A New Dream - Vol 3 Christmas at the Convent by MaryR
Summary: Hilda flees to the convent for the Christmas holidays, desperate for the help only Mother Abbess can now give her. She meets a lonely, grieving child who now has no one.
Categories: Ste Therese's House Characters: Hilda Annersley, Nell Wilson
School Period: Switzerland
School Name: Chalet School
Genre: Drama, Family, Friendship, Humour, Mystery, Religion
Challenges:
Series: A New Dream
Chapters: 18 Completed: Yes Word count: 79698 Read: 49868 Published: 30 Jul 2011 Updated: 18 Aug 2011

1. Chapter 1 - Hilda Surprises Mother Abbess by MaryR

2. Chapter 2 - A Fierce Tussle by MaryR

3. Chapter 3 - Mother Abbess wins the tussle - for the moment! by MaryR

4. Chapter 4 - Hilda Takes Charge by MaryR

5. Chapter 5 - Ellie's Despair and Hilda's Plans by MaryR

6. Chapter 6 - Ellie's Perfect Day by MaryR

7. Chapter 7 - Another Gift from Hilda by MaryR

8. Chapter 8 - Hilda Parts with her Treasures by MaryR

9. Chapter 9 - Nightmares and Blessings by MaryR

10. Chapter 10 - Nothing is lost if offered freely by MaryR

11. Chapter 11 - An Untrammelled Spirit by MaryR

12. Chapter 12 - Christmas Morning by MaryR

13. Chapter 13 - Mother Abbess Tells her Tale by MaryR

14. Chapter 14 - The Tale Continues by MaryR

15. Chapter 15 - Stars to Hold by MaryR

16. Chapter 16 - Presents for All by MaryR

17. Chapter 17 - and a special one for Hilda. by MaryR

18. Chapter 18 - An inexplicable bond. by MaryR

Chapter 1 - Hilda Surprises Mother Abbess by MaryR
Author's Notes:
This first chapter is for all of you, of course, but it's most especaally for Lynne, who wanted to know when Ellie would be making her appearance. Enjoy!
Mother Abbess was waiting at the Convent door when Hilda arrived. She took her by the shoulders the instant she stepped inside, searched her thin face and was not reassured! The blue-grey eyes were haunted, seeming too large for the gaunt face with its sharply-chiselled cheekbones. Hilda had lost weight, and wore the same air of profound sorrow she wore in the summer, but physical pain had added its own lines. Hilda made no effort to hide. The nun saw straight through her, so what would be the point? She stood patiently as she was stripped of her defences, then rewarded by a warm embrace. Tears stung her eyes, but she forced them back.

“I’m home!” she whispered.

“Yes, child, you’re home, where you now belong. And, please God, we can repair some of the damage before we send you out into the world again.”

Mother Abbess held Hilda close a few more moments, then led her to her room, appreciating that additional loving words would be her new postulant’s undoing.

“You know the routine, but it’s a while till chapel and dinner, so I’ll send some tea along. You must be thirsty. Oh, by the way, these arrived for you a day or two ago.”

She indicated two boxes, one large and one somewhat smaller, standing in the corner of the room and bearing foreign stamps. Hilda was glad to see they had arrived, but tensed when she heard Mother Abbess’s next words.

“I should also tell you that several large cartons arrived weeks ago from Devon.” She watched the shadows deepen. “Nell’s things? You told me to expect them.”

“Where are they?” she whispered.

“In the cellars! Don’t worry, child, it’s nice and dry there.” She took Hilda by the shoulders again. “You don’t have to open them now. They can wait till you’re ready – forever, if need be. There’s plenty of space down there.”

Hilda’s face was bleak. “There is one thing I want, but the rest.” She closed her eyes. “Not yet, not just yet.”

Mother Abbess showed her down to the cellar but, at Hilda’s request, left her there alone. Hilda stared at the cartons for long, long moments, wondering how to prevent herself falling apart when she opened them. Steeling herself, she knelt by the nearest and fitted the key into the padlock. She breathed out a ragged sigh of relief when she lifted the lid. Most of the contents were swathed in newspaper, unrecognisable and, therefore, rousing no pain. She knew the size of the object she was looking for, so rummaged around. Not finding it, she opened a second box, and a third. Beginning to feel rather desperate she threw open the lid of the forth carton, where she discovered it hiding in plain sight.

She removed it with great care and slammed shut the lid of the carton. Leaning forward, she stretched her arms across it, as though to hug it to her. The next instant, her face was buried in the crook of her elbow, her heart filled with monstrous pain, tears gathering in her eyes, a sob trying to escape. These boxes held all she had left of Nell, apart from gifts Nell had given her over the years and a few albums of photos, yet somehow she had to learn how to let go of them all, if she was to enter here as a nun…..

When she had regained her poise, she left the cellar at a run, scurried to her room and placed the object on her bedside table. She ran her fingers tenderly over the carved wood, her memory going back nearly thirty years. Opening the lid, she gazed wistfully at the contents, but closed it again in haste when tears dripped onto the silk lining. It would never do to spoil it, after all these years of loving use.

Wiping the tears away with trembling fingers, she took the larger of the two boxes Mother Abbess had indicated and placed it by the door. She would need help with that later. The contents of the smaller box she emptied onto the bed, checking everything over, then poured herself a cup of tea and unpacked her suitcase, putting everything away except for the tissue paper and wrapping paper from the very bottom of the case, and a small, flat, gift-wrapped package. She sat on the bed, using the paper to make a neat parcel of each item she had taken from the cardboard box. Satisfied, she laid them all carefully back inside the box, and parcelled that up as well, finishing it off with shiny ribbon and bow. She set it beside the larger box at the door and laid the flat package on the chest of drawers.

She looked at her watch. it was almost time for the service in chapel, the service at which she had broken down the very first day she set foot in the convent. Little had she known, then, what a friend was waiting for her, or what new dream God had in store for her. That friend and the new dream were the only things keeping her afloat. The school could no longer uphold her, despite her sense of responsibility for all within it, and her profound love for the girls in her care.

With a heavy sigh, she tidied her hair, washed her face, and made her way to the chapel. On the way, she stopped off at the Portresses’s little room to ask a favour. Once inside the chapel, she settled at the back. The flickering flames of the tall candles on the altar cast dancing shadows on the wood-panelled walls. The candles were the only decoration, since no flowers were allowed there during Advent. The wall behind the altar was not panelled, but painted a beautiful, rich, deep, blue, and into this blue wall were cut three long, narrow, stained-glass windows. When the sun shone through, colour almost drenched the chapel. Tonight, though, she drew the sweet-smelling dimness around her like a shawl and felt cocooned in quietude. The nuns’ quiet prayers and gentle singing flowed around her. Peace crept into her soul. Love wrapped her round. In no other place now would she find what she had discovered here since Nell’s death.

It came to her that it was love, not time, which would heal her wounds. Not yet, for the searing ache, which had eased for a while, had returned in full force with the accident. Not yet, but one day, God willing….

A few weeks ago you promised to trace the rainbow through the rain for me when I couldn’t do it myself, in spite of my solemn vow. I need you to do that for me, dear heart, for I am so weak and lonely. And I still need that memory whispering in my ear, something to ease the pain..…

******

From her seat in the the dining room later, Mother Abbess watched Hilda closely and guessed at some new battle fought and won since her arrival. Hilda’s smile held a heartbreaking quality, even as she talked to the others at her table, and Mother Abbess was alarmed by her appearance. The pallor, the huge shadowed eyes, the hollows at her temples, all spoke of exhaustion and barely-concealed emotion, of sleepless nights and physical pain. Her whole demeanour revealed tension, and the deep reserve in her face warned Mother that the walls were up. Not only up, but barricaded from within. Hilda was isolating herself again. How adept at it she was!

The nun had never met anyone, in all her years of counselling, with such deep reserve and wells of courage as Hilda – the fruit of her mother’s early death, and her own lonely existence after that. The subsequent death of her fiancé had only added to her ability to shut it all behind locked doors and smile. The wonder of it was that she had not withered away emotionally behind that barricade. Instead, she had found it within her to be ready always to help others, to be a gracious and graceful presence, with a profound love of her Maker. She had overcome her deep fear of more loss and opened up to Nell - and was now suffering the consequences.

One day, Mother Abbess knew, Hilda would be grateful for the many happy years she had had with Nell. She would glory in wonderful memories of the deep, tender love that had enriched both their lives. One day! But not yet, when that wound was deep and lacerating. Now, Hilda’s grief was once more swamping her. That was the trouble with grief. Its unpredictability! It ebbed and flowed, knew no time table. Just when you thought you'd vanquished it and could relax, as Hilda had started to relax in the autumn, it sneaked up and grabbed you from behind, taking your breath away all over again, annihilating you.

She had heard from Gwynneth how Hilda was trying to fight it - by hiding, instead of opening up and giving in to it; by standing firm, instead of swaying with the harshness of it. Like trees, unless you bent and swayed into the wind, you snapped! Mother Abbess’s lips set firm. She intended to break through that isolating reserve, and to do so before Christmas, or the festival would destroy Hilda. The nun would smash down that mighty barricade if it killed her, and knowing her friend, it probably would! Strong, stubborn, iron-controlled Hilda would fight her every step of the way.

Her dark thoughts were interrupted by one of the lay sisters setting a large box down on the floor beside the nun's chair. Startled, Mother Abbess recognised the larger of the two boxes from Hilda’s room. Her eyes flew to her friend. She indicated that Hilda should join her, but she shook her head. Knowing how her friend hated the limelight, Mother Abbess gave up. Leaning down, she folded back the flaps of the box, reached in and pulled out a hard object wrapped in newspaper. Carefully peeling back the paper, she gasped out loud. Again, her eyes sought Hilda’s, but Hilda merely smiled.

Mother Abbess turned the object slowly in her hand, then rose to her feet and held it out for all to see. Murmurs of astonishment and admiration came from all corners of the room. It was a shepherd, beautifully crafted in dark polished wood. He was roughly eighteen inches high, with a lamb in his arms. His face had been expertly carved to reveal the rough features and thick curly beard of one who worked outdoors in all seasons. Laying it down on the table, Mother Abbess invited one of the guests to delve into the box. When the next item was unwrapped, there stood on the table a king, grave and dignified, a turban on his head, a finely carved box in his hands. One could almost feel the solemn purpose of his journey.

Another guest reached in and revealed Mary, the Mother of Jesus. At the sight of it, Mother Abbess’s eyes widened. Where had Hilda found these wondrous objects? Mary’s face was delicately delineated to reveal unfathomable depths of tenderness. Her robes flowed gracefully around her, her arms outstretched to gather up her infant son. How had the artist brought grace and beauty out of a block of wood? It was a miracle of craftsmanship. For a fleeting moment, the nun’s mind touched on Vivien Knowles’ superb gifts with another unfeeling material.

By the time the box was empty, there stood on the table a complete crèche: the graceful Mary, a Joseph whose face was serious and guarded, an adorable baby, three splendidly-dressed kings, dignified and rather solemn, another large shepherd, and a young, gentle-looking shepherd boy. To complete the set came a couple of lambs, their curly wool so lifelike as to make one want to stroke it, a little donkey and a strong, sturdy ox. They were masterpieces of carving, a truly precious and perfect gift. A reverent hush descended on the dining room at the grace and serenity of the figures.

Mother Abbess looked across at Hilda and beckoned her over. Hilda shook her head again, but the nun was having none of it this time. She looked round and her sweet voice would not be gainsaid.

“Ladies and gentlemen, may I ask you to give a big hand to the generous donor of this beautiful Christmas gift?”

There was immediate, loud applause, so a very reluctant Hilda accepted her fate and crawled forward, obedient to her future Superior.

“You should know me better, child,” murmured the nun. “You didn’t really think I'd let you escape so easily!” She raised her voice slightly. “I know everyone here would agree these are exquisite creations, but where on earth did you find them?”

Hilda picked up the figure of Mary, stroked the shining wood of the face, and replied in that rich, quiet voice of hers that yet reached the corners of the room.

“They come from Oberammergau in Bavaria.”

