Set during 'CS in the Oberland'.
Ste Therese's House Characters:
Con Stewart, Minor character(s), Nell Wilson
Angst, Friendship, School Story, Slash
Nell and Con: Oddments
14 Mar 2017 Updated:
28 May 2017
1. An unexpected arrival by crm
2. Where there's a will... by crm
3. Under cover of darkness by crm
4. The Auberge by crm
5. A shift in perspective by crm
6. Grace, and Elma by crm
7. Snow! by crm
8. Chapter 8 by crm
9. Schubert by crm
An unexpected arrival by crm
The knock at the door, oddly familiar and yet quite distinctly neither the cheerful rat-a-tat of Gillian Culver nor the orderly rap of Gertrude Ryder, came as a welcome break from the less interesting half of the morning’s post; letters from Madge and Hilda swiftly identified, opened, devoured, and laid carefully to one side to be answered once business proper had been attended to, Nell had promptly lost interest in her mail. Not for the first time, she wished she still had Hilda just next door: she could have sent for coffee and carried it through to her co-head, demanding that she, too, put down her boring work in favour of some much-needed distraction. Hilda would have given her that look and candidly informed her that she was not going to be diverted by Nell’s whims, but a smile would have crinkled the corners of her eyes nonetheless and she would, at least, not have sent Nell packing.
Hilda was not here, of course; but whoever it was, they still had to be more interesting than insurance papers and requests for prospectuses.
“Enter!” she called, hastily sweeping the untidy pile of correspondence to one side of her desk and straightening up in anticipation.
If anyone had asked her, afterwards, she would have said that she did not know who it could be – but that even so, she would certainly never have imagined it would have been Con. Years older, somewhat thinner, and with a hesitance Nell did not think she had seen in her before – but most definitely, unmistakeably Con.
“Well!” she remarked, for the entrance seemed to call for some remark at least.
“You look surprised,” her visitor observed in amused tones. The soft Highland tones induced a spasm of wistfulness; Nell had not expected ever to hear this voice again.
“Wouldn’t you be?” she retorted. “It’s thirteen years I haven’t heard from you in – and now here you come waltzing into my office without so much as a by-your-leave. You didn’t write. I don’t even know how you found out I was here...”
“Nally,” came the unperturbed reply. “I did think of wiring ahead – but by then I was already at Lausanne, and it seemed silly to bother at that late stage in proceedings.”
“I’m sure.” Nell murmured dryly, watching as Con unwrapped herself from her outer layers, hanging coat and scarf on the elegant coat-stand before seating herself comfortably in the chair nearest the door through which she had just entered. “I suppose I ought to ring for kaffee. So, er – to what do we owe the pleasure of this visit?”
Con seemed to begin and dismiss a series of explanations in her head, the words dying on her lips each time she opened her mouth. Nell made good her own suggestion and rang the little bell while she waited. The Swiss maid had arrived, been instructed and departed with a pretty curtsey before Con appeared to find the words she had been looking for.
“I had to see you. I’ve come to offer my services.” Her second sentence did not sound like one with which she had initially intended to follow her first; but it was this second sentence which seemed easier for Nell to reply to.
She frowned, pouring a generous helping of creamy milk into her coffee. “I do wish you’d written ahead, if that’s the case. I have my full complement of staff here already. I’m afraid I haven’t a vacancy.”
“You haven’t a history mistress.” Con pointed out.
“No, that’s true. But there’s no immediate need to have one – the curriculum doesn’t require it. The plan is to move the main school over here eventually. Then we shall have Biddy.” Con raised her eyebrows at this, and Nell nodded. “Oh yes, the very same. She can’t have been more than, what, fourteen the last you saw of her? But she’s grown into the young woman she showed every promise of being, during the rare intervals between her bouts of madness. Between you and me, I’m tremendously proud of our Biddy.”
Con paused to digest this thought, nostalgia chasing amusement and wonder across her expressive face, before her attention returned to the unexpectedly forthright matter at hand. “Hasn’t stopped you taking on Nally for now, has it? – when you’ve surely a younger Games specimen waiting in the wings.”
Nell laughed softly. “Peggy Burnett, as it happens – remember her? But it’s not PT I’ve taken Grace on for – she’s Musical Appreciation.”
“That’s a skill she kept well hidden in the olden days,” Con remarked, moving nearer to perch on Nell’s desk.
“It was a long time ago. I dare say she’s acquired new skills in the time since our years at the chalet. I don’t pry, as a rule. Grace came to me with excellent references from her previous school, and I’ve only good memories of working with her years ago. Her life in the intervening years is none of my concern.”
“You’re very noble,” Con answered quickly, and Nell couldn’t work out whether she was in earnest or in jest. “Goodness, it is a long time ago, isn’t it? All those years – Biddy and little Peggy Burnett grown up and teaching – Nally, well – and you all senior and sensible and headmistressly–“
“Someone has to be,” Nell interrupted, rather more sharply than she liked. “And you? Don’t you think you’ve changed just as much in all that time?”
Con met her gaze and nodded slowly. “I daresay I have. There’s the children, of course: the boys are nine now, and Janetta seven. They’re boarding in England, all of them. I took them there and saw them off before I came over here.”
Nell absorbed this information, perhaps the first useful snippet Con had offered so far. “There’s also Jock,” she reminded her now, surprised to find that the acknowledgement was still a painful one.
“Oh, him,” Con said dismissively, a dark look flitting across her face.
Oh-ho, Nell murmured inwardly. Lies the wind in that quarter, does it? Outward, she balanced her chin in both hands, elbows on the desk in front of her, scrutinising Con. “You’re not giving me an awful lot to go on here, you know.”
“Must I really spell it out?” Con burst forth with an annoyance that took Nell by surprise; in the next instant, she found herself smiling. The years had softened her old friend to a degree: her voice was quieter, and she remained sitting, the coffee cup quite stable in her hands; but fire still burned here. Con did not appear to notice her secret pleasure – which was probably for the best. “I didn’t know where else to go. I’ve nothing left. I had to see you. I made an awful mistake.”
Nell could not tell whether Con meant the awful mistake of leaving to marry Jock in the first place, or something more recent. The uncertainty stung. She had been so used to knowing Con inside out, understanding what she meant before she had even started saying it. Con back here, and that understanding still awry, hurt and confused her. It seemed an easy enough guess that the same disconnect had provoked Con’s angry outburst a moment earlier. She exhaled slowly, consideringly; glanced pointedly at the clock.
“I’m truly sorry, I haven’t the time to sort this out right now. I need to have this lot sorted before my secretary comes back, and I shall be teaching for the first part of the afternoon. Leave your bags here for now – I assume you do have bags with you? – and take yourself out for a good walk. Come back here after sixteen o’clock but ahead of Abendessen, and we can talk properly.” She wanted to follow it up with a plea for understanding, or perhaps an accusation: how could she be expected to just accept Con’s arrival and make decisive plans about it, having had no time to realise what had just happened? Con had had weeks, probably, of deciding and planning and travelling and preparing; she had afforded Nell no such opportunity. Coping was what was expected of her, she supposed; her job, as ever, was to roll her sleeves up and get on with it.
She half-expected Con to argue, perhaps because this felt a crassly business-like response to the emotional avalanche that threatened to engulf her pretty office, or perhaps just because it was Con, and the Con she had known had rarely passed up an opportunity to argue. Thankfully, her fears were unfounded. With a meekness that startled Nell just as much as the outburst a moment earlier, the visitor nodded with a grateful smile as she retrieved her outer garments.
“Have you money to buy yourself some lunch?” Nell asked conscientiously, her hand straying to the locked desk drawer which contained the cash tin even as she spoke.
Con waved her away. “Of course. I suppose I shall find milk and fresh rolls somewhere, just as we always used to?”
Nell nodded. “The very same. Have a good stroll, and I’ll see you at sixteen.”
“Thank you,” Con murmured; and with another bright smile, she was gone.
For my own convenience, I've made a couple of relatively minor adjustments to canon (obviously in addition to the fairly major adjustment of putting Con in the Oberland!). Con's letter in 'Shocks' says Janetta is five, whereas I've put her at seven. And Con's letter generally obviously does not fit with this story, so I'm completely ignoring it. I hope this doesn't jar too much.
Where there's a will... by crm
Thank you for the comments!
It was tempting to lie in wait for Con's knock again, now that she was expecting it and could remember its ancient familiarity; a hundred pleasing memories exploded in her brain at the thought. Con at the door of her room at the gasthaus in Fulpmes; Con at the heavy wooden door of Le Petit Chalet; Con peering hopefully round the bedroom door, that October half-term they had both spent at Die Rosen; Con tapping at the little bedroom door of Nell’s cottage in Devon, laughing and teasing and wordlessly drawing their attention to the freedom of the cottage, the secrets they did not need to keep, the permission neither needed to ask; and most of all, Con at Nell’s own bedroom door in St Clare’s, a lifetime ago now, night after night after night; Con wanting to come in, Con wanting to let off steam after a hard day, Con making excuses to visit even for a moment, Con knocking only for the fleeting pleasure of a brief smile on the threshold, one little moment in their day when a smile could say more than words could ever manage.
For all these pleasant reminiscences, Nell decided it would be wisest to pre-empt Con’s arrival instead, before she re-entered the building. Lectures had concluded and the teaching staff were, for the most part, at leisure in the staff-room; Gillian Culver had returned from Lauterbach and could be heard in the room next door, typing away; and Nell wanted at least one more conversation with Con herself before she had to find a way to introduce her presence to anyone else.
When she saw Con threading her way along the path, her familiar easy gait drawing Nell’s attention immediately, she rose from her desk, threw on a shawl, and ran downstairs with a lightness that belied her years.
She intercepted Con at the gate, bright-eyed and slightly breathless. "I hope you haven't already had too much of the mountains..."
Con returned an easy grin. A day in the Alps seemed to have mellowed her immeasurably since that morning’s desperate meeting. The observation didn’t surprise Nell in the slightest: it was hard to imagine holding onto any earthly feeling for too many hours, in the face of these indomitable peaks and gentle winding paths. What significance could any of it have, at several thousand feet above sea level?
"Not in the least." She offered Nell an elbow and, after the briefest hesitation, Nell slipped an arm through it. "Actually, I was just thinking how gladly I could get used to them."
"So I am to be a refuge for fallen women?" Nell commented drily – half in playful jest, half in deadly earnest – as they wound their way beneath the pines. "And the term not yet a fortnight old? Madge would have a fit. Fifty fits."
Con leaned into her, charming, knowing it: "Hang Madge. If you want to make it work somehow, you know you will. And you do want to make it work."
Nell did not protest, though she frowned more deeply and was relieved when Con stood tall beside her once more. She could not justly argue with the statement, but nor was she willing to concede it too readily.
"What do you remember about being eighteen?" she asked instead.
Con turned a frown on her. "I beg your pardon?"
Nell grinned. "Well, since you're here, you might as well make yourself useful. What has our Nally told you about this venture, I wonder? I should give you a little background. We've a large bunch of Chalet girls and similar associates, but a couple of smaller groups from other English high schools, and getting them all to think of themselves as one school is – well, it's a problem."
"I suppose it would be," Con mused, eyes roving over the mountainous scenery which surrounded them, as though she were trying to drink an impossible fill of the landscape, making up for all those years away. Nell remembered feeling similarly when she had first come out to the Oberland. "They're hardly kids desperate to fit in at that age; and in the eyes of your "other" groups, they didn't elect to leave their old establishments to join ‘the Chalet School’ – they won't be thinking of it like that."
"No," Nell agreed with a heavy sigh. "I know all that, of course. But something's brewing, or I miss my guess – and I don't like it. All the same, I don't see that I very well can step in, on that basis."
"Certainly not," Con nodded with emphasis. "Why, you wouldn't want to interfere in those matters with kids of twelve or thirteen. Much less with your young ladies here. Which reminds me, Nell – how did you come to be heading up a finisher?"
"Why shouldn't I?" Nell teased, snatching her arm away in mock offence before slipping her hand back through an arm which after all this time remained searingly familiar. "Well, I suppose it was a lack of alternatives, more than anything else. You may not know, unless you've kept much in contact with Joey or anyone else, but our experiences with new staff have often been – trying."
"Oh, all the same. There must be someone more suited than you. Ivy Norman could've done it. Hilda Annersley would've made more sense than you, for crying out loud..."
"Hilda isn't dispensable enough." Nell retorted, giving voice to a resentment she'd barely admitted to herself before now. "If this little venture fails, then I'll fall back in, same as usual. If Hilda came out here and it didn't work..." She raised sheepish eyes to her friend. "I sound frightfully bitter, I know, and it's not that I want her job for my own or think I'd do it anything like as well, for that matter. It's only–“
"Anywhere else, you would." Con interrupted, understanding her at once but phrasing it more bluntly, as she always had done. A mixed blessing, this straight-talking of Con’s. "Well, but you would, Nell. That's the sacrifice you've always made to stay with the Chalet School, rightly or wrongly. You could have been an outstanding Head in your own right, but you've always chosen to stay loyally in Hilda's shadow."
Nell wriggled, slightly uncomfortable to hear her position summed up so neatly and mildly irritated at Con for coming back after all this time and seeing it so clearly. "And now here I am – no shadows in sight!"
"So no wonder you're fretting." Con concluded. "And then along comes I, putting it all at risk for my own ends, again."
"Probably." Con was silent for a moment, and when she spoke again her voice was more cheerful. "Still, I think I can be a help to you. Don't you feel better already?"
