her own dishevelled state, and whoever this friend might be it seemed obvious that the Baron was telling her politely to go to the kitchen and tidy up before meeting her. She got out of the car rather shakily, and swayed momentarily as she closed her door. Immediately the Baron came round to her side of the car and caught her wrist in his hard fingers. 'Are you all right?' he exclaimed. 'Do you wish me to contact Dr. Zimmerman?' Victoria compressed her lips, shaking her head silently. 'I—I shall be all right. If—if you'll excuse me?' she replied unsteadily, and
wrenching her wrist from his grasp she walked purposefully along the covered way to the kitchen door. 'Fraulein!' he exclaimed angrily, but she did not heed him. Let him use the main entrance. If his house guest was waiting for him in the great hall, Victoria had no desire to meet her in this condition. Indeed, she doubted very much whether she could eat any dinner at all. Maria and Sophie were in the kitchen, talking closely together, and looked up in astonishment as Victoria came in, pale and ghostly, her hair in wild disarray. 'Gut Gott!' exclaimed the old woman. 'Are you all right, fraulein?' Victoria removed her coat with difficulty, swaying on her trembling legs. 'I just feel a little faint, that's all,' she confessed. 'If I could just sit down for a while.' 'Of course.' Maria was warmly sympathetic, and helped the young governess across to the settle by the fire. After making sure she was comfortable, she went away to return with a bowl of warm water with which she proceeded to wash Victoria's face. Victoria submitted weakly to her attentions, and Sophie bobbed about interestedly, watching the proceedings, her eyes curious and suspicious. 'Papa was so mad when he found you were missing,' she began, as soon as Maria took the bowl away. 'Where were you?' Victoria rested her head back tiredly. Helga wouldn't come when I called her,' she said. 'I went to try and catch her and fell down the skislope at Glockenberg.' Sophie's eyes widened. 'Did Papa rescue you?'
'No. I—I was already on my way home when I met your father. Sophie sniffed. 'He's been gone ages. What happened when he met you? Did you have a row?' Her eyes sparkled with malicious enjoyment, and Victoria sighed. This morning Sophie had seemed approachable, but now suddenly she was behaving in her usual fashion. 'We—we just got in the car and came back,' Victoria said at last, hoping the child would not probe too deeply. She felt too raw as yet to consider her emotions dispassionately. She had never felt like this before, and it was a devastating feeling. Sophie frowned. 'I don't believe you. Papa was gone almost an hour. If he had found you on the way home to Reichstein, what took so long?' Victoria sighed. 'All right,' she said heavily. 'We—we argued.' Sophie's face brightened. 'Who won?' 'Oh, nobody won,' cried Victoria helplessly. 'We're not at war, you know.' Sophie wrinkled her nose. 'Oh well, it sounds odd to me. Papa leaving Fraulein Spiegel for so long! I'm sure she was positively livid!' Victoria looked uncomprehendingly at the child. 'Fraulein Spiegel?' she said questioningly. 'Who is that?' Sophie ran her tongue over her lips. 'Ha, wouldn't you like to know!' Victoria lifted her shoulders, too tired to really care. 'Not particularly,' she replied indifferently, and then smiled warmly at
Maria when she presented her with a bowl of delicious beef broth. 'Thank you. This is just what I need.' Sophie watched her spooning soup into her mouth with speculative eyes, and Victoria knew she was dying for Victoria to show some interest in her secret. At last she said: 'We have a house guest.' 'I know.' Victoria swallowed some soup. Sophie frowned. 'Did Papa tell you?' 'Yes.' Sophie looked sulky. 'So you know who Fraulein Spiegel is?' Victoria frowned now. 'No! Oh, I see!' Comprehension dawned. 'Fraulein Spiegel is the house guest.' 'That's right.' Sophie looped her arms round her drawn-up knees. 'She's very beautiful. Are you jealous?' Victoria was horrified. 'Jealous!' she exclaimed. 'Of course. You like Papa, don't you?' Victoria shook her head. 'This morning you said I didn't like him.' 'Papa talked about you while we were out. He said you provided a strong influence for me to be guided by.' Victoria couldn't prevent the surge of colour that flooded her pale cheeks. 'How interesting,' she commented.
Sophie watched her intently. 'He said he thought you were a good teacher.' Victoria lifted her shoulders. 'Good.' Sophie sniffed again. 'He wanted you to come with us. You know that, don't you?' 'He invited me, yes,' said Victoria. 'No, I don't mean that. I mean—he wanted you to come. He didn't care whether I did or not.' Victoria was astounded. 'That's nonsense,' she exclaimed. Sophie's face was brooding. 'No, it's not. Then—then this Fraulein Spiegel joined us and—well, he had no time for me at all.' Victoria heaved a sigh. So that was why Sophie was so disturbed. For some reason she had gained the impression that the outing had not been intended for her pleasure. And now this Spiegel woman was here to distract her father's attention yet again. 'I shouldn't exaggerate things if I were you,' Victoria remarked lightly. 'Parents are very often distracted by other adults. If your mother was here, your father would probably devote himself to her.' Just saying the words turned the knife in Victoria's stomach, and finishing the soup she got to her feet. 'My father hated my mother!' said Sophie suddenly and violently. 'And you know where she is!' Victoria could stand no more of this. 'I'll go to my room, Maria,' she said, to the old housekeeper. 'I don't want anything else to eat. That
soup was marvellous, but I'm very weary and I think I'll have an early night. Will you express my regrets to the Baron ...' 'I'll tell him,' said Sophie, cupping her chin on one hand. 'I shall tell the Herr Baron,' said Maria firmly. 'Now, are you sure you are all right, fraulein?' Victoria nodded and made her way up to her room. It was a relief to close the door and know that she was able to shut out the world and all its problems. Stripping off her clothes, she got into bed, shivering slightly despite the fire, but it was as much from apprehension as anything. She didn't dare to consider the consequences of that interlude in the car, and the prospect of meeting this unknown woman filled her with dismay. Who was she? What part did she play in the Baron's life? Did she also know his wife? Victoria rolled on to her stomach, punching her pillows wearily. Thoughts plagued her and she must put them all aside. She hoped the Baron would not attempt to find out whether she was all right later in the evening when he discovered she had had no dinner. But happily, after a few minutes, immense tiredness took its toll of her body and she slept...
CHAPTER NINE APART from a headache, for which she took a couple of aspirins, Victoria felt quite all right the next morning. She supposed she was extremely lucky to have got off so lightly. So easily could she have been seriously injured. To her surprise, however, Maria knocked at the door of her bedroom just as she was struggling into her clothes and when Victoria admitted her she found was carrying a tray on which reposed a pot of coffee, some hot rolls and curls of butter, and delicious raspberry conserve. She expressed surprise to find Victoria out of bed, and went on: 'The Herr Baron's instructions were that you should remain in bed for the whole of the day, fraulein.' Victoria linked and unlinked her fingers. 'Well, that was— very thoughtful of him, of course, but I would rather get up—if you don't mind?' 'Mir, fraulein!' exclaimed Maria. 'It is not up to me to decide. If you wish to come down, then do so.'. Victoria managed a faint smile. 'Well, as my fire appears to have died during the night, perhaps we could go down now? Besides,' she touched Maria's arm awkwardly, 'I would prefer to be with you. My—my own company does not appeal to me.' Maria's lined face softened. 'Sehr gut, fraulein,' she nodded. 'Come! I will carry the tray.' Gustav was in the kitchen and offered his sympathy at the unfortunate accident she had had the day before. His gruff friendliness was balm to Victoria's bruised spirit, and her spirits lightened considerably.
While she was eating her breakfast, Sophie appeared and stared at Victoria critically. 'You look terrible, fraulein,' she announced callously, standing, hands on hips, in front of her. Victoria raised her eyebrows. 'Thank you,' she responded dryly. 'It's always nice to know you're looking your best.' Sophie wrinkled her nose. 'Well,' she said defensively, 'Papa gave Maria instructions that you were to stay in bed today.' Victoria sipped her coffee. 'I don't like staying in bed when I'm not ill,' she answered. 'Besides, we have some work to do.' Sophie shrugged. 'I don't have to work if I don't want to. Papa said so.' 'Expecting, no doubt, that I would not be around.' 'Perhaps. Anyway, I don't see why I should work at weekends.' Victoria inclined her head. 'All right. We'll look at that material I told you about instead.'. Sophie grimaced. 'Papa and Fraulein Spiegel are going out in the station wagon. I want to go with them.' Victoria sighed. 'Oh, go, then,' she said impatiently, too weary to argue with her. 'You haven't been invited, Sophie,' remarked Maria, kneading dough at the other end of the table. 'Perhaps you ought to accept Fraulein Monroe's suggestion and stay with her.' 'What do you know about it?' flared Sophie. 'Anyway, I don't want to look at any material!'
Victoria bent her head and replaced her coffee cup on the table. Maria looked at her with understanding, and Victoria reflected that the old woman had some sympathy for her after all. Sophie disappeared after that, and Victoria helped Maria to clear the table before walking briskly along to the Baron's study. In dark slacks and sweater, she looked annoyingly fragile, but at least leaving her hair loose had enabled her to hide most of the unbecoming bruise on her forehead. She tapped at the study door, and when there was no reply heaved a sigh of relief. Obviously the Baron did not intend using his study this morning and she and Sophie could use it if Sophie reappeared. A glowing fire sent shadows leaping up the wall, for outside it was grey and dismal and not at all as pleasant as it had been for several days now. There was no sun, and the clouds hung low over the peaks, obscuring their summits from view. Victoria seated herself at the desk and began to make notes from a handbook on prehistoric history. She was lost in a world of mammoths and cave-dwellers when without warning the study door opened and a woman came in. Victoria looked up in surprise, unable for a moment to take in who she might be. And then realisation came to her. This was the Fraulein Spiegel, Sophie had spoken about, the very beautiful Fraulein Spiegel. And in truth, she was beautiful, very beautiful. Her hair was the same silvery shade as the Baron's, and she wore it cut very short so that it framed her head like a cap accentuating the moulded lines of her features. She had dark eyes set in a small piquant face to which she had added only eye make-up. She was wearing a caftan-styled dressing-robe, made of some gorgeous jungle print, and as she was very small and very slender she looked like some exotic reed swaying in the wind.
And if Victoria was surprised to see her, she was infinitely more surprised to see Victoria seated at her host's desk in his study. After a moment's piercing surveillance, she said sharply: 'Wo ist der Baron?' Victoria bit her lip. 'I'm afraid I only speak English,' she said. 'Do you understand?' Fraulein Spiegel frowned. 'Who are you and what are you doing in the Baron's study?' she snapped in perfect English. Victoria was astonished. The fraulein was either an expert linguist or she was most definitely not Austrian. She controlled her curiosity, however, and got to her feet. 'My name is Victoria Monroe. I am Sophie's governess. We use the Baron's study as a schoolroom,' she explained. Fraulein Spiegel's eyes narrowed. 'I see. And where is your employer?' Victoria shrugged awkwardly. 'I have no idea. He usually rises early and is out about the estate at this time.' 'I see.' Fraulein Spiegel bit her lip. 'We are going to visit some friends this morning. I wanted to know what time we are leaving.' 'Oh yes,' said Victoria politely. 'Yes.' Fraulein Spiegel's eyes flickered. 'You're very young to be a governess, aren't you?' 'I'm twenty-four, fraulein,' replied Victoria, rather stiffly. 'As I said—very young.' Fraulein Spiegel raised her eyebrows derisively and Victoria realised that the other woman was not as young as she had at first thought her. She was certainly in her thirties, possibly late thirties, the Baron's own age, in fact.