“Where they hold the Passion Play?” asked Mother Abbess in surprise.

Hilda looked round the room, the teacher in her coming to the fore.

“Does anyone know much about the play?” Most of those present shook their heads, so she indicated they should sit down, and explained how the villagers in Oberammergau produced the Play once every ten years in gratitude to God for their escape from the plague, prevalent in 1663, almost exactly three hundred years ago.

What an enthralling teacher she must be, thought Mother Abbess, hearing the mellow voice and watching the light in Hilda’s eyes as she talked. How gracious and compelling she was! She made you want to listen. Lucky, lucky children, she thought, exchanging speaking glances with a newcomer to the convent, seated at a table near the kitchen. She seemed just an ordinary-looking, middle-aged nun, until one looked into her eyes and noted the cool, dispassionate gaze. This woman would not miss one single, solitary thing.

Hilda, another individual who normally missed nothing, remained completely unaware of this exchange of looks as she finished her tale. She turned to the Abbess.

“The villagers produce these beautiful carvings in large quantities, and I thought a set might express my gratitude for all you've done for me and others.” She smiled round at the other guests, who nodded their heads in agreement. Mother opened her mouth to argue, but Hilda added, with a twinkle, “I remembered that, when I was here in the summer, one of the guests inadvertently left the bathwater running, flooding your storerooms and ruining your crib figures.”

“And we couldn’t afford to replace them. It wasn’t the only thing we lost, either,” the nun added, casting a somewhat baleful eye over the assembled company. People seemed unable to understand that money was permanently short in a convent, and resources should not be wasted! One or two of the guests shifted uncomfortably under that withering glare. Hilda smiled to herself. Mother Abbess was nothing if not forthright!

Hilda spoke hastily, trying to restore peace. “I thought these would be a good replacement, and we'll all try to be more careful.” Her eyes glowed with love.

“Hilda, my dear, we'll treasure them, and be the envy of all the other convents in the area. They'll go into the chapel immediately, being just the right size for the altar steps. But, first…”

Mother picked up the baby from its cattle trough. Reaching into the box, she pulled out some newspapr, wrapped it round the tiny figure and handed it to Hilda.

“You shall be the one to place the bambino in His crib on Christmas night. Keep Him safe until then.”

Hilda took the parcel, but her eyes drifted towards a young girl, aged about sixteen, seated next to Sister Patricia during the meal. Hilda had noticed her, because she was by far the youngest person there. As she watched her unobtrusively, she had remarked the intense sadness in the girl’s eyes, a sorrow far too great for one so young. Now, on impulse, she walked over to the girl, who gazed at her broodingly from her seat in the corner. Hilda placed the parcel by the girl’s hand, Her voice very gentle.

“I don’t know your name, dear, but I think the Christ child would count it an honour to be placed in His crib by the youngest person here. He loved children.”

The girl’s face did not alter, but the sombre blue eyes lightened a fraction. Her hand reached out to touch the parcel, then drew it close. No more needed to be said. Hilda smiled at her with great compassion, and returned to Mother Abbess.

“God bless you, love,” the nun whispered. “You see what no one else sees and, as always, you give with such love and tenderness.”

*****

Hilda tapped on Mother Abbess’s door, balancing her packages as she did so. When they were placing the crib figures in the chapel after dinner, the nun had agreed to see her later. Now, here she was! She knew she was being spoiled, given access denied to many; knew, also, that she would not be treated like this once she entered. But just now, she needed this spoiling, this leniency. Also, she loved this woman as a friend, but also, increasingly, as a mother. Mother Abbess did not, could not replace Nell, but she was the only one who helped when things grew really bad; the only one who saw and understood her as none other now did. She so wanted to repay her a little for all she did and was. The fact that Mother already felt more rewarded than she deserved was unknown to Hilda, although the nun had tried to tell her often enough.

She found the wood-panelled room lit only by the flickering flames in the hearth, and by one small lamp on the desk, where Mother was sitting writing. The nun’s eyebrows disappeared into her wimple when she caught sight of the parcels in Hilda’s arms.

“Haven’t you already spoiled us enough with that magnificent crèche, young lady? Not to mention the money which arrives every month, and which my bank manager informs me has mysteriously increased in value recently?”

Her lips quivered on the edge of laughter when she saw Hilda’s abashed face. Clearly they were not supposed to know that fact just yet!

“Hilda, love, these really aren’t necessary.”

“Who said anything about necessity?” asked Hilda, her voice soft as she laid the parcels on the desk. “One usually offers gifts out of love.”

“But, Hilda, I can’t…”

Hilda held up her hand. “I know. You’re a nun. You’re not allowed to own things personally, but must share with the whole community. Well, the larger package may be enjoyed by all who come in here to see you, or anywhere else you choose to place it.” She stopped and touched the curling ribbons on the flat present. “This one, you must decide what to do with it. You’ll have guessed it’s a book. It could join your others….”

She indicated the well-stocked shelves set round the room,
then perched herself on the corner of the desk. Mother Abbess, her eyes on the thin, shadowed face, drew the larger gift towards her. She undid the gold ribbon, peeled back the star-studded paper, and found the smaller of the two boxes placed earlier in Hilda’s room. What a great deal of planning Hilda had put into these presents!

Mother folded back the flaps and peered in the box. When she saw all the small, beribboned packages her eyes flew to Hilda, but the latter merely smiled. With trembling hands, Mother Abbess unwrapped the first parcel, and discovered the figure of a King, about nine inches high, half the size of the other crèche figures. It was a perfect replica of the larger one, and was exquisite, the carving of the face sheer perfection.

“Hilda…” she breathed, lost for words.

She stroked the smooth, glossy wood in wonder, before diving back into the box. After many such excursions, another exquisite set of carved wooden figures was gathered on the desk. To the nun’s joy, this crèche had the addition of two angels, carved with consummate artistry to reveal huge curving wings of infinite majesty and beauty, and faces of matchless tranquillity.

“Oh Hilda, child, you do love to spoil people!”

“I have no one else to spoil, now Nell's dead,” whispered Hilda, her eyes looking with sorrow into the nun’s. “So, as my new family, you'll have to suffer, I’m afraid.”

Thinking of all the love and compassion inside Hilda, her great need to give to others, Mother Abbess wanted to cry out at the injustice of it all. She knew Hilda was not looking for sympathy, merely stating a fact, and it grieved her mightily.

Hilda picked up the little bambino in his swaddling clothes. “I've had a very small crèche of my own for years. Seeing these two sets here when I enter will be a little reminder of my former life.”

“What will you do with yours?”

“I have no idea, any more than I know what to do with all my books…” Her voice trailed away.

There was something stark in her face and the nun recalled she had been down in the cellar with Nell’s belongings. Was that where the battle had taken place?

“Will you find it hard to give them up, your possessions?”

Mother Abbess watched Hilda carefully, but the latter neither flinched nor turned away.

“Nell and I never set much store by possessions, but yes…some of them,” Hilda whispered, licking suddenly dry lips. “Presents from Nell over the years, some of the things in those boxes, photos…”

She looked down at her hands. The nun’s eyes followed. The seal rings! Hilda touched the one on her left hand.

“And this, which you already know about! How will I do it, Mother? How?”

Her voice was a despairing whisper and Mother Abbess’s hand reached out to squeeze hers.

“Don’t worry about it, sweetheart. Strength will be given. Anything you find too hard to give up – like the ring - you bring with you and we work on it together. We all know how difficult it is. We all had something too precious to offer.”

Hilda’s face was sombre, her throat tight, and silence settled as she fought her emotions.

“I've been thinking about this recently. There are two things I want to give you this Christmas. It will be hard, so hard, but if I do it now, I may have learned to be without them by the time I enter. They’re two of my most treasured possessions...” She faltered. When she continued, Mother Abbess heard the suppressed tears. “But you may have to wait awhile, until I've plucked up enough courage. In fact, I may well need your help to do it.”

She looked so vulnerable as she perched there, so alone, so defeated, that Mother stood up and wrapped her strong arms round her, holding her close. Hilda melted into that embrace. She had fled here to the convent like a chick to its nest. Now, the chick could relax and let go for a while. It was safe! It would grow strong again in the shelter of its mother’s wings.

After a few moments, however, Hilda moved out of that warm embrace, knowing she must not learn to depend too much on this loving woman, for she would soon be her Superior. She slid the other package over and Mother Abbess, recognising courage and dignity when she saw them, said nothing. She returned to her seat, peeled off the gold ribbon and star-strewn paper. Inside was a green, leather-bound book without a title. Curious, Mother Abbess flicked through the crisp, cream pages and saw they were filled with Hilda’s elegant, flowing handwriting. Startled, she stopped at one page, read it, turned to another, then another. Each and every page held quotations from novels, poems, prayers, biographies, the Bible, and many other sources. She looked up at Hilda, her eyes wide.

“Hilda, you’ve taken my breath away, again! I dread to think how long you spent copying these out, especially when you’ve been so ill. Wondrous is the only word that springs to mind.” Her eyes dropped to the last page.

Always take an emergency leisurely.”

She smiled admiringly at Hilda. “You should take that Chinese proverb as your motto. I remember how calmly and quietly you spoke to that young man who broke in here. You almost hypnotised him. It was as though you made time slow down, giving yourself room to manoeuvre.”

Her eyes eagerly sought the book once more, finding new delights on each page, all the time knowing there were more to discover. She began to read out loud, chuckling now and then to herself.

Victor Hugo: Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face.

Life is but a day;
a fragile dewdrop on its perilous way
from a tree’s summit.

Keats

Groucho Marx: I didn’t like the play. But then I saw it under adverse conditions. The curtain was up.

Churchill: Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of the time he will pick himself up and continue on.

Oswald Chambers: You might as well be useful where you are, because you certainly can be of no use where you are not.

St Francis of Assisi: Preach the gospel all the time. If necessary, use words.

“Oh, didn’t he get that right?” chuckled Mother Abbess, her eyes shining with delight at this most unusual gift.

Josh Billings: Consider the postage stamp. Its usefulness consists in the ability to stick to one thing until it gets there.

Margaret Fuller: If you have faith, and an appreciation of the simple things of life, let others light their candles from it.

GK Chesterton: Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.

Blake: No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.

“Which is what we try to teach the novices here,” whispered Mother Abbess. “They must be themselves, only themselves. Why do people think being a nun means to conform? Conform to what? No, being a nun is to find freedom to truly be what God made you.”

Pasternack: When a great moment knocks on the door of your life, it is often no louder than the beating of your heart, and it is very easy to miss it.

Tagore: Let your life lightly dance on the edges of time like a drop of dew on the tip of a leaf.

Alas for those who never sing.
But die with all their music in them.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

GB Shaw: I often quote myself: it adds spice to the conversation.

Walpole: It isn’t life that matters; it’s the courage you bring to it.

Henry Ward Beecher: God asks no man whether he will accept life. This is not the choice. You must take it. The only question is how.

The nun looked up at Hilda, her eyes saying all she thought. Those last two quotations could have been written for the slender woman before her, as could the next one she saw when she lowered her eyes again.

Victor Hugo: Have courage in the greatest sorrows of life and patience for the small ones, and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily tasks, go to sleep in peace. God is awake.

RL Stevenson: Sit loosely in the saddle of life.

Proust: Life is strewn with miracles for which people who love can always hope.

Meister Eckhart: Whatever God does, the first outburst is always compassion.

Teach me your mood, O patient stars,
Who climb each night the ancient sky,
Leaving on space no shade, no scars,
No trace of age, no fear to die.

Emerson

Mother Abbess looked up at Hilda. “No fear to die?” she queried.

Hilda shook her head. She had never been afraid of death, not for herself. The nun squeezed her hand and dove back into this treasure trove of a book. What a gift!

e e cummings: To be nobody but yourself – in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you like everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.

Camus: Nostalgia for other people’s lives. This is because, seen from the outside, they form a whole, while our life, seen from the inside, is all bits and pieces. Once again, we run after an illusion of unity.

That shining moon – watched by that one faint star:
Sure now am I, beyond the fear of change,
The lovely in life is the familiar,
And only the lovelier for continuing strange.

