Chapter 22: ACCUSED
When Katharina turned sixteen, 17 January, she prepared to attend Gymnasium in Nonnenworth, a private school far away from home. I knew about this possibility for months, but as it neared, I felt as though my world would come crashing down again. Despite the fact I finally broke through to 190 days remaining in service at the Frankes’, I was unsure how I would survive the next six months without seeing Katharina’s sweet face every day.
Since Lena’s absence, Katharina had become the main reason I was able put one foot in front of the other. I’d gotten quite close to her, comfortable enough to even share my darkest secret—my failed escape attempt to see Anton and Josef. I knew it was always a risk saying anything within these walls. It was an even greater danger sharing those same thoughts with someone whose parents thrived to keep people like me trapped here, but there was something different about Katharina.
“Ella,” her voice cracked as she reached for my hands. Only a small lamp shed limited light our direction. Katharina’s parents had retired to their bedroom, and we were alone in the library. “My heart aches for you—for your loneliness and sorrow.”
I met her eyes, but had less tears. Time has helped me bury the more painful recollections. “I’m alright, Katharina. I know someday I’ll see them again. I have to believe that, it’s what gets me out of bed every day.”
“Let me help you find them, Ella.” Her countenance instantly brightened. “I have many friends in the west. They can look for Anton and
Josef. I’ll write to them immediately.”
“Oh, no Katharina.” I held onto her hands as she began to stand.
“Please, please don’t get involved.”
“I want to . . . I want to help.”
I didn’t know how to say that her parents would forbid it, and they would probably go as far as having me detained for even allowing their daughter to feel sorry for me.
“No, Katharina.” My voice grew firm. “No, I cannot let you get involved. I have a plan, please don’t worry about me.” It may have been the tone or the stare, but Katharina reluctantly sat down. “Then—” she smiled, “—let’s read something jovial for our last night together.” I smiled . . . now that was the Katharina I adored.
As February approached, I learned from Johann that Herr and Frau Franke planned, once again, to host another pre-Lenten Fasching dinner. Sadly, the city was even worse off this year than last. It was apparent to me they continued to have little regard for the majority of working poor in the city or anyone that fell below their class. Like snobby peacocks, they flaunted their worldly gains at every possible opportunity.
“Ella, you are one of the most efficient staff here,” Johann pleaded. He was tasked with heading the preparations for the annual event.
“I’m not available that night.” No matter how many times he asked me to serve, I repeatedly refused. No amount of Mark would ever be worth the risk of possibly seeing the cruel Colonel again.
“Lena will be back,” he dangled. I swung around and met him in shock.
“Yes, she starts next week.”
“She’s recovered?” I wanted so badly to visit her at her home but feared she hated me. I could not bear to face her rejection. Even if by some small miracle she forgave me, she would always be a reminder of what I’d done to her.
“She’s doing better and will resume her duties . . . including the
“I’m glad she is well.” My heart was torn; lifted she was coming back, yet worried the sight of me would undo any recovery she achieved away from here.
“No, Johann, don’t ask me again. I won’t help.”
“Fräulein Kühn!” Frau Franke cornered me in the hallway. Johann quickly excused himself.
“I need to speak to you at once!” Her tone sent a small chill through my body. What could she possibly be upset about? I’ve never been late to work and never missed, even coming in sick. There hadn’t been any complaints about my responsibilities, and I worked harder than most of the staff. This was even pointed out by Johann. Every possible scenario rushed through my mind as I followed her into the study. She pointed so indignantly to the end table that her finger shook uncontrollably.
“My watch is missing!”
“Your watch, ma’am?” I thought hard. I had just cleaned in here and didn’t see anything.
“My diamond watch was on this table, and now it’s gone!” She looked at me hard. I knew nothing about it but still began to sweat. I inhaled and then exhaled as quietly as possible. She eyed my every move.
