Passing the Baton by MaryR
Summary: Hilda receives bad news.
Categories: Ste Therese's House Characters: Hilda Annersley, Madge (Bettany) Russell, Therese Le Pattre
School Period: Tyrol
School Name: Chalet School
Genre: Friendship
Challenges:
Series: A New Dream
Chapters: 3 Completed: Yes Word count: 3925 Read: 1203 Published: 24 Jul 2017 Updated: 31 Jul 2017

1. Chapter 1 - Bad News by MaryR

2. Chapter 2 - Love and Grief Intermingled by MaryR

3. Chapter 3 - Walking Life's Uncertain Road by MaryR

Chapter 1 - Bad News by MaryR
She wandered slowly back to her pensione through the crowded streets of Rome, her quiet eyes taking in her surroundings, now night had fallen and lights had sprung up everywhere, transforming a beautiful city into a very romantic one. It should have made her feel lonely, but she was perfectly happy sight-seeing on her own. She had spent several very pleasant, relaxing days exploring little out-of-the-way churches, quiet flower-filled squares and dusty old bookshops. It felt good to be answerable to no one but herself for a while.

She had attended the Vigil Mass of Easter in the great basilica two nights ago; had stood in St Peter’s Square the following morning to hear Pope Pius XI give his Urbi et Orbi Easter message. This evening she had eaten her solitary dinner in a restaurant overlooking the Trevi fountain, then decided to call it a day. Reaching the door of the pensione, she cast one last, lingering look around before entering and going to the desk to collect her key.

The concierge had a surprise for her. “Un telegramma, Signorina. It arrived this morning but you never returned until now, so …”

She shrugged her shoulders with a smile. The guest took the telegram with some foreboding, for only one person knew of her whereabouts.

“Grazie, Signora,” she said quietly, as was her wont, and made her way quickly upstairs to her room, where she could read it in peace.

Tearing open the slip of paper, she held it under the light. Return immediately. Mademoiselle Lepâttre gravely ill. Madge Russell.

She had to read it twice before taking in what this might mean. But … Thérèse was supposed to be on the mend at long last! Laying the slip of paper down, she stood at the window staring out at the colourful lights in the pretty garden of the pensione. There was nothing she could do until morning. It was far too late to disturb the Russells now, but that did not stop her sombre thoughts.

Thérèse Lepâttre, the Headmistress of the Chalet School, had been taken very ill in the middle of the autumn term, but an operation had seemed to put an end to her troubles, although her recovery, even now, several months later, was still very slow. Jem Russell had warned it might be September before she returned. Hilda Annersley sighed. She had been Acting Headmistress since the operation, and it had been difficult and nerve-racking at times, despite her apparent calm. Not only had she had all the Headmistress’s responsibilities on her slender shoulders, she also still had her English and Scripture classes. Now it looked as though the pattern was set to continue, at least for a while longer. But why had they sent for her? There was nothing she could do for Thérèse, surely, except be with her as a friend.

Hilda Annersley’s eyes were sad. When she had come to the Chalet School a few years ago, she had been slightly older and much more experienced than the other mistresses. That, allied to her quiet and very private nature, distanced her a little from the rest of the staff. Meanwhile, Mademoiselle Lepâttre had found herself beset by loneliness after Madge Bettany, founder of the school, married Dr Russell and moved up to the Sonnalpe. Almost despite themselves, the new mistress and her Headmistress felt drawn to each other, each recognising the other’s fine qualities. Miss Annersley was appointed Senior Mistress on Mollie Maynard’s departure, and their friendship and trust grew ever stronger as they shared the day-to-day management of the school. The Senior Mistress had been extremely upset at the gravity of her friend’s illness.

Now, who knew?

She grimaced. This was getting her nowhere. Borrowing trouble never helped anyone. Turning from the window she prepared for bed, packed what she could of her belongings and knelt down, burying her face in her hands. Her prayer was brief but heartfelt.

Lord, she’s safer in Your hands than anywhere else. Take good care of her for us.

Then, knowing she had a long day in front of her the next day, and being an eminently sensible woman, she settled herself to sleep—although sleep was a long time coming.

*****


Now here she was, in the little mountain train, on the final stage of her long journey. She had cabled Madge Russell early that morning to warn of her arrival, having discarded her rail ticket in favour of a seat on the next flight back to Innsbruck. All that remained to do was to leave her case at the school and take the long and weary road up to the Sonnalpe. However, relief was at hand. Dr Jem Russell was awaiting her at the little station.

“It was good of you to return so promptly, Hilda,” he said warmly, helping her out of the carriage and relieving her of her case.

“Jem, how is she?” There was urgency in the mellow voice.

He shook his head. “As bad as ever she was. We’ve had surgeons from Innsbruck and Vienna to look at her, but …” He eyed her white, exhausted face and changed the subject. “Tell me, how was your stay in Rome?”