Walter de la Mare

CS Lewis: In God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give.

Samuel Rutherford: Whenever I find myself in the cellar of affliction, I always look about for the wine.

Mother Abbess chuckled out loud. “Oh, that’s wonderful. Would that we could all find the good!” She placed the book back on the desk and reached out to grasp Hilda’s hand. “Sweetheart, this is one of the most beautiful things anyone has ever done for me.”

Her voice broke at the wealth of love Hilda was pouring out on them all, in the midst of her bitter pain and confusion. Hilda leaned to kiss the nun’s soft cheek.

“Then I’m glad I found the time, for there is so little I may do for you.”

“Except for the money, which you almost forced on us months ago,” muttered Mother Abbess.

“But that’s not really for you, is it? It’s to help others.” Hilda indicated the book, the crib figures. “The book and the crèche are for you. I needed to repay a little of my debt, for debt there surely is.” Mother Abbess smiled, knowing words would be a waste of time. “There’s a quote in there just for you:

"'Do give books for Christmas. They’re never fattening, seldom sinful and permanently personal'". (Lenore Hershey

“This is certainly personal, very personal – but most definitely not sinful, just overwhelmingly wonderful” whispered the nun, stroking the green cover.

“I have at least twelve of these of my shelves. I keep one to hand when I read and copy it out. It saves endless time later searching for just the piece I may want.”

Mother Abbess raised her eyes. “Then will you do something for me? If you won't mind sharing them with others, will you bring them with you when you enter? They may be of immense value, not just to the community, but to the people who come to us. Who knows when a few well-chosen words may leap off the page and help someone?”

Hilda’s eyes grew bleak and she looked over at the fire. Mother Abbess waited, guessing she was thinking of Nell. When Hilda spoke, her voice was distant.

“You asked would I find it hard to give up my belongings. I may have trouble with my books. I don’t know what I would have done without them these last months. On some days, they were the only light in the dark places.” She turned to the nun. “Along with you, they comforted me, gave me fresh insights. Some of those words are written in that book. I know my books and poetry will help me in the months yet to come, for I'm not over Nell and there will still be hard days.”

Mother Abbess rose to her feet. Time to distract her a little. Her first night here was not the time to take a sledgehammer to those walls.

“Are you going to help me decide the best place for these magnificent creations?”

They both considered the lofty, wood-panelled room with its immense, overflowing bookshelves, large bay windows and carved over-mantle. Comfortable armchairs and a soft leather couch were grouped round the fire, and in front of the couch was a low glass table set on carved wooden legs. Mother Abbess and Hilda smiled at each other. The perfect place! A focal point during emotional and difficult conversations, backlit by the dancing flames in the wide hearth. They set the figures on the glass: the two shepherds and their sweet-faced sheep, the three kings, so majestic in their bearing, a bearded Joseph hovering protectively over Mary in her flowing robes, she in her turn kneeling to worship. Mother Abbess held the Babe in her hands and looked at Hilda, crouched on the floor setting the figures straight.

“You gave the other bambino to Ellie, and that was fitting, for she has suffered. This one is yours to place, daughter, because of all you've done for us, because of all you are.”

Hilda blinked back tears at the affection in the nun’s voice. She went to her desk, wrapped the figure in tissue paper and returned to place it in Hilda’s hand.

“Advent is a time for waiting, for just sitting quietly with Jesus. Hold Him close to your heart, sweetheart. Wait patiently and He will wipe away all your tears.”

Hilda looked down at the parcel in her hand. Her lips trembled.

"Paul Scherer wrote: God walked down the stairs of Heaven with a Baby in His arms.

Mother Abbess smiled gently. “That’s beautiful, child. I do hope you included it in the book.” She picked up the two remaining figures. “My favourites, two serene and watchful angels.”

She placed one each side of the crèche, to keep guard. Peace enfolded them, but after a while Hilda stirred.

“Perhaps I should give you more than this, more than my notebooks. I’ll make you a gift of my whole library.”

“No one else who would appreciate them?”

“I may give one or two as parting gifts, but no….” Her face was intensely sad. “I’m singularly lacking in family or close friends, Mother. After James’ death, I left the country, and shut the door on my friends, as well as on my grief. As for the school, as Head I can’t make friends of one or two. It has to be all or none.”

The loneliness of leadership, reflected the nun.

“Hilda, sweetheart, there are many people at the school who love you dearly, to whom you mean a very great deal and who will be extremely sad to lose you.”

She spoke with great tenderness, her face alight with her own deep love for this gentle, gracious woman who had such a talent for friendship, yet knew notjust how rare and special she was.



******
Chapter 2 - A Fierce Tussle by MaryR
Author's Notes:
I'm afraid it's long....
Hilda closed the door behind her and curled up on the couch in front of the fire. Her eyes rested on the crib figures shining in the cold afternoon sunlight streaming through the large windows. It was the day after her arrival, and Mother had warned her she might be late for their first talk. She had an urgent visit to make, so Hilda was to wait in her office, although “office” was hardly the name she would give to this peaceful, panelled room. She stared into the flames crackling in the hearth, but the silence in the room only served to augment the sadness and loneliness mushrooming inside her, at the thought of Christmas without Nell.

She rubbed her throbbing forehead. Part of the problem was the accident and its aftermath. She knew she had returned to school too soon. Her headaches were increasing in number and intensity, as were the nightmares and those awful “flashes”. They only lasted a split second, but the pictures projected onto her mind’s eye were so vivid that they made her feel sick. More and more details of that night were returning to her, none of them pleasant.

Her thoughts threatening to overwhelm her, she opened the book she had carried in with her, and was soon fathoms deep, only rousing when a cold hand stroked her cheek. She looked up into loving green eyes, and felt her anchor settle more firmly on the ocean floor. She was home, safe, tethered.

The nun’s face was glowing from the cold, her eyes snapping with vitality, and she made Hilda feel feeble and very old. Mother noted once more the sad, haunted eyes, the hollows at the temples, the stiffness in the shoulders. The time had come! She held up a finger.

“Five more minutes! I’m going for a pot of tea and then we talk.”

When she returned, Hilda was staring once more into the flames. Mother Abbess set down the tray, poured out the tea and settled close to her. She eyed the book on Hilda’s knee.

“What are you reading?”

Hilda looked down. Without warning, her eyes misted over as she stroked the picture on the front cover.

“It’s called Le Petit Prince.” Her voice wobbled treacherously. “It’s a children’s book, about a brave little prince. But it’s more than that – it’s about love and responsibility and friendship… and death.”

Mother Abbess’s eyes narrowed, and focused more intently on Hilda, who swallowed to ease the tightness in her throat.

“It’s always been one of my favourite books, but this particular copy is very special. Nell gave it to me the day we celebrated my coming of age as Headmistress.” She turned to look at the nun. “Remember me telling you about that day?” Mother Abbess nodded, remaining silent. “She wrote something beautiful in it, something that moved me to tears. I’ve never shown it to anyone before now, but... I think I’d like to share it with you.” Her voice broke. “How did she find the words to express the inexpressible?”

Opening the front cover she handed the book to the nun, who read the words written there by Nell Wilson and could only wonder, yet again, at this steadfast relationship:

My Hilda, just as the Little Prince ‘tamed’ the fox and so became responsible for him and learned to love him, so you ‘tamed’ me long ago with your gentleness and serenity, and made me whole. Your integrity, compassion and courage, your deep faith in a loving God, have inspired and challenged me over the years to be more than I once thought I could be. More than that, they have filled me with such love for you that, as we have grown ever closer, you no longer seem a separate person but a vital part of my own self. With God, you have become the very meaning of my soul.


Tears dimming her eyes, Mother read again the words that said so much about the character of two extraordinary women. Hilda must indeed have felt annihilation when she lost Nell. No wonder she refused to pray! How did you recover from such a blow? She handed the book back, compassion in her eyes.

“I see why you might find it hard to give up some of Nell’s presents, sweetheart. I, too, would never want to part with a book that held such a moving compliment.” She looked into the haunted eyes. “Nell still feels all that, you know. Her great love for you hasn’t vanished. She's still your anam cara, as you're hers, even if physically she's gone.”

Anam cara?” Hilda'S interest was piqued.

“To the Irish, an anam cara is a soul friend, one who loves you and gives you companionship, wisdom and support on your pilgrimage through life. One who accepts you as you are and brings you closer to God; one who shines the light of their soul on the loved one, as you and Nell did for each other.”

Hilda’s eyes clung to hers as she absorbed something she had never heard before, but which gave expression to all she had shared with Nell. Mother clasped Hilda’s hand.

“The Irish believe that when two people become close, an ancient circle closes between them, and the two souls begin to flow together. Rather like Nell’s words about you not being separate people.”

Hilda’s lips trembled on the edge of tears, but she refused to give in to them, much to the nun’s dismay.

“Two souls flowing together… it used to feel like that, sometimes.”

Mother Abbes smiled into the vulnerable eyes searching hers.

“Truly, sweetheart, you were blessed to find each other, but even more blessed to have the strength to give to each other in every possible way, to offer each other the beauty of your spirits.”

“It is a sweet thing, friendship, a dear balm,
A happy and auspicious bird of calm….
A smile among dark frowns – a gentle tone
Among rude voices, a belovèd light,
A solitude, a refuge, a delight.

Shelley

The mellow voice trembled with tears, and Mother listened in awe to this hymn of praise to Nell Wilson, who had been everything to Hilda, and left her lost and lonely.

“My dear child, I've heard few words that have been so expressive of what true friendship means. I can make a guess as to how they speak to you.”

To hide the naked longing in her eyes, Hilda looked down at the book. Mother Abbess tapped the open page.

“Tell me about this book you love so much. What’s so special about it?”

“It’s about a dauntless little prince, who made the stars laugh for a pilot who had broken down in the desert.” She heard a slight gasp from the nun at this outlandish statement. “He lived, this little prince with the loving heart, all alone on a tiny asteroid far out in space. His only amusement was to watch sunsets. He was so lonely one day that he watched forty-three.”

Hilda flicked through the pages. “One day a seed blew from somewhere and a beautiful rose grew on his asteroid. He tended her and loved her, but she was selfish and wilful, so he ran away because he thought she didn’t love him. How he regretted it! Elle m’embaumait et m’éclairait! Mais j’étais trop jeune pour savour l’aimer! She perfumed and lit up my life! But I was too young to know how to love her!” Tears were clogging up Hilda’s throat. “Nell did that for me – lit up my life,” she whispered. The nun’s heart ached for her.

“Except, child, you weren’t too young to know how to love her.” Mother Abbess’s voice was very firm on that point, and it steadied Hilda.

“He travelled from planet to planet, searching for he knew not what, and finally arrived on Earth, only to find more loneliness until he met a fox, who told him: For you, I am a fox like a hundred thousand foxes, but if you tame me, we’ll need each other. For me, you’ll be unique in all the world.”

“So that’s why Nell used the word tamed in her inscription.”

“The fox told him: On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible aux yeux. We only really see with our hearts. What matters is invisible to the eyes. The fox added: It’s the time you spent on your rose that makes her so important. You become responsible forever for those you tame.”

Hilda closed her eyes. I can’t do this. It’s too close to home. Oh Nell, dear heart…

She felt the nun’s hand on hers. “Yes, you can do it, sweetheart. You were responsible for each other, poured out your love on each other, as the little prince did on his rose. Love… friendship... responsibility… I must read this book.”

Time to push, time to break through, she decided. Time to get Hilda to crack, and release the awful tension within! It might cause a complete collapse, but it had to be done.

“What about death?” she asked, softly, inexorably.

Hilda stared into the fire, lips trembling, heart beating wildly. Mother Abbess waited, and Hilda knew that this woman, this shepherd of her little flock, would wait there patiently all day, if necessary.