'So long as I am capable, I don't see that age matters,' Victoria said now. 'And Sophie and I seem to get along very well together.' That was perhaps an exaggeration, she thought unhappily, but justifiable in the circumstances. Fraulein Spiegel smoothed the soft material of her dressing robe. 'Yes, Sophie,' she said, slowly and thoughtfully. 'Rather an annoying child, don't you think?' Victoria coloured now. 'No, I don't,' she denied hotly. 'She's just— well, insecure, that's all. Her—her mother's absence doesn't help, of course.' The older woman frowned. 'Elsa? Hmm ...' She shrugged. 'However, as Elsa will not be coming back, she ought to be getting over it by now.' Victoria's fingers gripped the rim of the desk. 'A—a child needs—a woman,' she ventured carefully. 'Oh, I agree, I agree,' exclaimed Fraulein Spiegel expansively. 'But Sophie is hardly a child now, is she? I mean—she will be going back to boarding school eventually, will she not?' Victoria bent her head. 'I suppose so.' 'And then your job will be finished?' 'Yes, fraulein.' 'Hmm ...' Fraulein Spiegel felt in the pocket of her gown and brought out some cigarettes. 'Do you smoke?' Victoria shook her head. 'No, thank you.'
The other woman lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, savouring the nicotine into her lungs with obvious pleasure. Then she looked again at Victoria. 'What brought a girl like yourself to Reichstein?' she exclaimed. 'Surely there are more amenable places to work!' Victoria compressed her lips. 'I like it here.' 'You didn't answer my question. I said what brought you here.' 'Nothing brought me here except the position,' replied Victoria tautly. Fraulein Spiegel looked at her through a veil of smoke. 'No? You didn't perhaps meet the handsome Baron and decide you had a chance to become the next Baroness?' Victoria's cheeks burned. 'Of course not.' Fraulein Spiegel smiled unpleasantly. 'But from your attitude I would say that possibly that idea has occurred to you since.' 'Don't be silly.' Victoria was impatient. 'Besides, the Baron already has a wife!' Fraulein Spiegel gave a brief laugh. 'Sophie has a mother,' she amended harshly. 'That's quite a different thing!' Victoria stared at her in bewilderment. Her words didn't make sense and they hung in the air between them for a long silent moment. Then, without warning, Sophie squeezed past Fraulein Spiegel and entered the study, looking broodingly at them both. Her intervention broke the silence, but Victoria wondered with a sinking sense of anxiety exactly how long Sophie had been outside possibly listening to their conversation.
Now she perched on the corner of the desk and looked at Fraulein Spiegel. 'Aren't you dressed yet?' she asked scornfully. 'Papa doesn't like slovenliness!' 'Sophie!' Victoria's voice was jerky. 'Apologise at once.' Sophie grimaced. 'Why? It's true. She's not dressed, is she?' Fraulein Spiegel tapped ash delicately into an ashtray. 'Listen, you impertinent little minx, the gown I am presently wearing is called a housecoat, and therefore it can be worn about the house!' Sophie shrugged. 'This isn't a house. It's a schloss!' The older woman gave a gesture of distaste. 'I have no intention of bandying words with you, my child. I have better things to occupy my time. Fraulein Monroe! Will you ask the Baron to come and see me when he returns? I shall be in my room.' 'Yes, fraulein!' Victoria answered automatically, and Fraulein Spiegel disappeared in a aura of cigarette smoke and exotic perfume. After she had gone, Sophie slid off the desk and closed the door, looking challengingly at Victoria. 'You were very rude,' said Victoria quietly, sitting down. Quite honestly, she felt little desire to talk to Sophie right now. She had too many things to think about, and the implications of Fraulein Spiegel's words could not be denied. What did it all mean? Had the Baron a wife, or hadn't he? And if he had not, who was Sophie's mother? And where was she now? It didn't seem possible that a man as honourable as the Baron could have seduced some village girl and then taken the child and adopted her as his daughter. 'I don't like her,' said Sophie moodily. 'And she doesn't like me, you know that.'
'I know no such thing!' exclaimed Victoria. 'Oh, for heaven's sake, Sophie, stop touching that ink, you're getting it all over your fingers.' Sophie exhaled loudly. Then she examined her fingers. 'What are you doing here, anyway? I told you I wasn't going to work today.' Victoria controlled her temper. 'I hesitate to remind you, Sophie, but if I decide to work, we will work, do you understand?' Sophie sniffed. 'Oh, don't get on your high horse! I know you can twist Papa round your little finger!' Victoria was flabbergasted. 'That's not true!' she said, appalled. 'I think it is.' Sophie lounged into a chair. Then she put her head on one side. 'Fraulein Spiegel doesn't like you either.' Victoria pushed her books aside. 'Will you stop behaving like an amateur psychologist. You know absolutely nothing about either your father's, or Fraulein Spiegel's, feelings, and you're just trying to create trouble! Well, so far as I am concerned, I'm wise to your little machinations, so stop it!' Sophie grimaced, draping her legs over the arm of the chair. 'You always treat me like a child! I'm not, you know. I'm almost ten. In India girls get married younger than me and they have babies when they're only about fourteen—or younger even!' 'This is not India,' Victoria reminded her dryly. 'I know. But what happens in one place can happen in another!' Sophie fluttered her eyelashes experimentally. 'Did you have many boy-friends when you were in England? When you were a teenager?' Victoria sighed. 'Some,' she admitted guardedly.
'Have you ever had a baby?' 'Of course not!' Sophie shrugged indifferently. 'Do you have to be married to have babies?' she asked curiously. Victoria got abruptly to her feet. 'I don't think we need discuss it right now,' she said quellingly. Sophie widened her eyes. 'Why? I'm interested. I don't think my mother was married to my father when she had me!' 'Sophie!' Victoria was angry. Sophie looked indignant. 'I'm not telling lies.' 'I don't care whether you are or not, I just don't want to hear about it!' Sophie shrugged. 'I don't see why not. Unless you're afraid my father -' Victoria's fingers gripped the desk so hard they hurt. 'I've told you before, Sophie;' she snapped, 'I am not afraid of your father!' 'What is going on here?' The harsh bleak tones brought Sophie hastily up out of her chair, while Victoria trembled slightly and was glad of the steady support of the desk. The Baron gave her a brief glance, and then looked at his daughter. 'Well?' he said. 'Nothing, Papa.' Sophie spread her hands appealingly. 'We—we— were just discussing social problems, that's all.'
Victoria felt a smile tugging at her lips. She sighed. There was something about Sophie that was at once annoying and yet amusing. The Baron swung round on Victoria. 'Is this true, fraulein?' Victoria's colour deepened. He must have heard what was being said as he entered the room and he was deliberately challenging her to deny it. 'It is nothing I can't handle, Herr Baron,' she answered at last. 'By the way, Fraulein Spiegel has been looking for you. She told me to ask you if you would go and see her on your return. She is in her room.' Victoria bent her head and shuffled the papers on the desk. The Baron gave her his full attention. 'And you, fraulein,' he said sharply. 'What are you doing here? I gave instructions to Maria that you should be allowed to remain in bed today.' He shook his head. 'I should have realised, of course, that any command of mine was tantamount to inviting your perversity!' Victoria looked up. 'I'm perfectly all right, Herr Baron. Maria delivered your message, but I prefer to be up and about.' 'Nevertheless, I would have preferred you to take the rest!' he snapped. 'I have asked Dr. Zimmerman to look in on you later.' Victoria made an exasperated gesture. 'There was no need. I'm not ill!' The Baron frowned. 'You could have had concussion!' 'I doubt it.' Victoria clenched her fists. Talking to him like this was nerve-racking. She kept remembering the feel of his hands on her throat and the hard passionate demand of his mouth on hers. Was he able to dismiss what had happened so indifferently? Could he really be as emotionless as he would have her believe? She stared at him
searchingly. What thoughts were going on behind that cold facade? And where did Fraulein Spiegel come in? He had said she was a friend, and yet Victoria sensed that the other woman displayed some proprietorial interest in him. Was it returned? Exactly what did their relationship involve that she could invite him to her room so casually? Now the Baron glanced round at Sophie. 'Go and tell Fraulein Spiegel that I shall be ready to leave in thirty minutes. Then you may get ready also.' Sophie's face brightened. 'You mean I'm going, too?' 'Of course.' 'Whoopee!' Sophie whirled round excitedly, at once only an excited child eager for an outing. The Baron followed her to the door and after she had gone dancing off along the corridor he closed the door and came back to Victoria. Leaning on the desk, he regarded her with a piercing intensity. 'Now,' he said softly, 'are you really feeling well? I only asked that you should remain in bed for your own welfare.' Victoria compressed her lips. 'That was very kind of you, Herr Baron,' she murmured stiffly. The Baron straightened abruptly. 'I wish that you would not call me that!' he said harshly. Victoria's breathing was jerky. 'What would you have me call you?' she queried unevenly. 'Sir?' 'My name is Horst!' he said briefly. 'As you well know.'
Victoria turned away from the devastating scrutiny of that blue gaze. 'You know I could not possibly call you that,' she replied chokingly. She heard his muttered exclamation, and then he said: 'We have to talk! About last night.' Victoria wet her dry lips with her tongue. 'You told me to try and forget what happened,' she reminded him. 'And can you?' he asked hoarsely. Victoria bent her head. 'I shall try to do so, Herr Baron.' 'Victoria!' His voice was husky. 'Please. Look at me!' Her whole body was a mass of nerves and sensations and she knew her most sensible course of action would be to walk out of this room here and now before anything more devastating happened. When she did not look round she heard him move and a few seconds later she realised he had come round the desk to stand right behind her. She trembled slightly, refusing to turn to him. He had no right to play with her emotions like this. What kind of a woman did he think she was? 'I only want to talk to you,' he said fiercely. 'I realise what I am doing, but I can't stop myself!' His final words were violent with selfloathing. Victoria hesitated, and then she turned slowly. He was so close she could see the thick length of his lashes and distinguish the tiny lines beside his eyes. She wanted to touch him so badly it hurt, and it was at once a pleasure and a pain to be this intimate with him. 'Well?' she said, with remarkable composure considering the chaotic turmoil of her thoughts.
He seemed to be finding it difficult to know where to begin. He ran a hand round the back of his neck impatiently, and then said: 'I want you to know I am not in the habit of indulging in-—well— emotional involvements with—with—Sophie's governesses -' Victoria frowned. 'Why are you telling me that?' He uttered an exclamation. 'Surely it's obvious!' he snapped harshly. 'You know as well as I do that you are the third governess we have employed for Sophie.' Victoria twisted her hands together. 'You mean you thought I might attribute their resignation to your unwanted attentions?' 'Exactly.' He raked a hand through his hair. Victoria shook her head. Such a possibility had not even crossed her mind. She had known from the outset that the Baron was not a man to whom sexual encounters were a game to be played. 'In addition,' he went on, with obvious reluctance, 'your influence on Sophie during these past three weeks has clearly improved her mental stimulation, and while I know you will say there is still much to be achieved with her, the first and most important step has been taken.' He sighed. 'That is why it is necessary that I should endeavour to explain my unforgivable behaviour. I should hate you to feel that you must resign because of me.' Victoria pressed a hand to her stomach. 'Resign, Herr Baron?' 'Of course?' He passed a hand over his eyes wearily. 'I should never forgive myself if through my despicable behaviour Sophie was deprived of the first chance she has had to learn from someone she respects and admires.'
