Wren Elsie Carr hurried through the Liverpool rain from the signals room where she’d just worked a night shift to the “Wrennery”, the hostel which had been her home for the past few months. It was hard to believe that Christmas was coming. The world was probably as far from being calm as it had been at any time in its history; and Liverpool in the blackout most definitely wasn’t bright, she thought to herself wryly as she tripped over some of the debris left by the devastating Luftwaffe raid the city had suffered in November. She’d hoped to get leave over Christmas and to be able to spend a few days at home, but so had everyone else and she’d been one of the ones who’d missed out. “This was the year I was supposed to be going to Tyrol to meet up with the others,” she thought sadly. “Everything was so happy and peaceful when we planned it. Who on earth could have foreseen what lay ahead?”
She felt tears coming to her eyes as she thought of the sadness that had come to so many of her friends since the happy days of that last Christmas term at the Chalet School. She was still struggling to come to terms with the fact that Maria Marani’s father, the lovely man who’d been such a good friend to everyone who’d known him, had died in a Nazi concentration camp. And Lonny Barkocz’s father had passed away, as had Gillian Linton’s mother and Louise Redfield’s brother, and dear Mademoiselle Lepattre who as well as being their Headmistress had been like a second mother to Corney Flower. How long it seemed since they’d all been together, discussing their plans for what for some of them would be their last Christmas as Chalet School girls.
“I can’t believe that this’ll be my last Christmas as a Chalet School girl,” Margia Stevens sighed. “It’s going to feel very strange when September comes and I have to watch Amy going off to Briesau without me.” She felt a little sad as she looked around the room at the familiar faces of the girls gathered there. Much as she was looking forward to embarking on her career as a concert pianist, it was going to be strange being away from all the dear friends she’d made at school; and it was going to be equally strange being away from Amy who was her friend as well as her younger sister. Where will I be this time next year, she wondered. And the following year, and the year after that, and the year after that?
Evadne Lannis, one of those three members of the Quintette who’d be remaining at school next year after its two eldest members, Margia and Elsie, had left, saw the fleeting look of sadness on Margia’s face and squeezed her friend’s arm comfortingly. “Guess you’ll soon be making a name for yourself as a concert pianist and then the rest of us’ll be able to say that we knew you when,” she said merrily. “What say we talk about something a bit more cheerful, like what we’re all doing over Christmas? Momma and Poppa and I’re going to a hotel in Salzburg, and I guess we’re going to have one wonderful time there!”
“That sounds lovely indeed, Evvy,” Paula von Rothenfels laughed, “but, as for me, I shall be glad just to have a nice quiet time at home with my family.”
“That goes for me too!” Anne Seymour put in. “This term’s gone fairly quickly but it still seems like ages since I saw Mother and Father and my brothers. All my grandparents are coming to spend Christmas Day with us, and then on Boxing Day we’re all going round to my aunt and uncle’s house. I can’t wait.” She smiled round the room at her friends. “What about everyone else?”
“Madame has very kindly asked Joyce and me to go to Die Rosen for Christmas dinner,” Gillian Linton said quietly. “We very much hope that we’ll be able to spend Christmas morning at the San with Mummy though, provided that Dr Jem thinks she’s well enough to have visitors.”
“We’re also hoping to be able to spend part of the actual day itself at the San, with Leonard,” Louise Redfield, the Head Girl, said. “It’s the only way that we’ll all be able to be together for Christmas.”
The other girls fell silent for a moment. Although both the Linton and Redfield families tried very hard to stay optimistic, they all knew that it was unlikely that either Mrs Linton or Leonard Redfield would ever be cured, despite the best efforts of the doctors who worked so hard at the San on the Sonnalpe, and that what would be a happy time of year for the rest of them would be a difficult one for both Gillian and Louise, and for so many other people who were either being treated at the San or had relatives there.
“I may see you both there on Christmas morning,” Elsie Carr said, looking first at Gillian and then at Louise with sympathy. “Although Lilias is so much better now and we’re hoping that she’ll be well enough for us all to be able to go back to England when I leave school in the summer, she wants to go back to the San on Christmas Day to visit her friends on the children’s ward there; and I said that I’d go with her, and take some presents. It’s the least that we can do, after everything that the San did for Lilias. I just wish that we could do more.”