With shaking hands, she turned the pages. “He met the airman and they became friends. They talked and laughed, and tamed each other. When the airman mended his plane and was able to go home, the prince said he, too, must return home to his rose, for she would be lonely. But it’s a lot further… a lot harder… It’ll seem as if it hurts… as if I’m dying. The airman realises you risk pain and grief if you allow yourself to be loved: I was holding him in my arms, comme un petit enfant, yet it seemed to me that he was falling vertically into an abyss and there was nothing I could do to hold him back... I could feel his heart beating like that of a wounded bird dying of gunshot wounds…”

Her voice very low. Mother Abbess waited. They were coming to the heart of it now! She had to wait a long time, listening to the logs cracking and hissing in the quietness of the room, for Hilda was staring down at the picture of the little prince in the airman’s arms as though her very life depended on it. Was she remembering her dream of Nell in a foreign hospital ward, a wounded bird, dying…

Taking a deep breath, Hilda turned the page, swallowed and read in a whisper,

You see, it’s too far, I can’t take this body… But it’ll be like an old, empty shell. There’s nothing sad about old, empty shells…”

The book tumbled to the floor, unnoticed. The nun’s arms went round Hilda as the walls came crashing down. She buried her face in Mother Abbess’s shoulder and wept brokenly, hearing those last words over and over:

There was nothing sad about old, empty shells. Oh, but there was, there was, when it was Nell’s empty shell, her loving spirit fled elsewhere, leaving Hilda’s soul alone, so alone…

Mother Abbess cradled Hilda and listened to the quiet weeping with tears in her own eyes. Every time this gentle woman fought her grief with grace and fortitude, she got knocked back down and her sorrow rose up again in all its raw and bitter agony.

The tears eased. Hilda lay quiet against the nun.

“Hilda, I’m going to lay you down. You’re exhausted. I saw it in your eyes this morning.”

The nun settled the cushions in place and lowered Hilda on to them, then rose to her feet and unearthed a blanket from one of her capacious cupboards. Tucking it round Hilda with a soft murmur, she settled back on the couch and held one cold hand. Hilda’s eyes opened and she gazed across the crib figures into the flames flickering behind them. Mother Abbess waited. There was more to come. Of that she was absolutely certain!

Hilda loosened her hand and reached out to touch one of the angels with a delicate finger. The next instant, the angel was grasped and held close to her, as though somehow it could help. Mother Abbess held her breath, scared to startle the distraught woman. Hilda’s fingers slowly unfurled and she stared at the exquisite figure. A broken whisper was torn from trembling lips.

“Nell was my guardian angel, watching over me, just like this one… She could make me smile or infuriate me… but she always made my day brighter… held me so close to her heart. But it’s all gone, Mother! All that was precious about her… all that gave light to my life... it’s gone! I sometimes feel like an old, empty shell myself. The days are so long… and so lonely.”

She raised eyes that lacerated the nun’s heart with pain. She fell to the floor and pulled Hilda into her arms.

“No, it isn’t gone, sweetheart! Nell is still your guardian angel, still watchful, still waiting to make you laugh or to scold you – because, oh boy, sometimes you need scolding, love. She’s still giving you light, else how could you pass that light and love on to other lives in the way you do?”

Hilda lay still in her arms, but the nun could feel the rigidity, the tension. She took a deep breath. Time for courage to voice her own feelings. Possibly, just possibly, it would ease the pain in Hilda’s heart.

“In the hospital, you said you'd come to look on me as a mother. Sweetheart, I should tell you, you've opened up a place inside me that's been sealed for many a long year. I now love you like the daughter I never had. You’ve given me so much in the short time I’ve known you. You give light and hope wherever you are, Hilda. Look what you did for Ellie last night. Such a little thing, giving her the bambino but it meant so much to her. I can’t take your mother’s place, but… if I could, I'd take this terrible grief from you, take it into my own heart.”

Hilda’s body shook as she tried to strangle the sobs that were once more threatening to erupt.

“Hang on to me, child. You need some port in the storm of all that has happened. You can’t bear it all alone as you’ve been doing since the crash. Even the Lord Himself cried out in fear of what was to come, in the garden of Gethsemane. He needed His friends with Him. He asked them to help, remember. But they fell asleep and left Him alone. I won’t do that, I promise. None of us will. We'll stay and keep watch.”

The shaking grew worse. Mother Abbess pushed again. It had to come out! This self-control of Hilda’s was doing too much damage.

“Let go, child. I don’t care how much you cry. That’s what a mother’s arms are for. Just stop being so brave! It’s killing you!”

Hilda’s chest heaved against the nun as she tried yet again to keep control, but she could no longer hold out. The nun’s words had crawled under the barrier, penetrated the defences and done their explosive work on that iron will. The angel fell to the floor unheeded, great sobs tore out of her and she clung convulsively to her anchor. The sobs were deep and wrenching, jarring her body with their violence. Mother Abbess held her tighter, letting her know she was safe and secure. This had been building since the crash, and she had let no one in, except perhaps Gwynneth, a little. There had been few tears at the hospital, once the initial shock had worn off, but, now the barricades had been smashed yet again, Mother Abbess intended they should stay down. She would trample them underfoot, so they could never be raised again.

The desperate sobbing died away, leaving Hilda trembling and helpless in the nun’s arms. She could no longer fight this tenacious woman. The Nell-sized hole inside was gaping wide again, hollow with pain – but the loving strength of the nun’s character, the beauty of the nun’s words, now surrounded the hole and prevented it gaping wider, giving her a moment of ease in her long loneliness.

Mother Abbess held her precious burden long after the trembling had ceased, trying to infuse some of her own strength into Hilda, trying to reassure her how much she was loved. Hilda’s breathing grew quieter, gentler. The nun felt the body in her arms soften and relax into sleep. And no wonder! The terrible weeping, the long journey yesterday, the headaches, the nightmares, the frailty left over from the crash, and the tension of the approaching festivities, had all weakened her. Complete collapse was still a possibility, especially after this vast release.

Mother Abbess loosened her arms, but Hilda did not stir. Laying her down, the nun stroked back the loosened strands of hair and looked with compassion on the ravaged face. Taking out her handkerchief, she wiped away the tears with great tenderness and drew the blanket up round the thin shoulders. She bent to pick up the book and angel, both of which had helped her break through Hilda’s barriers. She held the angel up to her face.

Is that you, Nell? Were you so desperate to help her? We need you at the moment. Hilda called you her guardian angel, as I suspect she was yours, for how could such a loving woman be anything else? Please watch her carefully for me. Walk beside her in this dark place, as you walked beside her though life.

She placed the angel close to Hilda, so she could see it when she woke, and searched the white face with a fervent prayer in her heart. To God? To Nell? Who could say? All she knew was that Hilda needed understanding and support, and who better to give it than the two who loved her most?

Glancing at the clock as she rose to her feet, Mother Abbess saw with a start that it was half past five. Where had the afternoon gone? Sitting down heavily at her desk, she gazed at the opposite wall for long moments, deep in thought. Reaching a decision, she picked up the phone and asked Sister Infirmarian to join her. The latter was soon there, having heard the gravity in her Superior’s voice. Mother indicated the couch. Sister Infirmarian leaned over the back to assess Hilda’s white, tear-stained face. Reaching down, she touched a finger to Hilda’s neck, feeling the pulse, then turned back to Mother Abbess. They moved over to the window where the latter explained.

“I’ve seen it coming since she arrived yesterday,” said the Infirmarian. “I’m just glad you were able to penetrate those defences of hers. That should help.”

“It took some doing, I’ll admit. She’s pushed herself far too hard since the crash. I know they’re all worried back at school.”

“They’re right to be worried. Her pulse, as well as her face, tell of someone at the end of her tether.”

“Her grief again! She needs to talk, about the crash, about her partner – but she resists me all the way. Jack Maynard and Matron say there are still problems from the crash, and she could so with a period of enforced rest. Like you, they think she's reached the end of her tether.”

Sister Infirmarian raised one eyebrow in amusement. “And who’s going to enforce that rest, tell me?”

“I am - with your help!” The Infirmarian snickered softly. “But not for long. She would eat her heart out if we left her idle, so I have things in mind. I…”

A cry from the couch stopped her mid-speech. In a flash, she was kneeling on the floor as Hilda tossed restlessly. Words tumbling out of her.

“Ian… please, take care…it’s too windy… Please slow down…. Ian!”

Her voice rose sharply on the last word, her hands gripping the blanket, her head tossing from side to side, as though seeking help. Mother Abbess soothed her.

“It’s okay, Hilda, it’s okay. Ian’s fine. You’re both fine. Lie still and rest, sweetheart.”

Her voice and hands were tenderness itself as she covered Hilda again and stroked the white face. Hilda quietened and the nun looked up, to see the Infirmarian watching with consternation in her eyes. With another sigh, she rose and moved to join the other nun back at the window.

“Was that look for me - or Hilda?”

“Both,” responded the Infirmarian succinctly. “You’re le…”

“I’m letting my emotions get the better of me?” Mother turned to look into the dark garden. “I know, but just at the moment she needs so much help.” She paused to gather her thoughts. “She needs firmness, to over-rule that stubborn nature of hers, yes. But, dear God, Pauline, she needs love more than anything. Not admiration or respect – she has all that at school! – just love, unconditional love, like she received from Nell Wilson. She needs to know it’s safe to be herself, to be the Hilda who feels broken and heart-weary, not the Miss Annersley who’s always in control. She needs to know that whatever she feels, whatever she says, however crazy it sounds, it’s all part and parcel of her grief – but that there are still people who love her.”

“Just be careful,” warned the other nun. “If she relies on you too much….”

“She won’t. She realises that herself. She withdrew from me last night when she saw what she was doing. She told me in the hospital she's come to look on me as a mother. So where does that leave me? She lost her own mother at such a young age, and you never recover from that. You spend your whole life subconsciously looking for her.”

Rubbing her eyes, Mother Abbess walked over and stood staring down at Hilda. She loved this brave, sensitive woman as she had loved no one since her own young womanhood. Somehow, with her delicacy of heart and mind, Hilda had penetrated the shell that all nuns wrapped round themselves in self-protection, to stop themselves coming too close to another. She knew God would not hold this love against her! Hilda was so fragile at the moment that she needed a mother’s giving, unselfish love more than she needed a Mother Superior. And Mother intended she should have it. She also needed some bullying, but was that not what a mother’s love provided? It might cause problems when Hilda entered, and they had to readjust their relationship, but that was another eighteen months away. They were both intelligent enough to work something out.

Sister Infirmarian waited patiently. She had great faith in her Abbess, as she now knew people at the school had great faith in Hilda. She had thought Kate Stuart one of a kind until she met Hilda. Two women of such strength, integrity and compassion did not often come one’s way.

Mother Abbess readjusted the covers, walked back over to the window and looked the other nun in the eye.

“I will do whatever it takes, Pauline. Do you trust me?” The Infirmarian nodded. “And I trust Hilda. We’ll establish a different kind of relationship when she enters, but I won’t let her down now.”

Even though the Infirmarian was not her deputy, they understood each other perfectly. They had entered at the same time and from the same profession, had worked closely together for years and often sought advice from each other, gave each other balance. Now the nursing sister smiled affectionately.

“You will do whatever you want, despite all I could say. I know you for being strong-willed and also highly intelligent. I, too, trust Hilda, and think she needs what perhaps only you can give her - the compassionate glance of one who's already travelled the same dark and painful road.”

“But not three times, Pauline,” sighed Mother. “Not three hard, bitter times. How do you survive?”

She still remembered, with a shiver, that heart-rending cry of Hilda’s in the San:

"Sometimes, Mother, I think I’ll go crazy just with the need to hold her once more. Just once! Is that too much to ask?"

Ah, the human need for simple hugs – so much more important than passionate embraces! So much better at holding back the dark! Who held Hilda now? Who did she hold? God was always there, but one could not touch Him, nor physically feel His loving arms, and sometimes one needed so desperately the warmth of a human touch. Even nuns felt that need! Even Mother Abbesses!

Staring at their reflections in the dark window, she forced her thoughts back to the present. “Is the inner room in the Infirmary free?”

“The one with the two beds?” asked a startled Sister Infirmarian. “Yes, why?”

“I think Hilda should sleep there for a night or two. I’ll stay with her.”

“What?” gasped the other nun.