Victoria swallowed hard. It was apparent now that the Baron deeply regretted his impulsive actions and his main fears were that she might decide to leave before her job was done. If his own emotions had been disturbed, more, were still disturbed, this was something he could live with, so long as Victoria realised that such an incident would never be repeated. In a way, he was using her to prevent any further emotive confrontations. By putting her on her guard, he was removing all doubts from her mind that his responses were anything more than a physical awareness. Now Victoria took a step back away from him. 'You need have no fears on that score, Herr Baron. I'm as determined as you are that Sophie should be given the opportunity to become a normal child again. As for her respect and admiration—I am not convinced I have those. Perhaps something akin to grudging liking is nearer the mark.' He stared at her intently. 'I have angered you,' he said perceptively. Victoria sighed. 'You have not. I just wish you would go and let me get on with what I have to do,' she replied shortly. 'Besides,' there was bitterness in her tone, 'no doubt Fraulein Spiegel is waiting for you.' He held her eyes with his. 'Fraulein Spiegel means nothing to me. She is a friend, no more. Years ago she used to live in Reichstein. In those days it was thought that we were eminently suited to one another, and it was even thought that we might marry. But nothing came of it, and Marguerite went to work in your country. She is a fashion designer, a very successful one, I believe.' Victoria raised her shoulders indifferently. 'That is of no interest to me, Herr Baron,' she said, almost insolently. 'Isn't it?' he asked coldly.
Victoria rubbed her nose with her forefinger. 'How could it be? I am not your keeper. You have just explained that what took place between us was the unfortunate outcome of circumstances. How could your—your other affairs concern me?' His eyes were forbidding. 'You are deliberately trying to infuriate me, Victoria!' She stared at him impatiently. 'Why don't you go then? Why are we talking here? To what purpose? Do you require some kind of absolution from me so that you can return to your wife with an easy mind -' 'Be still!' His face was pale beneath the tan. 'I have no wife!' Victoria's face registered her incredulity. He had no wife! What was that supposed to mean? That Sophie was right? That her mother had never been married to her father? That her speculation about the possibility of his having had an affair with one of the village girls had some basis in fact? She was completely bewildered. Now she could only stand and look at him helplessly, wishing she had never goaded him to this point. There was a defeated weariness about his expression that tore her heart, and yet she didn't know how to erase that look from his face. She wanted to say so many things, there were so many questions she required answers to, but she could say nothing. The Baron drew himself up to his full height and turning walked across the room to the door. There he halted, and turned and looked at her. 'So now you know, fraulein,' he said harshly. 'Your curiosity about Sophie's mother has been appeased!' Victoria shook her head confusedly. 'You mean Sophie's mother is dead?' she asked tentatively.
The Baron's eyes narrowed bleakly. 'Oh, nothing so simple, fraulein,' he replied coldly. 'So fax as I know she is alive and well and living in Stuttgart!' And without giving her chance to query this he went out, slamming the door with controlled violence.
CHAPTER TEN THE day went terribly slowly. Maria informed Victoria that the Baron and his guest and Sophie would not be back until dinner time and in consequence she had long hours to fill when her mind was troubled with conflicting anxieties. It was impossible to put what the Baron had said out of her mind, and she could not concentrate on what she was doing with any degree of consistency. The memory of those last few moments went round in her head until she thought she was going out of her mind. Finally she left the written task she had set herself and went into the great hall, spending several inconsequential minutes playing with the dogs. It was such a relief to escape from the confusion of her reasoning and allow pure physical sensation to take the ascendant. The sound of a car entering the courtyard brought her to her feet, and she ran to the window to see who it was. It was Conrad Zimmerman's car, and he saw her looking out and waved as he had done before. But this time Victoria didn't stop to wonder whether she ought to entertain him in the Baron's absence, she was too relieved to have someone to talk to, someone to distract her from her single-minded miasma. She opened the door as he reached it, and he smiled at her welcoming countenance. .'Well, fraulein,' he said, in imitation of the Baron's deep tones, 'what are you doing here; waiting for some man?' Victoria smiled. 'Don't be silly, Conrad. Come on in, it's freezing out there. The Baron told me he'd asked you to call. There was no need professionally. I'm perfectly all right.' Conrad closed the door. 'Is that so? Whatever were you doing climbing about the Glockenberg?'
Victoria compressed her lips. 'Trying to grab Helga. She refused to come when I called and I tried to catch her.' 'I see.' He nodded, and stood his case down on the table. 'Well, as I am here, I shall take a look at the damage. And then perhaps Maria will invite me to stay for lunch.' Victoria frowned. 'What about your other patients?' 'Unless an emergency happens, which I do not expect, I am free for a couple of hours,' he replied, removing his overcoat. 'I must say I expected a warmer welcome.' Victoria looked rueful. 'I'm sorry. It's just that—well, I don't feel free to offer you hospitality when I'm only an employee here.' Conrad shook his head. 'Never mind. Maria will permit me. I have had lunch here many times when Horst has been away for the day.' He opened his case. 'Now—let me see your head.' Conrad stayed until the middle of the afternoon, sitting in the kitchen with the two women and regaling them with amusing anecdotes about his patients. He was a nice man, thought Victoria, wondering why it was she seemed doomed to become involved with those who were something else. After he had gone, she stayed with Maria, fingering the polished surface of the dresser and lifting a shining saucepan and examining her face in it absorbedly. Then she turned, and said: 'Maria, who is Sophie's mother?' Maria stood as though rooted to the spot for a moment. 'Ach,' she said at last, 'it is nothing to do with me, fraulein.'
Victoria sighed. 'Why all this mystery? Everyone I ask avoids talking about the woman. Why? What happened?' Maria moved to the table, picking up a plate and smoothing its surface with her gnarled fingers. 'Why don't you ask the Baron, fraulein?' she asked softly. Victoria sighed again. 'This morning the Baron told me Sophie's mother was living in Stuttgart. Is that right?' 'If the Herr Baron says it is so, it is so,' intoned Maria. 'He also said he had no wife.' 'That is correct, fraulein.' 'Yet when I asked you on my arrival where the Baroness was, you said she was not here, implying that she was somewhere else.' 'That is so,' nodded Maria. 'The Baroness is the mother of the Baron. She comes to Reichstein in the summer, but in the winter it is too cold for her. She stays with the Baron's sister in Vienna.' Victoria digested this slowly. So the Baron had a mother and a sister. Somehow she had imagined he was the last of his family, apart from Sophie, of course. 'I see,' she said at last. 'So Sophie's mother was never the Baroness.' 'Ach, I did not say that, fraulein.' 'You mean they're divorced?' Maria's face was annoyed suddenly. 'Oh, of course not! The Herr Baron would never stand for a divorce.'
Victoria tried to be patient. 'So they were never married,' she exclaimed. 'Oh yes, fraulein, they were married. In the beautiful little church on the outskirts of the village. You have seen it, ja? It was a white wedding; so beautiful; she with her long hair twined with orange blossom, and wearing a dress of Venetian lace! So beautiful, but such a waste!' Maria shook her head in bitter reminiscence. Victoria frowned. 'I think you're deliberately trying to confuse me, Maria,' she exclaimed helplessly. Maria raised her eyebrows. 'Perhaps I am, fraulein, perhaps I am.' She shrugged. 'In any event the Baron has not been the same man since.' Victoria turned away, puzzling over what Maria had said. It seemed plain from her attitude that she felt she had said too much already, but Victoria could scarcely guess the rest. She could speculate, of course. Find reasons why they should not be legally married. But why, oh, why couldn't she just let it be? It was not her concern. One thing was, however. 'Maria,' she said tentatively, 'does the Baron dislike long hair?' It sounded so ridiculous put like that, and she waited hesitantly. Maria looked up, her face harsh. 'Sophie's mother's hair was long,' she said. 'I think the Herr Baron thinks of her when he sees long hair!' For the next few days Victoria saw little of the Baron. Fraulein Spiegel did not leave in two days as had been expected and if her reasons for staying were obscure to Victoria they were not so to Sophie.
'She is a serpent, that woman,' she announced one afternoon as Victoria was busy marking an essay she had composed. Victoria looked up in surprise. Sophie was scowling across at her, her work temporarily forgotten. 'I presume you are not talking about me,' she commented lightly. Sophie grimaced. 'Of course not. You know who I'm talking about. That Spiegel!' Victoria laid down her pen. How can you make such sweeping judgements, Sophie?' she enquired mildly. 'You hardly know the woman.' Sophie sniffed. 'I know that she's only staying at Reichstein because she thinks Papa will fall in love with her and marry her.' Victoria quelled the surge of pain the child's words stirred in her. 'I think you're being unnecessarily premature, Sophie,' she said. 'I'm quite sure Fraulein Spiegel is not at all the kind of person to be content with the isolated kind of life we live here at Reichstein. She is much more a social creature. Besides, there's her work to consider.' Sophie heaved a sigh. 'But don't you see,' she exclaimed, scornfully, 'staying at Reichstein never occurs to her. She probably expects Papa to sell up and go and live with her in Vienna, or somewhere like that.' Victoria wet her dry lips with her tongue. 'I'm quite sure your father would consider doing no such thing. He loves Reichstein. This is his home, his inheritance! I can't imagine your father being influenced to sell Reichstein by any woman.' Sophie frowned. 'Do you think not?' 'Of course. Heavens, if he had wanted to sell, he could have done so years ago.'
'I know, but there was no Fraulein Spiegel then.' 'Of course there was. Your father told me that he has known Fraulein Spiegel for many years, since before—since before he married—your mother.' Sophie's face darkened. 'He didn't marry my mother.' Victoria gave an impatient exclamation. 'Of course he did. Maria told me.' Sophie sniffled again. 'But it wasn't a proper wedding,' she said unhappily. 'My mother was already married, you see. To someone else.' Victoria felt the colour drain out of her face. 'Oh,' she said inadequately. Sophie hunched her shoulders. 'I don't suppose Maria told you that, did she?' Victoria shook her head silently. 'I thought not. Anyway...' Sophie bent her head and studied her fingernails, 'I don't care. I don't need anybody!' Victoria rose to her feet. 'Don't dramatise yourself, Sophie,' she advised. 'Be thankful you have at least one parent.' Sophie shook her head. 'Have I?' she asked moodily, and Victoria sat down again, the child's revelations going round and round in her head. If what Sophie had said was true, and there was no reason to suppose it was not, it explained so many things. So many half-hinted allusions became hard facts and she began to understand the problems the Baron had with his daughter. It was unfortunate really
that she was aware of what had happened. It would have been easier to explain to an older child. She was far too imaginative at the moment to be trusted with such knowledge. It brought one to the obvious question: what place did Sophie imagine she held in this household? And why was her mother's earlier marriage not dissolved when it was discovered and Sophie's parents reunited? 'Tell me, Sophie,' she said now, 'how long have you known about your mother? Who told you?' Sophie looked up in surprise. 'Why, she did, of course. She never liked me, she never wanted me. She told me so. I was always a nuisance, getting in her way...' She broke off as though composing herself, and then continued: 'I once broke a perfume bottle of hers. Like that one of yours I dropped. Only yours wouldn't break. Hers did. There wasn't much perfume in it, but she was furious. I didn't do it on purpose, I told her that, but she never listened to me. She called me all sorts of things, horrible names! I didn't know what half of them meant, but afterwards I looked them up. I think it was then I began to realise that we weren't a normal family...' 'And did you tell your father? I mean—did he know how your mother treated you?' Sophie shrugged. 'I expect so. I don't know. He kept out of the way. Elsa used to rant and rave at him, too. She made his life miserable, I could see that. Sometimes—sometimes I wished she would go away and stay away, but she always came back.' 'Do you think she'll come back now?' Sophie tugged at one of her plaits. 'I don't think so. I hope not.' Victoria bent her head. She was gradually, very gradually, beginning to understand so many things about Sophie.