“Guess it can’t be much fun spending Christmas in the San, even when you’ve got family nearby,” Cornelia Flower said soberly, thinking of Mademoiselle Lepattre, who now lived up on the Sonnalpe, and had been told that she would spend the rest of her days as an invalid. Mademoiselle had her cousins, the Lecoutier family, nearby, but she was presently receiving some treatment at the San and it was unlikely that she’d be well enough to leave there before the festive season was over.
“I guess not,” Evvy agreed. “Like Elsie said, I wish we could all do more for the people who’ll be spending Christmas in the San. And for the doctors and nurses: plenty of them’ll be working on Christmas Day when we’re all tucking into our Christmas dinners and opening our presents. Anyone got any bright ideas?”
“Gottfried did say that it was a shame that they couldn’t bring the patients at the San down here to see our Christmas Play,” Maria Marani remarked thoughtfully. “Especially this year, when so much of the whole play’s being done to music – the glockenspiel playing, and Margia’s piano-playing accompanying the carols of course – so that it wouldn’t matter so much that not everyone’d understand the words.”
“There’s no way that everyone from the San could come down here, though,” Cyrilla Maurús commented. “I think most of them would be able to leave the wards for a little while, but they’d all have to be brought down here by road and it just wouldn’t be practical. I suppose there’s nowhere up there that we could do a second performance of the play, is there?”
“I suppose we could ask Dr Jem to clear out one of the operating theatres, but I’m not sure that he’d agree to it!” Luigia Meracini said. “Besides, there’s no piano at the San.”
“We could always revive the old St Clare’s band to provide the music instead of a piano,” Thora Helgersen suggested mischievously. “I can just hear Corney playing Christmas music on that saxophone of hers!”
Everyone burst out laughing, much to Corney’s indignation, but then they all fell to trying to think of a possible venue where they could perform their Christmas Play up at the Sonnalpe. “Madame might let us use Die Rosen, but really it’s too far from the San for people who aren’t well to get to,” Arda van der Windt mused. “Where else is there where there’s a piano for Margia to use? The play just won’t be the same without the music.”
Suddenly Margia gave a yell. “I’ve got it! You know that little church up on the Sonnalpe? They’ve got an organ there. Obviously an organ’s not a piano, but I reckon I’d be able to manage on it. And there’re are plenty of seats in there, and it’s near enough for those patients who can leave their wards but can’t walk far to be able to walk to, or to be carried to if necessary. Do you think that the priest would let us use it, though?”
“Well, we can only ask,” Maria said. “I think he may well do, though, Perhaps I should ask Gisela if she and Gottfried would ask him for us: they know him quite well. It was he who christened Natalie.”
“We’ll have to ask Miss Annersley’s permission before we do anything else, not to mention finding out what the people at the San think about it all,” Elsie reminded them. “I’m sure Miss Annersley will agree, though. It’s little enough to do for those who are ill at this time of year.”
Hilda Annersley did agree that the plan was a good one, provided that both Dr and Mrs Russell agreed to it. Madge Russell agreed at once, and remarked privately to Hilda that she was proud to think that the Seniors had come up with such an idea by themselves. “So many of them are leaving in the summer, and Thora before that, and it makes me very happy to think that we’ll be sending them out into the world as young women who can think of others besides themselves, especially at Christmastime,” she said as she and the Headmistress shared coffee and cakes together in Hilda’s pretty study. “I’ll have to see what Jem thinks, of course, but I’m sure that he’ll like the idea too.”
Jem did like the idea. “Especially seeing as most of the play’s set to music this year, so even those people who don’t understand English should enjoy it,” he said to his wife. “We do what we can to try to make the San a cheerful place over Christmas, especially on the children’s ward; but it’s not easy, and this’ll make a nice cheerful change for them. The San staff’ll enjoy it too.”
