The Rarest Flower
       Part Three

Nicole Van Zyl

Copyright 2016 by Nicole Van Zyl
Image of an Edelweiss on a mountainside.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.

Jane Austen had been wrong. It was the last thing Georg Johannes Ritter Von Trapp wanted. He was indeed, as the quote states, a single man in possession of a good fortune. But he was most definitely not in want of a wife. He had been married once, and now that she was gone, he did not want the heartache of losing someone he loved again.

Unlike most society matches, theirs had been a love match. A true case of love at first sight. The marriage had also been convenient to both families, but that was completely irrelevant. He had married Agathe because he loved her, not because it had been expected of him.

It has been four years since that awful day – the day his beloved wife died in his arms – and it still haunts him. He knew that no one could ever replace her. Her death had been terribly hard on him, but nothing could have prepared him for the pain that would follow.

He wanted to protect himself from it – the pain – and in the following months he had been successful. He shut everything out – all the sights, sounds, smells – everything that reminded him of her. He didn’t want to feel anymore. He even went as far to clean his surroundings of every single memory of her. He locked her belongings in the attic, and her photo’s in his desk drawer.

But it was useless – a complete waist of time – because she was still there. A little trace of her in every single one of his children. John looked at him with her eyes, Kathleen spoke with her voice. Elizabeth had her laughter. Stella, Robert, Annie, and Sophia inherited her grace, mischievous sense of humour, shyness, and her child-like curiosity.

He never knew when it would hit him, when he would look at one of his children and see Agathe. So, eventually, he shut them out too. He hid his wife in the attic, he hid behind his various trips – using them as an escape – leaving behind his children, and his memories.

No, he did not want another wife, but he was beginning to realise that he needed one – if only to give his children a mother.

True, a year after Agathe died, he had engaged in a series of discreet, brief affairs. But he did not want a wife to satisfy the physical needs of a very passionate, hot-blooded man. Those affairs had left him empty and unsatisfied emotionally.

Although he did not want a wife, he knew that his children needed a mother. It had taken him a long time to realise that, and it had cost him too much already. As a father, he was feeling completely lost, and he felt like a failure. He was unable to gain their affection, but he vowed that his children would be properly educated. This was the only thing he had left to give them, because his heart was completely broken.

His only knowledge of discipline had been the Navy, and so, he ran his household with the same military discipline that he once applied on his warships. He knew that this would keep them from talking, from laughing, from being his wife’s children. Better still, it would keep him from remembering.

Night time was the worst – his memories would often haunt him then – when he was so lonely that he would actually ache for her. Then in the morning, he would wake up to find that she was not there. Then he would go down to breakfast and he would see her – in his children – and the memories would be like a knife through his heart.

He would try to be a father to his children again, but then he would see her in their faces, hear her in their voices, and his anger would get the better of him. He began to blame Agathe for his misery – it was her fault for leaving him, for dying, for abandoning their family, and she had been the one who had caused the rift in his family.

Then he would end up feeling guilty for thinking that way about her. He vowed that he would fix things, before it was too late. He knew he had to make things right before his grief ruined the lives of seven children.

Ever since the official mourning period which followed the death of his wife was over, women paraded themselves in front of him, all of them willing to rescue him from widowhood and mend his broken heart. Oddly enough, women seemed attracted by a brooding, tortured hero like himself. What made it worse is that he was the perfect catch for them – he possessed a deadly combination of handsome looks, wealth, and the status of one of Austria's greatest hero’s.

The young ladies were drawn to him because of his dangerous looks and his glorious military feats. The older woman were attracted to his dry wit, and his sarcastic sense of humour. He was too much for a woman searching for a husband to resist, even if she was a sophisticated widow herself.

Two years after Agathe’s death, Baron an Baroness Eberfeld, long time friends of his family, had invited him to a formal dinner party at their home in Vienna. But as soon as he crossed the threshold, their intention became clear – to officially introduce him to their twenty-one year old daughter, Pauline. But he was not interested.

Naturally he was not interested in young virgins fresh out of boarding school. He was looking for a very specific combination of qualities in the woman who would become the next Baroness Von Trapp – elegance, class, impeccable upbringing, and a good family name. These qualities would help them both to guide his children into what the world expected of them, and at the same time, be a companion to him. But the young women who usually paraded in front of him usually disappeared as soon as they heard about the seven children his wife had left him with.

As soon as the introductions were over, Pauline Von Eberfeld had been sent to the piano, and an endless concert had begun. The young woman was supposed to dazzle him with her musical abilities. However, there was no chance of that happening. It was not that she wasn’t talented – she was above average, in fact, just good enough for his well-trained ears. But still, he soon found himself dissecting the girls performance mercilessly, finding flaw with every musical note she produced on the piano.

So, what do you think?” A woman next to him whispered.

I do believe that Chopin himself couldn’t have give a more…elongated performance,” he replied, sarcastically, throwing her a sideways glance.

Usually, this would be the only answer the lady would received. The next step would be a polite nod and a murmured excuse, then he would stand up and walk away – he already had his fair share of female attention for one evening. But there was something about her – not elegance or beauty, although, heaven knows she possessed those too – but there was something oddly familiar about her.

A memory.

Not now, he thought, grimacing, taking another sip of his champagne as he turned his attention back to the young pianist.

I see,” she said. “Well, she was right about you, of course.” He looked at her, scowling, but still he did not speak. He did not dare ask who had been right about him, because he was afraid he knew the answer. Seeing the confusion in his eyes, she continued, “you really don’t remember me, do you?”