Sophie herself seemed to realise she was being too expansive, too friendly towards this governess, who was after all just another stranger. With a change of mood, she said: 'Anyway, like I said, Papa disposed of her!' Victoria sighed. 'By locking her in the north tower, I suppose.' 'Yes!' Sophie tossed her head. Victoria uttered an exclamation of disgust. 'Oh, honestly, Sophie, I thought you knew me better than that! You don't imagine I believe all that nonsense, do you? You know you're making the whole thing up just to try and shock me. Can't you see how ridiculous it sounds from a girl of your age? You're past the age for making up fairy stories, Sophie. Didn't you tell me yourself you're almost an adolescent? Well, adolescents don't romance about things like you do.' Sophie looked mutinous. 'I'm not romancing.' 'Yes, you are.' Victoria shook her head. Sophie gave her an angry glare. 'Well, anyway, that's what I should have done with her! I wouldn't have let her get away without punishment!' 'Now we're getting nearer the truth, aren't we? That's what you would like to have done, isn't it? So you made up this ridiculous story for your own amusement. Oh, Sophie, when will you learn that we can't solve our problems by fighting them or locking them up? We must learn to face life as it is and accept it as something less than perfect! Nobody is without problems, but everybody has someone to whom they can take their troubles and try to resolve them.' Sophie stared at her for a moment, and then hung her head. 'It's all right for you,' she said. 'You're legitimate! You belong!'
Victoria stared back, 'And so are you, Sophie,' she exclaimed impatiently. 'Whatever gave you the idea that you were not?' But even as she said the words, Victoria wondered herself. Who was she to make sweeping statements any more than Sophie? She knew less of what had happened than the child, and while her instincts told her that it must be so, she had no proof. That would have to come from the Baron. And did the Baron realise what thoughts Sophie was harbouring? Or did he imagine Sophie was too young to understand and therefore had failed to reassure her about these things? Victoria didn't know. She only knew that Sophie's problems had begun long before her mother's departure and somehow the Baron must be told. But could she tell him, feeling as she did about him? For it was obvious, to the least perceptive of minds, that her involvement with the Baron Horst von Reichstein did not stop with his daughter. During the next couple of days Victoria endeavoured to find an opportunity to speak alone with her employer, but to no avail. Always Marguerite Spiegel thrust her unwelcome presence between them, and in any case it seemed apparent from the Baron's attitude that he had no particular desire to speak alone with his daughter's governess. Maybe he considered her probing into his affairs had gone far enough and he was using the only weapon in his power to keep her at a distance: that of his authority. She speculated that he was probably glad of the other woman's presence in this instance, for without her company Victoria could have had a dozen opportunities presented to her. However, when it became obvious that Marguerite was to stay indefinitely, Victoria knew she must make an effort to speak to him. She went to his study one evening, just after dinner, when she knew Marguerite Spiegel would be present, but she hoped the Baron might allow her a few moments' private conversation.
When she entered the study after his bidding, she found the older woman lounging in a chair by the fire while the Baron dealt with some papers at his desk. Victoria couldn't understand why Marguerite should continue to stay at Reichstein. There was so little here to occupy her time, and her bored expression signified her lack of amusement. Unless, as Sophie had suggested, Marguerite did intend becoming the future Baroness von Reichstein. Only in those circumstances could Victoria find any reasonable explanation for her prolonged visit. Her heart twisted. Surely after all he had said, the Baron could not seriously be considering selling the schloss and its estate. Now he looked up and his eyes were guarded. 'Yes,' he said, briefly. 'What is it, fraulein?' Victoria closed the door. 'I'd like to speak to you, Herr Baron, in private,' she added. The Baron glanced across at Marguerite Spiegel. 'Indeed? Surely whatever you have to say can be said in front of Fraulein Spiegel?' Victoria glanced at the other woman. 'Actually, I'd rather speak to you alone, Herr Baron,' she persisted. 'It—it is rather important.' The Baron had risen from his desk at her entrance and now came round to stand regarding her intently. 'Could it not wait until the morning, fraulein?' he queried chillingly. 'No, it could not.' Victoria was very nervous. 'I've tried, without success, to speak to you for two days. I can't wait any longer.' Fraulein Spiegel gave her an amused stare. 'Heavens, child, what is it?' she exclaimed. 'I'm vastly curious!'
'Marguerite!' Now the Baron spoke. 'Obviously Fraulein Monroe has some matter of Sophie's schooling to discuss with me. Would you mind leaving us for a few minutes? I feel whatever it is, it is being grossly over-exaggerated, but Fraulein Monroe will not speak while you are here.' Victoria took several deep breaths to calm herself. How dared he speak so sardonically about something that was so important? Marguerite Spiegel got reluctantly to her feet. 'Well, Horst, if you insist, of course I'll go. But why Fraulein Monroe must choose to make so dramatic an instance out of it, I cannot imagine.' Victoria took all this in silence. If she lost her temper now she would lose everything. At all costs, she must remain calm, for Sophie's sake. After Marguerite had gone, the Baron turned to Victoria, and said: 'Won't you sit down, fraulein. You look cold.' Victoria registered his formality of speech and shook her head. 'Thank you, I prefer to stand, Herr Baron.' 'Well now,' he leaned back against his desk, arms folded, 'what is this so urgent matter you wish to discuss with me?' 'It's about Sophie.' 'I rather thought it might be.' 'No, you don't understand. At least, it's not about her school work.' 'No?' He frowned. 'You mean she has been naughty again?' 'No.' Victoria sighed. 'Sophie and I get along very well. I think she's come to, accept me for what I am. No, this concerns something else:
Sophie's -' She hesitated, and then, with a rush she said: 'Sophie's mother.' At once she saw the bleak mask of hauteur descend upon his features. 'I have repeatedly told you, fraulein, I do not wish you to become involved in my personal affairs -' 'Oh, for heaven's sake!' Victoria lost her patience. 'I am involved, can't you see that? I don't care about your personal affairs as such, I just want to help Sophie, and right now I'm not sure whether you are half aware of her problems.' The Baron's fists clenched. 'Oh yes, fraulein. And you are, I take it.' 'Yes, I am. I know what's wrong with Sophie. I don't say I know entirely how to put it right, but I do know what makes her do and say the things she does.' 'In a little under a month you have achieved so much, fraulein}' His tone was coldly sardonic. 'How did you come to such a devastating conclusion?' Victoria swept back her hair with one hand. 'Not easily, Herr Baron, and not by making mock of her as you appear to be doing with me.' His eyes darkened. 'Come, fraulein, what have you learned?' Victoria coloured. 'Do you know that Sophie knows about her mother being married when she married you?' There, it was said. His nostrils flared slightly. 'You have indeed been digging deeply, fraulein.' 'No, I haven't. I've just been listening to Sophie and trying to make sense out of her reasoning.'
The Baron sighed suddenly, wearily. 'Of course Sophie must know about her mother,' he said heavily. 'She was six or so when it all came out. Old enough to understand and yet too young to assimilate the facts.' Victoria chewed her lower lip. 'There are things she believes that plague her mind. Deep down, she is not even sure she is your daughter.' The Baron stared at her intently. 'Not my daughter?' he echoed blankly. 'Oh yes, fraulein, Sophie is my daughter. Only my daughter.' Victoria shook her head. 'Then perhaps you ought to tell her so, Herr Baron.' 'What do you mean?' Victoria spread her hands. 'This place—the atmosphere— the secrecy, almost. I sensed it when I came, and a child must sense it, living here. What have you to be ashamed of, Horst? What skeleton is hiding in your past that you must continually deny the frankness of honesty?' His name came naturally to her lips, but neither of them noticed it. He reached for a cigar, putting it between his teeth almost automatically. 'You do not understand, Victoria. I am a proud man, for my sins, I must admit it. I cannot admit what is past.' 'But you must, don't you see? For Sophie's sake you must destroy this myth that is torturing her little mind!' He raked a hand through his hair. 'And you, Victoria? Are you curious, too?' Victoria's colour deepened. 'Of course.'
'I warn you, it is not a pleasant story. My wife—Sophie's mother, that is, was not a pleasant woman.' He lit his cigar slowly. 'She was a young girl at the time of the American occupation of Germany. And like many other German girls, she became infatuated with an American officer. Of course, the inevitable happened and she became pregnant!' This part of the story was obviously distasteful to him, and he walked to the window, staring out on the darkened, snow- covered slopes. 'The officer accepted responsibility when it was thrust upon him and they were married. It was a civil ceremony, a hole-andcorner affair, that obviously Elsa did not consider binding. It was, of course, although when she lost the baby a few weeks later, she chose to think otherwise. When the young American returned to his own country, she refused to accompany him, preferring the easy, undemanding existence she was used to. Besides, she was young, and Germany was her home. Don't get me wrong, I am not trying to make excuses for her. She was—what you would call—fond of having a good time! She did not want to be married—to have responsibilities.' He flicked ash into the fire and moved restlessly about the room. 'God knows what kind of a life she led during the years that followed. It seems obvious now that she was never the kind of woman to be content with only one man.' He shook his head. 'I was a fool! When I met her in Vienna eleven years ago, I looked at the wrapping—not at what was within. She was a beautiful woman, and I was very susceptible. She flattered my ego, and I suppose she found the idea of becoming a Baroness very appealing. Even so, I am convinced that had she known the rigours of our life here at Reichstein, she would have thought twice. In any event, she did not reveal her earlier marriage to me, and we were married at the church in the village. From the very beginning she hated the schloss, the isolation, our spartan way of life, everything! She even hated motherhood when it was thrust upon her.' He spoke harshly, and Victoria felt an immense sense of compassion for the pain he must have suffered in those days.
'Our marriage was a disaster, I soon realised that. We were not suited to one another. She was very materialistic, always begging me to sell up and move to the city, but when I refused she began leaving us, Sophie and me, and taking trips to visit her friends in Vienna and Stuttgart. I do not know what she got up to there, I did not care, I was sick of the whole business. And then, one day, a man came to Reichstein looking for Elsa. It was the American she had married. He had met someone in the States, someone he loved and wanted to marry, but unlike Elsa he knew he must be free before he married again.' He turned back to her. 'I will not go into the sordid details of the confrontation that took place. Let it suffice that Elsa took the opportunity that was offered and escaped from a life she despised and abhorred.' 'But what about Sophie?' Victoria could not prevent the words. The Baron gave an eloquent gesture. 'Elsa never cared for Sophie. Motherhood did not appeal to her. She had no instincts of that kind. Sophie was nothing but an encumbrance to be suffered.' Victoria sank down into a chair. 'How terrible!' He shrugged. 'What more is there to say? Elsa left and as far as I am aware she is living in Stuttgart. We never see one another, and she has never expressed any desire to see Sophie.' Victoria looked up. 'You've never wanted to marry again?' The Baron uttered a harsh laugh. 'Marry, Victoria! You must be joking! What woman could be asked to share the mess of my life? To take responsibility for my—shall I say—illegitimate offspring!' 'Horst -' Victoria uttered a cry.