Reluctant, Nell let the smile sneak out at the corners of her mouth. "Is that how you see your role in this arrangement, my dear? Some sort of lady's companion to listen to my worries and soothe my fevered brow?"
"Oh, no." Con shook her head with great certainty. "Put me on the timetable! Although you must know I'm happy to mop your brow any time. So what's brewing with your malcontents? Begin at the beginning. You'll have the better half of it sorted simply for the explaining it to someone new."
Nell relaxed, and did as she was bidden; it occurred to her that in all the intervening years, she'd never yet found anyone else for whom she would be this unquestioningly obedient, anyone whose commands wouldn’t rankle at least a little bit. Out it all came: Elma's malevolence, and the bevy of easily-swayed girls who clung around her; Edna's painful lack of courtesy; Peggy's – Peggyishness Nell owned reluctantly – not that that would be any problem in the ordinary way of things, but faced with the current crop of irregularities, it seemed to.
Con was quiet for a moment, thinking it over. "I don't think Peggy will be the problem you're imagining, you know. Oh, I know I speak from the unusual vantage-point of not knowing at all what she's like nowadays – she was a nursery infant, the last I knew of her! – but if she's the natural leader you describe her as, then by the ripe old age your lambs have all reached, she'll have the sensitivity not to lead when Elma's simply spoiling for a fight and everyone is keen to start the school off on an even keel, so to speak."
Nell's mouth twitched. After Hilda's smoothly perfect English, her most relaxed – and her most frazzled – conversations almost poetic in their precision, it was an unexpected relief to hear Con's cheerfully mangled grammar and dubious metaphor. It strengthened her faith in the message conveyed, somehow – the undiluted honesty of thoughts shared almost before they were formed, the assurance that these views were being purposely developed right now for this particular situation, not lifted from some stock peg of wisdom, the best available fit prudently recycled from some previous occasion.
"Maybe you have to let them have their fireworks," Con went on. "Sometimes that's what folk need, isn't it? Give them their explosion and dramatics, and then let things settle down as they will."
Nell frowned. "I know what you mean. But I simply do not want fireworks, thank you very much! Not this term. I want everything to go smoothly."
"You wouldn't know what to do with yourself if it did," Con teased, and the gentleness of her teasing felt as comforting as a squeeze of the hand or a kiss on the forehead; and if Nell had had any doubt before now, she was quite certain of what she meant to do about this most perplexing question of all.
"You're not wrong: it simply wouldn't be the Chalet School without our quota of alarums and excursions! And it's to that end, I dare say, that I'm not going to ask you to leave." She glanced sideways at Con as she spoke. Con was staring at the ground but a smile was spreading across her face, and it seemed to light up the entire sky.
“Thank you – thank you,” Con breathed, her voice little more than a throaty whisper under the murmur of the pines.
Dusk was drawing in, and Nell nudged them back in the direction of the new school building, trying to ignore the fear that she had just made a horrible mistake.
Under cover of darkness by crm
Thank you so much for the comments!
Appointing Con to the staff seemed an inevitability: in spite of her reticence, it was clear that some sort of disaster had brought her to Welsen, and Nell could not help but feel moved to care for such a forlorn object. She was sure she would feel thus moved by anyone in such dire misery.
Yes, appointing Con to the staff seemed an inevitability – if one that shocked even Nell herself. Madge had not been asked, Hilda's advice had not been sought: Nell could not have imagined herself acting under such circumstances only hours earlier, and her response to her own behaviour was equal parts outrage and delight. Perhaps she had not grown up so much as she had imagined, these last ten years or so; perhaps she had merely lacked Con. Whatever the reasoning, here was Con now, absconded and therefore risky, but absorbed into the school if only because there seemed to be no other way of buying the time she needed to talk. Time was scarce and privacy even more so, but to turn away her oldest and dearest friend – ‘friend’ did not do it justice – for lack of either would have been even more foolish than her chosen course of action itself. There could be no question that she needed to talk to Con.
It was in this same vein of necessity that Nell, only halfway apologetic, had put the newcomer up in her own bedroom. The rush over the summer to have St Mildred's ready for the start of term had meant no contingencies were planned for, and there were no bedrooms not already in use. This state of affairs compounded the delicious shock of Con's appointment, and Nell meant to prioritise arranging a room of Con's own. She could think of at least two rooms which might suffice, but getting a bed in this hard-to-reach hamlet would certainly require some effort – as well as some considerable expense from her own purse, at least for now, for she did not relish the prospect of having that conversation with the Russells just yet.
Still, for all her reservations, the arrangement made sense by any measure. Nell's bedroom, situated beside her office rather than along the main staff corridor, was larger and more private than any other; was in an entire portion of the building which was never frequented by the girls, and only very rarely visited by anybody else – excepting only Gillian in the office next door, and the maids scuttling through busy with their cleaning, during the daytime. Where else could Con’s presence be without disruption? Where else might they ever get to talk? And anyhow, after all the years and all the intimacy they had once shared, it seemed a petty matter to worry about having to reside – temporarily! – in such close proximity now.
Nell had blurted out the suggestion – the only one possible, she reminded herself – before the illicit thrill had worn off; Con's acceptance, her face inscrutable (Nell cursed the distance of the last decade once more - hadn't she always known what Con was thinking, been able to read those unabashed opinions straight off her lovely face?) had immediately prompted a half-hearted apology. Sorry, she had no choice; sorry, it wasn't quite proper; sorry – this last one unspoken – if she had had even the slightest notice of Con's arrival, she might have been able to make more appropriate arrangements. Beneath her apology clouded the sobering realisation of the predicament she had had no choice but to drop them into; and still burned the newly-discovered excitement, not of anything in particular other than the unexpected rediscovery of someone she had been a long time ago, someone younger, more dynamic, more hopeful, someone less hardened and responsible. She would not have said she missed that person – would likely have dismissed her as immature, naive, unsustainable – but the frisson of pleasure she got from the unbidden reincarnation was impossible to deny.
Quick thinking, and the relative ease granted her at this early stage of a new venture, had allowed her to introduce her new mistress to the rest of the staffroom after Abendessen. "Con Stewart joins us from tomorrow to take History and Italian conversation," she had explained smoothly. "You'll remember Con of course, Grace – and Julie – and perhaps also Gertrude? Con was with us in the Tyrol and in Guernsey," she added for the benefit of the newer folk. “Her arrival here has been dependent on many factors, and so I didn't like to get your hopes up by promising another mistress who didn't materialise! But here she is – another poor soul to shoulder the burden."
She had gambled that none of the others would disclose Con's presence – even unwittingly – and that time was still hers to smooth the way with Madge. The only alternative – trying to hide Con's presence from the rest of the house – seemed far riskier. Con, thus introduced, was charm personified, eager to join the group and their new school without having any interest in excluding or taking over, and Nell smiled fondly at the memories it evoked. She was artless, always had been; could be safely relied upon to upset the more delicate flowers of her acquaintance – Nell made a hasty mental note to keep her and Edna Purdon as separate as circumstances would allow – but that same unmeditated abandon endeared her to many others; her conversation and her actions were authentic, and earned her an easy liking and trust. She was still very pretty, Nell noted properly now; youthful radiance had been replaced with a face which was thinner, looked more lived in, but the faint lines around her eyes matched her smile, and the years added an impression of greater depth – a welcome ballast, some sort of proof somehow that an abundance of outward gifts did not imply any inward lack.
She had not remembered these details: had, in the preceding thirteen years, devoted precisely zero hours to recollecting Con’s buoyancy, or the way her anecdotes could captivate the room. Thus forgotten, her own immediate and persistent physical response to Con’s return was unexpected, and all the more powerful for being so. Her sheer loveliness made Nell’s chest ache, her flashes of vivacity sparking somewhere deep within. The sentiment was not strictly physical: on some level of deep familiarity, Con’s presence spoke to her in the long-lost language of youth, bringing to life formless memories Nell had not even realised she had forgotten. After the wreckage of her early twenties, Con had been the resurrection of her happiness, and the power of that had not abated.
All things considered, then, she should have known the foolishness of the position she had put herself in; knew that her early resolve, to keep things uncomplicated until Con's cards lay face-up on the table and she herself had secured some sort of long-term arrangement with Madge's full understanding, would fall away to nothing. She had requested an additional plumeau from the chambermaid, far more for her own purposes than to prove any kind of point to Miggi and her chums. The plumeau had materialised as requested, piled onto the desk-chair before nightfall, and Nell – her back ostentatiously towards her guest as she undressed for bed – moved her own across the bed so it covered one half, and repurposed two pillows to erect a wall of sorts down the middle.
A snort – more affectionate than derisive – told her Con had finished dressing and turned around.
"Really?" Whilst unforgiving, the remark was without malice.
"Really." Nell retorted firmly, picking up the fresh plumeau and throwing it across the other side of the bed in answer.
Con did not argue. Instead, she sat on the side of the bed clearly designated her, slippered feet still on the floor. "You'd have been able to make it clear enough with words, you know. I don't need fortifying to make me behave myself."
Nell sat down too. Facing away from each other somehow made it honesty more possible. "It's not for your benefit."
Con absorbed this, quiet and still, and Nell wished she would react. It was impossible to guess what she was thinking.
"Do you want me to turn off the light?" Con asked eventually, indicating the light switch which was now on 'her' side of the small room. Her voice was soaked in kindness, deliberately so, and Nell was not sure whether her own overriding feeling was relief or disappointment.
"Please," she murmured, slipping her feet from her soft indoor shoes and wrapping herself beneath the covers as Con matched the action to the word.
"Good night, Nell," came in soft tones through the darkness as Con, far away the other side of the pillow wall, tucked herself in firmly.
"Good night." She hugged the plumeau to her more tightly, eyes open but unseeing in the pitch darkness, still facing out away from her companion. How long had it been, since she had shared even a room with someone else? Much less a bed. She became conscious – too conscious – of her own breathing, the loud noise of her eyelashes quivering against the cool cotton pillowcase. Sleep? How could she sleep?
"Are you asleep?"
She was not sure how long Con had waited to ask that question: seconds or hours. From her voice, she could hear that Con lay facing upwards, her question directed towards the ceiling. She always had done, Nell remembered now; always, unless she had curled herself around Nell's own body; and even then, at some point in the night her sleeping form had reverted to type, one arm flung carelessly across Nell as a contented nod to the position she had started the night in. She rolled over to direct her answer likewise skyward. "Are you?"
Con chuckled softly. The room was dark, and the company was warm.
"Thank you, Nell," she went on, after a pause so lengthy the brief conversation had seemed concluded. "Really, thank you. For putting me up, and having me here. I know it can't have been easy."
"I'm glad you're here." Nell surprised herself with her complete lack of ambivalence on this point. There was no lingering anger or bitterness. The pain of Con's departure had healed, long ago, and stayed healed even now. Years earlier, when she had desperately wished her back, the barren craving for her had been accompanied by a powerful rage: she wanted Con back, wanted to imprison her in her arms – and at the same time wanted to turn her away; to revenge her abandonment; to protect herself from further hurt. She had realised, one day, that the pain had gone; had assumed that the hatred had evaporated together with the love, and all that remained was a quiet indifference. But here lay the truth: the hatred had evaporated and the love remained; and under cover of darkness, at least, this realisation did not intimidate her.
She reached a hand across the pillow; knew just where to find Con's own warm hand, and clutched it tight; not clinging on for dear life, but conveying a message of certainty.
"Oh no! Barriers have been breached!" Con murmured teasingly, returning the squeeze.
"Barriers be damned."
Con rolled towards her, using her other arm to fling the pillow away. Her warm breath mingled with Nell's, and Nell reached over to tentatively pull her closer, her whole gesture one big question mark.
Con read the question, brought the hand she still held to her lips and kissed it in answer. Four kisses, one on each knuckle, and by the fourth Nell knew all over again exactly how her kisses felt, relearned all that she had never completely forgotten. That same delightful familiarity reverberated throughout her body; the way it fitted perfectly around Con's, after all this time and all that had happened.
Afterwards, lying on Nell's shoulder with her hair hanging loose across both of them, Con asked: Was it different? Am I different?
Nell stroked a quizzical hand across her cheek, and waited.
Three babies, my dear. You know. Different?
Nell turned her head slightly to kiss her hair. "Perfect."
But different? she persisted.
"I don't think so." Nell paused, then seemed to take her chance. "Do you want to talk about them now? I suppose sooner or later we must."
To her surprise, Con found herself very ready to talk.
“It was awful,” she began simply, and breathed in deeply to gather her thoughts. Nell did not interrupt, and the words seemed to find themselves with a fluency she remembered from overhearing Con’s history lessons on her best days. When Con told a story, every ounce of her being was fully absorbed in it, and the gentle lilt of her voice carried her listeners with her, irresistible.
“I knew at once it was the wrong decision to leave – I regretted it the moment the ship set sail; as I walked up the aisle, the same day we got the wire to say you had landed safely in England; regretted it the instant I walked into the library at Sarres and saw him standing there, waiting for me.
I felt alone – just horribly alone; and guilty for him, too, because he wasn't a bad man – he deserved a good wife, a proper wife. So I set about making myself a good wife. I had the boys, and I was good with them. I did it myself, you know – no nursemaids for me! I read Dr Spock’s book, and I insisted upon it on that basis – and I still tell you now, I was good with those babies – but it was also a convenient way of hiding away from Jock, and the other expats, and any friends I might still count myself as having from before my marriage. I simply didn't have the time for them.