Seeing he was going to tell her nothing more for the time being, she kept to safe topics until shown into the Saal at Die Rosen, where Madge Russell rose to greet her.

“Hilda!” She cried, taking the cold hands. “You’re worn out. Come and rest by the fire.”

Her guest remained standing. “May I see her, Madge? Or is she too ill?”

“I think it might be better if you hear what happened first,” Madge said quietly. “I know how much you care for her, so you need to understand before you see her.”

Miss Annersley gazed at her with anxious eyes, saw the sorrow in the gentle face and gave in graciously. She sat down and accepted a cup of coffee, warming her hands round it.

“I don’t understand, Madge. She was well on the way to recovery when I left. We looked for her return - certainly by September.”

Madge Russell sighed and the other woman listened attentively as her friend spoke of the self-effacing Frenchwoman who had replaced her as Headmistress. “Yes, we were all so pleased with her progress, slow though it was.” Madge paused, her lips trembling. She turned to look into the flames dancing in the hearth. “Just after you left, there was a return of her symptoms quite suddenly and with no warning. They got her over it, but only for a day or two before it all happened once more. Jem has had doctors here from …”

“He told me,” whispered Hilda Annersley. “Is it … can they …?” All at once, she found herself unable to frame a coherent sentence.

“If they could operate again, they think she would recover in time.”

“If? You mean they can’t?” The older woman was appalled by what she was hearing.

“Her heart is too frail. They say she wouldn’t survive. There are other doctors coming in the next day or so, but Jem has given up hoping.” Madge turned to face the watchful blue-grey eyes. “She will always be an invalid now, dear.”

Silence fell, a silence filled with broken hopes and enormous sorrow. Hilda Annersley’s throat was too tight for words, her keen eyes stark with sadness and regret. She became aware of her cup rattling on its saucer and quickly placed both on the table in front of her.

She wet her dry lips. “How has she taken it? Or does she not know?”

“Oh, she knows,” breathed Madge, “and accepts, with her usual grace and lack of fuss. You will never hear a word of complaint from Thérèse’s lips at this further blow.”

Miss Annersley rose to her feet and walked over to the window, staring out into the gathering darkness through a mist of tears. Thérèse’s honest face and warm, loving smile consumed her mind. How do you accept such news? What do you do when you suddenly come face to face with how mortal you are? How do you go on?

Madge, her eyes damp with her own sorrow for her great friend lying so gravely ill, watched the tall, slender figure at the window. She understood what this news was doing to her. She knew what trust and love lay between the two women. Hilda Annersley would grieve deeply for her Headmistress, but did she understand just why she had been re-called to the school? Had she realised what must now follow?

Madge shattered the painful silence. “Hilda, have you thought what this means for the school — and for you?”

The slender woman spun round. “What … what do you mean?”

Madge spelled it out in words of one syllable. “The school will need a new Head.” She heard her friend catch her breath, saw her blink in shock. “You hadn’t travelled that far, had you?”

She rose to her feet and walked over to the Senior Mistress, taking her cold hands. She searched the uncertain eyes of this gentle woman whom she deeply respected, and spoke quietly but firmly.

“Thérèse and I are both as one on this, Hilda. Would you do us the very great honour of becoming the third headmistress of the Chalet School?” She felt her hands being squeezed as though in a vice. She watched the words sinking in. “We mean it, Hilda. Thérèse was adamant she wanted you and none other. You’re eminently capable and will do a splendid job, especially now the numbers are expanding so rapidly. We need a firm, as well as a perceptive, hand at the helm, and you have both qualities in abundance.” Miss Annersley still stared at her speechlessly. “Come and sit down before you fall down.”

Madge led her back to the couch. The shaken woman picked up her coffee in trembling hands and took a sip, then sighed. She looked over at Madge and opened her lips to speak, but such was the expression on her face that Madge knew it was up to her to speak first.

Her voice was gentle and encouraging. “Hilda, you’ve been acting Head since last November. I know it’s been hard work, combining teaching with all the other responsibilities, but you’ve risen to the occasion magnificently and managed it all with your usual calm competence. Indeed, I would have expected no less, knowing you as I do. The post of Headmistress has been waiting for you from the day you walked into the school, to be honest. You have the experience, yes, but more than that, you have all the necessary qualities.”

“I never wanted it like this, Madge” whispered the woman seated opposite, closing her eyes over her tears…


*****
Chapter 2 - Love and Grief Intermingled by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Many thanks to the six of you who've posted kindly reviews, and to the many more who've taken the time to read it.
Hilda slipped into Mademoiselle’s room at the San. There were fresh tears in her eyes as she stood at the door and gazed on the fragile figure lying so still in the bed - her Headmistress, her friend, her mentor, the one who had helped her the most to settle at the school and for whom she had developed true affection. She thought of the girls. How they would miss this gentle, kindly woman, for they knew how much she cared for them, and loved her for it. How to tell them?