“I never saw your watch, Frau Franke.” I spoke with as much calm in my voice as I could muster, her very presence caused my heart to race. “I was just in here, and it wasn’t there.” I realized I was putting myself at the scene of the crime, but she already knew this, that’s why she accused me.
“It didn’t simply disappear.” One of her eyebrows rose suspiciously as she stared obviously towards the pockets of my dress.
“I didn’t take it,” I spoke softly.
“You were the last one here!” Her voice rose well above ladylike and most likely alerted others to her status.
“I am not a thief!” I said carefully but deliberately.
“It is missing!” She clenched her teeth. I could see blood begin to rush to her cheeks.
“She didn’t do it.” A bold voice declared from the door way. I was shocked to see it belonged to my adversary.
“What do you mean, Stefan?” his mother demanded, angrily.
“What do you know?”
“Nothing, except she is honest in her dealings.”
“That means nothing.”
“That means everything, mother. She has worked here for almost a year and a half, doing exactly what you’ve asked, day after day, with access to many more valuables than a lady’s watch. Why would she jeopardize her time here and possible imprisonment over a small piece of jewelry?” Stefan stood in an unfamiliar way. Not that I watched often, but he actually appeared as a man.
“A very expensive watch!” Frau Franke reiterated.
“Check the area again, she does not steal.” He never made eye contact, but I was shocked to silence as I watched him come to my defense. Who would have ever guessed my greatest witness would be the man who loathed my very presence and right now had an opportunity to destroy me . . . but didn’t.
Frau Franke glanced from me to her son. She was angry but did not move.
“For heaven’s sake, mother!” Stefan moved towards the table.
“As a child I used to lose my toys in here daily, remember? The table tilts slightly to the right from a cracked leg.” He got down on his knees and patted the carpets underneath the sofa. He stopped and then rose slowly from his knees. He held the silver band in his palm. My heart leapt with relief and gratitude.
“Thank you, Stefan,” Frau Franke said more out of obligation than sincerity then snatched the watch and stomped out of the room. She was ready to send me to the gallows but could not utter a small apology.
Stefan himself possibly waited for a thank you, but I had difficulty forming any words. He instantly recognized the awkwardness of the moment, excused himself, and disappeared.
I stood there for another few minutes alone, unable to get my brain to tell my muscles to move, as if I was paralyzed standing up. I struggled to process what had just happened when Heidi walked by.
“What are you doing, Ella?” she cried, legitimately worried. “Get back to work before the misses sees you and you get fired.” I grinned at the irony and followed her out.
I fell into work quickly but could not stay focused. I had to know why. Why would Stefan not just let the pieces fall where they may and be done with me? I found myself walking towards the mortuary.
Through simple staff gossip, I’d heard this was where he spent most of his days. I surveyed the area, never having been this close to the heavy wooden doors that separated the business from the house. I pulled the handles and stepped inside. It was dark and musty. The hall was decorated in an old medieval style, almost like the castle pictures I’d seen with the red velvet fabrics and mahogany woods. It was a stark contrast to the residence.
I was forbidden from being here yet continued forward. The smell of burnt flesh was prevalent. I hadn’t been around it much, but it was a smell you never forget. There was only one room where the light seeped under the door. Pulling my sleeve to my nose, I knocked.
“Come in.” I knew Stefan expected someone else, but I entered.
He worked intently at his desk, although he looked up, surprised at my presence.
I was shocked to hear he knew my name, similar to the time with Heidi, but I didn’t hesitate and jumped straight to the point. “I have to know why.”
“Why what?” Stefan paused.
“Why you came to my defense back there . . . with your mother.”
He pulled his eyes away from his paperwork and stared at me silently for a few seconds. I shifted uncomfortably as I peered around at the office, at anything but him.
“Because—” He waited until I faced him directly, his eyes burrowing through me “—it was the right thing to do.”
The silence was thick. Neither one of us budged on our stare down. It was like we both tried to read beyond the surface. He was unrelenting, I could read nothing.