And then I had Janetta, too. By this time, Jock was working away a lot – first with the war, but he kept up that sort of arrangement afterwards, and by then I'd missed my chance to make much of a go of things with other expat wives in Singapore. Oh, I hated Singapore, Nell! The city was so bright and the land was so flat, and the English people out there so very insulated from the Singaporeans. Everything that was wrong with it reminded me of all that I loved in the Tyrol – in Guernsey – in Scotland – in Devon... And I was just so alone, and I couldn't cope at all. Janetta wasn't like the boys – she screamed for months on end, no matter what I did. So I cracked and got a woman in. Well, that stopped the shrieking – not for Janetta, poor lamb, but for me. Trouble was, it stopped everything else too. Time whirred past, as if life was happening to somebody else and I was just watching...”
She went on, and Nell could see it all quite clearly; the increasing detachment, the resentments, the frustrations of the cloistered life in an emigrant community.
“I took to drinking to block it out, in the end,” Con's voice was almost dreamlike, as if narrating events from a light novel rather than the most private moments of her own history. “I thought nobody would notice – probably nobody did, for a time – other than the maids who washed the glasses, or the housekeeper who always saw to it that the bottle was replaced. Jock came back home, and I started drinking earlier and earlier, because that made him easier to bear. I forget when he knew, or what he said at first; I only remember his irritation, his grimly paternal confiscation of the bottle time and again; as if I couldn't get another; as if the housekeeper and all the rest hadn't answered to me and me alone, all those years he was off doing his own thing. He didn't know them – he didn't know the kids – he didn't even know me, after all.
Well, naturally there's only so long you can ask anyone to put up with that. I think I was more relieved than anything else when I learned he had already found someone else. At least then I didn't have to feel that it was all my fault any more. If I had been sensible then, I could have sorted things quite agreeably – come to a discreet arrangement, made sure the children and I were properly taken care of while he disappeared off with his fancy woman, somewhere nobody would know he already had a wife and three children.”
She fell silent, and Nell needed to prompt her. "But you weren't sensible?"
“I was jealous; I felt scorned; if he could, why couldn't I?”
Nell tensed, half-guessing what was coming next. "Oh, goodness, Con. Not really?"
“Absolutely really. It wasn't even difficult. She was only visiting, the sister of a friend of his. Not my first choice, but even in my madness I couldn't take responsibility for breaking another family, and that particular scruple rather limited my options. Still, it had the desired effect on my own, and you can't imagine how I've kicked myself for it now.” Con’s voice, once so fragile, was harder than Nell ever remembered, now. “I left before I could be flung out.” She emitted a queer sound, almost a bark, and Nell could not tell if it was a laugh or a sob. Her bitterness was palpable.
She rolled back, staring unseeingly towards the ceiling once more. Her thoughts swam. Beside her, she felt Con tensed up, spent, wary. She suddenly felt very tired, and filled with regret: regret at opening the floodgates; regret at falling headlong back into this particular entanglement; regret at so foolishly, speedily, permanently attaching Con to the new School. Madge, Hilda, Jock. Con. Her head hurt.
“Well?” Con snapped, hurt – and justifiably so, Nell supposed. “Can’t you say something?”
She must say something. She must. What was there to say? What remained to be said? In daylight, she would have found the words. Madge would have found the words. Hilda. What would they say, if they knew what Nell had done?
Groggy, she exhaled heavily. Thought of reaching for Con’s hand again, then thought better of it. In any event, she was not sure that she still had full control of her limbs: everything felt very heavy. “I thought he was a good man,” she said softly, surprised to hear her own voice cracking.
“Hmm.” Con answered; still tense, still wary – still hostile. Nell knew her response had been inadequate, but through the fog she could not find a better one.
There was silence in the bedroom.
NB. I may have very slightly adjusted history for my own convenience. (Spock's 'Baby and Child Care' wasn't published until 1946, which is very slightly later than I would prefer. Hopefully that's not too noticeable!)
Thank you all for the lovely comments!
The next day was Friday.
When Con awoke to the sound of the rising-bell, Nell had already left the room. She had eased the heavy casement open before she went, and a gentle breeze wafted in, carrying on it the fresh scent of the mountains in the morning, the sharpness of pine. Con lay for a moment, feeling oddly bereft. She had not wanted or expected to wake up alone. Much had happened in the last twenty-four hours. She rubbed her eyes fiercely and sat up. A dressing gown sat on the bedside cabinet beside her, neatly folded; like all of Nell's gifts, it was thoughtful in its anticipation, perfunctory in its delivery. Con had never known whether to admire, adore, covet or resent Nell's unrelenting pragmatism. The dressing gown was what she needed, yes; and yet it seemed to mock what she very much wanted, which was Nell instead.
She half-wanted to struggle through her morning toilet, so she might have something to blame Nell for; but again she found herself thwarted, by a carefully-placed fresh towel and sponge bag on the bathroom windowsill. By the time she made it to breakfast in the Saal, arriving just ahead of the bell and the girls, she had worked herself up into a foul mood. She resented her old friend the peace of her morning; the easy grace with which she had laid out everything Con might have wanted, rather than instigate any conversation about it or even mention it before they had drifted off to sleep in the early hours; blamed her for the unexpected loneliness of her first full day in this strange new place. Her first morning in Briesau, so many years ago, Nell had knocked on her door just after the bell to see that she was all right, tell her where to go and what to do, the smile on her face every bit as sunny as the bright September morning – and back then, Con had been just another new face, no one special yet; and yet here, where she was lost and wrong-footed and where Nell was in charge, where she had spent the night feeling the rhythmic, reliable rise and fall of Nell's breath – nothing. All the practical touches, and none of the kindness.
She seated herself beside Vi Norton, giving her a bright smile as she did so. A place remained empty between Nell and Grace, surely the obvious seat for her, but she avoided catching the eye of either of these old friends as she slid into place at the far end of the table.
"Is this your first time in the mountains?" She asked, pouring herself a cup of coffee and reaching across to the bread basket, and then, as Vi nodded apologetically through a mouthful of hot roll spread with butter and jam, "what brings you here, if I might be so direct as to ask you?"
Vi, her mouthful daintily disposed of, returned the smile and reeled off much the same sort of answer Con herself would have given back in Briesau. "Well, ‘why not’, is what it really came down to! It seemed rather an adventure. I'd had plenty of experience in a school in England, and fancied a try at something new, and I'd always fancied travelling around on the continent."
Con smiled again, a smile of recognition this time, and spread her own roll lavishly with black cherry jam. "That's just what brought me to the school when it was in the Tyrol, back before the War. Best decision I ever made.” She took a mouthful and pressed swiftly on, keen to avoid leaving a gap in which Vi might ask the same polite question of her. “My first year was such an eye-opener! There’s just so much more season up here, somehow: autumn is beautiful, of course. But just you wait ‘til the snow comes! Several feet of it. The lake used to freeze right over. Then all the petulant drama of the thaw – but summer! That was the most glorious of all. Have you skied before?”
She skilfully avoided Nell for most of the day, and contrived to be deep in conversation with Julie Berné when Nell arrived in the staffroom that evening. As soon as she felt that enough time had elapsed for discretion, she yawned and climbed to her feet. "Gertrude, may I trouble you for an aspirin? I've a bit of a headache starting – nothing an early night won't ward off, I'm sure."
Gertrude nodded, a look of only the gentlest concern on her face, and Con gave silent thanks that it was she and not Gwynneth Lloyd who had made the move to Switzerland. She was not lying about the headache, nor inventing the tiredness – but her greatest motivation was to avoid conversation with Nell. She surmised correctly that Nell would not be able to follow her to bed early – and so, once she had fended off that lady's courteous and infuriatingly genuine inquiry as to whether she could do anything to help, she congratulated herself on a full day of discreet avoidance and went to her hard-won rest.
So tired was she, not only from the one very late night she had shared with Nell but from the stresses and the travelling which had preceded it – going how far back? she wondered dozily to herself, unable to put a date on it – that, helped along by a good dose of aspirin and warm milk, she fell asleep very quickly after only the briefest moments of brooding in the dark. She felt horribly exposed, and wished she had not told Nell everything so quickly, had not immediately rolled over to bare her soft underbelly. Nell had heard her out quietly, offered no judgment other than that one wounding comment: "I thought he was a good man..." Con had told her everything, waited for comfort or absolution or condemnation, was unsatisfied now to realise she had none of these and did not even know what Nell thought, beyond that one pained expression: I thought he was a good man...
She felt herself powerless, thrown entirely on Nell's mercy, and slightly out of control; it was as well that the exhaustion of recent months precluded her staying awake worrying until Nell joined her. Dead to the world, she did not hear Nell creep in noiselessly; did not see her as she stood and tenderly watched Con in the moonlight, reach out to gently touch her sleeping child's-face before changing her mind at the last minute, withdrawing a hand which didn't yet feel it had the right to initiate such intimacy without asking first; did not know to wonder at what lay behind Nell's inscrutable face as she gazed upon her, mind heavy, heart open.
Saturday made it harder to avoid Nell; impossible, even. Con evaded her for the morning, making some excuses about shopping and swiftly recruiting the unsuspecting Gill Culver to her plan by offering to take care of that worthy’s business in Lauterbach since, she said, she intended to go down anyway. But these tasks attended to, and lunch eaten – Con seized this opportunity to get to know Gill herself a little better, continuing to avoid Nell and Grace without causing any suspicion – her luck ran out, as she knew it must.
"Let's go for a walk," Nell murmured as they left the Saal after lunch. "Grace will hold the fort here for a bit. We need to talk – and you need a better feel for the area, too, if you're going to take our girls out next week – and that you will, make no mistake. The rain will start, sooner or later, and I want them to get a good stretch of their legs before that happens."
Thus cornered, Con agreed, and the two went together to the staff splasheries to don stout boots and shawls. Her heart pounded, unsure whether this walk would allay or realise her worst fears. The abject pain of navigating these waters whilst working together and even sharing a bedroom – foolish Nell, had there really been no alternative? and fool her, too, for the erstwhile thrill it had given her – somehow made their original separation, dimmed through the mists of time, look preferable. At least then, she hadn’t truly known what she was doing, the price she would pay; at least then, there was hope.
"What's going on?" Nell demanded, as soon as they had turned out of the little gate which marked the end of the school's grounds.
Con paused to think, tried to gather her thoughts; half-hoped that, in her silence, Nell might go on herself.
Con shrugged, employing all the sang-froid she could muster. "I think I made a mistake..."
Nell looked at her, eyes narrowed. "Which mistake? If you mean the other night, then of course we needn't mention that ever again..."
"I mean all of it," Con interrupted, feeling guilty afresh. "I shouldn't have come out here at all. It was a bad idea."
Nell breathed out through pursed lips. "Speaking purely about the practicalities, I think you ought to at least see us through to half-term – if not Christmas. Do you realise the strings I've had to pull to make it work for you to be here? I've had to have Gill thoroughly rearrange the timetables. I've had to pass you off to the other mistresses as if I’d always expected you. And I'm still working out the best way to explain matters to Madge. I can find you a plausible exit – just – at half term; but nothing that justifies you disappearing a mere three days after your arrival. Can you do that?"
It was not really a question, and Con wasn't going to be fool enough to answer as if it were. "I wish you wouldn't, you know," Nell turned questioning eyes upon her, "speak purely about the practicalities, I mean. I'm sick of practicalities."
Nell snorted; no sympathy. "The world turns on practicalities."
"Well, I wish it wouldn't, either."
They walked on in heavy silence.
"You say you don't want me to speak about practicalities. But you've not given me a lot else to go on."
Con flamed. "That’s not true. And it’s not fair, either. I gave you everything on Thursday night. Everything. And you – you said nothing, left me to try and guess what you made of any of it. You still leave me guessing. And your dressing gowns and sponge bags and whatnot like – like – like you're hosting your maiden aunt for a visit! Not me."
Nell was silent again. When at last she spoke, it was on a different subject entirely. "Come up this way," she said suddenly, nudging Con towards the left-hand fork in the path ahead. "I want to show you something."
Shortly they arrived at a grassy clearing, and Nell stopped. A little chalet stood nearby, and the view – whilst as lovely as anywhere else they had so far walked in the area – was unexceptional. Con communicated her confusion with her eyebrows. "So?"
Nell grinned now, sudden transformation; an unexpected break in the clouds. "Listen to this." And she gave a creditable yodel into the void; to Con's surprise and delight, the sound came back to them, shimmering and silvery in the crisp autumn air.
She lifted her voice and yodelled herself, almost surprised to hear that she could still make as pretty a sound as ever she had back in Austria. Again the sound danced back, thrilling her. For a moment her bad temper abated, her affection for Nell returned.
They spent several happy minutes at the echoes, only withdrawing reluctantly when the longing glances of a small group of tourists intimated that their rightful turn had passed.
"Do you mind if we don't stop for a drink?" Nell asked, gesturing towards the chalet, the question genuine in her face. Con shrugged, pulling the water bottle from her knapsack and offering it to Nell first before taking a mouthful herself.
Nell declined with a grateful wave of her hand. "Thanks, but no thanks. You said a while ago that you wanted me to tell you what I made of your – well, the sorry tale of your marriage, I suppose there's no point mincing our words about it. I don't think I can say what you'd like me to say to that, Con. There's too much of it, and it's all come out of the blue. Besides, you know how much I'm given to chatter, as a rule. But do I think you're awful? No, I don't. I doubt I ever could."
Con digested this quickly; she wanted to urge the conversation on, before Nell withdrew from it again. "But it's a scandal, isn't it? You must see that much. It's a catalogue of failings – chiefly mine. It was all so, so hard – and I messed it all up so badly. Don't you think that?"
"I think," Nell began slowly, "I think love covers a multitude of sins."