Mother turned to her. “Gwynneth told me Hilda's having nightmares some nights, not sleeping other nights. I saw her face this morning. I don’t think she slept a wink last night. There’s more to it than just nightmares, though, a lot more that she’s not revealing. If I’m there when she dreams, I can help her, force her to speak about the crash, which she wouldn’t do in the hospital.”

She tried to make the other woman understand. “She’s damming it up, Pauline, it’s poisoning her. She’s worn out. She needs….”

There was a sharp cry from Hilda that almost stopped both their hearts. She was sitting bolt upright, staring into the fire, her eyes wide and frightened.

“Ian… the car! It’s on fire! Ian…” She was calling loudly, desperately, perspiration beading her forehead. “Ian, please, jump out before it explodes... Jump!” she shrieked.

Her hand reached out to a car no one else could see, a car going up in flames. Mother Abbess took her forcefully by the shoulders.

“Hilda! Look at me! There’s no fire, sweetheart. Ian's fine. You know that!”

Hilda still stared frantically towards the hearth, the flames. Mother Abbess took her friend’s face in her hands, forcing her eyes away from the fire and towards herself. She gentled her voice.

“Hilda, Ian's fine, you’re fine. Wake up, love. You’re safe, here, in my arms.”

The wild fear left Hilda’s eyes. She crumpled against the nun, shuddering violently. Mother Abbess held her for a few moments, took her by the shoulders again.

“Hilda, look at me. Does this happen every time you go to sleep?”

“Yes,” gasped Hilda.

“Once a night, twice?”

“Every time I fall asleep, I dream of the crash, or that walk down the mountain – and Nell – but it’s all mixed up, and terrifying, and when I wake up I can’t bear to lie down again in the dark, only for it to happen all over again. So I just leave the light on – read – or pace the floor…”

Her words were tripping over themselves in her efforts to explain.

“And during the day?” asked Mother Abbess, determined to get it all out. “What happens during the day? Are you getting flashes of what happened? Just for a few seconds?”

“All day long,” was the wild response.

Hilda buried her face in the nun’s shoulder again.Nothing could have told the nun more clearly just how much she had penetrated Hilda’s calm outer shell, for she would never normally give herself away like this.

“Why haven’t you told anyone?” she queried, her voice now dangerously quiet.

“Who could I tell? What would have been the point?”

“The point, my very dear ninny,” the nun said with some force, “is that Jack, or Gwynneth, could have offered you their own help, or found you some professional help. Instead, your silence and sheer obstinacy have brought you near to collapse. How much longer did you think you could carry on in this way and still do your job efficiently?”

She held Hilda to her a moment or two, letting the harsh words soak in, then took her by the shoulders again, forcing the trembling woman to look into her implacable green eyes. She spoke clearly and distinctly, as though to a rebellious infant.

“Sister Infirmarian is going to bring us some dinner, which you're going to eat! After that, you're going to talk. If I have to keep you here all night, you're going to describe to me, in minute detail, all you remember of that night. You'll do the same tomorrow, and all the tomorrows after that, until we have excised this from your soul.” She eyed Hilda speculatively. Her next words would hurt. “You'll place yourself under obedience to me as your Superior in this. If you don’t, I'll have no option but to refuse you entry as a member of this order.”

The silence in the room vibrated with tension. Hilda’s eyes searched the obdurate face with dawning hope. Permission had been given. She no longer needed to be strong. This woman would be her strength. Isn’t that what mothers were for? She nodded, as great, fat tears welled up in her eyes, splashing onto Mother Abbess’s sleeves. With a groan, the nun drew her close again. Who would ever guess, among her friends at school, that Hilda could give way like this? But oh, how necessary it was!

Sister Infirmarian merely smiled grimly to herself and went off to find the food. Mother Abbess had pulled no punches that time!

Sister Infirmarian was kind, and brought Hilda merely a small bowl of soup and a soft roll. She also produced a bottle of wine. Mother poured a generous measure into the soup, saying forcefully, “Eat!” Which Hilda did. Her Superior had spoken. All she had to do was obey. She washed down the remnants of the roll with the wine poured into her glass, also a generous measure.

The nun hastily swallowed her own meal, although without the wine, this being Advent. There was no small talk, just an expectant silence. Every few minutes, Hilda would look Mother's way and quail at the calm certainty in those vivid eyes. She was learning, late in life, just how the girls in school felt at her own hands, when she laid just such obedience on them. It was not pleasant, and yet at the same time it was very reassuring. This woman wanted only that she be whole. Was that not what she, Hilda, desired for the girls in her care?

Sister Infirmarian returned with a pot tea,taking away the dirty dishes. Mother Abbess poured out two cups, ladled sugar into one and passed it over.

“Drink, sweetheart.” Thee gentleness was back.

She wondered to herself how Hilda remained upright. She looked like death: her face white and taut, her eyes wells of weariness and sorrow, swollen with weeping, and underscored by deep purple smudges. Was she right to insist on this tonight? Would Hilda get through it without collapsing? Hilda herself sipped the hot, sweet tea and gazed into the flames, her thoughts flying to a cold, dark mountain side hundreds of miles away.

Mother Abbess was having none of it. Thoughts were part of the problem. Thoughts were doing the damage. Near collapse or not, now was the time! She sat on the couch by Hilda, removed the cup and saucer.

“Talk! Stop brooding, and spill out all those wild thoughts of yours. I don’t care how stupid or nonsensical they sound. You’re not the Headmistress here. You don’t have to impress me or show me your courage. I already know all that. What I want are your fears, your hurts, all those things you’ve buried deep. I want the lot!”

Hilda turned her head to stare at her. She had never heard the nun talk like this, but it was helping, oh, how it was helping! It gave her permission to be something other than the calm, collected Headmistress. She thought she'd already laid herself bare to this woman. Now, she could go down another layer, open up as she'd only ever opened up to Nell. Open up and not be found wanting. Unconditional love! So rare, so life-giving!

Mother Abbess held the blue-grey eyes with her own steadfast, green ones.

“Let me start you off. What did you feel as that car went over the edge? Ian told me he heard not one single cry of fear from you.”

Hilda turned away to look into the fire. Without warning, she pulled the pins out of her hair, letting it tumble free. Thrusting the pins into her astonished friend’s hands, she buried her face in her hands, the hair falling forward to hide her. Still those walls, thought Mother Abbess, wryly.

Hilda’s first words, when they finally came, startled the nun, though a moment’s reflection made her realise how silly that was. Hilda’s trust in God was absolute!

“Safe,” she whispered. “I felt safe. I knew Ian and I were held in those everlasting arms, that whether we lived or died, we were safe.” She raised her head. The nun saw the truth in her eyes. “All I was worried about was you.” Mother Abbess’s eyes widened. “I knew what it would do to you if Ian were killed.”

“And if you had been killed….”

The nun’s lips formed the words, but no sound came. Her eyes told Hilda what her lips were trying to say. Hilda just shook her head, but her eyes locked on to the nun’s.

“I didn’t want to die and be with Nell – not at that point!” she added, her throat dry as she thought of her feelings later that night, when she felt Nell close by. “I just wanted Ian to be safe for you. And, for some weird reason, I thought of all the problems it would cause at school, if I were to be killed.”

“It was strange,” she added, after a long pause. “I did cry out, despite what Ian says. As we tipped over that edge, I panicked! The car was hurtling down that hill at breakneck speed, we were jolting all over the place - then, without warning, I felt - I felt as though there was all the time in the world, time for my thoughts, time to tell God I accepted whatever His will was in this, time to tell him to take care of you and the school, time to be aware of every tree that passed…”

Mother Abbess was stunned. Surely God walked hand-in-hand with this fearless woman! Her own feelings of terror the day Hilda was shot, and the calmness Hilda had shown, still left the nun unprepared for this level of trust. She reflected, yet again, how little she measured up to this new daughter of hers. No wonder Hilda was able to hide her devastating grief. No wonder she was able to smile when her heart was breaking. But, if there had been no fear during the accident, why the terrible nightmares? Why the fear now, when it was all over? Was it the terrible walk down the mountain, while suffering from a deep concussion and lacerated feet?

Hilda looked away into the fire. “What I don’t understand is why I should keep seeing that tree, and why the dreams are so violent. I had no time for fear in that car, and yet now I wake up terrified, time after time.”

“I have no answers, sweetheart.” Mother Abbess laid a gentling hand on Hilda’s stiff shoulders. “Perhaps, subconsciously, you keep thinking of what might have happened, even if you weren’t frightened at the time. Perhaps what occurred afterwards on that road is the cause of it all. Although, you were in such a dreadful state, it’s a wonder you remember any of it. Are you really so frightened in your dreams?”

“Petrified!” Hilda buried her face again. “So many awful things happen to Ian that I’m shouting out “Help us!” over and over again, and I wake up to find myself crying it out loud. The wonder is that Rosalie or Jeanne don’t hear me from upstairs! In my dreams, I’m screaming at God, raging at Ian… oh, a hundred things I never felt at the time – and don’t feel now, when I’m awake.”

“My dear, no one knows why the nightmares after such a shock, such a terrifying experience. I’m no Joseph, able to interpret your dreams, but I suspect a lot of it is your renewed grief for Nell…”

The nun stopped, mid-sentence. She had felt Hilda’s body flinch as though she'd been struck. The nun leaned forward, her hand moving to clasp Hilda more firmly round the shoulders.

“Hilda? Whatever it is, spill it out.”

Hilda’s face stayed buried, tremors ran up and down her body. Her breath catching on a sob, she spoke haltingly.

“Whenever my mind returns to that moment of panic, I think of Nell in the earthquake. When the walls and roof fell in on her… did she panic, like me? Did she regret going back in? Did time slow down for her, too, giving her time to feel each of those concrete blocks thudding down on her, crushing her?”

Her hands writhed through her hair as though she were in agony. A whisper came.

“Did she feel lonely? I keep wondering why she had to die so far away… I should have been there to hold her.”

The nun was silenced. She had asked for everything and she was getting it. In spades! One accident bringing back all the fears of another one. No wonder Hilda was hurting. She drew the shaking body close, trying to still the tremors.

“And you feel guilt all over again. You lost that a while back, but your own accident has caused it to raise its ugly head again. Oh, my poor child!”

She had to pause, for her own voice wobbled. She stroked Hilda’s loose hair, while she gathered her thoughts.

“Remember how angry you were at God those first two weeks after Nell’s death? We thought you’d got over that, but perhaps not altogether. Perhaps, just perhaps, your subconscious is afraid to let you go one feeling anger at God for the manner of Nell’s death, for taking her away from you, so it's being expressed in your dreams about this accident. You’re an expert at suppressing things – none better! In the long run it does no good. It has to come out in some way.”

Hilda raised her head, as though listening, then tore herself from the nun’s loving arm, stood on trembling legs and walked over to the window. She leaned her head against the cold pane of glass and closed her eyes. When she spoke again, her voice had sunk very low. Mother Abbess had to strain to hear.

“But I don’t feel any anger at God now. He didn’t cause the earthquake. I don’t think I even feel guilt now, at not being there for Nell. You scotched that for me. The questions just go round and round, without any meaning. All I really feel, when I’m awake, is numbness, an empty ache, loneliness….”

Her voice trailed away and the silence of the room was intensified by the ticking of the grandfather clock, and the hiss and crackle of the fire. Trauma, physical pain, exhaustion, diagnosed the nun. No wonder she feels numb and empty! Long moments passed and neither woman moved, then Hilda lifted her head and stared out into the darkness. She turned slowly towards the nun as though every bone in her body hurt, her eyes filled with a harrowing, haunting sorrow.

“Is that why Nell keeps trying to drag me off the road in my dreams?” she whispered, her hand trying to ease the ache in her throat. “Is that why she keeps telling me to give up, that I’ll never make it? Is it due to my fear about what she herself went through? Or is it my loneliness talking?” She swallowed several times. “Every night she tells me it would be better to go with her and we'll be together for always, that she m… misses me and wants me near. She keeps trying to drag me off the road, and she’s so strong I can’t fight her. She tells me to leave Ian to his fate, that he'll die anyway, whatever I do. I know it’s nonsense, but, in the middle of the night, all I can think is that she wants me to leave Ian on his own in that car, because…. she was also left on her own as the building fell.”