The Frenchwoman’s eyes lifted wearily as she became aware of a figure approaching the bed. She saw the tears, so rare in her self-contained friend, and held out a hand. Her Senior Mistress took it in her own strong grasp and sank down in the chair by the bed, suddenly unable to articulate one word of comfort. Mademoiselle Lepâttre saw her difficulty and raised herself up a little on her pillows.

Ne pleurez-pas, ma chère Hilda!” she said softly, an affectionate smile lighting up her sallow face. “Please do not cry. All is well, je vous assure. I have lived my life and it has been a good one. It is not over yet, but the baton must pass into new hands, safe hands. Oh, oui, chérie, very safe hands. Fear not. You will do so much for the school with your thoughtful perception and wisdom.”

“But, Thérèse, there is so much that I’m not,” whispered her colleague. “I don’t have your warmth or Madge’s lightness of touch. She draws all to her with her charm and graciousness. Both of you are respected and very much loved by the girls.”

Mademoiselle Lepâttre released her hand and stroked the younger woman’s damp cheek. “As you will be, ma mie. All that you think you lack will come in time. You only have to be patient and gentle with yourself and with the school. Both girls and mistresses have much respect and liking for you. They will do your bidding willingly — and in time they will come to see in you those things that the so dear Madge and I myself already see, and they will love you.”

Hilda Annersley bowed her head to hide her tears. She knew she could do the job, but could she do it as lovingly and wisely as these two had done? She was patient and sensitive, and had a great understanding of the minds of young girls. The steel was also there, deep down, and could flash out when necessary, as many of her pupils could testify. But would she get the delicate balance right between justice and mercy?

The Frenchwoman waited a while, then asked quietly, “Will you do it, chérie?

There was no answer. Hilda’s head remained bowed. Mademoiselle tried again with greater urgency, for she felt an overwhelming desire to see this astute and intelligent woman in the place she herself was vacating.

“Remember, mon enfant, you will need a Senior Mistress -and one supposes that you will ask Nell. If so, she will supply the qualities you feel, at this moment, you do not possess. She will supply that lightness of touch, that je ne sais quoi you say you lack. You and Nell will make the good team, as you and I have done. But it is you the school needs, Hilda – of that there can be no doubt.”

Her friend heard the plea in the quiet voice and raised her head. What she saw had her on her feet, bending over the bed and stroking the clammy forehead.

“You’re exhausted, Thérèse,” she whispered, her voice anxious. “Close your eyes and lie still. I’m so sorry for putting you through this tonight. You don’t need my fears and worries when you’re so ill.”

The Frenchwoman smiled up into the sensitive face. “Du calme, chérie. I have the rest of my life to lie still and quiet. You are a good woman, Hilda, and you have been a so good friend. I have a great love for you, so now will you do this one last thing for me - and relieve Madge and the school of their difficulties?”

Hilda Annersley stared down into the pleading eyes and gave in. “Very well, my dear Thérèse. I will do it, for your sake - on one condition. The staff must be the ones who decide whether I take the position. Only if they say they’re behind me will I accept.”

Thérèse Lepâttre smiled with relief. She knew the staff. They would welcome the Senior Mistress as their new head with open arms. She might have kept her distance a little since her arrival, but they all respected her gifts and listened when she spoke. And there was, after all, no one else, unless they employed an outsider. Nell Wilson was too inexperienced as yet, although her time would come. She would help la chère Hilda as none of the others could, although the new headmistress would see, one day, that she herself had all the necessary gifts.

Despite her deep sorrow, Hilda Annersley gave a wry smile when she saw that look of relief. “You think you’re being very clever, that it’s all a fait accompli, don’t you, mon amie?” she asked ruefully. “We’ll see, and I promise I’ll do my very best if I am accepted by them. But, Thérèse,” she added in some uneasiness, “suppose they don’t agree with you as to my suitability?

“You will have to eat those words, ma chère, for there is nothing to fear.” The Frenchwoman smiled contentedly. “They will approve, je vous le promets, and so will the girls. The school will be safe in your capable hands, and you and it will be in my heart always, wherever I am.”

The younger woman squeezed her Headmistress’s hand, and tried to distract her a little by talking about her visit to Rome. Very soon the heavy eyes closed, and the visitor fell silent, surveying her friend’s wasted face sombrely. She remained at the bedside, a watchful presence, and wondered to herself, with a sinking heart, just what she had taken on.