The memory came back to him like a flash of lightning, and no matter how hard he tried, he could not stop it.

He had just been offered the command of the SMU-6, the submarine recently acquired by the Austrian Imperial Navy. On a sunny day, nearly twenty years ago, the submarine was being christened at the naval base in Fiume. It was no small occasion, since John Whitehead had been amongst the guests. He was the son of the late Robert Whitehead, whose shipyard manufactured the submarine. The Whitehead family name had become a legend in the navy, ever since Robert had developed the first self-propelled torpedo in 1866. The honour of christening the boat had been given to John's twenty year old daughter, Agathe Whitehead.

The memories of that day were a pleasant blur. He remembered being introduced to Agathe and her cousin, the youngest daughter of Count Von Enns. The Comtesse was absolutely dazzling, Agathe was not. She was beautiful, yes, but not exceptionally so, although she had the most captivating smile he had ever seen.

At a ball, later that evening, men had fallen all over themselves to court the tall, elegant Eleanor. He, however, could not resist the petite figure of Agathe and her smiling light brown eyes. He saw no other woman that night, as he only had eyes for Agathe, who would, less than one year later, become his wife.

He recalled seeing Eleanor again a couple of times after his engagement, after all, she and Agathe had been inseparable since they were children. But he never saw her once after they were married – except for the occasional telegram, or even more rare, a telephone call. He vaguely remembered his wife telling him that her cousin had married a millionaire nearly thirty years older than her.

Comtesse Enns,” he said softly.

Oh my, so you do remember,” she said. “But Eleanor Everhart now – or just Eleanor. We are old acquaintances, after all.” She leaned into him, nudging his shoulder playfully.

Baron Rufus Everhart had been a close friend of his father. He passed away a week after Agathe’s death. When it happened, he had been so consumed by his own grief that he had failed to pay his respects to the family, and he could not help feeling guilty about it.

So you are Rufus…” he began.

Widow,” Eleanor completed his sentence. “Isn’t it a terrible coincidence? We both met our spouses on the same day, and we lost them within a week of each other.”

Indeed,” Georg said, cryptically, raising his eyebrows. She did not look at all like a grieving widow, and he wondered how she managed to survive after losing her husband. Unlike his marriage, he concluded that hers had not been a love match. Even still, the Baroness didn’t appear to be a grieving widow – either due to her upbringing or the politics in her marriage – he wasn’t sure.

Baroness Everhart continued speaking. “ I went to see her at the hospital, you know, just before it happened.”

I’m sorry, she never told me,” he replied, curtly. It was rare these days, but it still happened – once in a while he would run into someone whom he had not seen since Agathe’s funeral. And he could not escape from the questions and comments about her that would inevitably arise. All he could do was to brace himself for the pain and do everything he could to drop the subject as quickly as possible.

Would you like to know what she said to me?” Eleanor asked.

Not really, he wanted to reply, but he had to force himself to hold his ground. At the piano, Pauline was beginning to play a Mozart Sonata, which, as luck would have it, happened to be one of Agathe’s favorites. He closed his eyes for a moment. Eleanor did not seem to notice his discomfort, because she continued speaking.

He has lost so much already, including the Navy, now he is going to lose me…She said that you would try and wallow yourself in self pity, and that it was up to me, my poor husband and dear old Helmut to keep it from happening.” She patted his arm lightly, as if to give him comfort and let him know that she understands his loss, and that she will be there.

That does sound like my wife,” he said, grimacing. Just hours before she died, Agathe had tried to make him promise her that he would remarry – a promise he had refused to give her.

Unfortunately, I was never good at keeping my promises, even to my best friend. And then, one week later, my poor Rufus died…” She sighed deeply. “ And once that awful mourning period was over, you…well, let’s just say I was surprised. First you disappeared from the face of the earth, then you…Oh, admit it, you have not become the most charming bachelor in Vienna! You are utterly unapproachable, did you know that?” He chuckled. “ Helmut told me you..”

Are we really talking about Helmut Brunner?” he asked.

Why, is there any other Helmut?” she replied.

Then tell me , what did the old sponge say about me?” he asked.

After that evening, Eleanor was his constant companion. He escorted her to the Opera, to concerts, and to every ball of the season. Helmut Brunner, a mutual friend of theirs, began acting as their chaperone, whenever he was needed. At first, the Baroness had to drag Georg to every event, but after a while, he began to admit that it was nice to be out in the world again, to laugh again, even though his laughter never reached his soul.

She became his armour, his shield against his own memories. He could not help but be impressed by the way she used her impeccable skills to whisk away any unwanted attention that he might be attracting, before he even became aware of it.

Little by little, he began to see her, not only as a good friend, but as a mature woman who possessed all of the qualities he was looking for in a wife – beauty, brains, elegance and social skills. She was perfect in every sense of the word, and he was certain that his family, and even Agathe’s family, would approve the match.

He also knew that she would make a good lover – the way she responded to him told him as much. There was a mutual physical attraction between them that could not be denied. However, since the day he realised that he began to see her as a potential wife, he held himself back. Although Eleanor hinted that she was open to the possibility of becoming intimate, and even though they would hardly be condemned by society if that happened, the gentlemanly side of him demanded that he follow all the rules.

And the rules dictated that, once his decision was made, the next step would be to introduce her to his children.

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