All that remained was for Vater Thomas, the young priest who was responsible for the church at the Sonnalpe, to agree to the use of his building as a venue for the play. Although it was a slightly unorthodox use of the premises, he agreed readily enough. Acting as a chaplain to the San formed a large part of his duties up at the Sonnalpe, and he’d been trying himself to think of a way to bring some Christmas cheer to those who would be spending Our Lord’s birthday on the wards there instead of at home with their families and friends.
The main performance of the play took place in the School hall on the Monday before term ended on the Friday. The second performance was to take place on the Thursday, and the prefects and several other Sixth Formers went up to the Sonnalpe on the Tuesday, to take all the props and costumes up there and to ensure that there were no problems with the layout of the little church which were likely to require any changes to the stage directions. Maria’s elder sister Gisela had invited them all to come to her home for Kaffee und Kuchen afterwards.
Jack Maynard, Jem’s second-in-command at the San, drove down to the School in Jem’s car to collect those items which were too large and cumbersome to be carried up the mountainside easily and as many other items as possible; and Bruno von Ahlen, a young doctor who’d recently joined the San’s staff, accompanied him to walk back up the Sonnalpe with the girls and to lend a hand in carrying those objects which wouldn’t fit in the car.
They were warmly welcomed by Vater Thomas, and after looking round the church were pleased to find that no major changes to the performance would be required. Margia asked if she might try the organ, and the smiling priest agreed at once. “It hasn’t got much use lately, I’m afraid,” he said. “We have no organist up here, although we are hoping that we might be able to get someone to play for us for Midnight Mass: a family nearby has a daughter visiting them from Innsbruck over Christmas, and she plays the organ. Please, Fraulein, do feel free to try it out – it will be much easier for you if you are not trying to play a strange instrument for the first time on the day of the performance, I am sure.”
“Thank you: I’ll try it now, if I may,” Margia said, seating herself at the organ. She knew the music to all the carols which featured in it off by heart: she’d certainly rehearsed them often enough! There was something special about the music that was played at this most special time of year, and she often thought that she’d dearly like to compose a carol of her own. Having said which, she’d never be able to write the words for one, she thought. Amy was the writer in the family, not she!
Turning her attention once again to the organ, she moved her fingers over the keys … but all that came out, much to her dismay, was a strange scratching sound. Feeling rather embarrassed, she tried to work out if she was doing something wrong or if there was a problem with the instrument itself. “ What on earth’s the matter with the wretched thing?” she muttered. “I can’t get a single decent note out of it: all it’s making is that awful noise!”
“What’s the matter?” Elsie asked, glancing over at Margia and seeing that something was obviously wrong. She came over to stand by her friend and she also tried pressing the keys, and they both tried pressing different pedals, but still all the sound that came out was the same scratching noise that Margia had got to start with. The two girls looked at each other, perplexed.
Realising that something was the matter, Vater Thomas came over to join them, but he couldn’t shed any light on why the organ didn’t seem to be working properly either. “We must look inside the instrument,” he said at last. “Maybe something has got inside it and is preventing it from working.”
“Could be rats!” Corney murmured to Ilonka, who shrieked and rushed to the other side of the church. Louise glared at them both, but inwardly she was worried. They wouldn’t be able to perform the play if the organ wasn’t working, and her brother had told her how much the people at the San were looking forward to it. It would be dreadful if they had to cancel at this late date.
Jack and Bruno helped Vater Thomas to lift the lid of the organ so that they could look inside the instrument, and the young priest gave a sharp exclamation of dismay. “But just look at this! I cannot believe it: it looks as if mice have been in here! And so much rust as well – that must have happened when we had the heavy rain in the autumn and this part of the church was flooded.”
Elsie and Margia looked at each other in dismay. “What on earth are we going to do?” Elsie asked eventually. “We can’t let everyone down now.”
“Guess we’ll just have to get someone to get it fixed,” Evvy said. “It shouldn’t be too difficult, should it, Vater Thomas?”