'Oh, don't worry,' he said bitterly. 'Sophie is mine. I adopted her— legally. I could not take the chance that one day Elsa might change her mind and try to take her from me. Sophie is all I have left.' Victoria compressed her lips. 'Does—does Sophie know you adopted her? That you are legally her father?' The Baron frowned. 'Does she need to know?' 'Oh yes!' Victoria clasped her hands. 'Somehow'—she could not mention Elsa in this connection—'somehow, she believes she is without parents in the real sense of the word. She loves you, she adores you, but she is afraid Elsa might come back. She—she understands, and yet she doesn't understand. And your attitude is making it so much worse. To a child a suspicion—an imaginary fear—can cause the most dreadful kind of delinquency.' The Baron ran a hand over his forehead. 'Can this be true? Can Sophie actually believe there is any doubt?' 'Have you ever discussed it with her?' 'Of course not.' 'Why not?' 'Because she's too young -' 'But she's not, can't you see? Tell her! Make her secure! Give her the solidity of knowing what she has—and explain why it happened as it did. It's not her fault, and yet she feels responsible, can't you see that?' He gave a heavy sigh. 'It seems I see very little, Victoria,' he replied bleakly. 'If I can live in ignorance all these years and in four short weeks you can accomplish so much!'
'They say the outsider sees most of the game,' responded Victoria, feeling suddenly bereft. Here she was, making life bearable for Sophie and her father, while her own life was rapidly becoming unbearable. With a helpless gesture, she got to her feet. 'I must go. Fraulein Spiegel will be wondering whatever is going on.' The Baron put out a hand to prevent her and then dropped it again. 'I must thank you,' he said, rather stiffly. 'There's no need,' she answered, equally stiffly, and before he could say anything more she left him.
CHAPTER ELEVEN THE following morning Victoria was eating her breakfast in the kitchen when she heard the sound of a car entering the courtyard. She looked up at Maria and said: 'Who is that? Dr. Zimmerman?' Maria went to the window. 'No, fraulein, it is a stranger. Perhaps someone for Fraulein Spiegel. Let us hope so.' There was dryness in her tones. Victoria cupped her hands round her coffee cup and heard the heavy bang of the knocker on the hall door. Maria muttered something not very complimentary, and then went to open it. Victoria finished her coffee and was clearing the table when Maria came back. 'Ach, fraulein,' she exclaimed, 'I could have done that. The gentleman is in the hall. He says he is a friend of yours.' Victoria's mouth went dry. 'A friend of mine?' she echoed weakly. 'Did—did he give his name?' 'Er—Hammond, I think, fraulein,' murmured Maria thoughtfully. 'Would that be right?' Meredith! Victoria's heart sank. So he had found her after ,all. And at a time when she was least equipped to cope with him. She stood, as though carved of stone, and Maria looked at her with some concern. 'Is something wrong, fraulein?' Victoria heaved a sigh. 'Everything,' she said dully. 'Why?' Maria frowned. 'You are afraid of this man?' 'Not afraid, no. I just—wish he hadn't come.'
Maria hesitated. 'I could tell him you were indisposed. That you could not see him.' Victoria shook her head. 'He would only come back again until I did see him, thank you, Maria. No, I must go.' She bit her lip. 'Where is the Baron?' 'Out, I think, fraulein. He took Sophie with him, about an hour ago.' Victoria nodded. Of course. He would need to take the child away from the house and the influence of Fraulein Spiegel to be alone with her. She hoped desperately that Sophie responded in the way she believed. With heavy steps, Victoria made her way to the hall. But as she opened the hall door she heard voices, and when she went in she saw that Meredith was not alone, Marguerite Spiegel was with him. They were talking together like old friends, but Meredith broke off when he saw Victoria and came striding across the room to her side, grasping her shoulders tightly. 'My God,' he muttered fiercely, 'I could kill you for walking out on me like that! Have you any idea of the trouble I've had trying to find you? Stumped at every turn by that old harridan, your godmother!' Victoria wrenched herself out of his grasp. 'My godmother is not an old harridan,' she exclaimed angrily. 'And I honestly don't know why you've come looking for me. We're through, finished! I thought I made that very plain.' 'No one finishes with Meredith G. Hammond,' he snapped impatiently. Then more calmly: 'Victoria, love, you don't mean this. Okay, so I was a heel keeping my marriage a secret like that, but good God! I'm not a saint, and I did— no, do—love you.'
'Well, I'm sorry, Meredith, I don't love you. I thought I did for a while, but I was mistaken.' Meredith gave an angry snort. Then he turned to Marguerite Spiegel. 'Hey, Marguerite, you hear that? She doesn't love me any more. Me, who've spent pounds and pounds on finding her, and now she doesn't want me.' His southern American accent was suddenly very pronounced. Marguerite Spiegel's eyes narrowed. 'Maybe the handsome Baron is to blame, Merry,' she remarked, leaving Victoria in no doubt that she had known him before this meeting. 'Handsome Baron, what the hell!' Meredith turned back to Victoria. 'Say, what is this?' Victoria's colour deepened. 'Miss Spiegel makes a joke, Meredith,' she said carefully. 'Do—er—do you two know one another?' 'Why, sure!' Meredith nodded. 'Marguerite worked in the States for a time on a magazine there, didn't you, honey? We were—friends.' 'How nice.' Victoria was bored. 'Hey, do you hear that, Marguerite, she's jealous!' exclaimed Meredith annoyingly, and Victoria gave an angry exclamation. 'Meredith,' she said, in a taut voice, 'I wish you would leave, right now. You're not supposed to be here, you're not the Baron's guest, and you're certainly not mine.' 'Marguerite can vouch for me to the jolly old Baron,' retorted Meredith, his indifference to Victoria's adamancy making her blood boil. 'Besides, I know you're only playing hard to get, honey. So let's get down to business. How much longer do you plan to spend in this Gothic hideaway?'
'Till my work is finished,' replied Victoria sharply, 'and when I do leave I shall be taking another position, elsewhere!' 'Yeah, sure, as my wife, as the second Mrs. Meredith G. Hammond.' 'What do you mean?' Victoria was curious. 'Why, honey, you don't think I'd let a little thing like a marriage stand between us, do you? I've set the machinery in motion and in a few weeks I'll be a free man again. What do you say to that?' 'I say it's your business, Meredith,' replied Victoria. 'What you do with your wives is no business of mine, and whatever you say, I shan't be one of them.' 'Hell, honey, aren't you carrying this moral thing a bit too far?' he exclaimed. 'Okay, so I deceived you. Well, I'm not deceiving you now, I've got the papers right here.' He put his hand into his inside pocket. 'I don't want to see them, Meredith.' Victoria heaved a sigh. 'I wish you would try and understand, we're through.' Meredith stared at her for a long moment. 'Why? Tell me that. Why? I've done what you wanted, haven't I?' 'Meredith, I'm sorry, but I just don't love you.' 'How can you say that with any degree of certainty? You don't love anybody else, do you?' 'Of course not.' Victoria was quick to deny it, but she was aware of the speculative gaze of Marguerite Spiegel. Meredith raked a hand through his gingery hair. He was a very paleskinned young man, and now he was flushed and angry.
'Well, I don't know, Victoria,' he said impatiently. 'After all the trouble I've taken -' Victoria frowned. 'Just out of interest, how did you find me?' Meredith shrugged. 'Some old girl, some Baroness Theresa something or other, she was talking to your godmother at a luncheon we both attended. And then afterwards I happened to overhear her discussing how Lady Pentower's goddaughter had agreed to act as governess to her cousin's child. After that, it was easy conning the old girl into spilling the rest.' Victoria nodded. 'I see. It never occurred to you that had I wanted you to know where I was or wanted you to come here, I'd have written to you!' Meredith had the grace to turn rather red. 'Gee, Victoria, you can't do this to me!' Victoria bit her lip. 'But I have.' She glanced at Marguerite. 'I don't know if Fraulein Spiegel wishes you to stay, but I am afraid I have work to do. If you'll excuse me -' 'Now wait a minute, Vic -' Meredith caught her arm, and at that moment the Baron himself came through the heavy door from the courtyard accompanied by his daughter. His eyes took in the group silently, and Victoria wrenched her arm out of Meredith's grasp feeling terribly embarrassed. 'What is going on here?' The Baron was aloof. 'Fraulein Monroe? Who is this young man?' Meredith required no one to perform his introductions. 'I'm Meredith G. Hammond, sir,' he said politely. 'Miss Monroe's —friend.' The
hesitation before the word friend was not lost on the Baron and Victoria flushed with dismay. Sophie was regarding Victoria rather doubtfully and now she came across to stand beside her and said: 'Is this your boy-friend, fraulein?' in rather anxious tones. Victoria sighed and shook her head. 'Mr. Hammond is an associate, no more,' she replied. Then she looked down at Sophie gently. 'Have you had a good walk?' Sophie looked up at her and seemed to understand, for she nodded enthusiastically, and said: 'Oh yes. Papa says we may walk again another day. Are you ready to begin lessons?' Victoria hid her astonishment. 'Why—er—of course,' she said. Her eyes went to the Baron's, but his were enigmatic and she realised that any understanding they might have shared over Sophie had been banished by Meredith's unexpected arrival. What could he be thinking? What thoughts were causing that cold expression? And anyway, what did it matter? Victoria asked herself despairingly. The Baron was the Baron, and she must not forget that. Meredith stared at her challengingly. 'You can't mean to work today, Victoria!' he exclaimed. 'I want to talk to you. I thought we might take a drive -' 'Must I remind you I have a job to do?' asked Victoria impatiently. Meredith smote his fist into the palm of his hand. 'I don't give a damn about your job!' he snapped. 'But I do.' Victoria wished this interview was over. The Baron was growing angrier by the minute and she could guess how he would interpret Meredith's possessive attitude.
However, the Baron had apparently heard enough. 'Mr. Hammond,' he said, 'your presence here seems rather unnecessary at the moment. I am not at all sure who invited you to Reichstein, but I am the master here and I should be grateful if you would leave my employee to get on with her work.' Meredith was taken aback. Never before had anyone dared to challenge Meredith G. Hammond. He was far too used to controlling destinies himself, and he was in no mood to be polite now. 'To hell,' he swore moodily. 'I came here to see Victoria, to ask her to marry me as soon as my divorce is made final, and I don't intend to be turned aside by some tin-pot aristocrat without a red cent in his safe!' Victoria bit her lip. 'Oh, please,' she began, only to be interrupted by the Baron. 'Thank you, fraulein,' he said icily, 'but I am perfectly capable of dealing with this myself.' He walked slowly across to Meredith. For all Meredith was tall he had not the Baron's powerful build, nor had he the kind of quelling arrogance that came of years and years of inherited authority. 'Hammond,' he said distinctly, 'I am not a patient man when I have been insulted. I am tempted to teach you a salutory lesson in good manners, but breeding counts for more than crude materialism, and therefore I shall ask you politely to leave here. You are trespassing, and I do not wish to have to turn the dogs on you.' He indicated the wolfhounds who had been silently watching this display and who rose on cue and growled convincingly. Victoria wondered, with tremulous hysteria, whether they really would attack. Somehow she doubted it.