Con was not sure she was much clearer, but she sensed that this was as much as she was likely to get on the matter. Whose love?, she wanted to ask. Which sins?
"Has there been anybody else?" She asked instead.
Nell looked startled by the question, as well she might; Con had scarcely expected to ask it herself. Then her face closed off again. "It's complicated," she replied, with a finality which even Con accepted meant the matter was finished with.
“You must think me horribly ungrateful,” she tried. “I daresay I have been. I only –“ she stopped. I only wanted you to know me. It wasn’t the ingratitude that made the sentiment impossible to give voice to; it was the disappointment. How could it be that Nell would disappoint her? Dependable, straightforward, fiercely loyal Nell. “I certainly have been. Oh, I’m a fool. I thought I would come back and it would all be as it was, as it always was, with no explanations required because we belonged to each other. We always understood. I don’t know how to explain myself to you. I never needed to do it before."
Nell just looked at her sadly. "But you never did belong to me, did you?" she asked quietly.
She did not appear to expect an answer, but one rose, unstoppable, cracking somewhere between Con’s heart and her mouth, her voice broken and unfamiliar even to herself. “I wish I had done. As God is my witness, you can’t imagine how terribly I wish I had done...”
A shift in perspective by crm
I have re-purposed some snippets of 'Oberland' - in bold.
"We'll wait to hear from you, then - and it goes without saying that Mollie and the rest of you will be in our prayers. Be strong, Dick. We'll take good care of young Peggy."
Nell replaced the receiver with a heavy heart, and decided she would speak with her secretary before sending for the girl in question. If she intended to make arrangements, she ought to be quite sure of them before sharing her intentions with Peggy.
Gillian appeared almost the moment Nell's finger left the bell. "What can I do you for?"
Nell managed the ghost of a smile. "Come in, my dear, and take a seat for a moment. It's not happy news, I'm afraid. I've just had a call from Mr Bettany - Peggy's father."
"Madame's brother," Gill nodded, eyebrows coming together in concern.
"The very same. It's bad news, I'm sorry to say. Mrs Bettany is very ill and they are afraid that she may have to undergo a major operation. In that case, Peggy would have to go home at once to be near at hand in case her mother wanted her. The others are all fairly getatable, luckily; but if Peggy has to go, she must fly and that will mean sending someone with her."
Here she paused, and Gill was not slow to grasp her meaning. "And I would be the someone? Well, that's no problem so far as I am concerned. Oh, but that is dreadful news for the Bettanys. I'm sorry to hear it."
Nell nodded, flashing the girl a quick smile of gratitude. "Thanks, Gillian. Could you send for her now, please? Have her come straight through here and I'll tell her myself. Her father wanted us to prepare her, for if she is sent for, it will be immediately and it will mean that things are very bad indeed."
She crept noiselessly through the house as she made her weary way up to bed that night; the clock was edging towards midnight and, to her knowledge, no one else was still awake in Das Haus Unter Die Kiefern. But as she peered silently through to Peggy's room, she found her suspicion to the contrary was well-founded: that young lady was sitting cross-legged on her bed, her dressing-gown wrapped firmly around her, her eyes concentrated on the middle distance, plainly deep in thought. As the door swung gently open, she glanced up and gave her headmistress a brave smile.
Nell returned the smile with an encouraging one of her own, and closed the door softly behind her. "I hope I'm not interrupting you too much," she said, in the low tones which the experience of many years had taught her to use, since invariably they carried less than a whisper.
"Not at all," Peggy answered. "I was – well – but He knows already, so a little pause in conversation isn't much, in the grand scheme of things."
Nell nodded, pleased and proud. "He does know. And He is watching over your mother even now, Peggy. No, I've no news so far – and no news is good news, let's be thankful for that. Do try and get some rest if you can, dear. Whatever the morning brings, we can always face it better on a decent amount of sleep."
Peggy nodded. "I won't stay awake much longer, I promise."
"Goodnight, Auntie Nell." Peggy flushed slightly after she had spoken, as if unsure that the familiarity belonged here in termtime. Nell gave her another smile of reassurance: in the dead of night, with the worry over her mother hanging heavily over the responsible child's head, the comfort of family - if only of the 'brevet' variety - could not be anything but proper.
The comfort of family. Her final responsibility of the day attended to, Nell moved slowly and soundlessly back through the corridors to her own room. Since that phone call from Dick, she had spoken twice with Madge – still in Canada, but twitchy and restless. The twin bond ran deep, and Madge doubted – justifiably, Nell thought – her brother's capacity to cope if the worst should happen. Nell understood Madge, found her easier than most to read without expending real effort. The two women were almost exactly the same age, to within a matter of weeks; both eldest daughters orphaned young. She saw in Madge enough of herself to understand, and enough different to be interested. Of course Madge would fly to England to be there for Dick. Nell would have done the same herself. If...
She put the thought to one side as she descended the front stairs. Instead, she ran through the mental list of today's tasks which she had deferred to tomorrow. Both her remaining lectures of the week still needed preparing. There was something of a mountain of correspondence – Gillian had been fighting a cold for several days, and though she had been valiantly pressing on, both Nell and Gertrude had firmly dismissed her to her rest whenever her eyes seemed a little too red, her cough a touch too hacking. As with Rosalie before her, the secretary's work was usually taken care of so smoothly that the sheer volume only revealed itself when it went undone. Gillian was well on the way back to full health now, Nell hoped – surely well enough to travel with Peggy, should circumstances demand it. Yes, quite the mountain of correspondence. She must reply to Hilda's letter – Hilda's letters; there were now three which she had shoved hastily to one side, with determined intentions of replying. Hilda would be wondering what was happening. And then there was Christmas to think of – how much longer could all that planning be deferred?
The minute hand crept past twelve, but one more person was still awake in the big house. Con, too, was atop the covers, Nell's own dressing-gown pulled around her. Guiltily, Nell's heart sank. She had been pinning her hopes on the rejuvenation of solitude, twenty minutes of comforting silence before finally sinking into the sleep she also greatly needed.
Con looked up at her, her countenance oddly uncertain. Guilt wrenched in Nell's gut like a knife. "Any news?"
"None." She sat at the edge of the bed to change into her nightdress, limbs suddenly leaden, eyelids burning.
"No news is good news," Con murmured, unknowingly echoing Nell's own words just moments earlier.
"Yes," Nell agreed, her mind frankly too flabby to offer anything more. She realised now how heavily Con, too, had been weighing on her mind. The past few weeks – something of a whirlwind, as most weeks were once term was well underway – had left too much unsaid to allow for any comfortable certainty; had built too much fond closeness to allow the resultant certainty to not matter. She had not fully appreciated the happiness of her life in recent years: after working so hard at it back in Armishire where grim determination had only just won out over cynicism, contentment had crept up on her so gradually she had scarcely noticed it – until now, when Con threatened to unsettle it all. She knew she had withdrawn on countless occasions over these weeks, and she knew her sudden silences disconnections had caused pain and anxiety to this most beloved friend, but her own fear knotted in her stomach; she could not bear to be so hurt again.
"I missed you in the staff room this evening," Con commented now.
Nell bit her tongue, but could not prevent a hard edge from creeping into her voice. "I've been speaking with Madge. And with Peggy. And making provisional arrangements, should Peggy need to travel at short notice to be with her mother." Her fingers – tired with typing, writing, tapping anxiously at the desk as she soothed Madge through the telephone wires – fumbled with buttons, trying her patience further. Con's hurt silence was deafening. "Sorry if I'm a little terse tonight. It has been a difficult day."
She was thankful when Con responded with a helpless shrug and lay down beneath the covers, demonstrating intentions of sleeping. She did not mean to be unkind, and she did not want to fight – not exactly; but responding with the sort of generosity and gentle reassurance Con seemed to yearn for was beyond her for the time being.
Sheer tiredness explained a large part of her black mood, she conceded; and where she had for years needed the solitude of her final minutes of the day to restore her good grace, she now lacked that essential balm for the soul. The solitude she had given up willingly, she reminded herself sternly.
But exhaustion and an absence of restorative aloneness did not entirely answer for the day's darkness. It had so long been a simple fact of Nell's life that people with families must care for them, and that those without must facilitate the familial care-taking of friends thus blessed. She could reel off countless examples: Joey and her young triplets on the Sea Witch; Joey and baby Stephen that awful term, when she and the others had been absent for months - when Hilda had been out of action for a full year - that awful, awful year... Less painful, and more petty, was the recollection of her own cottage, relinquished uncomplainingly to her cousin and the children for four years of the last war, twelve (count 'em) consecutive holidays within which she had had no option to go home and be herself alone. Once upon a time, Con had been the closest thing Nell had had to a family – but Con had always had a family of her own, even then, and now she had a real family, the sort that would be everything to her, a family to whom she would always first and foremost be answerable. And Nell – Nell still had no one; her place to nobly stand back and know that she mattered less, always.
Memories of her own family, and the hole where they should be, had long since subsided to a dull ache, a well-worn truth in the fabric of her being. But with the combination of all that happened since the move to Switzerland, they drew ever closer to the forefront of her mind: her instinct towards Peggy was, neither deliberately nor unconsciously, entirely rooted in her recollections of caring for her own dying family when she had been not much older than the girl was now. Breaking the news to Peggy had been a hard blow: she remembered only too well how it had felt, sitting the other side of the desk. She hoped that Peggy would be sent for almost at once. Once home, she would feel that, as the eldest girl, she must see to the rest and it would make it easier for her.
She blew out the candle and slid down beneath the covers in the dark, her mind still whirring on as Con slept - or at least seemed to. If her own family had lived, would she have found it as easy to resist marriage, and all else it entailed? Everything she was, everything she believed, was bound up in her own sufficiency, her obstinate refusal to compromise her autonomy; but what if she had not had autonomy thrust upon her so?
If her family had lived, if they had not been sick, if she had not had to grow up quickly and look after first Cherry and then, too swiftly, her parents too – if she had not learned through the unstoppable march of suffering and death how to then take care of all manner of practicalities, orphaned and alone at 22 – would she ever have grown into the strong, independent woman she prided herself on becoming? She could scarcely remember who she had been before then; and if those lean years of fruitless caring and unremitting loss were the hard experience which gave her no choice but to grow up - how similar had been Con's more recent experiences? Alone in the night now, freed from her resentful obligation to offer sympathy and comfort, she found a renewed respect and admiration for what Con had survived, emerged full circle to find love again.
In the darkness, she searched for Con's hand, grazed it with the gentlest touch of her own. Heartfelt thanks for the grace that emerged only through difficulty mingled with a bittersweet yearning for the carefree times the two shared in the Tyrol, when both were younger, more full of hope, less battered by the world.
She awoke before Con in the morning, as she ever had done; but this time – the first time since her old friend's reappearance – she lay still beside her, watching her sleep with a passionate tenderness which she tried not to be frightened by. She had watched Con sleep before, of course: those few stolen nights in the Tyrol years; and every morning for some months, that year the School had been closed, when the two of them had shut themselves away in Nell's cottage in Devon, trying to stave off the outside world and recreate the magic of the Tiernsee; but back then it had all been in vain, and Nell had known it. Even as she slept, Con had been slipping away from her all the time. Nell had never dreamed she would come back. Her breath caught, and Con stirred, blue eyes blinking open in the pale morning light which now streamed into Nell's pretty room.
"Shhh." Nell wasn't sure why she stoppered any conversation before it could begin, so they could be free from the irrepressible preoccupations and deliberate distractions of their own minds, but as Con's sleepy smile spread slowly across her face she was glad to have done so. Her face told her all she needed to know, and for the first time in their reunion she knew with certainty that Con was sharing the moment with her. Everything was not all right: from the soul-warmth of the bed, she was keenly aware that nobody knew what news the day would bring from London; and yet all seemed manageable now.
They were interrupted by the rising bell, and Nell tumbled from the bed with the unquestioning immediacy of one who had spent so many consecutive years in a boarding school. She looked back at Con as she pulled her slippers on, and smiled. "I'll write to Madge today and explain your presence. Better late than never – not that it is particularly late, in the grand scheme of things. Do you know, I suppose she'll be thrilled to hear it, after a fashion."
“I’ll take your word for it,” Con murmured – sceptical but willing to trust – Con of old, and so very welcome. Nell paused at the door, knowing that as soon as she pushed it open the spell would be broken, that the day would begin in earnest, that news from the Bettanys in London awaited, that the tasks not completed last night demanded urgent attention this morning, that this particular headache of Con was not truly as resolved as it felt right now, within the safe cocoon of this room. She willed the world to stop turning, just for a moment, as she laid her hand on the cool metal of the door handle.
“And I’m sure her pleasure, like mine, would be tempered by your incorrigible laziness. You never could bring yourself to stir your stumps when the bell rang,” she remarked tartly over her shoulder as she turned the handle and let herself out into the passageway beyond, not allowing herself to stop long enough to hear Con’s response, to savour her contented protestations. Like it or not, the day must begin.
Thanks for comments! And sorry for the delay - work work work, etc. Hoping to get the rest of this tidied up and posted in the next week or three, though!
As previously, bolded bits are taken directly from 'Oberland'.
At the time, it had not even occurred to Nell to bury the news of Con's arrival at a time when Madge was preoccupied with her brother and his ailing wife. Having done exactly that, she fretted powerlessly over the letter's timing, whether she had taken advantage of dismal affairs without even realising the rationale of her subconscious, whether Madge had – quite justifiably – interpreted it thus. And Hilda. She felt, in a strange sense, that she was undertaking some sort of deception, as far as Hilda was concerned; she hated the distance which made conversation almost impossible. She had foolishly thought that writing the letter to Madge would be the end of it; having written, she realised it was merely the beginning.