The girls looked at the priest hopefully, but he shook his head sadly. “It cannot possibly be done. Not by Thursday. There is a man in Innsbruck who knows about such things, but it would take him some time to get the materials he needs to repair such damage as this. In fact, I cannot see any way that we will be able to have the organ repaired until after Christmas. We will just have to accept that we will have no music this Christmas, I am afraid. It is a great pity, but no doubt the Lord has his reasons for it!”
“But we can’t do the play with no music!” Lonny said. “It’d spoil it completely.” She looked round at the other girls. “Anyone got any ideas?”
The others shook their heads unhappily. “We’d better get along to Das Pferd for Kaffee und Kuchen, though,” Maria said. “Gisela’s expecting us at half past three and it’s twenty-five past now.”
“We’ll ask her,” Paula suggested. “She might have an idea. Gisela was always very good at solving problems when she was at school. Maybe she’ll be able to think of something.”
“So, you see, the play won’t be any good without music,” Maria finished explaining the situation miserably to her sister, “and the organ’s broken and there’s no chance of getting it fixed before Christmas. And we really don’t want to let everyone down.”
“I know that it’s only a school play, but I think that a lot of people at the San are genuinely looking forward to it,” Louise added sadly. “Certainly Leonard is.”
“Mummy is too,” Gillian said. “It’ll be awful if we have to call it all off. We just don’t know what to do, Frau Mensch.”
“How many times must I ask you to call me Gisela!” Gisela exclaimed. “As for what to do – why, the answer is obvious. You must hold the play here. Das Pferd is close enough to the San for people to be able to get here without too much difficulty, and Margia will be able to play our piano. It is a good one even if I do say so myself. Gottfried and I are both fond of music, as you know, and little Natalie is already showing signs of being musical. Gottfried plays the guitar, and I play our piano as much as I am able to and we would be delighted for Margia to play it and for you to hold your performance here.”
“Gisela, are you sure?” Louise gasped. “That would be wonderful, but … well, wouldn’t it make an awful lot of work for you? Are you sure you wouldn’t mind? And … er, well, how would we fit everyone in, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“A little extra work is nothing.” Gisela shook her head. “Especially not at this special time of year. As for how we are to fit everyone in – well, Gottfried will move the furniture from the Saal, and we shall borrow some chairs to give everyone somewhere to sit. It may be a tight squeeze but we shall manage perfectly well.” She turned to her sister-in-law, who was staying with them at present and along with Herr and Frau Mensch senior would be spending Christmas at the Sonnalpe, and smiled. “Maybe Bruno von Ahlen will come and assist him.”
Seeing Frieda blush, she knew that her suspicions about Gottfried’s sister’s feelings for young Herr Doktor von Ahlen had been right, and was delighted for she was sure that Bruno von Ahlen reciprocated Frieda’s feelings. She wasn’t going to interfere, but nothing would make her happier than to see her sister-in-law happily settled with such a nice young man and living nearby.
“I will have to ask Gottfried what he thinks, but I know that he will agree,” she said. “We will hold the play here, and all will be well.”
All had indeed gone well, Elsie thought as the play ended and applause resounded around the Mensches’ pretty Saal. There’d been some snow overnight, but it hadn’t been enough to prevent those patients well enough to leave their wards from being brought from the san to Das Pferd, or the girls and mistresses from making their way there from the School. She caught sight of Mrs Linton smiling proudly at Gillian and Joyce, her face pale and drawn but happy, and of Leonard Redfield also joining in the applause enthusiastically despite the coughing fit that he’d suffered during the last act, and silently she gave thanks for Lilias’s recovery and prayed that her friends’ relatives might also be blessed with renewed health and strength. Then, seeing Margia still seated at the piano, she went over to congratulate her closest friend.
“You were brilliant, Margia,” she said fervently. “The play just wouldn’t have worked without your playing. Give it another few years and you’ll be a famous concert pianist, I know it!”
Margia blushed. “Thank you,” she said simply. “Oh Elsie, I hope that in years to come I’m going to be playing to audiences much, much bigger than this one, but I don’t think that anything could mean as much to me as playing here tonight for the people from the San. And I’m looking forward to getting on with my career, but how I’m going to miss Tyrol! I don’t know quite what it is but somehow I always feel that there’s something special about playing here. Most of the people here love their music so much. If I do get to be a concert pianist, I hope that one of my first tours will be of Austria.”