Meredith looked at the animals with distaste. Obviously, he could not judge whether or not they were violent, and he looked instead at Marguerite Spiegel. But Marguerite turned away and went to the fire, warming her hands, showing him that she had no intention of revealing her involvement to the Baron at this time. Victoria heaved a sigh. 'Please, Meredith,' she said, awkwardly. 'Try and be reasonable! We can't talk here, you know that.' 'I'm staying at the hotel in Reichstein. We could talk there.' Meredith regarded her accusingly. 'You brought me here.' Victoria stepped back. 'I did no such thing.' 'Of course you did. You expected me to follow you. To find you. I just wish I knew what crazy game it is you're playing. I've offered you marriage. That's what you wanted, wasn't it?' Victoria felt near to tears of futile impatience. 'No, Meredith,' she said steadily, 'I've told you. That's over.' Meredith stamped his feet. 'Just like that! You drag me out here in the wilds in the middle of winter just to tell me that!' 'Meredith, you brought yourself here,' she reminded him. The Baron stepped forward. 'Enough,' he said. 'Herr Hammond, are you going to leave peaceably, or do I resort to other means?' Meredith scowled. 'Victoria!' he exclaimed, pleadingly now. 'Come on, have dinner with me! It's the least you can do.' Victoria hesitated. If it would precipitate Meredith's departure she would promise anything. 'All right, all right,' she said, 'tomorrow night, perhaps.'
'Tonight.' 'Impossible.' Victoria spread her hands. 'Okay, okay, tomorrow it is.' Meredith made an eloquent gesture. 'Be seeing you, then. 'Bye, Margie!' This to Marguerite. Marguerite gave him a venomous glance before transferring her gaze to the Baron. 'Goodbye,' she said coldly, and turned back to the fire. After he had gone an ominous silence seemed to have fallen. Victoria didn't dare look at the Baron and she was sure Marguerite felt the same. She wondered how the older woman would explain that parting informality from the American. With a sigh, she took Sophie's hand. 'Come,' she said. 'We have work to do.' Sophie went with her automatically, and they left the hall to go to the study. Once there, Victoria sank down weakly into a chair and Sophie watched her with anxious eyes. 'Is something wrong?' she asked. 'Is it that man? Are you afraid of him?' Victoria half smiled and shook her head. 'Of course not, Sophie. Don't jump to conclusions.' Although, after Maria's almost identical comment, she didn't have to wonder where Sophie got her peculiar ideas from. 'It's just that—well, your father is bound to think the worst, and quite frankly I'm getting a little tired of arguments.' Sophie stared at her. 'You are? Oh, but—you wouldn't get too tired, would you? I mean—not tired enough to leave! ' Victoria frowned. 'Why the concern? I thought you'd be glad to see me go.'
'Oh no, not you!' exclaimed Sophie quickly. 'Not you.' She bent her head. 'I want you to stay. You're nice. Really nice. And if you'd like to make me some clothes, I shouldn't mind at all.' Victoria smiled at the back-handed compliment. 'Well, I'm very pleased to hear that,' she said. 'It's always nice to feel you're wanted.' Sophie smiled rather tremulously. 'Papa has been talking to me. He— he told me about my mother—everything. I felt sorry for him.' 'Did you, Sophie?' 'Yes. It was much harder for him, you know. I mean—I was too young to really understand, but he had to bear it all.' 'That's right.' 'He's a wonderful man, my father.' 'I know that.' 'You think so, too, don't you?' Victoria coloured. 'I suppose so.'. 'You don't have to be afraid to say so. I don't mind. Not now. He's my father, you see, and I'm his daughter, and I can afford to be generous!' She laughed a little. 'It's funny, I always thought he just tolerated me, too. I didn't realise he loved me. He does, you know. He said so.' Victoria cupped her chin on one hand. I'm very happy for you.' Sophie sighed. 'I just wish you were happier, that's all. It's that man, isn't it? That Herr Hammond! He's to blame.'
'Not entirely.' Victoria had to be honest. 'You're not worried about Papa, are you? I'll speak to him for you.' 'Thank you, Sophie, but that won't be necessary.' Sophie regarded her thoughtfully. 'Is it Fraulein Spiegel, then? If it is, I know how you feel. I don't like her. I wish she would go away!' Victoria shook her head. 'Fraulein Spiegel is your father's guest, Sophie. Can't you accept her as such?' 'I suppose so.' Sophie looked sulky for a moment. 'It's just that she always tries to get Papa to herself. She never wants me around. I'm just a nuisance, like I was with—with my mother.' 'Now don't be silly, Sophie. For heaven's sake, she can't stay for ever.' 'No, she can't, can she?' Sophie brightened up. 'Then there'll be just the three of us again. Oh, and Maria and Gustav, of course.' 'I'll have to go eventually,' said Victoria. Sophie frowned. 'Why? I needn't go to boarding school. You could go on teaching me until I was old enough not to need lessons.' 'That wouldn't do, Sophie. I'm not qualified to teach an older child.' 'But you're my friend. I want you to stay.' Sophie stared at her. Then she hunched her shoulders. 'I suppose I might even let you marry Papa if you'd agree to stay.' Victoria hid her smile even while her heart was torn apart. 'That's very kind of you, Sophie,' she said gravely, 'but I don't think that's very likely. Your father has plans of his own, no doubt.'
Sophie grimaced. 'So long as he doesn't intend to marry Fraulein Spiegel.' 'Sophie!' Victoria's tones were sharp. 'Now come along. I have something to show you. It's a present I bought for you in Reichstein several weeks ago.'
When Victoria came down for dinner that evening, she found Maria in the kitchen intent on preparing a tray for the Baron. The old woman gave her a faint smile and continued with her task, and Victoria seated herself beside the roaring fire. It had been a strange day, somehow, interrupted as it had been by Meredith's intrusion. His arrival had disorientated her and she wished he had not made himself so unpleasant. Obviously he couldn't understand her reasons for remaining at Reichstein, but he might at least have had the decency to accept her dismissal for what it was. His pride was hurt, that was all, and he was afraid of what the columnists might say if this should leak out. She couldn't imagine now what it was that had attracted her to him in the first place. He was handsome, of course, and he did tend to dominate anyone who failed to offer much resistance. It could only be that she had been ripe for romance and flattered by his obvious attentions. She sighed. He was vastly different from the Baron Horst von Reichstein, and yet they both enjoyed a certain amount of omnipotence in their own way. Perhaps, if she was sensible, she would take this opportunity that was offered to her and return to London with him. By staying here she was only building up heartache for herself and allowing a man who found her physically attractive and nothing more to take the place of her normal longings for the security of marriage and children of her own. There was Sophie, of course, but now that she knew the truth about her parentage, she would begin to cope with the deficiencies of other things.
But in spite of all these things, she knew she would stay. Half a loaf was better than nothing and at least here she could see him and talk with him and sometimes share a relationship with him. Maria finished preparing the tray and began to ladle soup into bowls. 'Do you know where Fraulein Spiegel is, fraulein?' she asked, startling Victoria out of her reverie. 'I'm sorry!' Victoria smiled. 'Who? Fraulein Spiegel? No, I haven't seen her. Why?' Maria shrugged. 'She seems to have disappeared, fraulein. She was in to lunch, but I haven't seen her since. The Herr Baron asked for her almost two hours ago now, but she was not around.' Victoria frowned. 'Indeed?' She shook her head. 'Do you suppose she has gone out?' 'But where, fraulein? To get to Reichstein, she would need the car. And I did not hear the car leave, did you?' 'No.' Victoria bent her head. 'Do you suppose she might have gone for a walk?' Maria shrugged. 'She might have done. She has taken walks before to get exercise. But she is never out for long. She says it is too cold.' Victoria lifted her shoulders doubtfully, and then an awful thought struck her. Sophie had been complaining about Marguerite earlier in the day. Was it possible that she had been naughty again? Could she have devised some mischief in the hope that Fraulein Spiegel might be forced to leave? It seemed incredible, but not impossible. 'Is she not in her room?' she asked now, and Maria shook her head.
'I went there first, fraulein. When the Herr Baron asked for her, but she was not there.' 'Oh!' Victoria nodded. That disposed of her theory that Sophie might have ransacked Marguerite's room as she had hers. 'What about the grounds?' Maria shrugged, and began to put out the soup for her husband and Victoria, indicating that Victoria should come to the table. 'There is time, fraulein,' she said comfortably. 'Perhaps the fraulein has forgotten the time.' It was obvious that Maria didn't particularly care where she was. Victoria applied herself to her soup. Marguerite was not the type to prefer the great outdoors. So where was she? What could possibly have delayed her? She couldn't have got lost. Unless Sophie had had a hand in it. Could she have taken Marguerite on a guided tour of the schloss and deliberately lost her? In the north wing, for example, her favourite source of imagination? It didn't seem possible. Surely Marguerite was not the type to be taken in by a child like Sophie. And besides, they didn't even like one another ... Even so, all through dinner the idea plagued Victoria's mind. Sophie was not unused to trying to scare people. Victoria recalled the example of the wolfhound being secreted into the adjoining room to hers and the shock she had had then. And she didn't always think of the consequences before acting. To her it was a means to an end, nothing more, and she did want Marguerite to leave, didn't she? Victoria sighed. If Sophie had done anything and her father found out about it, he would be furious, and all the good that had been done would be wasted. Besides, he would be bound to take Marguerite's side against his daughter and Marguerite would revel in that! He might even consider leaving the schloss altogether and moving to the
city. After all, the schloss must hold some unhappy memories for him once and for all. It was no good. She would have to go and find out. If Sophie had been naughty, then better she should uncover it and be there to shield Sophie from her father if necessary. Excusing herself from Maria on the pretext of going to the bathroom, she left the kitchen and walked quickly along to the main hall. Sophie had told her once that the door to the north tower was on the far end of the hall, beneath the gallery, and was seldom used. Victoria just hoped it was unlocked, that was all. It was, and as the hall was deserted apart from the hounds, she quickly went through and closed the door behind her. The chill was the first thing she noticed, an icy chill that seemed to penetrate even the warm trousers and thick sweater she was wearing. She ought to have collected her coat, of course, but that would have taken up valuable time, and besides, she did not want to attract anyone's attention. The schloss was very similar in all its four towers, and Victoria, accustoming her eyes to the gloom, could see the hall and turret stairway quite clearly. It was moonlight outside, and the snow gave some illumination, too. It was rather an eerie experience, walking these silent corridors, and she shivered slightly, as much from apprehension as cold. Looking about her, she decided to try the turret rooms first. She wanted to shout, but she was afraid someone might hear her, so she opened the door at the foot of the staircase and began to climb up. The stairs were damp in places, and she could see evidence of what the Baron told her about deterioration. The walls were running with water' in places, and there was a dank smell of dampness. Surely no
one, not even Sophie, could lure Marguerite up these stairs. She was just wasting her time, and she might as well turn round now and go back. But something stopped her from going back without checking, and in any case, it was an adventure and took her mind off other things. The view from the turret window was of the mountain peaks behind the schloss. It was a magnificent view and it seemed a shame that so little of the castle was in use when people were crying out for accommodation. All the room doors were closed, and she opened them with some degree of distaste. Spiders' webs brushed her cheeks, and there were weird scufflings in dusty corners as the draught stirred their occupants. She closed the doors quickly and went downstairs again. She was glad to get out into the corridor and close the turret door behind her. Only the large apartments at the end of the hall were left, and she walked resolutely towards them. She was quite cold now, although the exercise of running up and down the turret stairs had warmed her a little, and the thought of huge spiders running around up there had brought her out in perspiration of a different kind. She reached the door and was about to open it when a strange whining sound came to her ears. She halted abruptly, the hairs on the back of her neck standing on end. It could not be the dogs, they were safely in the hall, but similarly it did not sound like a human voice. She took a step backwards. Steady, she thought, trying to calm herself, there's a logical explanation for everything. But even so, all the things Sophie had told her about her mother being locked in the tower and every other weird story she had ever heard came rushing to her consciousness chillingly. 'For heaven's sake!' she chided herself aloud. 'Stop behaving like an hysterical idiot! Open the door!'