Madge was tactful; wrote to Nell expressing her pleasure at the arrangement, wrote to Con saying much the same thing with even greater warmth, ensconcing her firmly back within the bosom of the School and passing no comment on the circumstances that must have led up to her return, beyond a polite but genuine offer to help with any practicalities as might be necessary. The conversation would surely happen when next she saw Madge, Nell realised now – realised too that that conversation was one between herself and Madge only, that she would have to navigate these waters alone. As usual, Con left it to her to be practical, to be capable. Nell refused to lose sight of her burgeoning insight into Con's life in the years since they had parted, and especially the most recent times she had known; but it was hard to maintain her compassion and her admiration when this same strong, surviving woman seemed to falter now, rolling over and demanding Nell deal with everything for her.
The impermanence of the situation hung over her: even if she had resolved the question of Con's presence at St Mildred's, even if they worked out a sustainable term-time existence for themselves, it was an existence only in the suspended reality of termtime: come Christmas, Con would have three children to entertain, to house and comfort and provide for, and it was abundantly clear that she had absolutely no plan for how she would do so. They could have the cottage, Nell began to plan, but just as swiftly she cut off that thought. If she handed over the cottage to Con and her brood for the duration of the holidays, what would she herself do? It was hard enough sharing a bedroom at the School, and that was with plenty of other places where they both had to be for the hours of daytime. Already she had taken to sloping off to her office most evenings, just to be alone with her thoughts, and it was here that Grace Nalder found her one evening shortly after the second half of the term had begun.
"I believe I owe you an apology," Grace said, setting a mug of good-smelling coffee down on the desk before Nell and sitting down in the chair opposite with her own. "Con, I mean. It's my fault she's here, largely – and now here are you, hiding in your office night after night. I invited her to come, Bill. I didn't insist, but I can't claim it wasn't my own mad idea. She just sounded so desperate, and I've always held that mountains are restorative for times like that. They bring perspective - they're so impressive and we're so inconsequential and God is more powerful than we can truly imagine. I thought it would be a tonic. I didn't suppose she'd stay – I suppose I thought she'd go home to her people, or perhaps decide her marriage could be rescued after all."
Nell pushed a straying curl back from her frowning face. If Grace intended to offer comfort, she had not quite achieved her aim, but her intentions could not be faulted and Nell felt obliged to respond on the basis of intent. "It's strange, us three being back together again."
"Back then, I was always the anxious one. Oh, not to you - I'd never have dared offer advice to you, thank you! – but to Con – I’ve no idea how many times I warned her to be careful, be more discreet, think about it... And now look!" She finished miserably. "I'm the one who rushed in where angels fear to tread."
Her fears thus confirmed, Nell slumped back in her chair and gazed helplessly up at Grace. "Is it really so obvious?"
Grace shifted uncomfortably, her face thoughtful. "I don't think so. I knew, you know. I knew all along. Nobody else would do. Gertrude? Doubt it. Hilda, maybe, at a push – but Hilda's not here."
There was a question in her voice, but Nell avoided it.
"Don't be too hard on her, Bill," Grace urged, hesitant but firm; evidently no longer afraid of seeming to rebuke, Nell reflected with brief amusement. "There are things you can't understand."
"Oh?" Nell turned frosty eyes on her. "What is it I can't understand, exactly?"
Grace sighed. "How married women envy single women, for one. The best kept secret I know of! How many ways a man can ruin a woman's life. How helpless one feels, to look straight ahead and see what he plans to do to you, and know there is nothing at all you can do to stop it."
"So you did marry," Nell surmised wonderingly, giving her old friend a shrewd look. "I thought you probably hadn't, although I couldn't make a lot of sense of it. And you know I’d never ask."
"I didn't tell you, to spare you the trouble of knowing," Grace said softly. "And I can keep not telling you, if it makes things easier for you." Nell waved a hand, and Grace nodded slightly before continuing. "All right, then. Yes, I did marry him. More fool me. He had a love-child, Nell. A little girl of four or so when we married. I found it out two days before the ceremony, when we ran into her after church. She came running up to him, calling him Daddy – she lived nearby; we were all of us living cheek by jowl in this little university town, and he'd told me nothing at all until this – Daddy... I felt a fool. Everyone else must have known already, there was nothing kept secret about it whatsoever, except for the minor matter of him not telling me."
"But still you married him?" Nell asked gently, passing a clean handkerchief across the desk. Grace took it gratefully.
"Oh, yes. Still I married him. Two days – I could scarcely think in two days – especially two days so filled with wedding preparations. My folks came up that afternoon. I didn't know how to not marry him. And so, I thought – well, this is my lot. I'll have to find a way of managing with it." She paused and stared at Nell's bookshelves for a minute, unseeing. "Only, that wasn't my lot. There was more still, that only came out later. He was giving the girl's mother money – quite the right thing to do, of course – but it was an awful lot of money, and he hadn't exactly loads to begin with. His private income was a modest one, and a schoolmaster doesn't exactly earn a fortune, as I don't doubt you know. Still, that was my cross to bear. And money is only things, after all. But the part I couldn't live with – what I couldn't accept – was when I came home from tea one day, and I found him – I found him –" she closed her eyes and gave a small shudder – "with the girl's mother. He'd never let her go. He had no intention of it. We'd been married less than a year."
"Oh, Nally." There was nothing else to say, and how right Grace had been: How many ways a man can ruin a woman's life.
"Yes, well. There we were. There's one mercy, and that's that I hadn't had any child of my own with him – for then I would have been trapped. As it was, it wasn't so difficult to slip away to another town where nobody would know me. And thank God for the war! I joined up straight away, using my maiden name; nothing like a war to hamper paperwork! When it was over, I had a good recent reference from the WAAF, to add to my good teaching references from Hilda and Madge, and I found a good post at the High. The rest, you know. I'm glad to be here, for I love my work, and I'd have never had to chance to come back to Europe if I'd lived the rest of my life married to a housemaster in Oxford; but I'd have liked to have had children of my own, Bill, and now I shan't. That takes some getting used to."
Nell wondered whether Grace had ever thought of anyone else, but answered the question herself and had no doubt left to voice. Grace would not have divorced, still less remarried. That much was out of the question. As it was, in a sense, for herself: there had only ever been Con. She wondered about Con anew: did Con envisage a divorce? Probably not, she suspected, but could not be certain: Con's faith perplexed her sometimes, was at once fiercer yet also more pliable than her own.
"Con has plenty to get used to herself," Grace murmured, seeming to have almost read her mind. "And I suppose so have you, for that matter. But you could just turn away – just as Jock has done. She can't; it's her life. Please don't be too hard on her, Bill."
Nell nodded thoughtfully, thanked Grace for her honesty and assured her that all she had shared would be treated in the strictest of confidence. Her words echoed round Nell's head for many days after.
Nell was at least two-thirds of the way through her mountain of correspondence, dictating letters to her secretary with an increasingly elaborate range of facial expressions and gestures to indicate her exaggerated impatience and amuse Gillian, even as her words remained the epitome of courtesy. She almost continued her performance in response to the hesitant knock on her door and would have done so, back in England in the familiar company of Hilda and Rosalie; but this still-new venture called for a shade more caution. Letters from comparative strangers were one thing; muted impatience with her own charges here were rather another, although how anyone could begrudge her such a response, she couldn’t personally say. They could try the patience of a saint, and Nell had never made any pretence of being that.
She looked up, rather startled when, in answer to her “Herein!” the door opened and Peggy and Elma came in together. A glance at Elma’s face told her that that young lady had been crying. She also noted the unusually firm set of Peggy’s lips and the flash in her eyes as she said formally: “Please, Miss Wilson, may we speak to you?”
“Of course. Come in, girls!” The Head waved them to chairs and then turned to Miss Culver. “That will keep you going for the next half-hour or so, I think, Miss Culver. I’ll ring when I want you again. Now, you two,” when Gillian Culver had gathered up the letters and the rest of her impedimenta and departed, “pull up your chairs and tell me what’s wrong.”
For reply, Elma laid her letter on the table. “This came for me to-day, Miss Wilson. Please, what can I do about it?”
The Head took it up and looked at it. Like the secretary, she saw the Irish stamp and at once leapt to the conclusion that there was bad news of Elma’s parents.
“Do you want me to read it, Elma?” she asked.
Having managed so far, Elma was incapable of either doing or saying anything more. She nodded dumbly and Peggy came to the rescue. “Miss Culver gave it out with the other letters and Elma doesn’t know what to do about it.”
The Head glanced keenly at Elma, but she said nothing. She took up the letter, opened and read it, folded it up and returned it to its envelope, all in a deadly silence. The girls looked on anxiously. What would she say—or do?
“I see,” she said at last. “Thank you for bringing it to me at once, Elma. That was the right thing to do and, in the circumstances, the brave thing to do. Not easy, was it?”
“No-o-o,” Elma said, “but Peggy said you’d understand and—and help me. I—I don’t want to have anything to do with it.”
The Head nodded. “Very well, my dear. I will attend to it myself—and at once!” She saw the look of relief that flashed into Elma’s eyes. Then she turned to Peggy. “And what is your share in this, Peggy?”
“Oh,” Peggy said easily, “I just came with Elma to—er—buck her up a little. Shall I go, now?”
“Yes; I want to talk to Elma for a moment or two and you’ve done your share. By the way, what about your practice? Have you finished?”
Peggy went very red. “I—I haven’t even begun yet. May I do it this evening between Kaffee und Kuchen and Abendessen?”
“By all means. At any rate, you must not miss it. Run along now and I’ll see you later about it.”
Peggy got up to go, but Elma stopped her. “Miss Wilson, it was my fault Peggy didn’t do it now. I asked her to speak to me and—and,” she added shamefacedly, “it was she who made me come. I wouldn’t have dared, I don’t think, if she hadn’t gone on about it till I said I would. Please don’t blame her for it.”
“When she said that,” the Head said when she was talking things over with the staff that evening after Abendessen, “I felt that our worst troubles were over where she was concerned. Oh, I don’t say she won’t make a pest of herself at times. I don’t expect miracles and it will take more than half a term or even a whole one to transform a girl like Elma Conroy. Still, I do feel that there’s some hope for her now.”
For the moment, alone with her stormiest petrel, Nell looked at her thoughtfully. Grace’s words came to her, yet again, and guided her to an approach she might otherwise not have taken: more confident, more frank, more compassionate, more concerned with the longest possible horizon. “You know, Elma,” she said, “in one way, I’m not sorry this”—she tapped the letter—“has happened.”
Elma stared at her. “Why—I—don’t understand,” she stammered.
“Perhaps not.” The Head set her elbows on the table, clasped her hands and balanced her chin on them. “I’ll explain. You got an unpleasant shock when you were found out before and you were very unhappy about it. But things like that wear off, my child. Sooner or later you’d have forgotten, and then the next time the same sort of thing happened, you might—I don’t say you would—you might have gone into it. If that came to pass, believe me, Elma, I should send you away. I couldn’t take the risk of keeping you here with the others. It wouldn’t be just to them.” How many ways a man can ruin a woman’s life!
Elma looked at her with wide eyes. “But—but what I do can’t matter to them—not so long as I don’t talk about it,” she said.
“Don’t you believe it!” Miss Wilson retorted. “It would be bound to come out sooner or later. However, this man, who is certainly one of the most selfish and inconsiderate beings I have ever known, chooses to put you in a position where, if you had not had the sense to listen to Peggy and come to me, the worst might have happened so far as you are concerned. I should think the knowledge of his selfishness must have opened your eyes pretty considerably to what he is and what a grave risk you have run of ruining your own happiness in life. Tell me, Elma, do you really care for him?”
Elma flushed. “I thought I did,” she said. “Now—well, now I only hope I never see him again!”
“Very good. Bring straight to me any other letters that may come to you from him and I will deal with them.” She paused here, and when she went on Elma sat upright with surprise. “You are a handsome creature and you are attractive as well. The sooner you learn to deal with situations like this, the better for you. Be careful how far you let men spend friendship or what may pass for friendship on you. That’s all I have to say to you now. But don’t worry about this!” She flicked the letter contemptuously with a finger. “It’s not worth worrying over. As for any difficulty that this may have made between yourself and your friends here, that, I am afraid, is something that only you yourself can settle.”
She noticed Elma’s startled expression and suppressed a grin. Would these girls never learn how little went unnoticed by their well-practised mistresses? “All you can do is to be patient and be ready to make advances on your own side and if any come from the other, accept them in a friendly spirit. Now my preachment is finished—and quite time, too, I imagine you are thinking! You had better run along and see what you can do about that geography essay of mine.” The Head concluded with a broad smile which Elma answered with a rather feeble one of her own before she left the study, feeling happier than she had done for some weeks.
Nell paused to reflect before ringing the bell for Gillian to return and finish the last of the day’s work together. Self-congratulation did not sit well with her, as a rule, but she was quietly satisfied with her interview with Elma – and acutely aware that it was some distance from the response she might have meted out had Grace not intervened on an apparently unrelated matter less than a week earlier. She had come out to the Oberland to challenge herself anew, and in such lofty terms, the first half-term had not disappointed her; but the precise forms and sources of challenges, and developments, and new ideas which had spurred her on, had been nothing she might have imagined.
r03;Finger hovering above the bell, her last thought turned, ineluctably, to Con. She was seized with a surge of red-hot anger, directed first squarely at Jock. How many ways... How many lives, even. Nell had about as much use for self-pity as she had for self-congratulation, but for the first time in many years she stopped to acknowledge the gaps left between the life she had led, and the life she had spent a great many years, back in the Tyrol, planning for. With deliberate conviction, she put that thought from her mind once more: her own life had not been ruined, not by Jock and not by any stretch of the imagination at all. Still, a glimmer of resentment burned, and Con flickered between an object of pity and the spineless architect of her own – their own – ruin. She kicked herself for the unfounded optimism beneath her misjudged letter to Madge. In a hopeless bid to overcome the agonising transience of the first half-term, she had instead declared to all and sundry a future which was, surely, quite untenable.