Elsie nodded. “Certainly music’s very important in Austria,” she said thoughtfully. “It’s a rotten shame about the church organ, isn’t it? There’ll be no music for the Christmas services and they won’t be quite the same without it. As you’ve just said, most of the people here love their music so much.”
Margia nodded. “I wish there was something we could do about it. I know that we sing about the Silent Night but it’s a terrible shame that the organ’ll be silent for Midnight Mass. Still, at least we were able to use Gisela’s piano today. And I do hope that people have enjoyed the play.” She looked round the room at all the people gathered there, and then suddenly she looked anxious. “Elsie, do you know where Amy is? I can’t see her anywhere.”
“She can’t have gone far,” Elsie said. “Maybe she’s in the kitchen. Or perhaps she’s gone up to the nursery to see Natalie. Let’s have a quick look round. We’ll soon find her, I’m sure.”
But Amy was nowhere to be found, and Margia began to worry. “Where did you last see her?” she asked a group of Amy’s friends anxiously. “She’s nowhere in the house: I’ve looked everywhere.”
“She said something about the snow making it look very pretty outside,” Lorenz Maico said. “Maybe she went out into the garden to have a look at the view over the lake.”
Margia and Elsie rushed outside, but there was no sign of Amy in the Mensches’ garden. “I’m going to go and get Miss Annersley,” Margia said frantically. “We’ll have to get some of the doctors to go out and look for her. Oh Amy! Where can she have got to.”
“Look!” Elsie grabbed Margia’s arm and pointed. “Isn’t that her over there, standing on the mountainside.”
“Amy!” Margia turned and ran over to where her younger sister was standing, gazing dreamily over at the lake and the villages which lay below. “Amy, what on earth are you doing standing out here by yourself in this cold weather? No-one knew where you’d gone. Oh, thank goodness you’re all right!”
“Of course I’m all right,” Amy said calmly. “You do fuss sometimes, Margia! I’m not a baby any more, remember! I was just looking down over Briesau. Look – doesn’t it look beautiful and peaceful in the snow. It’s like the carol says – “all is calm, all is bright”. Don’t you think so?”
“I suppose so,” Margia agreed. She gazed down at the village lying below and smiled. “I do love this time of year.”
“Me too,” Amy said. “It looks so lovely down there. It reminds me of that poem I wrote a couple of years ago – do you remember the one? That was all about how beautiful and peaceful everything looked at this time of year, and how people who were far from their homes and their families and friends at this time of year hoped that next year things would be different. I didn’t think it was all that good myself, but Miss Annersley said that it would make a good Christmas carol if it was set to music.”
“I remember the one,” Margia smiled. Suddenly a thought occurred to her. “Amy! The poem – have you still got a copy of it anywhere?”
“I think I have, in one of the drawers in my cubey,” Amy said. “I know the words off by heart, though. I spent ages working on it to try to get it right, so the words stuck in my head! My poems do that sometimes. Why?”
“Could you write it down for me?” Margia asked. “Elsie and I were just talking about what a shame it is that the church organ won’t be fixed in time for Christmas.”
Amy looked puzzled. “What’s the church organ got to do with my poem?”
“I was just thinking …” Margia said. “No … it’s silly.”
“What’s silly?” Amy demanded.
“I was just thinking … if we could use the words to your poem, and translate them into German, maybe I could compose something, some music to go with them, something that could be played on a string instrument or even a woodwind instrument rather than an organ and then there’d be some music for the Christmas service at the Sonnalpe church after all. Amy, would you mind? We haven’t got long until the end of term and I might not even be able to write anything halfway decent in time, and even I could then Vater Thomas might not like it, but I could try.”
“I think it’s a lovely idea,” Amy said softly. “It’ll be our special gift to the people of the Sonnalpe. Especially for those who can’t spend Christmas at home with their families and friends. They’re the ones whom this performance of the Christmas Play was for, and they’re the ones our carol’ll be for too.”