With trembling fingers she turned the handle. But it was stiff. It was obviously many years since it had been opened and the dampness had swollen the wood so that it was jammed in its aperture. It was a struggle, but at last it gave inwards with her weight, and crashed back against an old scrubbed kitchen table, similar to the one Maria used every day. And there in the corner, near an empty fireplace, stood an old cardboard box that was rotting at the sides, and inside the box was a family of kittens ... Victoria gave an involuntary chuckle. Of all the things, she thought weakly. The mewing of kittens! Allowing the door to close behind her, she crossed the room slowly and went down on her haunches beside the small animals. They mewed loudly, and she shook her head. 'Where's your mother?' she asked, stroking their heads. 'Is there another way in here?' She stood up and looked about her. The windows were all barred so that nothing could get in there, even the glass was intact. The doors were padlocked, so how on earth did the cat get in and out to attend to her family? Then she saw it. It was a hole in the heavy outer door, bigger than a rat hole and big enough for the cat to squeeze herself in and out. The wood had rotted away and it was obvious that it needed attending to or other animals might choose to make their home in the disused wing. Satisfied with her moonlit explorations, Victoria turned back to the door. The sooner she returned to the kitchen and killed any suspicions regarding her own whereabouts the better. She would not like to have to admit that she had mistrusted Sophie. Not when she had defended her so often.
But to her dismay, the heavy door had closed securely again, and as on her entrance, refused to open. 'Damn!' she said angrily. 'Damn, damn, damn!' She tugged vigorously at the handle, but she had not the advantage she had had on coming in, that of being able to use her weight against the door. Now she was tugging it outwards, and the handle seemed none too secure. If it should come off in her hands, she would be completely stumped. But she refused to even consider such an eventuality. That way lay panic, for unless someone thought to search these empty wings she might never be found ... She turned away. What she needed was a piece of wood to jam under the door to use as a lever. If she could just use her weight in some way to shift it out of its surroundings, she would stand a chance of swinging it inwards. She stamped impatiently round the kitchen. There was plenty of wood about, but none of it suitable for her needs. Besides, she doubted whether any wood she found would not be rotting by now and therefore useless. She sighed. Could she perhaps open those shutters and the windows beyond and get out that way? Was it conceivable that the wood on the shutters was rotten, too? But of course, it was not, at least not to the extent of crumbling at her touch, and although she tried to dislodge the locks, it was to no avail. Whoever had secured those windows and doors had not meant any intruders to succeed in entering the schloss. Only the animals could come to and fro and she was not small enough to crawl out through the hole.
Presently she heard the sound of scratching and she saw the mother cat return from her foraging. She bared her teeth at Victoria and Victoria realised that- she was completely wild. Charming, she thought, with an attempt at humour. Here she was, locked in a disused kitchen of a disused wing, with only an unfriendly wild cat for company ... All sorts of thoughts went through her mind. Ideas of tying a note, if she could find something to write with and something to write on, on to the cat's back and sending it out again in the hope that someone might see it. But that was useless, of course. Apart from any other consideration, this particular female would likely tear her hands to shreds if she so much as attempted to touch her. She sighed again. So what could she do? Sit down and wait? Could she do that? Would she be missed? Of course she would. But would Maria think she had gone out to search for Marguerite? And anyway, where was Marguerite? Her head buzzed with thoughts. It was useless trying to imagine a way of escaping. If the door refused to open, she was stuck ... imprisoned ... all the things she had imagined Sophie had done to Marguerite. How ridiculous that was in retrospect! Not even Sophie would risk her father's wrath and do anything so foolhardy. With angry impatience, Victoria tugged fiercely at the door. It didn't budge, and she kicked it childishly, tears of helplessness coming unbidden to her eyes. Whatever was she going to do? However would they find her? She began to shout. It was a vain hope, of course. These thick walls and iron-strong doors were impenetrable. Had she not previously considered such possibilities in the warm cosiness of her turret room? These castles had walls sometimes several feet thick and as her voice
came back to her in muted echoes she realised it was not getting beyond her own small domain. With a helpless feeling of despair, she considered her chances of surviving a night here. It was so cold, and even if she could find wood to start a fire she had no means of lighting it. Besides, everything was so damp it would never burn. She would probably die of suffocation if the wood smouldered and filled the room with smoke ... Sinking down on to a wooden settle, she stared blindly at the door. Sooner or later someone would come to look for her, wouldn't they ...?
About an hour later she got determinedly to her feet. She had realised the dangers of falling asleep in her corner and while she was chilled to the bone she knew that the inviting clouds of unconsciousness were beginning to drift in on her almost without her being aware of it. It would be so nice just to close her eyes and forget her anxieties in oblivion, but would she ever wake from such a sleep? Stamping her feet, she began to swing her arms about energetically, shaking off the numbness that had made them seem heavy and lifeless. Jumping up and down on the spot, she managed to restore some semblance of co-ordination to her limbs and she wondered how long she would be able to keep it up. The moonlight showed her that the cat had departed again leaving her kittens to sleep in their nest, and she was tempted to lift one of the small, warm, furry bodies into her arms to feel some communication with other living souls. Amazingly enough, she felt no fear of any supernatural visitors; her days at the schloss had banished all fears of its silence and isolation. It had, for her, a warmth and all-embracing familiarity, a sense of homeliness that was not out of place despite its size.
With that now familiar feeling of despair displacing her thoughts about the kittens, she wandered round again wearily, wishing she could think of something to do to help herself. After all, it was her own foolishness that had placed her in this position, and she could imagine the Baron's anger when he discovered what she had done. Unless, she thought morbidly, she were dead, and then he might feel some vestige of compassion. She reached the door and looked down at the hole through which the cat made her frequent forays for food for her kittens. If only it were larger, if only she could get out that way. A thought suddenly struck her. The wood was not strong; it had been weakened by years of damp and decay. Surely, if she could find some heavy instrument with which to batter the place around the cat's hole, she might succeed in making a hole big enough for her to crawl through. With rising excitement, she looked about her. There was nothing of any size except the form which she had been sitting on. Frowning, she dragged it over to the hole. It was going to be difficult to get any weight behind anything so heavy, but it was worth a try. Lifting one end, she ran towards the door pushing the form ahead of her. But although it thumped against the door with welcome heaviness, it landed several inches above the small hole that the cat used. She would have to turn it on its side and try that way. Several attempts later, she felt tears of exasperation on her cheeks. The form was simply too bulky, too awkward to use as a battering ram. With a gasp of dismay, she turned it upright, and sat down on it tiredly. She looked at the door with angry tears in her eyes. Whoever had made this building had built it to last against storm and invader.
Then her eyes widened in amazement, and she jumped up off the form in disbelief. Her battering might not have succeeded in breaking the wood above the cat's hole, but it had succeeded in doing something else. While the doors were solid and unyielding, the surround was rotten with damp and the hinges, something she had never examined, were rotted in their holes. Her constant barrage of thuds against the lower part of the door had succeeded in loosening the nails holding the hinges in place, and now they hung half off the supports. Thrusting the form aside, she grappled with the upper hinge. Her nails broke in her hurry, but she cared little for her hands. The hinge came off completely, and was left supported only by the door. With speed she tackled the others. Some were harder to do, but her excitement was such that she seemed to acquire superhuman strength and in no time the door was free. Opening it was more difficult. There was no handle, for one thing, and she had to tug the hinges to get it to move. Even so, it was easier to release than the hall door because of the crumbling quality of the wood. The wind whistled grimly through the cracks, chilling her fingers to icy members, and she shivered in the bitter night air. But no matter, the door was shifting ever so slowly, giving under her hands, and in a few minutes she was able to squeeze outside. Never had the night sky looked so beautiful, or the chill east wind felt so inviting. With aching arms and shoulders, she walked quickly through the covered way to the inner courtyard and from there across to the main doors. If they were locked, she would have to go to the kitchen and hope that Maria and Gustav were not asleep.
