The pealing of Salzburg’s church bells – it was one thing the Captain had not been able to shut out after the death of his wife. Being inside his villa, at least he was not able to hear them. But whenever he had to go to town – which he would avoid as much as possible – he was greeted with the sounds. And with their clanging came the memories.
Agathe used to love the sound of those bells – after all, it was one of the reasons they lived so close to Salzburg. She would tell him of the fond memories she had of visiting Salzburg as a child, and how she had fallen in love with the city because the wonderful tolls of the bells could be heard everywhere. Sometimes, she would ask him if they could stay in town just for a few more minutes so that she could hear their melodies before the drove back to Aigen.
“I want this to be the last sound I hear before I die”, she once said.
“The last sound?” He rolled his eyes, then scolded her for being overly dramatic. “Darling, I will be the first to go, but you will probably live to be a hundred, because you’re as healthy as an ox” he said. “Besides, if you do live to be one hundred years old, you won’t be able to hear a person speaking to you, much less the clanging of all the bells of Salzburg.”
She burst out laughing. He never got tired of hearing her laughter.
“And anyway,” he added, after her laughter had died down, “I would like to believe that the last sound you wanted to hear would be the sound of my voice whispering in your ear about the things I would like to do to you when I finally get you alone.” His taunt had earned him a playful slap on his arm, and some alone time with his wife.
But Salzburg held other memories as well. Their three youngest children had been born in the city, and he remembered the pealing bells after their christening. The bells also rang joyful tunes when the eldest had taken their first Communion. And on each and every one of these occasions, Agathe had been by his side. Sometimes, she would take his hand in hers, their fingers entwining. Georg had never been one to show such affection in public, preferring to wait until they were alone, to let his undying love for her show.
If only he could go back and change a few things, he would let the world see how much he loved her. If only he could be able to kiss her once more, hold her hand once again. Oh, how he ached to hold her in his arms again. He would gladly erase the few nights they had gone to bed angry. What he wouldn’t give to beg for her forgiveness if he could only have her in his arms again. What he wouldn’t give to have her again.
Right after she had been pronounced dead, the Sterbeglocke from the Aigen church had pealed three times because she was a woman, and one time for each of the thirty-two years she had lived. That had been the first time he heard the Salzburg bells after her death, and the pain had been too great to overcome. He immediately fled the city, driving endlessly for hours, until finally driving home to drown his sorrows in a bottle of bourben.
He stood at the iron gates of Nonnberg Abbey, listening to the last tolls of the bells, before ringing the bell announcing his arrival. The Abbey, as it turned out, was also a source of memories. He had been there once before with Agathe, a few years ago, not too long after they moved to Aigen. They had wanted to make a donation to the orphanage, and they had been received by the Reverend Mother. He was not even sure that his presence would be welcome, but his wife – who knew far more than he did – replied instantly;
“Why not? Those poor nuns would starve if their Mother Abbess was forbidden to deal with men. The cloister is a living, breathing entity, darling, it must support itself. The Reverend Mother is not merely their religious leader, she is their…Captain, as well, in every sense of the word!”
He still remembered his first impression of the elderly nun. She was kind, patient and wise. After the visit was over, she showed them around the convent, including the museum and archives. She had not taken them to the purely feminine and sheltered environment of the klausur – no one but the members of the fraternity were allowed there. Agathe had returned many times since that day, since she had taken an instant liking to the Reverend Mother, but he had never seen the woman again, often sending his apologies for his absence with his wife.
A very old nun soon appeared, walking very slowly, and he shifted his weight from one foot to the other – the typical sign of a man who was not used to waiting. The woman did not say a word, but just looked at him, questioningly. He knew that some of the cloistered nuns took a vow of silence and had not spoken for years, so he decided to be the first one to speak.
““I’m Captain Georg Von Trapp,” he said. “I’m here to see the Mother Abbess. She is expecting me.”
The silent nun nodded, then she disappeared again. Another nun soon appeared – this one was quite different. She was tall and thin and walked briskly, in a somewhat military manner. Her face did not have any trace of the old nuns gentility – it was sour, as if she were permanently unhappy about something. Someone like her would be able to discipline his children – in his mind, this nun, whatever her name was, was already very close to being the ideal governess.
“I’m Sister Norma, the Mistress of Novices. The Reverend Mother is indeed expecting you, Captain Von Trapp.” She opened the iron gates. “She will see you in her study.”
He walked through the gates. “Thank you Sister Norma.”
He had already explained most of his situation in the letter. However, he felt that seeing the woman personally was essential. As he followed the nun, they crossed a large, high-walled courtyard. They found the Reverend Mother there, tending to a vase of pink roses. It had been a long time since he had last seen her, but he recognised her instantly. When they approached, she did not even wait for Sister Norma to make the proper introductions and extended her hand.
“Captain Von Trapp, how nice it is too see you again, at last!” she said.
“I'm afraid it's been too long, Reverend Mother,” he said, gently kissing the elderly woman’s hand.
“I’m sorry to be meeting you here. You see, I don’t trust anyone else to tend to these flowers, and I have so little time to do it myself.” The Reverend Mother continued to water the roses.
“The roses are quite lovely.” He eyed the vase, noting that he had seen a similar one years ago – he had bought Agathe a vase of roses for their first wedding anniversary.
“Thank you, they are my pride and joy. And it seems that they only respond to me,” said the Reverend Mother. “Just like your ships only answered to your command, Captain.”
“The ships are no more, Reverend Mother,” Georg replied. “And what is a Captain without a ship?”