*****
Chapter 3 - Walking Life's Uncertain Road by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Many thanks to those of you who read and very kindly reviewed the last chapter. I know it's rather a sombre tale, but Hilda was losing her dearest friend and support, as well as much else, as you will see in this final chapter. I'm quite certain it must have been a sad and very anxious time for her.
During the ten days that followed, Hilda kept her headmistress company as much as possible, staying to talk or discuss the school when the patient felt stronger, and reading to her when she grew weary and was troubled by pain. It was patently clear that this kindly woman was gravely ill, but Mademoiselle had an indomitable spirit, and welcomed, with a smile of great love and courage, all who visited her. Even the bad news from the latest round of specialists, who all agreed with the earlier diagnosis that nothing could be done, did not disturb her tranquillity.

That, alas, was not the case with her friends. Along with Madge and Jem, Hilda mourned her coming loss keenly, and gave even more of herself to her friend, for who knew how long they would have her close to them? The rest of her time was spent either with Madge, learning more about the post she had been occupying for the last term and a half, or on her own down at the school, grappling with the many things needing to be done before any new term could begin. Try as she might, though, grief rose up and ravaged her heart at regular intervals, making concentration difficult.

To complicate matters, Madge had sprung some surprising news on her, news which filled her with a deep apprehension. As well as adjusting to being the new headmistress, she would now have to cope with a much larger school. St Scholastika’s, the school across the lake, was closing, and Madge had agreed to take all those girls and mistresses who wished to transfer. How to cope with this sudden influx exercised all Hilda’s thoughts and talents for much of those ten days.

There were new form lists, form rooms and dormitories to arrange, and bedrooms found for the new teachers, although Madge already had plans for any new buildings that would be needed. She tussled long and hard with new timetables for every form, after working out which mistresses were best placed for each subject. Talk about trying to pour a quart into a pint pot! It was not going to be an easy term, and Hilda's heart quailed more than a little. Talk about trying to pour a quart into a pint pot! It was not going to be an easy term, and her heart quailed more than a little.

The night before the other mistresses were due back, she again lay sleepless, staring into the dark. How quickly life changes and catches us unawares, she reflected. As it had changed for poor Mademoiselle! Did she really want this promotion? Would she be allowed to have it? She was very young to have already reached the pinnacle of her career. Would that be held against her by the others, who were not really all that much younger?

Had she done all that was necessary this last week to ensure the smooth running of the school for the new term? Would she be equal to the task in the days and years ahead? The questions swirled round and round in her mind, until finally she called a firm halt to them. She knew God had sent her here to the Chalet School after her fiancé died, so His hand must be in this, too, somewhere. She would trust to His judgement and care.

The next day, a new era began for the Chalet School. Hilda Annersley returned to the Headmistress’s study, now hers by right, her heart warmed by the reception she had received from the mistresses at the first staff meeting of term. There had been no disagreement about her taking on the position, only much kindness and encouragement - with a healthy dose of sarcasm from Nell Wilson thrown in for good measure:

“Oh, talk sense, Hilda! Do you expect us to go on strike? You’ve run the school this last term and a half, and nothing untoward has happened. Indeed, for us, we’ve been remarkably tranquil. Why on earth shouldn’t things go just as well if you are actual, instead of acting, Head? You know we’ll back you to the last ditch.”

She was now the third headmistress of the Chalet School. All at once, as she sat at her desk, her nerve faltered. She had seen the sudden gap yawning between herself and the other women, even as they warmly welcomed her as their new leader. That gap had never existed in her time as English mistress or as Acting Headmistress, but the moment she assumed the mantle, they had retreated a little. She was now set apart. The camaraderie of the staffroom was, henceforth, forbidden to her. She could only enter there when invited.

The loneliness of leadership loomed. After all, who had accompanied her from the staffroom? She must now hold herself aloof, friendly to all, but close friends with none. Except, perhaps, with her Senior Mistress, if she could persuade Nell to take the post...

But Nell already had a close friend! She would make a wonderful Senior Mistress, but would she want the job, if it meant less time with Con?

With a gentle sigh, Hilda straightened her shoulders and chided herself for her self-pity. Had she not just been handed the most wonderful job in the world? Her spirit reached out to her greatest support:

'Give me Thy counsel for my guide.'

Having asked for help, and knowing with great certainty that she would receive it, she looked at her watch and picked up the phone.

“Madge? Yes, my dear. This is the new Headmistress of the Chalet School speaking.” She laughed gently at Madge’s words of relief and congratulations, and made her a solemn pledge. “I will do my very best for you and for the school in the years ahead, Madge. I’m deeply honoured by your trust in me. For now, though, would you tell Thérèse I’ll be up very shortly to eat my words. She’ll understand.”

Her smile fell away as she set down the phone. A tear glistened on her cheek.


The End



*****
End Notes:
The quotation Hilda recites is from Isaac Watts.

Nell's words are taken verbatim from The New Chalet School.
This story archived at http://www.sallydennylibrary.co.uk/viewstory.php?sid=1029