“I’m confused,” I whispered. I wrung my hands nervously at my side. I should’ve left it well alone and departed, but I had always been one who wanted answers.
“Confused about what?” With his reading glasses on and studious appearance, he seemed older—different.
“When did you start to care about the right thing?” It was a fair question but probably came across more sarcastic than it should have. I shifted once more; his smile emerged. It seemed genuine.
“I deserved that.” He chuckled a little then removed his glasses and wiped his face. He looked back at me, still smiling. It was completely unnerving. I didn’t even know he knew how to smile without mocking. He continued, “I overheard you tell Johann you are not working the Fasching dinner this year.” His blue eyes softened but never strayed. They gazed directly into mine. It seemed they were saying more than his lips. “I have a prior engagement.” “Good,” was all he said.
What an odd way to respond. My forehead wrinkled. I started to move towards the door but turned. Once again, staying silent was too difficult for me.
“Did you . . .” I wanted to know. I needed to know if he had really planned to show Colonel Anker the painting last year. “Did you intend . . .” but I couldn’t finish the sentence.
Stefan continued to stare at me. He waited for the question to come out, but I cowered. “Did I intend what?” he urged.
“Never mind,” I whispered, “You have work to do. I’ll leave you alone.” Stefan continued to watch me. I reached for the door and turned.
“Thank you,” I said humbly. “Thank you for helping me.”
The gratitude was for more than solely his mother or Lena but the Colonel as well, even if it wasn’t warranted. I couldn’t even believe I was saying this, given our history, but it was true; he deserved it.
He nodded subtly. “You’re welcome.”
I finished the week without seeing Stefan or Frau Franke at all. While one seemed less daunting than the other, I feared my emotions on both. I was still having trouble understanding Stefan’s motive. I’d heard from the other help, over time, Stefan had been maturing. He was taking his place in the family business and spent less time with his mischievous friends and more time becoming an adult. This was no small change. He seemed almost like a different person.
I brushed any thoughts of this aside as I stepped in line to receive my weekly pay. My plan tonight was to get to Schlotts Bäckerei before it closed. Often times, it took waiting in line a couple hours to find out they had completely run out of product before your number was called. I must try—I was going to make Mama G a dumpling stew my father had taught me and needed a loaf of bread for it. She had been ill recently, and I wanted to repay her kindness for letting me rent a room from her.
I grabbed my coat in a rushed attempt to put it on before the brisk wind hit the moment the door was opened. A hand appeared behind me. It held the sleeve of my left side as I readjusted my right. I turned to thank my assistant but stopped short. It was Stefan.
He rarely appeared in the staff rooms. This caught me completely by surprise. I was instantly nervous and avoided his attentive eyes as best I could. I pulled my scarf tightly around my neck as I slipped my money into my coat pocket. “Thank you,” I said, feeling slightly indebted.
“Are you in haste?” he questioned with a kind tone I hardly recognized from his lips.
My mind had to be playing tricks on me. I subtly pinched my arm behind my back for confirmation. Ouch! The sting seemed real, but I said nothing.
“May I interest you in a drink?”
“Uh—” Disbelief covered my face. I recovered. “—I don’t drink . . . alcohol.”
Stefan smiled. “Then coffee or tea?”
Stuttering again, it was like I forgot how to speak, “I . . . I need to get to Schlotts.”
“Why Schlotts?” His voice was smooth and natural.
I pulled my mittens on but still avoided his stare. “I need bread.” I didn’t have to explain, but somehow the words sprang forth. “I’m making dinner . . . for someone.”
He paused and seemed to think hard on this answer. “A gentleman?”
My mouth flew open. I was offended by his boldness.
“Excuse me, Herr Franke?” I suddenly found my footing.
“OK, Stefan . . . with all due respect, it’s none of your concern.” My temper started to flare. His personal inquiries instantly put me on the defense.