Mother Abbess felt such a pang in her heart she wondered it kept beating. How did Hilda survive this in her fragile state? How did she get through the nights? Unable to move, she waited for more, watching Hilda’s despairing face.

“She’s killing me, Mother. On the road that night she was supporting me, encouraging me to keep going and get help, telling me Ian needed me. In my other dreams, earlier, before the crash, she encouraged me to live, to grow, She told me I still had work to do. Now… now, she’s killing me slowly, by degrees. Night after night the emptiness grows, the loneliness gets worse, because I’ve lost Nell, my Nell. This one isn’t the Nell I love.”

Hilda had been staring through Mother Abbess, not really seeing her. Without warning, her face crumpled. She held out a trembling hand to the nun for help. In an instant, loving arms were enfolding her. Hilda held herself rigid a moment longer, then coldness swept over her, her knees gave way and she would have fallen, but for the nun’s strength. She had reached the end of that tether mentioned by Sister Infirmarian. Mother Abbess lowered the body in her arms gently to the floor, moved to her desk and rang her handbell. Sister Infirmarian would not have gone far, was probably outside keeping intruders at bay! The nun threw the bell down and dropped to the floor beside the still figure, and saw Hilda’s eyes watching her. With a pang, she realised the look was one of shame.

“It’s alright, sweetheart,” she whispered, stroking Hilda’s hair. “Please don’t feel guilty. You’ve forced that body of yours way beyond its limits these last weeks. Once you relaxed your guard, it just let go. It needs rest, what with headaches, sleepless nights, nightmares, those horrible flashbacks, the lingering shock of the accident, and now all this emotion, this weeping tonight. Just lie still and try to relax.”

Hilda, however, struggled to sit up, although her limbs seemed not to belong to her. “No, I can manage. If you’ll just…”

“Do as you’re told, Hilda!” came the firm voice of Sister Infirmarian, bending over the two women. “Were you not put under obedience? Mother and I will do the work. Let your body go limp and we’ll carry you over to the couch.”

Between them they lifted Hilda and settled her back on the couch, tucking the blanket round her. Sister Infirmarian’s fingers found her pulse, while Mother threw another log on the fire. Hilda was silenced by the combined weight of these two women’s strong wills. Too weak to fight, bones dissolving like water, head throbbing painfully, she lay biddable. Glancing up at the other nun, who shook her head in warning, Mother sat on the couch and took a cold hand in her warm one. She smiled into Hilda’s still eyes.

“I know this is a shock to you, love, but you mustn’t feel ashamed of collapsing like that. It needed to happen, you needed to learn a lesson about just how far you can push this body of yours. It’s humiliating, isn’t it, to find out how weak you are?”

She smiled lovingly, but there was no answering smile. She could take a good guess at what this strong-minded, stubborn woman must be feeling.

“You ought to be in bed, for I suspect, apart from anything else, that your head's aching abominably. There’ll be no more talking, despite what I said earlier. Your body's taking its revenge for the treatment you’ve meted out to it, I’m afraid, and needs peace and quiet.”

There was still no response from Hilda. Her eyes were watchful, but her body absolutely immobile, her white face almost blank.

“Sister here's going to take you off to the Infirmary for a couple of nights, to keep an eye on you.I think you should go right now….” She stopped, appalled, as wild panic flared in Hilda’s eyes. “Hilda, what is it?”

Even as she asked the anxious question, the self-control was back, the eyes closed, the emotions hidden. Mother considered the white mask, and her own perceptive nature picked up the problem. She could have kicked herself!

“Hilda, look at me,” she said in a soft voice.

Hilda’s eyes opened. The panic was gone, but wariness had taken its place. Sister Infirmarian moved away. It was not her place to intrude between two souls who understood each other so well. Mother was perfectly capable of working her magic all on her own. The nun softened her voice even more and stroked the white cheek.

“My darling, I’m so sorry. That was insensitive of me. You’re frightened of being left alone in the dark. Now that you’ve told me, brought it all to the surface, it’s looming even larger, isn’t it?” Hilda’s mouth relaxed a little. “I was going to add that I’ll be sleeping with you. We’ll fight these demons together. But that’s for later. It’s right now that’s worrying you, isn’t it?”

Mother Abbess sat in thought a moment.

“I think you should rest quietly here until I go to bed?” The white face relaxed somewhat, and began to look ashamed, but the nun quashed that on the instant. “Don’t you dare, young lady! I know it’s not like you to show fear – but I need to know what you’re thinking, if I’m to help you. Isn’t that why you’re here? There's nothing, nothing, of which to be ashamed. Are you hearing me? Nothing at all! This fear is perfectly normal.”

A tear trickled down Hilda’s cheek as she stared at this woman who cared so much. Mother caught it with a tender finger.

“Oh, love, you can’t be strong all the time. Let us in, let us help! Stay there for now and sleep, if you can. I've some work to do before I retire, so I’ll be close if you need me. Will that help?”

“I’m so sorry.” Hilda’s voice was hardly to be heard.

Mother made no reply, other than to lean forward and kiss the damp cheek. She tucked the blanket more securely round Hilda and sat watching the white face and bleak eyes. The Infirmarian nodded, satisfied, and glided from the room to prepare the beds and move Hilda’s night things to the infirmary. Mother was doing exactly what was needed. To have got through so soon was remarkable, given Hilda’s nature, but her collapse had been imminent from the moment she walked in the door. Now just get her talking more about the accident…

Mother herself was astonished she had breached Hilda’s walls so soon, but Hilda had not anticipated that her future Superior could be quite so tough! She had been in desperate need of the release, but the implosion had been greater than either of them anticipated. The nun picked up the angel she set down a little earlier, and placed it in Hilda’s hand, wrapping her cold fingers round it.

“Let Nell help you.” Her loving eyes held Hilda’s. “Your Nell wasn’t - isn’t - in those nightmares. You know she would never do anything to hurt you. Think back to what she told you in those other dreams. It’s not your time yet, you still have work to do. She’s like that angel, guarding you, loving you, longing to heal your emptiness, your loneliness. Hang on to her, sweetheart. She’s strong, just as you are, or will be again.”

Hilda opened her hand and stared at the beautiful carving with its tender, tranquil face. She stroked the wings and murmured almost to herself,

“When I was tiny, my mother used to tell me that we all have angels in Heaven who are always sending us messages, little love notes, and if we listen carefully, especially at Christmas, we'll hear them whispering to us, Merry Christmas, dear one. I love you with all my heart. The trick, she said, is to listen and believe.”

“Not only your angels, sweetheart,” whispered Mother tremulously. “Your mother, James, Nell, God Himself – they’re all sending you love messages, not only at Christmas, but every day. You must believe that. You do believe that, in your heart of hearts.”

She was moved beyond measure. She had truly broken Hilda wide open, for this revelation came from a deeply hidden, inner sanctum. Never before had Hilda volunteered anything about her mother. It was all held within, a treasure too precious to be shown the light of day. Hilda had just offered her another gift, a priceless one……



******
Chapter 3 - Mother Abbess wins the tussle - for the moment! by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Only a very short chapter tonight - to thank you for all the brilliant reviews.
“No! Ian! Oh, noooo…”

A wail of such agony rang through the still night air that Mother Abbess was out of bed and holding Hilda while still half-asleep. It was the third time since coming to bed that Hilda had woken her. Each time, her fear grew more acute, the images more horrifying. The nun glanced at the clock and saw it was four o’clock. The low time of the night, the time when people’s lives ebbed quietly away. She cradled Hilda’s trembling body.

“Tell me, Hilda. Don’t hold it in!” Hilda’s head shook but Mother Abbess was having none of it. “Yes! Now! Spit it out. What happened? What did you see?”

“Ian… lying beside the car…” Hilda sobbed, her breath catching in her throat. “There was a huge piece of glass right… through his chest. He was looking at me, begging me to help, bbut I couldn’t… I just stood there.”

“Good girl, good girl. Was he bleeding? What did he say?”

“There was blood everywhere.” Hilda clung hard to the nun as she tried to force the words out through a clogged-up throat. “It was all over the car - over the grass - over Ian - even over me.It wouldn’t stop!It kept spraying into my face! I didn’t know a body could hold so much blood.”

She stopped despairingly, seeing in full colour that image , and Ian's contorted face, feeling the warm blood on her face. Mother held the shuddering body closer.

“And Ian? What about Ian?”

“He just lay there, looking up at me… His eyes pleaded with me to help him, but I couldn’t move. It was like - like I was nailed to the ground….”

She tried to creep closer into the nun’s arms, aware of nothing but the awful terror that had taken hold. Mother Abbess had other ideas. She took her by the shoulders and forced Hilda to look at her.

“Wake up, child! It’s over.” She tried to get through the darkness. “You know that’s not what happened. Ian's alive and fit and well. You saved his life, remember – at great cost to your own. This is guilt, sweetheart, nothing but guilt.”

“W..what do you mean?” asked Hilda, her jaws clenched to stop her teeth chattering. Her tear-drenched eyes locked fearfully on the nun’s.

“I think you do still feel guilt about Nell – guilt that you weren’t there for her - even though you know that’s ridiculous. Even worse than that, you still feel guilt over Ian. On that lonely trek in the dark, you collapsed. No surprise there! You were too weak to get up again. No surprise there, either.”

Hilda opened her mouth to speak, but the nun shook her again.

“No, Hilda, listen! You were so severely injured that the wonder is you could walk at all, never mind for a couple of hours on a freezing cold mountainside. Of course you gave in. Who wouldn’t? Of course you didn’t think of Ian as you lay there. You were too far gone! But you feel guilty about that, too. You’ve never stopped feeling guilty, despite what I said in the San. Hilda Annersley thought of no one but herself, and that’s killing her!”

At the harsh words, the body she held went still. Hilda’s eyes lost their fear. Doubt crept in to take its place. She forced her jaw to relax and tried to move, but the strong arms held her firmly, the green eyes forcing her to think.

“You’re right.” She spoke in a quiet murmur, her lips betraying her. “I didn’t give one thought to Ian as I lay there, and, yes, it’s killing me. I may never forgive myself, no matter what you say. I know I’m a disappointment to you, Mother, but to leave someone to die, when I could have saved him...”

She closed her eyes. She could no longer face those steady green eyes. They were asking too much of her. But Mother Abbess hated herself. How could you expect a woman with such love for others, a woman who placed such fierce demands on herself, to forgive her denial of another’s needs? She looked at the humble, tear-stained face and crumbled. Drawing the pliant body close, she nestled Hilda’s head on her shoulder.

“You could never be a disappointment to me, daughter. I’m just trying to make you see that these nightmares are your guilt coming out, guilt for which there is no need. You didn’t abandon Nell, you didn’t abandon Ian. Your own indomitable will…”

The head on her shoulders moved. A whisper floated up. “Nell...”

Mother Abbess’s voice was implacable. “Your own indomitable will got you back on your feet. Not Nell! You! Oh, Nell might have been your inspiration, but it was you who saw it through to the bitter end - and so very nearly lost your life in the process. They still have no idea what made you decide to live that night. But, knowing you as I do? Will power, pure and simple! Even death wasn’t strong enough to hold out against that will of yours. Perhaps Nell was there, too, pushing you back towards life.”

Hilda remained silent. When Mother Abbess spoke again, her voice was the loving, chiding voice of a benevolent despot.

“Sweetheart, these guilts must go, like all the other guilts we’ve managed to demolish. Then, perhaps, these awful dreams will lose their power.”

She laid Hilda back on the pillows, smoothed the brown hair back from the tense, white face, kissed her on the nose and handed her a handkerchief.

“Reflect on all that while I go and get us some tea. I think we’ve earned it.” Her smile was grim when she saw Hilda’s face relax a little. She added, pitilessly, “Then you’ll continue to place yourself under obedience to me and tell me more about that long walk. I want it all, every single detail, so we can get rid of it for you.”