She rang the bell.
And here's some more! Thank you for the comments, it's good to know people are following this.
Once again, bolded bits are borrowed from 'Oberland' (and somewhat reworked here - with apologies to EBD!)
November seemed determined that year to do what it could in the way of rain. Day after day it came down, with only brief intervals when it was possible for the girls to go out. The school took advantage of every moment of this, but even so, they had comparatively little outdoor exercise. Then came a day in late November when they woke to find that the rain had ceased and a pale sun was shining out of an equally pale blue sky. Nell could not suppress a smile when she saw Con's childlike delight, sitting bolt upright in bed gazing through the window, the covers pulled up with her in defiance of the cold; Nell’s covers, on Nell's bed, of course - for in Nell's room she still slept. The headmistress had decided that she would do well to make the most of the comparatively few perks that having sole responsibility for the branch permitted, among which the autonomy to do as she wished and face no challenge figured highly; she had also decided that hiding in plain sight was likely to be her safest option. With no panicked secrecy, how could anyone – of the very few who might even have noticed – suspect that anything was being hidden?
"I simply can't tell you how I've been yearning for a proper fix of fresh air!" Con declared now. "And I know you'll tell me I'm tempting fate, but I can't help but imagine this is only a matter of hours before the snow begins at last."
"I shall accuse you of no such thing!" Nell retorted austerely, securing her hair with a final pin. "Superstitious rot – I expect better from you, Con!"
Con laughed, scrambling out of bed with far more enthusiasm than she ordinarily mustered. "All the same, you agree with me on the weather to come, don't you?"
Nell glanced through the window once more, by instinct rather than any need for further consideration. She had come to the same conclusion of imminent snow, and close inspection of the sky – taken together with the forecasts of the wireless – had confirmed the matter for her. "I do. The girls must all get out and into this as early as we can manage - a tramp around Interlaken, for they'll bring quite half of the mountain back here on their boots if they stay more locally than that! I think we might see the first fresh flakes before nightfall – and once it starts, who can say when it will stop?" She sounded cynical, but her eyes sparkled. The dream of returning to the alps had been the persistent allure of this position, throughout all the weeks she pondered Madge's suggestion and tried to weigh up her amused dismissal of 'finishing' anyone against her ease in teaching the older girls; balance her reluctance to step out of Hilda's shadow against her curiosity about leading from the front, and not just as a pro tem arrangement.
"We shall ski before Christmas, my dear! And I for one can't wait." With that, Con snatched up her sponge bag and positively skipped through the door to the bathroom across the passageway.
Both had prophesied truly: the snow started before nightfall, and although the school at large fizzed with excited murmurings about skiing, Nell's caution about how long the snow might keep them indoors was well-advised. They got no ski-ing next day nor the day after, for the snow never ceased to fall the whole time. The third day produced short intervals when the wild whirling ceased, but there was no possibility of going out, so they had to make the best of it for yet another day. But the first of December was ushered in by bright winter sunlight and, duly warned and warmly clothed, the school ventured outside en masse for their first taste of true alpine winter.
The fledgling skiers scattered across the snow, wobbling and clumsy but certainly no less exuberant for it. At least two girls seemed to be unintentionally seated on the ground at any given moment, she noted with some amusement, but they were not, on the whole, doing too badly for a first effort. Her glance fell on Con, graceful on her skis, beautiful in the cold air, cheeks flushed and smile infectious; even Edna, whom she was helping – with all the appearance of a patience and generosity which Nell couldn’t quite reconcile with the Con she remembered – appeared unable to resist returning her a sheepish grin. Nell’s own involuntary smile dulled on her lips as her thoughts caught up with her: the sight took her straight back to their winters on the Tiernsee, as if the years between then and now had never happened at all; and it was impossible not to love Con, when she was still as she ever had been. It was a mirage: those years had happened, all too definitely, and however much things might look the same, she knew better.
By the end of the week, the girls made better progress and some of the more daring even indulged in a snowfight. The dry, powdery snow was easily dusted off, and if they fell, they fell into chilly softness so that they were not hurt. Watching them, Nell felt younger than she had done in years – transported by her memories to a time close to twenty years earlier; snowfights on the Sonnalpe with the small fry of the Russell nursery and other girls left behind over the half-term exeat; snowfights further afield with Con on those rare weekends when their days off had collided and the weather had been amenable. Easy on her skis with only half her attention on her charges scattered about the shelf in all directions, she caught Con's eye and knew she was remembering similar times. Peggy, meanwhile, had an adventure.
She was ski-ing after Joan Sandys, intent on revenging herself for a well-aimed snowball which had caught her full in the mouth. The tip of one of her skis caught a hidden snag and over she went, plunging down from a little shelf to the hollow below. Here the snow had formed a deep drift, and Peggy vanished from sight into it.
Joan, glancing back, saw her go and turned to help her. When she reached the edge and no Peggy was to be seen, only the snow sliding majestically downwards, she set up a wild yell that brought at least half the school to ask what was wrong.
“Peggy’s go-one!” she quavered, pointing downwards.
“Gone? What do you mean?” Miss Wilson demanded, her blood running cold; while Miss Stewart, grasping at once what had occurred, turned and ski-ed away at top speed. She knew better than to try to drop down into the drift. Nell's own comprehension was no slower; and after dispatching Gill Culver to summon help, and instructing Julie Berné and Grace Nalder to gather and soothe the girls, amongst some of whom the message was spreading and a sense of panic rising, she hurried to follow her friend.
Gliding across the snow with an instinctive calm, she was astonished to see just how much snow Con had displaced already from the fluffy pile within which Peggy must lie. Con had discarded her gloves, "the better to feel what I'm doing – and to avoid being too clumsy when I reach her" she remarked shortly when Nell expressed her consternation; she dug through the snow with bare hands which must be burning with cold, and with a remarkable combination of ferocity, precision and care.
It took ten minutes’ hard digging before the end of a shawl appeared, by which time – thanks almost certainly to Gill's dutiful efforts – the news had reached Lauterbach, and half a dozen of the men and boys had appeared with spades, and a dog of nondescript breed. Con eyed their spades with some distrust, red-raw hands still raking carefully through the snow beneath which she knew Peggy’s face would be; protective. The very last of the work was expedited by their arrival, and the girl was dug out, rather white and dazed, but not much the worse, though two or three of the girls had been sure that she must be suffocated by this time, and Mary Wormald had burst into noisy sobs at the bare idea.
“W-will Peggy be—d-dead?” she gulped.
“Nonsense!” Miss Wilson told her robustly. “This is new-fallen snow, light and full of oxygen. Unless she hurt herself anywhere when she fell, the worst that can happen will be that she will be dazed and frightened—though I don’t expect that last with Peggy,” she added. “Stop that babyish bawling, Mary!”
This was drastic. Mary stopped at once and turned red, though no one had time to notice it: their attention was all on the unfortunate Peggy. Miss Stewart hurriedly examined her to be sure that no bones were broken.
Peggy came to herself during this and demanded: “What’s up now?”
“You fell over the edge into a drift,” Con informed her. “Do you feel hurt anywhere? Arms and legs all right?”
“Quite O.K., thank you.” Peggy’s head was clearing quickly. “I didn’t hit a thing that I know of. I suppose it was the shock of falling that put me out for a moment or so.”
One of the men had been unstrapping her skis and now he looked up. “Das gnädige Fraülein has one ski broken,” he said.
That brought Peggy up with a bang! “Oh no! What a horrid catastrophe! How on earth can I get it mended?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care!” Con said crossly. “The main thing is, are you sure you’re not hurt?”
“Oh yes; I’m quite sure. I can stand—look!” And Peggy scrambled to her feet and promptly sank knee-deep in the snow.
Nell relaxed at last, finally fully reassured of Peggy's safe survival, and this sight tipped her over the edge. She burst into peals of laughter at Peggy’s new predicament. “Clearly no harm done! But oh, Peggy, for pity’s sake look where you’re going another time and don’t give us any more shocks like this! You’ve taken ten years off my life! Now – the rest of you gaggle –" she directed her words at the crowd which had gradually gathered, held back a short distance by the watchful gaze of Grace Nalder at her most austere – "this little performance is over, so you may return to your skiing. Peggy can spend the rest of the day in San – on quite as strict a regime as Matron determines – and let that be a lesson to you all! I want no repeat performances, today or any other."
The crowd dispersed, and Peggy turned a sorrowful face on her, as she had anticipated. "Oh, must I really, Miss Wilson? I feel quite all right, truly..." her voice trailed away in the face of Nell's resolve. "Sorry," she added apologetically, as if suddenly realising she may have overstepped the mark.
Nell allowed the faintest hint of a grin. "Miss Stewart will accompany you to Matron; she'll need a dose of her own, just as a preventative measure – after all that scrabbling around in the snow." She gave Con a look just as stern as that she had trained on Peggy a moment earlier, almost daring her to protest too. She had to break her gaze sooner than intended, for the suppressed smile threatened to become full-blown laughter.
A glimmer of indignation flickered in Con's bright eyes, but outwardly she remained the consummate professional – a heroine to the last, Nell murmured inwardly to herself, thrilled. "Quite right. Come along, Peggy. The men have brought a little sled for you - it's my own two feet for me! Well, my own two skis at any rate." And she helped Peggy settle herself securely and comfortably on the sled, while Nell saw to it that all those who had come to their rescue were adequately remunerated. Not that they had been very much needed after all, she thought to herself with a good deal of satisfaction – other than the sled, and she supposed she could have found or improvised something equally practical, if perhaps not quite so promptly.
Gertrude Ryder tended first to the embarrassed invalid, who apologised profusely to all involved for the inconvenience and protested ruefully that she was quite sure she was well; once she had Peggy changed into fresh warm pyjamas and tucked up in the San's comfy bed with hot milk laced with aspirin, she turned to her colleague. "I daresay I can trust you to take yourself off to bed for the rest of today, my dear? I'll send for Miggi to bring you some coffee at once, and warm the room. I'll pop in on you later to see how you're coming along."
"Oh, Gertrude!" Con protested, for they had moved out of earshot of Peggy who was already drifting off to sleep, worn out from her adventure and aided by Matron's sedative. "I've the constitution of an ox! An afternoon in bed is quite unnecessary."
"I'll be the judge of that," Matron retorted, but not unkindly. "Rather an afternoon today, than let you carry on as you fancy and then have you laid up the best part of the week with a bad cold. It's not just the cold - it's the shock of it too, when it hits you."
"I can assure you my nerves are fine!" Con rejoined, but she knew when she was beaten. Matron ruled the roost and well everyone knew it. In the event, Con did take cold: the first time Nell crept in to her, just after kaffee und kuchen, she was still awake and cheerful, sitting upright in a navy blue silk bed-jacket, complaining of boredom and demanding permission to get up.
Nell laughed outright at this. "Permission from me to disregard Matron's strictest orders? Over my dead body – which it most certainly will be, if ever she heard of it!" – with which disregard for the English language, she blew the invalid a kiss and fairly ran off to her office, for as a rule she made herself available to the girls for the hours between kaffee and supper. The second time she crept in, after supper and before heading to the staffroom, Con was sleeping peacefully; and the third time, when Nell herself came to bed soon after eleven, Con stirred as she slipped in between the sheets.
"Bit of a cough," Con mumbled, groggy with sleep. "You might – might want to keep your distance. Sorry..."
Nell paused before extinguishing her candle, concerned. "Do you need me to fetch Gertrude?" She remembered Con laid low with an awful throat infection, that last full winter in Tyrol, and fear clutched at her for the second time that day.
Con gurgled with sleepy laughter. "Not in the least – I don't much fancy any of her patent jorums! I never was one of those delicate folk. I'm just snuffly. Don't want you to get it – that's all..."
Nell relaxed, more at her own conscious command than in direct response to Con's reassurances. She was right, though: that one infection stood out because it was the only time she had ever known Con properly ill, in all the years they had lived so closely together. "Just the consequences of your heroics in the snow, then?" she chided mildly, snuffing the candle and settling down comfortably on her pillow.
"You were supposed to be impressed," Con informed her, slightly plaintive, with all the unjudged honesty of drowsiness. "Oh, not in the first instance – that was just a case of having to get to Peggy as quickly as I could – but afterwards, I rather thought you might be impressed."
Nell chuckled, unable to resist Con's disarming frankness, knowing she might gnash her teeth at it by morning. "Is that so? You're quite right, you should know. Of course I'm impressed. I'll take my chances with your germs, too, so you can stop worrying on that score."
Thus adjured, Con settled again and drifted back to sleep quickly, and it was not too long before Nell joined her. She stayed awake long enough to reflect gratefully on Con's quick thinking that day, her determination and hard work, and the good humour with which she had taken it all in her stride; not for the first time in her lifetime, but for the first time in many years, she felt a deep sense of gratitude and pleasure at having Con by her side, the best sidekick anyone could ask for.