But to her surprise, the lights of the great hall gleamed across the courtyard, and even above, there were lights in many of the rooms. She had never seen the schloss so brightly illuminated, and she ran to the entrance eagerly. Was it possible she had not been missed? It was very late, but maybe she was thought to be in her room. She thrust open the hall door, just as Gustav came through from the kitchen, and he stared at her incredulously, almost as though he were seeing a ghost. 'Fraulein!' he exclaimed in astonishment, 'Gut Gott, where have you been?' and then he went off into a stream of incoherent German that Victoria had no chance of translating. Victoria closed the outer door and went swiftly across to the fire that blazed cheerfully in the hearth. Oh, the warmth was good, so good, she thought, turning about swiftly, warming all sides of her body while Gustav uttered something which didn't sound very complimentary and turned and disappeared back the way he had come. Victoria seated herself on the settle and looked towards the heavy door that led to the north wing. She shivered apprehensively. It would be a long time before she ventured along there again. She wondered where Fritz and Helga were. They were not in their usual place by the hearth, and she wondered if the Baron had taken them out for a walk. Unless ... unless he was looking for her and he had taken the dogs with him. Surely Maria knew she had not left the castle. Suddenly the hall door crashed back and the subject of her conjecture stood on the threshold staring at her with angry, disbelieving eyes. Gustav hovered behind him and Victoria noticed inconsequently that
both men were wearing heavy coats and boots as though they had just come in from outside. The Baron waved Gustav away with an imperious hand and came striding into the hall, slamming the door behind him. Unfastening his overcoat, he flung it on to the long table and then came across to her, looking down at her with blazing eyes. 'Exactly what are you playing at, Victoria?' he queried violently, his accent thick and pronounced. Victoria stared up at him weakly, and then to her horror tears began to stream down her cheeks. It was too much, his anger on top of everything else. 'Victoria!' The Baron's voice changed dramatically, and with a brief exclamation he gathered her roughly up into his arms, pressing her face into his chest. Only then did she realise that he was trembling too, and the arms that closed round her were warmly possessive. 'Do not cry,' he commanded gently, 'do not cry, Liebchen. Do you not know I have been wild with anxiety for your safety? You cannot imagine how I felt seeing you there, like a ghost, beside my fire!' Victoria felt light-headed, but she knew she must draw back from the Baron's embrace before she made a complete fool of herself. Just being close to him like this showed her how pitiful were her defences against him, and she had no intention of causing any more embarrassment between them by .allowing her emotions to rule her head. But the Baron would not let her go so easily, and his arms tightened as she struggled to free herself. She felt his lips brush her hair, and with an immense effort, she thrust herself away from him. This time he let her go and stood regarding her with solemn eyes so that she longed to go back into his arms and press her body close against his, arousing him as she knew she was capable. But that would never do. The Baron was so wrapped up in the memory of his
past, he could not see forward to the future. Besides, Marguerite Spiegel was far more the kind of woman he appeared to admire, and certainly she was determined enough to get what she wanted. Now Victoria turned away, smoothing the dampness off her cheeks, wondering if her dirty hands had left black smudges. She had not thought of anything until now except getting warm again, and she wondered exactly where he thought she had been. 'Tell me!' He was abrupt. 'Exactly where have you been?' Victoria bent her head. 'I—I—I went exploring...' she began uneasily. The Baron uttered a hoarse ejaculation. 'You went exploring!' he snapped violently. 'Are you mad! Do you take me for a fool?' Victoria turned uncertainly. 'I don't know what you mean,' she began unsteadily. 'You think I will stomach anything, Victoria? You think you can get away with such foolishness?' Victoria shook her head. 'I did go—looking for something,' she insisted nervously. 'But—but—something happened to prevent me getting back!' The Baron clenched his fists. A muscle was working in his cheek furiously, and she could see he was intensely angry. But why? Where did he think she had been? 'Victoria,' he said again, in a controlled tone, 'I ask you again ... where have you been?' Victoria hunched her shoulders. 'I'm trying to tell you -'
The Baron seethed. He was breathing heavily, and there was a taut whiteness to his normally tanned face. 'You deny you have been down in the village dining with that man— Hammond?' Victoria stared at him in astonishment. 'Of—of course I deny it!' She spread her hands expressively. 'How—how would I get down to the village?' The Baron gave an angry snap of his fingers. 'You might have met him on the pass. You might have arranged to meet him there. A clever arrangement, I admit, and one which shows little consideration for us!' Victoria clasped her hands. 'Don't be silly!' she exclaimed. 'I did no such thing! I—I've been locked in -' The Baron raked a hand through his thick hair. 'For God's sake, Victoria, I implore you, do not do this to me!' 'Do what?' 'Go to this man, this man Hammond! I thought I could not marry again, I thought I could ask no woman to share the shambles of my life, but I was wrong. With you it would be different, with you my love would suffice. I cannot, I realise, stand by and watch the woman I worship and adore being enamoured of a man who is so obviously wrong for her!' Victoria's heart pounded painfully quickly as the Baron spoke, the words wrung from him tortuously. His anger, his pain, his disbelief in her story stemmed not from a fear that she had usurped his authority yet again, but from jealousy. Was it possible? Was it really possible!
Without discovering the answers to these questions, Victoria stared at him now, unable to believe her ears, and with a groan he caught her wrist, dragging her close against the hard length of his body. 'Oh yes,' he muttered thickly, burying his face in her neck, 'oh yes, Victoria, I am a man and as a man I cannot let you go. I feel—I sense that you are not indifferent to me, despite your attempts to reduce our lovemaking to passing promiscuity, and while I vowed I would never say this to another woman, I must have you for my wife!' Victoria placed her hands on either side of his face and looked at him incredulously. 'Oh, .Horst,' she whispered huskily, 'you are the most unperceptive of men! Don't you know I have no intention of leaving you, whatever you decide to do with me?' And then there was silence in the huge apartment as his mouth sought and found hers in a kiss that destroyed all the misery that had gone before. Finally, when he lifted his mouth to rest his forehead against hers, he said: 'All right, my Liebling, I believe you were not with Hammond this evening, but please, tell me, where were you?' His arms folded her closer. 'At various points throughout these hours that I have been searching for you I have wanted to kill you or beat you or hurt you as you have been hurting me, but now that I have you, now that I can hold you close against me so that I can feel the fast beating of your heart against mine, I know that I only want to hurt whoever it was who caused you this—this being locked in -' Victoria half smiled, and put a finger over his lips. 'No one locked me in, exactly,' she said softly. 'And the only creature to blame—or should I say creatures—were a handful of kittens!' The Baron stared at her incomprehensively, and swiftly she explained how she had inadvertently imprisoned herself in the old kitchen of the north wing. He listened incredulously to her story, every now and
then halting her to ask a question, until she came to the part about her escape and then he gave a shake of his head. 'Do you realise if you had not escaped you could have died there?' he asked unsteadily. Victoria swallowed hard. 'I know,' she said, smoothing the hair that grew low on the back of his neck. 'But let's not consider that. I escaped. That's all that matters.' The Baron cupped the back of her head with his hand. 'But you have not said why you went into the north wing,' he said pointedly. Victoria sighed. 'It was silly really. Fraulein Spiegel was missing before dinner. You yourself asked for her, Maria told me. I—I went looking for her.' 'In the north wing?' Victoria coloured. 'I know. I've said it was silly. It was just an idea I had ...' The Baron's eyes grew tender. 'I begin to understand,' he said huskily. 'Or at least, I think I do. It was Sophie's talk of the north tower, where she said her mother was imprisoned, was it not?' Victoria stared at him. 'You knew she said that?' 'Oh yes. I think it was her way of destroying the painful images she had of Elsa. I think she tried to believe she was being punished for what she had done.' Victoria bent her head. 'I thought that, too.' 'And you thought that as Sophie did not like Marguerite she might try to make her make-believe reality?'
'Oh, I don't know. I don't think after the first few moments I believed her capable of such a thing ...' 'But the doubts had been sown. And you were going to rescue Marguerite so that I should not learn of Sophie's behaviour yet again?' Victoria pressed her forehead against his chest. 'I've been a fool.' 'No,' the Baron lifted her chin with his hand and put his lips to the side of her mouth. 'Just touchingly loyal, that's all. And perhaps a little imaginative, too, eh?' He smiled. 'Oh, Horst.' Victoria compressed her lips. 'Is this real? Everything has seemed so strange today.' 'You are real, and I am real, and our love is real. That is what matters,' he said. 'And your talk of Marguerite has given me an idea.' Victoria frowned. 'What about?' 'Did you not wonder why I should be so certain you had dined with Hammond this evening?' Victoria stared at him. 'Of course. Why were you?' He frowned deeply. 'I will explain. I came to the kitchen once I knew you had had your evening meal. I wanted to see you. I had to talk to you about Hammond. Although at that time I fooled myself it was for your own good that I was concerned!' He half smiled, his eyes gentle. 'In any event, you were not there, as you know. Maria said you must have gone to your room and I went there, looking for you.' He shook his head. 'I knocked, and when you did not answer I went in. But again you were not there. I could not begin to understand where you might be. I had just left the study and you were not there. Where else
was there? The hall? Sophie's bedroom? I tried them both, but without success. I even tried my own room,' he added huskily. Victoria felt the warmth flood her body. Even now, it was difficult to believe that soon Horst's room would be hers too. He turned and drew her down on to his knee as he seated himself on the settle by the fire. Then he went on: 'I was beginning to get desperate. Marguerite was still missing at this time and I did not know where either of you were. But you were my chief concern, Marguerite I know can look after herself.' 'And I can't?' He shook his head. 'You are far too impulsive! I was afraid to consider where you might be.' He sighed. 'And then, later, after Gustav and I had taken the dogs and searched the grounds, Marguerite returned. She seemed unconcerned when I voiced my fears for you, and when pressed to reveal where she had been she reversed the process and told me that you had gone down to Reichstein to see Hammond -' 'What?' 'Yes, that was why I was so certain you had been there. I got the car out at once and drove down to the village, only to find that Hammond had gone out in his car and they did not know when he would be back. The barmaid, she told me there had been a young woman at the hotel that evening, visiting with Hammond, and of course I jumped to the obvious conclusions, the conclusions Marguerite hoped I would jump to, I see now.' He smote one fist against his thigh. 'Of course,' he exclaimed harshly, 'I see it all now. It was Marguerite who dined with Hammond this evening, and she used you to hide her own actions.'
Victoria listened intently. 'But she must have known she would be found out?' she exclaimed. The Baron's frown deepened. 'Would she?' He shook his head. 'I am not so sure. It was a calculated risk, in my opinion. In these temperatures a woman stands little chance of surviving after night falls, and perhaps she thought you would be found tomorrow, buried in some snowdrift. It's obvious she considered your absence ominous, to say the least.' 'But where did she say she had been?' 'She didn't—at least only indirectly. She let me believe she had been about the schloss all the while and that she had seen a car parked some distance from here on the road to the pass. Do you think perhaps Marguerite knows this man Hammond ... I mean, of course, more intimately than they appeared yesterday.' Victoria stroked his cheek. 'I can answer that. Before you arrived they revealed they were old friends.' 'Ah!' The Baron nodded. 'It begins to make sense. And Marguerite did not want me to know that.' Victoria looked into the flames. 'Maybe not,' she murmured charitably. The Baron smiled. 'Always so prepared to protect the guilty,' he murmured, against her hair. His hands tightened on her waist. 'Don't you realise that had I accepted the news that you were with Hammond and made no further investigations, and you had been unable to escape -' 'Ssh!' Victoria stopped his mouth with her lips. 'Don't let us think of that now.'
'Marguerite must go,' said the Baron fiercely. 'First thing in the morning. Gustav will drive her to the station.' Victoria smiled, 'All right.' 'And there will be no assignations with this man Hammond. I will deal with him if he comes here again,' averred the Baron bleakly. Victoria hugged mischievously.
'My name is Horst,' he said huskily. 'Say it!' 'Darling Horst,' said Victoria obediently, and he bent his head to hers again. 'Tell me,' he said, as he released her mouth, 'can you accept what I have to offer? Am I being fair to you, offering you the mess I have made of my life?' Victoria's eyes tilted with a smile. 'It would be unfair of you not to offer it,' she replied softly. He shook his head doubtfully. 'You are so young, so lovely, and Reichstein is such a grim old place,' he murmured. Victoria stared at him fiercely. 'I love the schloss,' she exclaimed indignantly, 'you know I do. And what good is my life without you?.' Horst von Reichstein stroked her cheek wonderingly. 'It is like that with me, too. For you, I would sell the schloss, the estate, go where you want.' 'Everything I want is right here,' said Victoria softly. 'Do you think Sophie will mind?'
'Sophie is already your ally, you know that. And she needs you. More than just a governess, as a friend, as the mother she had never known.' He studied her flushed face tenderly. 'When I first saw you in the station yard at Reichstein, all hot and flustered because you had fallen in the snow, I wanted to send you back to England at once. I was afraid of something I couldn't understand, and I wanted no part of it. I tried to humiliate you, I suppose, I wanted you to resign, I even wished Sophie might succeed in her efforts to get you to leave.' He smoothed the skin of her throat caressingly. 'But then I took you to Reichstein that morning, do you remember it? And afterwards, nothing was the same. I suppose after Elsa, I was afraid to get involved, but that didn't stop me wanting you.' He buried his lips in the nape of her neck. 'Do you forgive me?' Victoria ran her hand round his neck, under his collar, feeling the smooth hardness of the muscles of his back and shoulders. There was a wonderful warm glowing feeling inside her. This man—this wonderful man loved her and wanted her, and she had all her life to show him how little the past mattered when the future was theirs ...