She was grieved BY the huge, violet shadows under the blue-grey eyes, the pain and confusion IN those fine eyes. She had so longed to see there the joy Ian and Nancy had told her about. She only hoped she would look back on all this later and see how, or why, God thought it necessary. Had Hilda needed to be shot, as well as bereaved, then be almost killed in a car crash? All in the short space of seven months? In her savage pain for Hilda, she turned on the One she loved.

Did you need to add emotional traumas, as well, Lord? Ian’s unwanted love, an unhappy school mistress, a jealous deputy? These nightmares are the final grim touch. Instead of averting them, it seems You’re toying with her to the point of destruction, like a cat with a mouse. Please, please, give her some breathing space.

She knew not one of those things was His fault. They had been caused by human error and tempestuous emotion, plus the simple forces of nature. But her anger demanded that He could have done more for one who trusted Him as much as Hilda did!

*****

Hilda did place herself under obedience to Mother Abbess, and poured it all out in fits and starts. Every time she dried up, the nun applied more pressure. Not once did Hilda think of refusing, and the nun could see it was having some effect. By the time the bell rang for the nuns to go to the first service in chapel, Hilda was deeply asleep, empty and drained, totally depleted, but with some of the tension gone from her gaunt face.

She slept most of the day, her second full day at the convent. She roused at lunchtime to drink the soup spooned into her by Sister Infirmarian, who then tucked her in again as though she were a child. No nightmares disturbed her, except once when she mewed softly in her sleep and was soothed back into quietness by the nursing Sister, who was pleased to see some of the lines in the sensitive face relax. She was deeply concerned, though, at the way Hilda, even in sleep, clung to her hand every time she took her pulse.

Mother Abbess found time to return after the evening meal. It had been a long, long day. Sister Infirmarian met her outside the door and was her usual blunt self.

“You look weary! I’d like to think Hilda won’t notice, but I suspect that’s a forlorn hope.”

Mother Abbess grimaced and eased knotted shoulders. “How is she?”

“Your treatment seems to be working. She’s slept well and looks marginally better. No good expecting miracles. She has a lot to make up. She’s exhausted in body and spirit. You’re going to have to be very strict with her, demand that she eat and sleep, rest and recuperate. Those headaches aren’t going to disappear overnight, or the nightmares.”

“So, all in all, the trend is upwards!” remarked Mother Abbess, irony rife in her voice. “Thank you for watching her, Pauline. Don’t worry! There’ll be no let-up. I know that iron will by now!”

She slipped into the small room. Hilda was reading peacefully, reclining against a bank of pillows, her face matching them for whiteness, her hair neatly braided. Nell’s book, noted Mother Abbess. She sat on the bed.

“Let me look at you, daughter.”

She searched Hilda’s face, realising without surprise that Hilda was doing the same to her. She saw the sudden worry and cupped the white face in warm hands.

“Oh no, you don’t. I want no more guilt.”

“You look exhausted. I kept you awake most of the night, and you’ve obviously had a hard day,” Hilda countered.

The nun saluted Sister Infirmarian’s prescience. Nothing, indeed, got past Hilda!

“I’m fine, child. I’m your counsellor. It’s what I expect to do, as you will do in your turn in years to come. As you do yourself at school for girls and staff. There’s no difference.”

Hilda acknowledged the hit and subsided. Well, that was a first, smiled the nun inwardly, and continued to scrutinise the face cupped in her hands.

“You look much better already. Those dark shadows are fading and the lines are going. But it’s your eyes that tell me most. They've looked so haunted since you arrived, but I finally see a little light there.”

Hilda clutched one of the hands round her face.

“You've done me so much good. I came here desperately needing help, as I did once before. I couldn’t get here fast enough. But I made it so hard for you, didn’t I?”

Her look was one of pleading, asking for forgiveness. Mother Abbess’s face wore a wry grin.

“I suspect you'll always make it hard for me, child. You’re so determined not to show your emotions, to be independent and sort out your own problems. Plus, you’ve come so late to the religious life…”

“I learned an important lesson yesterday and last night, though.”

Hilda’s eyes were serious in her attempt to make this woman understand that she might have come late to the religious life, but she was no slouch.

“I found that in simple obedience lies freedom. Freedom to be myself; freedom to lay bare my inner workings, the good and the ugly; freedom to be fully known, fully revealed, and yet not be judged. I found – what? In simple obedience, I found healing, and will go on finding it, because you know me now, know what to do for me, know how to give me room to breathe.”

Mother Abbess was silenced. In simple obedience lies freedom. It took some nuns years to learn that. Some never learned it, never made it part of their interior life. They were afraid that obedience meant conformity, meant going against their own nature. In that moment, she knew with utter certainty that what she had planned for Hilda was right. This wise, tender woman would always go straight to the heart of the matter, would see what needed to be seen, do what needed to be done. Even as the nun was recovering from shock, Hilda surprised her again.

“Every time I’ve opened up to you this year, you've brought me closer to being healed of my grief, my loneliness. I have to be obedient, because you love me, want me to be whole, want to get rid of all that spoils the person God created me to be. I must be defenceless before you, make myself vulnerable, because you represent God - and God loves me even more then you. He knows me through and through, anyway, so why hide? What security there is in that!” Her smile was beguiling. “You will not find me so unbiddable ever again.”

“Hilda, you never cease to amaze me.” Mother Abbess gazed in awe at her new daughter. “Just when I begin to think I know you, you reveal new depths, and take me there with you. Where do you find such wisdom?”

But she already knew the answer. Hilda was so good at the sub-texts. She listened with heart and mind wide open. She walked with God, even in her brokenness.

“From you,” Hilda replied. “Nell taught me so wisely, and you've just carried on the process. You rescued me time and time again this year, and I wouldn’t listen. But you’ve got through. I’m listening now.”

“I didn't do it, love. Not in the San, and not this time. It was the community. I was only the medium. They've been praying for you constantly from the moment we heard about the crash. Every moment of the day or night, there's been someone in front of the altar for you.” Hilda’s eyes were out on stalks. “We pray for all our guests, but you're one of us now. I saw how ill you looked when you arrived, and again yesterday, so I asked for more prayers. It was the Sisters’ combined strength that did it. You stood no chance at all.” She grinned at Hilda’s stupefaction.

“But we’re not finished yet, by any means. You’re still far from well, so you will put yourself under obedience to Sister Infirmarian where your physical health's concerned. Your nightmares haven’t gone away yet – it’s not that easy - so we go on talking.”

She grinned to herself when she saw Hilda was well and truly silenced by this laying down of the law.

“Have you had any flashbacks since you woke up this afternoon?” Hilda nodded. It never even occurred to her to hide anything, as she had been doing. “And your head still aches, so you sleep here again tonight.”

”But, you look so tired. You got no sleep last night, thanks to me, and you’ve worked all day. Let me sleep in my own room tonight, and….”

“I thought you were going to be biddable,” remarked Mother Abbess, a steely glint in her eye. Hilda bit her lip. “You'll sleep here tonight, as will I, so we can go on fighting these nightmarish demons. That’s what mothers do – lighten the darkness. I'm not having you come to my convent and be too scared to go to bed at night.”

She stared at Hilda fiercely, expecting her to laugh. Instead, hot tears splashed down her cheeks. So many tears she seemed to have inside her at the moment.

“Hilda?” Mother Abbess was alarmed, and pulled Hilda up and into her arms. Had she been too harsh?

“Such love,” Hilda wept. “I didn’t think I would ever find such love again in this life.”

“Oh, daughter, we all love you, and will try so very hard never to let you down or leave you lonely,” the nun whispered, letting the tears flow, for they were healing tears. “Hilda, sweetheart, when you’re ready, I want to tell you a story.”

“About Ellie? That sad, young girl?” asked Hilda, withdrawing from the loving arms.

Without answer, Mother Abbess went next door to the little bathroom, returning with flannel and towel. She washed Hilda’s face, plumped up her pillows, fetched her a glass of water, then dropped into the chair by the bed, eyeing Hilda with concern.

“Are you sure your head's up to this?”

Hilda was very white, the shadows still dark round the weary eyes, but she held out her hand, which the nun clasped.

“I’ve slept all day. I think I’m in the running for the title of Rip Van Winkle of the Year.” Her smile faded. “Tell me Ellie’s story. She looks so bleak, it’s unbearable.”

Just like you, my dear, but hopefully this will sidetrack you from some of that guilt and pain.


*****
Chapter 4 - Hilda Takes Charge by MaryR
“Ellie’s mother died when she was only four,” Mother Abberss began baldly, and Hilda flinched. “Marie-Claire was French, from Aix-en-Provence. She met Edward while studying in London, but the war started the year before she finished. She wanted to return home, but Edward persuaded her to finish her degree first. By that time, of course, it was clear that returning to France wasn’t an option anymore. Her parents got a message to her to stay where she was, so she married Edward, who was apparently doing secret work for the government. I don’t think anyone ever did find out what it was.”

“Was Edward Sister Patricia’s brother?” asked Hilda, her eyes intent.

Mother Abbess raised her eyebrows. How had Hilda worked that out?

“Yes, it was she who told me the story. She grew very fond of Marie-Claire, while she was living in England. Patricia wasn’t a nun, then. She didn’t enter until the early fifties. Ellie was born in 1945, not long before the end of the war in Europe. Edward told Marie-Claire he’d decided to open up a branch of his business in the South of France, near Nice, so she could finally go home. By all accounts, they were a very happy little family, and Marie-Claire was delighted to be back near her parents.”

“Then Marie-Claire died,” stated Hilda.

“In childbirth.” Hilda’s eyes darkened. “Edward was shattered by grief, and shut himself off from Ellie. She’s the image of her mother and he couldn't bear to be near her.”

“Poor little girl,” whispered Hilda.

Mother Abbess reached out to clasp her hand, making a guess at the memories being revived.

“Ellie was brought up by a succession of housekeepers and nannies, none of whom ever stayed long. Fortunately for her, Marie-Claire’s parents saw what was happening and moved nearer so they could help, or it would have been a very bleak life for the girl. Edward immersed himself in his business, showered her with expensive gifts, and spent precious little time with her. I’m surprised he stayed in France, actually.”

“Were his own parents alive?” Mother Abbess shook her head. “Then perhaps he could at least appreciate that she needed her grandparents to give her the love he himself found hard to give her, la pauvre.” Hilda’s lovely voice was very soft.

“You could be right, sweetheart. You have a sure instinct for these things. Unfortunately, when Ellie was eleven, her grandmother died. Edward decided boarding school was the only answer.”

Hilda’s eyes filled with compassion for the unwanted little girl. Sometimes, she despaired of parents.

“Sister Patricia hoped he would send her to England, so she herself could keep an eye on her, but he chose a school in Rheims in the north of France, where a friend of Ellie’s had gone. Surprisingly, she settled in well and seemed happy there. Alhough, the few times she visited her aunt here, I noticed an aura of - not sadness exactly, but… searching might be a good word.”

“Searching for her father’s love?” murmured Hilda. “Or her mother’s?”

“Would she remember her mother?” asked Mother Abbess, in surprise. “She was only four, after all. She never mentions her.”

“A gentle voice singing lullabies – soft arms cuddling her – a sweet fragrance in the air.” Hilda’s eyes grew distant. “Who’s to say, Mother? Somewhere hidden inside her there are wisps of memories. They never go away.”

Mother Abbess remained quiet, allowing Hilda a brief flight into her own memories.

“I’m sorry, Mother. That was unforgivable of me.”

“Hilda, don’t ever apologise for thinking about your mother. She must have been a wonderful woman, for she has a magical daughter.”

Hilda’s hand turned to clasp the nun’s in gratitude for her words. “How old is Ellie exactly? What’s her full name and which language does she speak?”

“She’s really Eléanor Claire Drake. She’s bi-lingual, though speaks English with an accent and prefers French. She’s sixteen, nearly seventeen and is in the Sixth form – or was.”

“Her father died?” Hilda was beginning to see where this was going.

“Yes, but it’s not quite as simple as it sounds. Edward held a pilot’s licence. When he went away on business he always chartered a private plane and flew himself.”

“He crashed? Oh, the poor child,” breathed Hilda, knowing in all its hideous reality what it was like to be so suddenly bereft.