Con having thus proven her worth, the present began to feel intoxicatingly like the past. Nell seemed increasingly at ease in this rediscovered double act, and if both of them were now too old and respectable to be running hand-in-hand through the corridors as they had done back on the shores of the Tiernsee, they nonetheless knew the familiar rush of exhilaration at simply being in the presence of the other, an unproblematic excitement which did not wane with end-of-term tiredness or quail at public suppression. Their old friendship was quite restored, underwritten by a healthy mutual admiration. After years – long, hard years – out in the emotional wilderness, Con was moved almost to tears by the solace of feeling known and loved regardless: not that she would dream of confessing such a pathetic state of affairs to Nell; nor that she truly need confess anything to the one who knew her so well and accepted her so readily once more.
Through her security with Nell, her confidence in the staff room grew and grew; the skilful socialising she had begun her time at St Mildred's with segued seamlessly into a less deliberate and more natural engagement, now her position seemed almost tenable. Almost, always almost; her husband still existing, if estranged, and her children's Christmas uncertain, it was still fair to say that the largest part of her own life remained necessarily shrouded in secrecy, her visions for the following term clouded by uncertainty. But with an acquired indifference grown strong from years of practice, she found it altogether too easy to put these questions to one side, and immerse herself in the moment – especially when ‘the moment’ was so eventful, and enjoyably demanding.
"So how do you folk propose to mark Christmas?" she demanded one evening in the staffroom, a mug of coffee clasped in both hands, her feet tucked beneath her where she sat at one end of the great Chesterfield.
"You're the one with a plan, judging by the look on your face," Grace observed shrewdly. "Come on! Let's hear it."
Con's grin widened, and she darted a conspiratorial look at Julie Berné, enlisting an ally before she even spoke. "I only thought it might please the girls to have a visit from St Nicholas, on his feast..."
Instantly, Julie caught on and her dark eyes sparkled with mischief. "But of course! Le sixième décembre, n'est-çe pas? And today is already the troisième. I like this idea very much, cherie – it is many years since I last played at St Nicholas, but we girls always loved it."
Nell and Grace, too, were smirking with comprehension, and Vi Norton bristled amiably at the rest of her colleagues. "I'm afraid someone will have to enlighten me, as I haven't the foggiest notion of what you're all on about. I know St Nicholas is the patron saint of small children, but that's about as much as I have to go on – and that certainly doesn't account for the wicked joy I see lighting up your faces!"
At her words, Grace threw back her head and gurgled with laughter. "Oh, you'll like it, Vi. It's a jolly idea." With which maddening tidbit, she dried up, and it was left to Con to enlighten those of her audience who were not already familiar with the traditional French celebrations of St Nicholas' day.
"St Nicholas comes to reward the good, and punish the bad," she supplied accordingly. "He reads from one scroll, I think, the sins of those who have sinned – I should think that's the whole lot of our little angels, frankly! – and then from another scroll, the good deeds of those who have – and I should jolly well hope that's the lot of them, too. He brings with him an angel or two, to dish out suitable rewards – some trinket or other, sweets, I don't know; whatever we can get at this late juncture. And naturally he also brings a demon or two, to dish out suitable punishment..."
Vi waited a moment, and when it became apparent that no further explanation was forthcoming, she cried out in frustration once more. "Is that as much as you're planning to say, my dear? Upon my word – you're a demon yourself!"
"Il faut attendre," Con teased. "You won't be a demon, anyway, so you've no urgent need to know. You'll make a perfect angel, so all you need worry about is finding yourself a suitable outfit in time for the festivities..."
"And for Saint Nicholas himself?" Mlle enquired, her enthusiasm making quite clear that, as far as she was concerned, the idea was committed to happening. "Do you propose yourself, cherie?"
"Goodness, no. It has to be Nell, doesn't it? Of course it does" – for that worthy had already thrown up her hands in protest – "you've a perfect gift for that sort of thing. I have very clear memories of you as Mrs Jarley, of 'waxworks' fame..."
At this reminder, Grace Nalder shrieked with laughter. "She's quite right, Bill! If you can 'do' St Nicholas even half as well as you did Mrs Jarley, we'll give the little darlings an evening to remember all right. Ignore her protests, you people, for she gave a simply splendid performance – I only wish I'd had a camera."
Con took up the tale, anxious to include the rest of the crowd in their reminiscence. "It was back in the Tyrol, during an extended period of awful weather and an ever more desperate need to amuse the kids – who were, some of them, going quite frantic with being cooped up indoors so much. I can't remember whose idea it was to start off with, but some bright spark set upon the notion of us giving a waxworks show, in the vein of Dickens and so on. Nell not being at that time the shy retiring sort she pretends to be today promptly volunteered for Mrs Jarley herself. The rest of us took what parts we thought ourselves – and our extremely limited props! – up to the task of, and contrived to get ready as swiftly as we could. Nell took herself off and practically barricaded herself in her room to prepare her outfit and write the entire song of the thing. She contrived to pass a script through the door for us to read through a mere thirty-minutes before curtain-up – she herself, we none of us got a glimpse of until she descended the stairs to take up her place on the stage." She glanced at Nell, remembering vividly and enjoying the occasion to tell the story. "Such a fright I would never have known she could make of herself! Padded out to quite twice her usual size with cushions – a hideous bonnet – half of her teeth blacked out..." Her description was eliciting delighted grins from her captive audience, not least Gill Culver who was looking at her former headmistress in a new light.
"Marie von Eschenau asked me afterwards if I'd really taken out a tooth," Nell added reminiscently. "The things I did for those girls! I thought I should melt, beneath all those cushions. Goodness, I've not thought about that little performance in years – perhaps with very good reason! Grace made a wonderful Queen Victoria, as I remember."
Grace nodded with a shy smile, and Gillian – clearly still revelling in the images Con had conjured up – turned to the storyteller with some eagerness. "And who were you?"
"Bonny Prince Charlie!" Con offered with a grin. "The girls all called me Charlie anyway, on account of my initials, and a kilt was about as much of a costume as I could manage at a morning's notice."
"It suited you." Nell put in unexpectedly, and Con glowed thanks. "Anyway, as entertaining a diversion as this has been, it's not moving us any further towards this week's proposed effort!"
"Oh, but it is." Grace interrupted. "I'm quite certain there's not a soul who'll oppose your nomination for St Nicholas now, so it's been a particularly instructive diversion, I'd say. Julie will be another angel, of course: she's the regal look for it, same as Vi. Which leaves Gill and I for demons, which is probably about right – and Charlie..?"
Con shrugged. "I don't mind, really. If I didn't think good old St Nick quite capable of speaking for himself, I'd offer to stand as a Master of Ceremony. As it is – do you want an extra angel? Or an extra demon, for that matter? I honestly wouldn't mind being out of it altogether, and making my own role one of design and execution.”
“I’m sure you wouldn’t.” Nell remarked drily, and Con laughed, unaffected.
“Oh? Is that you saying you wanted to organise the whole occasion yourself, there?” She teased, and was rewarded with a momentary softening, Nell’s whole face smiling in gratitude and admiration and – yes – happiness, unadulterated and undisguised, before she caught on to herself and rearranged her features imperceptibly, the old familiar mask of friendship. “Three days. Ample time. I’ll be chasing all of you for your recollections of deeds good and questionable. Makes a change from the nativity, doesn’t it?”
“It sounds silly, but I’m rather going to miss the nativity.” This was Gertrude Ryder. “I know they’re young ladies now and too old for putting on the old Christmas story, but it’s always been such a feature of the autumn term.”
“I missed it.” Grace spoke in unison with Con, and they exchanged a look of amused recognition. Grace nodded an encouragement, go on, and Con went on: “It almost didn’t feel like Christmas could be coming without it. One of those things which had always been there, I suppose – the sort of thing you don’t realise until it doesn’t happen any more.” Christmas hadn’t felt like Christmas anyway that year, of course; wrong country, wrong climate, wrong company, and all hope extinguished. She yawned, in an effort to unfix the set of her jaw. She couldn’t exactly smile, but the melancholy which had settled at this thought was not one she wished to share with all her colleagues.
The yawn did not escape Matron’s beady eye, and Con did not resist her command of “bed!”. She laughed and remarked that she would never have thought a woman of her age would jump so quickly to Matron’s pronouncements, but she was not sorry to take her leave and retreat to the stillness of the bedroom.
Nell was not more than twenty minutes behind her. Con was sitting up beneath the covers, quietly waiting, finished with her thoughts and her prayers, and pleased to see that her anticipation had not been misplaced.
“I thought you’d still be up,” Nell greeted her cheerfully. “I’m glad.”
“So am I.” Con agreed, settling to watch her companion get ready for bed.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Nell said, as she deftly removed the pins holding her hair, “about Edna Purdon. I spied you partnering her on the walk today, and it’s not the first time either. Is everything all right there?”
“Edna? Well, she’s coming along, but it’s a long lesson she’s learning. Some of the other girls do their best, of course, but she’s still quite hard work for them, for all that. Even Peggy won’t have a charity case of a friendship, and that’s quite as it ought to be. In the meantime, poor Edna doesn’t want to be alone as much as she is.”
“So that’s where you come in?” Nell asked with a slightly incredulous look.
Con chuckled. “Yes it is! Charity cases are something I can do – again, quite as it ought to be!”
Nell turned from the mirror to face her, as she gently uncoiled her white hair – every bit as familiar now, Con realised suddenly, as the chestnut had once been. She remembered how disconcerting the difference had been, when she had come to meet her in St Malo so many years earlier. It hadn’t been about the colour at all, of course; it had been about all that had passed, and how the Nell she had met at the railway station had been so wholly transformed from the Nell she had said goodbye to before that day in Spartz. The colour had been an easier change to describe; a more straightforward shock to recoil from. “But Con! Doesn’t the girl simply drive you to distraction?”
Another laugh; and a timely reminder that Nell had not been the only one to change. “She’d drive saints to distraction! But I can feel kindly towards someone whilst simultaneously wanting to shake them.” She watched her lover’s sceptical face with amusement. “I’ve had quite a bit of practice at that.”
Nell smiled, off guard, and seemed to hesitate. “What are they like, your children?”
She was glad not to have been asked sooner; but now she had been, the timing was exactly right and she was more glad still to answer. She considered for a moment. “Gangly, and too trusting! Like colts.”
Nell grinned, and Con wondered, without angst, whether it was the off-hand description or the peculiar simile which had piqued her amusement. “Are colts trusting?”
“Well, occasionally, except when they’re notoriously not.” She relaxed into a proper answer now. “The boys... Peter is the clever one. Walked early, talked early, read early. He went off to school with a most endearingly keen interest in history, although we’ll see what several years of school will do to that. No doubt he’ll come out a geographer, or something equally obscene. He’s rather on the quiet side, but doesn’t hide his enthusiasms if you only ask a couple of good questions. Patrick’s more outgoing. The sort of child who can’t go out and play for the afternoon without bringing home the very great friend he’s only met that afternoon. Always ready to charm any new guest. He’s quite beyond his years with his insight into other folk, only you’d scarcely know it because part of that is realising that precocity rarely goes down well.”
Nell was quiet, attentive, absorbing it all with a sincere interest that warmed her soul. “And Janetta?” she prompted, as Con fell silent.
“Janetta? Oh, she’s my difficult girl.” Con laughed, noticing a sudden rush of love and wondering whether it ought not to be accompanied with guilt or sadness. “I told you before, I think – she arrived and she just screamed. And screamed. And even when she grew out of screaming, she still conveyed the same sort of thing, through different means. She’s wonderfully physical. All climbing, running, swimming. Even when she’s indoors and supposed to be sitting still, she’s one big wriggling of fidgets. Fiercely loyal to her brothers. When she’s happy, she’s jubilant. There are never any half measures with Janetta.”
Nell did not make any approving remarks. She did not need to. “Can I see any photos?” she asked next.
Con looked up in some surprise. “I always enclosed photos...”
“When you wrote to Madge and Hilda. Yes, I know. I grew remarkably adept at avoiding them.” She looked guilty for a moment. “Sorry. I’d like to see now, though.”
Con reached for the book beside the bed, slipped the precious photographs from inside the front cover. Nell took them from her, reverent.
Her eyebrows shot up. “Well! You can certainly see who their mother is, can’t you?”
“All three the spit of me,” Con agreed merrily. “I always thought I shouldn’t mind if they weren’t, but I did so love that they were. This one is Peter. That’s Patrick.”
Nell studied the photos a while longer, and Con studied Nell. She felt as though a great weight had been lifted from her.
Nell lifted her head at last, and turned to face her once more; but Con saw the question forming on her lips and shook her head. “Please don’t ask me. I’ll sort it. I don’t know yet, and I know I’m running out of time, but – please don’t. Not now. I’ll sort it. I’ll let you know as soon as I’ve worked it all out. Not now. Please.”
She watched as anxiety faded to reluctant acceptance, and Nell handed back the photographs as gently as she had received them. Trust, she realised, almost guiltily. Having been accorded it, she was determined to show it well-invested.
Thanks for all the comments! Much appreciated.
Christmas loomed ever nearer, and Nell fought to honour her promise to leave Con to make arrangements for after the end of term. Every instinct she possessed urged her to step in, to take control and suggest first-, second- and third-choice courses of action to be taken. She was accustomed to problem-solving, either alone or in partnership. She could scarcely recall the last time she had held back and allowed someone else the chance to fail, and she did not like it. Privately, she resigned herself to the prospect of visitors for Christmas: not what she had wanted, nor what she had planned, but at least a viable option where Con had so far indicated none.