“A Captain like you will always have a ship anchored somewhere.” She sighed, as he remained impassive. “There is a little something I always say to my young postulants – when the Lord closes a door, somewhere He opens a window.”
He smiled condescendingly, not wanting to contradict the Mother Abbess. She may be known for her wisdom, but she did not know anything about life outside the Abbey walls. She knew nothing of his life, about everything he once had, and everything that he had lost. If she were any one of his friends, he would have already retorted with a biting remark. But the knowing expression on the woman’s face told him that, somehow, she knew he would do just that. He felt absurdly at a loss for words.
“Come, let’s walk to my study, where we can talk more privately,” she said.
They crossed the courtyard, but as soon as they reached the archways that surrounded it, they were interrupted by three nuns – the sour-faced one, who had opened the gates for him, and two others he had not met yet. One had a saintly expression on her face, not so much different from the Reverend Mother’s, but lacking the air of maturity and wisdom. They were both followed by a young nun, who also had a very worried expression on her face.
“Reverend Mother?” The young nun gave a small curtsy to her.
“Sister Bernice?” The Reverend Mother frowned. “I’m afraid that whatever it is will have to wait until later.”
“With all due respect, Reverend Mother, this might be urgent.” The young woman whispered the last words, looking up at the Captain. The Reverend Mother nodded for her to continue. “She’s disappeared again. I can’t find her anywhere.”
The mother Abbess looked heavenward, knowing exactly who they were talking about. She turned to the Captain. “I’m sorry, Captain, could you excuse me just for a moment? I’m afraid that life here at the convent is not as quiet and peaceful as people think. I really must take care of this little…problem.”
“Certainly,” the Captain bowed, stepping aside to allow the nuns to speak freely. But he still heard bits and pieces of their conversation while pacing around the arches.
“She’s missing from the Abbey again,” said Sister Bernice.
“Perhaps we ought to put a cowbell around her neck,” the sour-faced nun suggested wryly. The suggestion made him smile – yes, he did like Sister Norma. She would have made a good submarine commander.
“Have you tried the barn? You know how much she adores the animals,” the saintly nun suggested.
“I’ve looked everywhere, in all of the usual places,” replied the young nun.
“Sister Bernice, considering that it’s Maria, I suggest you look in some place…unusual,” said the Reverend Mother.
Sister Bernice nodded and walked away. She passed the Captain and cast him a worried glance. For a moment, he thought she was going to ask him if he had seen her, whoever she was, but the young nun merely shrugged and walked away quickly.
“Well, Reverend Mother, I hope this new infraction ends whatever doubts you may still have about Maria’s future her,” said Sister Norma.
“I always try and keep faith in my doubts, Sister Norma.” Mother Abbess cast a worried glance over to the Captain. She saw that he had walked further away, with his hands behind his back. He certainly was not a man who was accustomed to waiting, and she hoped he would not be annoyed by the interruption.
“After all, the wool of a black sheep is just as warm,” said Sister Anne. “ Maria is such a lovely girl.”
Sister Norma interrupted her briskly. “We are not talking about sheep, black or white, Sister Anne. Of all the candidate’s for the novitiate, I would say that Maria is the least likely…”
“Children, children.” The Reverend Mother nodded towards the Captain. “Do you see that man over there? That gentleman is one of Austria's greatest hero’s, and our Abbey’s greatest benefactor. He needs our help urgently, in a matter concerning his children. Could we please leave this – Maria problem – for some other time?”
“Reverend Mother, with all due respect,” insisted Sister Norma, “You’ve all been so keen about Maria from the start, and I never quite understood that. She came to us without a single reference or anyone to speak for her. And she’s been nothing but trouble! She’s outspoken, brash, and downright disrespectful of any kind of higher authority.”
“It is not our place to judge her, Sister Norma. Maria came to us seeking to know the Lord, and who are we to turn her away?” Sister Anne argued.
More nuns gathered now, attracted by the argument. The Reverend Mother silenced the commotion with a gesture, then proceeded to explain the situation to the new arrivals. The sun was beginning to set, and it was starting to get dark.
A movement caught the Captain’s eye and as he looked up, he saw a young woman, dressed in black postulant clothes, climbing over the wall and dropping to the ground in front of two other nuns. She then proceeded to run away. Not looking where she was going, she bumped into him, almost knocking him to the ground. After murmuring her apologies, she turned on her heel and ran away.
So that was the black sheep of Nonnberg. She was almost as bad as his children and clearly in need of discipline. Oh, how he hoped they wouldn’t send her to him!
He wasn’t sure if the other nuns saw what happened, but a quick glance at them assured him they had. The Reverend Mother walked quickly over to him. “I’m sorry, Captain. Are you alright?”
“I’m perfectly fine, Reverend Mother,” he replied calmly, but inside he was fuming.
“I'm sorry for the disruption,” she continued. “As you can see, I too have a tight ship to run.”
“And yet, you do a remarkable job,” Georg replied. “Which is precisely why I sought your help and advice. I only hope I am not disturbing you. I'm afraid I caught you at a bad time. And its already getting late.”
“Not at all, Captain,” she said. “Some of these girls need more guidance and discipline than others. It doesn’t mean that they are necessarily bad, only…a little lost, perhaps.” The Captain remained silent. “But Captain, I would do anything to help you and your family. You and your .dear wife – may God bless her soul – did so much for us. Whatever we can do to help…”
“Reverend Mother, as I said briefly in my letter…” The Captain followed the Reverend Mother to her office.
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Read Part Four...