Nell was startled to see Hilda Annersley standing at Grace Nalder's bedroom door when she came back from the bathroom that morning.
Both women were looking worried. "It's Therese, Nell," Hilda explained in a low voice, though there was nobody else in earshot. "Matron Gould found her lying unconscious in her room first thing. We've got her back into bed, but she's still proving hard to rouse. I'm anxious about her, and poor Matron is only young and rather frightened, I think. So I've come to poach Nurse -"
"- but you don't want to worry Con," Nell finished for her. "Well, you're in luck if you hurry, because she's just gone into the bathroom. Nurse, I mean," she added in some confusion. "Is there anything else we can do? Is a doctor coming?"
Even as she spoke, Hilda was hurrying down the corridor in the direction from which Nell had just come. "Just carry on as normal, for the time being. Keep an eye on Con. I'll call on you if anything more. We're waiting to hear back from the Sonnalpe."
Left alone, the two mistresses of St Clare's looked at one another.
"I feel helpless," Nell observed, frustrated. "Oh, well. I suppose there's nothing for it but to wait and see. We might as well get on with the haul-around of the common-rooms, before the girls get back - unless we're called on to do something more useful, that is."
Her junior colleague thought for a moment, then decided something. "No. I'll manage that lot. You should go and sit with Con for a while - keep her from thinking anything of Nurse's absence. It won't help anyone for her to start fretting again, and she'd guess it quickly, I should venture. I'm not condoning anything," Grace frowned, "but you can distract her - so you must."
Nell nodded, and frowned to herself, for she didn't like it one bit. She had never lied to Con and, however good the reasoning, she hated to start now.
"I've come to nurse you," she said teasingly, dropping into the chair beside Con's bed in the little sanatorium at the far end of the House.
"Yes, don't you think she's earned a break from your difficult company? - Wait! Don't answer that. Save your hard-earned words for something worth saying."
Con smiled weakly at her visitor. "It's nice to see you."
"I should hope so too!" Nell rejoined, squeezing her hand lightly, frowning momentarily at its unnatural warmth. Con's face was paler than usual and she had evidently lost weight - more again since she had seen her on Thursday morning, before she and Grace had gone to Innsbruck. She had peered in at her last night when they had arrived back - risking the wrath of the ever-watchful Nurse - but the darkness had made it difficult to establish much. She had hoped to return to find her great friend on the road to recovery, however slow; but it seemed that quite the opposite was the case.
Her thoughts must have shown on her face, for Con patted her hand in reassurance. "I'm probably better than I look, really. It's only a mild fever, and that I can't eat it makes it look worse."
Nell smiled gratefully, reminding herself that she had come here to amuse and distract Con, rather than the other way round. "Are you contagious?"
Con narrowed her eyes. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, can I do this?" - and Nell leaned across and placed a lingering kiss on the patient's lips, closing her eyes as she savoured their familiar softness.
Con gave her a twinkling smile before coughing violently for a minute. "Nell! Not in San.! What if someone came in?"
"That's not what you said that time in the staff-room..."
Con gasped. "Do you have a check-list, woman?"
Nell grinned. "I might start compiling one. Let's see, we can tick off my room, your room, San., staff-room -"
"Staff bathroom," Con contributed; her voice was still weak and her face showed that to talk at all was painful for her, but she still looked happier than she had done when Nell had first entered.
"Staff bathroom," Nell agreed with a new grin. "And the cupboard in the chemistry lab, of course. Die Rosen? Does that count?"
"Why would it not count, exactly?" Con began with hoarse indignance. "Just because you -"
Nell laughed. "I didn't mean it might not count because of that particular detail. I meant, it might not count because it's not technically School." She stopped to reflect for a moment before smirking as she added, wickedly, "thank you for sharpening my memory so thoroughly, however."
Con turned gratifyingly red, and Nell paused to admire this effect before taking pity and picking up the thread of their conversation, keeping her mind strenuously away from thoughts of Mademoiselle. "I suppose we might think about adding the kitchen - it shouldn't always fall to me alone to attend to your nocturnal nourishment, you know," she lectured sternly, with scant regard for grammar.
"Karen!" The patient croaked in horror.
Nell gave an airy wave of her hand. "She'd be far more concerned about us purloining her supplies than any other, ahem, misdemeanours we might be committing in her domain. As well you know, or you wouldn't keep sending me on your behalf, madam!" She reached out and shook Con by the shoulder, but only very gently: a shadow of her usual treatment in one way, a great deepening of affection in another.
"I'm sick," Con informed her plaintively. This trump-card was followed by an imperceptible mutter, and Nell bent nearer to hear it repeated.
Her head shot up in mirth and shock: "A form-room? No! How could we..." - but already she was beginning to look thoughtful.
Con shrugged coquettishly. "Logistics - that's your strong suit, not mine, darling."
Nell narrowed her eyes. "It's your mad idea, darling." She glanced at the clock on the wall and jumped to her feet. "Lawks! It's nearly ten. Nurse will be back any minute wanting to know why I'm still here and you're still awake. Here, let me pour you a drink -" she suited the action to the word - "and then you must go straight off to sleep, all right?"
"You're not much of a nurse," Con observed, as she consented to be propped up a little and their hands met around the glass of water.
Nell only grimaced by way of reply, and they both chuckled softly, fingers still intertwined around the glass as Con drank it slowly, wincing with each swallow. But after replacing the now-empty glass and tucking the bedclothes more firmly around her lover, Nell kissed her goodbye and paused to murmur something into her ear.
Con's eyes widened as she listened, and a pink glow spread to the tips of her ears. "Those weren't the logistical details I was actually intending you to address," was the only reply she could manage - and on this occasion it was not her raw throat which impeded her.
Nell grinned as she straightened up and made for the door. "No, I'm afraid I'm still working on that bit. But you have to admit it's a pleasing thought, surely?" Without waiting for a reply, she winked at the patient and left the room.
She was halfway down the corridor before the smile faded from her face, and she contemplated once again the grave situation she had successfully shielded Con from, as well as her own mixed feelings about that masquerade. The hour in San. had been respite for both of them, she realised. She frowned a little as she recalled again Grace Nalder's opening words - I'm not condoning anything - but shelved this concern for the time being; not as 'unimportant', but certainly 'non-urgent', in the present circumstances. Mademoiselle, and the commencement of school, needed attending to first. Soon enough, Con would get better and then there would be plenty of time to worry and wonder about what exactly Grace might know, and what it could mean for them.