I flinched, surprised he knew my first name as well.
“Yes?” I snapped.
“Ella, please? I mean no offense.” He said it again slowly. I was irritated. I glanced around and saw half the employees watching from a distance. Now I would be the topic of discussion all next week.
“I need to go.”
“I owe you an apology,” he whispered.
“For what?” I finally made eye contact. I knew why of course, but I wanted to hear him say it out loud.
“Not here,” he pleaded.
“Why not here?” I was unrelenting.
“I need to explain something. At least come and sit with me in the parlor where we can speak privately.”
“No, . . . I really have to get going.”
I grabbed the handle and whipped the door open. I braced for the blast of winter air, which had the ability to bite through any layer of clothing. I stepped to the ground and pulled my scarf over my mouth. I turned around. Stefan was gone.
That didn’t take much. Although I was surprised at the conversation to begin with, I was startled at the twinge of disappointment I suddenly felt with him gone. I chastised myself as I walked as quickly as I could towards Schlotts on Treskowstraße. Suddenly, Stefan appeared again right next to me. Nearly out of breath, he must’ve run to catch up. I rolled my eyes, but inside I was slightly gratified.
“I told you I need to get to the bakery. Why are you here?” My voice was sharp.
He held out a fresh loaf of bread. The food quickly lost its warmth as he exposed it from the towel.
“Here,” he said proudly. “I took it from home, now you don’t need to go to Schlotts.”
“That doesn’t belong to me.” I pushed it aside, recalling his own mother’s threat regarding their food and turned the corner.
Despite the frigid temperature, the line in front of the bakery snaked nearly half the block. It was payday for most of the neighborhood. My chances of getting pneumonia tonight seemed to outweigh the possibility of getting bread. Frozen in place, I physically fought the temptation to turn back to Stefan who I was sure stood still where I left him.
The angel on one shoulder tried to convince me if I accepted his offer I wasn’t necessarily accepting his past behavior. It was merely a token of apology, that’s all. However, the devil on the other shoulder reminded me of the pain and humiliation he had caused. This was my opportunity to return the feeling. I remained still.
Despite the number of people nearby, winter had a way of silencing speech. A strange quiet enveloped me as I continued to contemplate my choice. A small tree branch, heavy with snow, cracked and fell close by causing me to jump. Staring hard, I recognized a connection to that branch. There were many times I questioned my own ability to endure beyond a breaking point. I nearly forgot about Stefan, but with my heightened senses, the crunch of snow underfoot told me he was approaching cautiously.
“Ella, here.” He held out the bread in front of me. “No obligation, I only wanted to apologize.”
I didn’t move. He set the bread on the park bench next to me and started to walk away.
I sighed heavily with frustration. I knew if my parents could see how I behaved right now, they would be disappointed, despite Stefan deserving it.
“You know this is unfair,” I said as I reached for the small package.
He hadn’t gotten too far away.
“Possibly, . . .” he said calmly.
“Fine!” I cracked. “Meet me tomorrow after work, and we can talk.”
His mouth curled in a half grin as he tipped his hat. A few strands of hair fell loosely across his eyes. I did not return the smile and turned and walked the opposite direction. I attempted to focus on how happy Mama G would be when I got home, but the thought quickly took a backseat to what had occurred moments before.
Did I really agree to see Stefan after work tomorrow? I must be completely out of my mind. There is no way I can go through with this. No matter how much he had changed, there were too many reasons why I shouldn’t forget.It started with the Griebnitzsee station almost two years ago. How could I possibly overlook the way he treated me then and the night of Frau Franke’s party. Granted he was fairly drunk, but from what I’d seen, it was still the real him.
No, there’s no way I can see him, even as I held the fresh loaf in my hands. Maybe I can pay him for it. That would be fair and it would be over. I could simply make it clear his apology was accepted, and we would be cordial to each other from now on. Yes, that’s the plan.