Christmas Day morning dawned cold and bright, with snowflakes falling gently from the sky as Elsie and Lilias Carr walked the short distance from their chalet to the San. As they opened the main door of the building, they heard the sound of music coming from the direction of the children’s ward. Elsie’s face lit up. “They’re singing Margia and Amy’s carol!” she whispered. “They sang it at Midnight Mass at the Catholic church last night, and now they’re singing it here. Listen. That must be Frieda playing the violin, and Gottfried Mensch playing the guitar, and I think that that’s two of the doctors singing.”
“It’s Herr Doktor Maynard and Herr Doktor von Ahlen,” Lilias whispered, peeping round the door. “It’s lovely! Come on Elsie, let’s go in and listen.”
Elsie tiptoed into the ward behind her sister. As she listened to the sound of the music which her best friend had composed, she remembered the conversation which the “Quintette” had had on the last day of term, before they’d all set off to join their families for the holiday season.
“I can’t believe that this time next year Elsie and I won’t be here,” Margia had sighed.
“Guess that’s the way it goes,” Evvy had said. “We’ll write though, won’t we? We’ll always keep in touch.”
“Sure we will,” Corney had said comfortably. “And who knows, maybe one day we’ll all be together again at this time of year.”
“Not until after I’ve finished my degree, I’m afraid,” Elsie had laughed. “From what I’ve heard I’m going to end up with a lot of work to do in the holidays.”
“When will you finish?” Lonny had asked interestedly. “Aren’t we all getting grown up – the first of us heading off to university!”
“I should be in London for three years, starting next September,” Elsie had said. “So, if all goes to plan, I’ll be finishing my degree in the summer of 1940.”
“Right!” Evvy had said. “Let’s make an agreement, here and now, that we’ll all meet up here some time in December 1940. Momma and Poppa are settled in Tyrol so I guess I’ll be in this part of the world then whatever happens, so we’ll all have somewhere to stay. Some time in December 1940 the five of us will all come back to Tyrol, and we’ll all be together again at our favourite time of year. Agreed?”
“Agreed!” they’d all chorused. Then they’d all wished each other a merry Christmas and a happy new year, and many more merry Christmases with their families and friends and happy and peaceful new years to come.
Now, four years later, the world was at war, all five of them were far from home, and the peaceful villages which had inspired Amy’s poem and Margia’s setting were part of the Third Reich which had plunged the world into the most terrible war it had ever known.
Elsie pushed open the door of the Wrennery and heard music coming from their sitting room. The wireless must be on, even though it was very early in the morning: the times of their shifts meant that people often kept funny hours there. The music she could hear caught at a memory somewhere in her mind. It wasn’t a tune that she’d heard recently, and yet it was so very familiar. It was a tune she knew: she was sure of it. But where had she heard it before? Then she realised, and she gasped.
“What’s that they’re playing on the wireless?” she demanded of one of the other Wrens as she rushed into the sitting room. “I know that tune! I know who wrote it! And I know who wrote the words as well.”
The other girl looked at her in surprise. “No need to sound so excited, Carr! It’s just a new Christmas carol. Nice, isn’t it? Have you not heard it before? There’s a strange story about it, though. People say that there’s a German version of it as well, that it originated in Austria, but of course that’s not true. It was composed by a British composer. A female British composer, actually. Apparently she wrote the music and her sister wrote the words: I don’t know how true that is, but it’s a nice story, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Elsie said quietly. “Yes, it’s a very nice story.” She walked to the window, glad for once that the blackout curtains were up and that she couldn’t see the world outside, and was instead free to imagine a world at peace. She thought of the people at the Tiernsee, whom she was sure were indeed listening to the German version of Margia and Amy’s carol, and she thought too of the other four members of the Quintette and the promise they’d made that one day they’d all be together again in Tyrol at this time of year.
This year, both in Britain and in Austria, there would be many people who couldn’t be at home to spend Christmas with their families and friends singing Margia and Amy’s carol, whether in English or in German, and hoping that maybe next year things would be different. They wouldn’t be, and maybe they wouldn’t be the year after that or even the year after that; but one day they would be again. One year, they’d all be together again.