She consoled her anxieties somewhat, and reconciled this apprehension regarding the future with her strengthening happiness in the present, by reminding herself of the ways in which Con had grown, as well as having remained very much the same. Her teaching had been somewhat rusty early that term, Nell had noticed without comment; but in place of her previous, rapidly-returning proficiency she had acquired a certain maternalism rather in spite of herself. Nell had found this shift irksome and alien, charming, amusing and fascinating by turn; in her more pragmatic moments, she had decided it admirable and frankly useful. The raw edges of autumn seemingly smoothed over, she no longer found herself confronted by the hideous immaturity and unreasonable demands which had so unsettled her. She was content to trust that these had been a symptom of distress, not of some permanent emotional regression. It had been hard at first not to contrast her with Hilda’s serene understanding; but she had trusted that Con brought her own qualities of insight and rapport and that trust, too, had been proven well-founded. She extracted what solace she could from these victories.
A great international conductor was at Interlaken that weekend conducting two concerts, and the girls had been promised that if the weather held, they should go to the afternoon one to be given in the Casino on the Hoheweg. The weather did indeed hold, to everyone’s great excitement, and so it was that the School, en masse, rushed through Mittagessen at an extraordinary pace and skied down to Lauterbach to take the little mountain train from there.
Nell had given a great deal of consideration to her own attendance at the concert: whilst the prospect was tempting in the extreme, she was – not for the first time – feeling the difference it made to be a Head on her own, and had some concerns over just how much she still had to do before the end of term. An empty chalet would be an excellent opportunity. It had been Gill Culver’s immediate offer to stay behind and get things done that had decided the matter for her. She would not permit this sacrifice, however willing, from her secretary, and therefore it followed that she must match the action to the word and demonstrate that she, too, had earned the treat of the concert and would work all the better next week for having enjoyed it.
The concert hall was packed, and she found herself at the end of the row, next to Vi Norton. There was something about the evocative setting, as the great room fell silent and the conductor mounted the rostrum, that left her relieved Con was a dozen or more seats along from her, and no nearer. She was present enough in Nell’s mind, and already it was surprisingly difficult to divide her attention fairly between the performance and her charges – however grown up and responsible she might hope them to be. Schubert’s Rastlose Liebe struck her as a fitting irony, if one she could gladly do without; having not long speculated on the apparent disconnect between the young contralto and her searing rendition of Gretchen am Spinnrade, she could not help wryly noting that she was herself certainly too old to be thus moved by this sort of wearying and beguiling drama. Happiness without peace, indeed. Con’s love still frightened her, it was so fiercely unconditional; to resist was an insult; to resist was the only appropriate response, for if Nell did not resist – then what? Where shall I flee? Nell grimaced at her own ridiculousness. She had thought these flights of intensity and indulgence to be well behind her, and good riddance.
She was still lost in her thoughts as the music moved on to Roslein auf der Heide, sung with the simplicity of a child, and answered her as clearly as any speech. There was to be no resistance, nor any continued contemplation of resistance. In the unsentimental wistfulness of the song, she saw at long last that there was only one resolution. The rest of the concert seemed to drag, beautiful though it was; she only ached to be alone with Con once more, to tell her without words what she had now learned.
Evening came later than usual: the reliable little mountain train took it upon itself to provide the alarums and excursions the staff had all been – prematurely – beginning to imagine they might have escaped this term after all. Having reached the end of its run across the narrow plain and begun to climb the mountain slope, suddenly the lights went out and the train stopped dead. Not that it stayed there. It began, slowly and terrifyingly, to slide backwards! Cries of terror and dismay broke out. Someone in one of the other carriages began to scream and that acted like an electric press-button, releasing other shrieks from the passengers.
As if by the same press-button, Nell sprang to her feet, grappling in her bag for the torch she carried for the walk beneath the trees from Lauterbach to Welsen. Most of her girls stayed admirably calm, as she had expected; but she also knew well enough to expect one or two – in this case Pamela and Edna – to lose their heads altogether. Two were quite enough: Edna thrust at Matron, Pamela contrived to horrify onlookers with an hysterical attempt to leave the train, and Nell made a wild dive up the aisle to the panic-stricken girl.
“Pamela! Stop that! Stop it at once! Do you want to be thrown out and killed? Come away from that door!”
“Let me out – let me out!” Pamela gasped hysterically. At that moment, the train ended its slow, downward passage and stopped short with a jerk which threw Pamela off her feet and nearly sent Miss Wilson on top of her, had she not caught at the back of a seat for support. Pamela clutched at the nearest thing clutchable, which happened to be the Head’s ankles, and this time Miss Wilson did overbalance and would have been right down but for Matron, who had left Edna to Dickie and followed her Head to help with Pamela. She managed to catch Miss Wilson’s shoulder in a firm grasp and succeeded in steadying her, though, as that lady found out later on, only at the cost of bruising her badly.
By this time, a number of other passengers had also found their own torches, and officials were moving through the train reassuring that all were safe enough. Nell, determined that no one should see a member of the School in such a state of terror, stooped again and, using all her force, dragged the girl to her feet. Almost immediately, someone else came forward and lifted the weight from her. It was Elma. Nell breathed several sighs of relief: Elma would be exactly the tonic the silly girl needed, and at last their silly feud would be over.
At that very instant, the lights flashed on again and the train began to move very slowly uphill. The School party were thankful to leave the train at Lauterbach, and a great many other passengers clearly felt the same – including those whose usual journeys would have taken them further up the line. As they disembarked and gathered themselves beside the little station, Nell noticed Con, busy reassuring and directing some passengers for Mahlhausen who preferred to take the long, snowy tramp up the mountainside, rather than risk any further excitements on the train. The conversation seemed to take longer than strictly necessary – after all, they had only to follow the railway – but Nell supposed that the combination of a misbehaving train and a new walk in the darkness was an unsavoury one for anyone of an anxious disposition.
After some moments, Con appeared at her elbow. “Might we spare some torches for the Mahlhausen folk, do you think? They’ve only three between them, and none have walked it before even by daylight.”
“By all means.” Nell handed over hers without hesitation, and Peggy Bettany and Nell Randolph, who stood nearby, followed suit. Con smiled her thanks, and took them over to the little party. She lingered a few moments longer, speaking quietly with one of the Mahlhausen people, before bidding her a cheerful goodbye and joining her own folk for the walk across the little alpe to the woodland path, while those bound for Mahlhausen followed the track parallel to the railway.
“My stars! I’m not a P.T. mistresss, and for good reason. I hadn’t expected to break my body for the girls in the same way. And yet...”
Nell winced as she slipped her shoulders free of her blouse and inspected the angry bruising as best she could. Certainly Matron’s sturdy grasp had saved her – and Pamela – from worse injury, but it was not a blessing she was ready to be very grateful for just now.
“Bloody Eustacia.” Con remarked in sudden reminiscence, and blushed as soon as she’d said it. She stepped nearer, reached out a gentle hand to touch the purplish discolouration spreading across the exposed skin.
Nell was startled at Con’s vehemence, all this time later, and laughed, both at the original sentiment and her evident embarrassment. “You don’t really still think that, surely? Poor silly girl. It could have been anyone, and it could have been any time. I’ll grant you it’s a pity it was then and there –”
“Oh, I know that really. And if it had been my foot, I’d have put it completely out of mind years ago.”
“But it was mine,” Nell supplied with a sudden smile. There was great contentment to be had in Con’s rueful possessiveness. She hadn’t known until now that she had missed that, being wanted for someone else’s own. She remembered the Heidenroslein of the song. I will prick you, and I won't stand it, and you won't forget me. It was Con, without doubt; Con of old, mellowed but still fierce beneath. She remembered Con describing her daughter's own ferocious love, wondered whether she recognised it as an inherited trait.
Con nodded, saying nothing – for nothing needed to be said. “Shall I go and find you some ointment? It looks nasty.”
“It’ll do. It probably looks worse than it is.”
“You always say that,” Con retorted, but she shrugged and began to get herself changed for bed. She seemed thoughtful tonight too. Nell wondered, but did not ask, whether her heart had also fallen foolish victim to the concert programme. She would talk when she was ready.
And talk she did: “This all seems almost too good to be true.” She remarked now, still in the reminiscent vein she had begun with her mention of Eustacia. “This small new house, I mean, and this very room at the far side of it. Do you remember creeping around the old chalet before, where every floorboard seemed to creak and every whisper risked discovery?”
“Only too well! I suppose, in retrospect, it’s fortunate I was so young and foolish," Nell laughed now, with an unusual affection for her past self as well as her companion – now and then. It was true: hard to imagine she had taken the risks she had then – perhaps she, too, was more changed than she’d noticed. That Con had taken such risks required little imagination; undoubtedly she would do the same today. Perhaps Nell had been wrong to disown that part of herself so readily; perhaps taking those risks had been the only thing to do, in the circumstances.
"And what are you now?" Con teased.
"Old and reckless!" Flippant, but likely also true. Reality bit once more. This worked for now, for who would challenge her? But it was not a state of affairs which could persist indefinitely.
They climbed into the bed now, and the heavy cloud of practicalities did not hang over her for long.
“I seem to have resolved my Christmas holiday conundrum,” Con murmured brightly. “Did you recognise that passenger from Mahlhausen?”
“I can’t say that I did.” Nell answered, frowning to remember and curious about where this was leading.
“I suppose you wouldn’t. She’s Lady Aldis, you know – the wife of that M.P. who had to retire on grounds of ill-health. That’s how they came to be here, of course. I’ve met her two or three times before – she’s a cousin of Nancy’s – my sister’s – husband. We had rather a good chat on the train – she’s petrified of the dark, poor thing, so naturally I babbled at her to calm her nerves. I’d already recognised her before that, though.” Con paused. “I’m never too certain how well known these things are, outside of those sorts of circles, so do forgive me if I’m telling you things you already know inside out. But Lady Aldis’ sister, she got herself into rather a difficult situation some years back, and it struck me that she might be just the sort of person to make friends with. That business with the lights and the train rolling backwards was simply a gift to my purpose.
“She was divorced, you see. Abandoned by some awful drunkard of a baronet, or something like that. The Aldises took her in. It could have cost his career dearly, of course – this is long enough ago that they didn’t yet know how bad his health would become – but they did it anyway. Lady Aldis has since become something of an advocate on the subject. She’s been involved with the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce, I think.”
“So she’s your new patron of ill-treated women?” Nell teased gently, as Con’s musing seemed to fade away.
“She’s my new local friend who would simply love to have me as her visitor, and if I can provide her with a festive houseful of youngsters then so much the better,” Con retorted, her tone suggesting she was still greatly tickled by this stroke of good fortune.
“Did she outright invite you?” Nell asked, holding her breath slightly, wondering whether the confidence of Con’s youth or the desperation of her present circumstance had finagled the invitation, so very much welcome.
“We-ell. She outright invited me to come for a visit – quite early on in our conversation, between you and me I think she’s rather stuck for company up there – and lamented that I probably wouldn’t be able to find the time until after Christmas. I might have answered that I found myself unusually available over Christmas, although I was quite sure she’d have plans already and so on. Turns out not!” She wriggled happily.
Nell exhaled, relaxed into the pillow once more. “Gracious. What a fortuitous train journey!”
“I’ll say! Just imagine – Christmas in the alps for my brats! After all those poor peculiar Christmases at the beach.” Clear blue eyes held hers now, open, honest. “I presumed you really wouldn’t want us under your feet. Not this year, anyhow.” She paused. “I realise I don’t even know what you generally do about Christmas.” Another pause. “Hilda..?”
Unbidden, Nell’s defences went up and she shifted until she was sitting up in the bed. “Some years,” she answered, hearing the caginess in her voice as if it were somebody else who spoke. She was irritated with herself. Con’s frankness deserved greater expansion than this, but where to begin? It was not an easy thing to acknowledge to herself, much less aloud. She had spent some precious, affirming holidays with Hilda; had every reason to expect more of the same yet to come. She had also spent a great number alone – not exactly lonely – but the fact remained that Hilda had always had other people too, where Nell herself had had no one, and besides which –
“You weren’t, were you?” In four short words, Con’s voice shifted from confident to self-doubting. “I always thought...”
“Hilda is as dear as a sister to me.” Nell interrupted, thankful for words which were at least truthful and unambiguous. To how much more detail should Con be privy? She looked away; the rest was hard. “Hilda has never been in love with me.” Is that what you always thought?
“But you were in love with her?” Nell braced for jealousy, recognising this topic from days long gone; but looking up, saw only the softness of sympathy on Con’s face.
Not as I was you. Not with the same gut-churning head-spinning pain and joy and foolishness as I always was with you. She held her head up high. “I don’t know. I thought I was, once upon a time.”
“I’m sorry.” The simplicity of the sentiment, and the respectful silence Con allowed to sit around it, said all that needed to be said.
“I’m not.” Nell spread her hands, finding the expansive honesty she had struggled for moments earlier. “I don’t regret the place Hilda has held in my life, or in my heart. How could I? She owes me nothing, and has given me much.” She was relieved by Con’s patient silence, her lack of unnecessary emotional involvement. It did not resolve the question of how her reappearance would sit alongside Nell’s own treasured friendship with Hilda, but at least it did not make matters worse.
“Are you planning to spend Christmas with her this year?” Her voice was carefully bland now, and Nell tensed again, gave a tight nod. “Give her my love, won’t you?”
“Thank you.” She was trying so very hard; and where once she would have given free rein to her tumult of feelings, instead she squeezed Nell’s weary hand tight in her own. Nell held it close, fervent, appreciative.
“It will be all right.” Con soothed her, promised her; and she trusted in it enough to succumb to sleep. It had been a very, very long day.
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