“Worse than that! When his lawyers came to sort out his affairs, they found a total mess. His business was in trouble and he’d been borrowing heavily. The upshot is, there’s no money. He owed thousands, and there’s no one to repay it. Ellie’s grandfather died two years ago and, anyway, he didn’t have that sort of money.”

“So the poor child was left all alone, with no money and no home?” Hilda queried, horror in her eyes.

“Exactly, love. It also meant no more school, as there was no money to cover the fees. She’s been here several weeks now. She was too upset to finish the term, even though that one was paid up.”

“So the poor girl lost everything, even her friends,” whispered Hilda. She sat up and leaned forward. “Is there anything I can do, anything at all?”

Mother Abbess was silenced yet again by Hilda’s reactions. Her first instinct was always to give, no matter the cost. Here she was with her loving heart, offering something the nun had been going to ask of her, for Ellie had been one of her plans for Hilda.

“Do you really mean that?” Her tone was guarded.

“Of course!” answered a startled Hilda. “Anything you think I may do to help, I will.”

Mother Abbess moved to sit closer to Hilda. “I have to be honest, love. I thought of you as soon as Ellie arrived. You were coming for Christmas and I knew you were the one to help, but then you had the crash, and haven’t been well, and are so sad and tired…”

“Doesn’t matter!” Hilda took hold of the nun’s hand. “How may I help?”

“Become her counsellor.”

A thunderstruck Hilda stared at Mother Abbess. The silence stretched. She looked as she felt. Aghast!

“But - I’m not a nun yet. I’ve had no training.”

“Think, child! Who else is there? You don’t need any training. You’ve been guiding girls like Ellie with wisdom aplenty since your early thirties, when you became Head, and before that as well, I’m quite sure. Ellie could have no one better.”

Mother Abbess paused and added, as though clinching the deal, “Plus, you know what it is to lose a parent.”

Hilda was silenced yet again. She knew in her heart of hearts the nun was right. Already, she ached for this child, yearned to help her. There was no false modesty about Hilda Annersley. She knew it was a task made for her, but what if her own grief should swamp her? Mother Abbess, as usual, read her mind.

“If the tears come, let them come. They'll do Ellie and you nothing but good. I almost feel you need each other.”

“What about Sister Patricia and the others?” Hilda’s eyes were anxious.

“You'll be treading on no one’s toes, sweetheart. They'll guess why I asked you. As for Sister Patricia, she told me that if I didn’t ask you for help, she'd ask you herself. My nuns love and trust you, Hilda.” She watched the shock fade. “Will you do it? I can trust her to no one else.”

“Yes, Mother, for you, and for Ellie. But please, pray for us both.”

“Unceasingly! God bless you, daughter. I know Ellie will be safe in your hands, and you're both safe in God’s hands.” The nun stood up. “I think we’ve said enough for now, though. You’re exhausted, and I’ll admit I am, too. I think you should settle down to sleep”

Hilda obediently snuggled down and the nun tucked her in. She was stroking Hilda’s hair when there was a loud rap at the door. Before she could move, the door opened and Sister Infirmarian stood there, panting heavily.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, Mother, but it’s Ellie – she seems to have disappeared!”

“What?” gasped Mother Abbess, straightening up and moving to the door. “Explain!”

Sister Infirmarian moved into the little room, closing the door behind her. Hilda sat up again, fear in her heart. How often had she heard those words before!

"Sister Patricia went to her room, as she hadn’t seen her since dinner. There was no sign of her!”

“Have you searched at all?”

Mother Abbess’s tone was calm, her face and eyes impassive.

“All the usual places, including the garden.”

“Then try the unusual. Tell all the searchers to gather in my Office in fifteen minutes. We’ll decide what to do then, if there’s still no sign of her.”

Sister Infirmarian sped off and Mother Abbess turned to an anxious-looking Hilda.

“I’ll see you later, love, if Ellie's found. If not…”

She shrugged her shoulders, but Hilda, an adept at reading faces, saw the fear the nun was trying to hide.

“Let me get up and help,” she pleaded.

The nun shook her head. “Stay! Try to sleep.”

Even as she turned and left the room, she wondered how she expected a woman like Hilda to obey such a command when a child was missing. She was unaware that Hilda was already out of bed and reaching for her clothes.

Mother Abbess paced the floor of her office, praying. It was not something she had ever had to deal with before. Her nuns were not in the habit of disappearing unexpectedly! The sisters drifted in, all shaking their heads. Their Superior, her face calm, her eyes steady, asked quiet questions of each, keeping their anxiety in check, despite the dread in her own heart. When Sister Patricia entered, looking white and strained, Mother Abbess sat her down with an encouraging smile, asking one of the nuns to fetch some tea. Sister Catherine, the newcomer, also entered, her cool eyes taking in the tense atmosphere, and the placid face of Mother Abbess.

“We searched the attics. Nothing!” Her voice was as cool as her eyes.

Mother Abbess was about to speak, when a slim figure slipped in through the open door.

“Hilda, you should be in bed!” she said sharply, eyeing the white face.

Now that Hilda was up, it was clear to everyone just how ill she was. The nun propelled her into her own chair behind the desk.

“I thought I told you to….”

Hilda raised her hand. “I thought I might be able to offer some of my own expertise.”

“It’s happened to you?”

Hilda’s laugh was brief and wry. “Oh yes! And, every time, I pray it will be my last, but teenagers will be teenagers, alas!”

More nuns had drifted in by this time and Mother Abbess raised her voice, quietening the room.

“I take it there’s still no sign of her?” Heads were shaken yet again, and she turned to the most anxious woman in the room. “I’m sorry, Patricia, but I’m left with no alternative but to phone the police.”

She leaned over her desk and had picked up the receiver when a soft voice said, “You might want to hold off a little on doing that.”

Quiet as it was, the deep voice carried. A hush fell on the room. Mother Abbess stared at her, then replaced the receiver. Hilda looked at Ellie’s aunt.

“Once the police are involved, formalities take over and things may get out of hand. Ellie herself may never forgive you.”

Her gaze wandered round the silent women, and she realised they were all waiting for her to tell them what to do. In this situation even her friend felt helpless. That friend watched as Hilda’s natural authority and dignity rose to meet the challenge, and a familiar, impassive mask settled on the sensitive face. Her eyes probing, Hilda spoke with a gentle urgency.

“Think! Where would she be likely to go, if she left the premises? Why would she go? How would she go?” She leaned forward. “If we can answer some of those questions, we may find her without any more undue alarm, and scaring her further away.”

They were still gazing at her in a rapt silence. She sat back, apparently at ease, and thought swiftly.

“Did she seem upset tonight? More than normal?”

Sister Patricia came over to the desk. “She wouldn’t eat any dinner, said she wasn’t hungry. She asked to be excused and went to her room. I let her go, never thinking….” She trailed off.

Hilda reached out to take her hand. “You can’t baby a sixteen year old,” she reassured the upset woman. She turned back to the others. “So, if she was unhappy, if she could no longer bear it here, where would she go? I’m presuming she doesn’t know England very well.”

Mother Abbess found her voice. “She went to visit a school friend last week in London. She stayed the night.”

Hilda pounced. “Could she have decided to go back there?”

“That’s utter nonsense,” muttered Sister Catherine, contempt in her voice. “She wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to get there on her own.”

“Distraught teenagers aren’t very good at thinking things through.” Hilda’s eyes were steady and unflinching as she faced the hostile woman. “To think of something is to act on it, and never mind the consequences.”

“What would she do? Walk all the way to London?” asked that cold voice. Mother Abbess could only wonder at Hilda’s restraint!

“She has a bike,” volunteered Sister Anne, a novice.

“Has it gone?” asked Hilda.

They all looked at each other. Clearly, no one had thought of it. At a nod from her Superior, Sister Anne sped through the door. Hilda looked at the Abbess.

“It’s only five or so miles to the station. With a bike she could get there easily, then take a train to London. Does she have any money?”

Mother Abbess nodded. “We make her an allowance.”

At that moment the novice dashed back in. “Gone!” she panted breathlessly. Hilda could feel the tension mounting. She forced herself to remain calm and quiet.

“I suggest you phone the station, Mother. And perhaps someone could take the car and drive slowly that way. She may not even have reached the station, if that is her destination. Anyone know when the next train is?”

“I’ll ask,” said Mother Abbess tersely and picked up the receiver.

After a couple of sharp questions they saw her relax. She spoke firmly to the person at the other end.

“Please don’t attempt to approach her. We'll be there as soon as possible.” Replacing the receiver, she looked at Sister Patricia. “She’s there, sitting on the platform. The next train is not due for another half hour.”

Sister Patricia let out her pent-up breath. Some colour crept back into her face. Mother Abbess opened a drawer and fished out the car keys, handing them to Sister Anne with a gentle command to drive with care. The young nun nodded and went with Sister Patricia to the door. A quiet voice stopped them in their tracks.

“A word of caution, Sisters. When you see her, don’t scold her. Don’t fuss over her, either, as though you’ve been worried.”

They turned to eye Hilda in startled fashion. She smiled slightly, aware she was going against their instincts, and softened her voice even further, so as not to make it seem like an order.

“Treat it like a normal event, as though you were simply collecting her after a day out. Stay calm, no matter what she says. Don’t ask her why she did it.” Her voice was wry. “She probably doesn’t know, anyway. Just bring her back and let her go to bed, as though everything is normal. It can be sorted out tomorrow, when everyone’s had a good night’s sleep. Who knows? She might even do some thinking before you question her!”

The two nuns looked at their Superior, who nodded, and they left. Mother Abbess sent the rest of her little flock off to their usual chores and turned to Hilda, determined to get her back to bed. She was unaware that not everyone had left the room, until she heard a rustle behind her. Spinning round, she saw Sister Catherine approach the desk.

“You’re very sure of yourself, Miss Annersley.”

The cold tone of voice told the other two women it wasn’t a compliment. Aghast, Mother Abbess stepped into the breach, hoping to ward off trouble.

“Hilda, this is Sister Catherine, who’s staying with us a wee while. I haven’t had chance to introduce you before this.”

Hilda held her hand out with a smile, but she saw the nun’s eyes were cold, almost condemning. Hilda’s hand was ignored, so she let it fall back on the desk. Her smile remained, but Mother saw the gentle eyes turn a cool grey. When she spoke, a hint of ice cooled her voice.

“I’ve had plenty of practice, Sister!”

“Lose your children often, do you?” sneered Sister Catherine.

Hilda’s aura of calm never faltered. “I’ve been Headmistress for roughly twenty five years. It’s a large school. Adolescent girls don’t think of consequences, as I said before. Often, things happen that make them feel they have no alternative. So yes, over the years, girls have gone astray, but they have all, thank God, been found safe, in the end. Although, in one or two cases, badly injured,” she sighed.

“And the parents don’t take them away from the poor care you offer? Don’t warn others?” Sister Catherine’s voice dripped contempt as she stared across the desk.

Hilda stared back, eyes still grey. She gave a slight smile, but the ice remained.

“Our parents trust us. A lot are Old Girls, some of whom have acted in a similarly upsetting fashion, but most tend to know their children well. So, no, they don’t remove them.”

Mother Abbess could make a good guess as to why that was. They trusted Hilda, not the school! She was longing to run interference for her friend, but she could see there was no need. Hilda would not thank her, if she did. Hilda fought her own battles. For all her gentleness, there was that backbone of steel. She would not be cowed! Her mild exterior hid a formidable self-possession, as Sister Catherine would find out!

“You never feel any guilt?” Sister Catherine’s own voice was still cold.

Mother Abbess flinched. This woman surely knew where to hurt. Hilda did guilt so well! Hilda’s grey eyes looked bleakly up at her questioner.

“Every moment they're missing, yes. How could I not? I’m in charge of them, in loco parentis. So if they go missing, I’ve failed them.”

She paused, and looked down at her hands lying clasped in front of her on the desk. She was remembering, in particular, Gertrud Becker and Val Gardiner, both of whom had been missing for nearly a week. A week of long, endless days and even longer sleepless nights, when she had feared the worst, when she had blamed only herself. After all, was she not supposed to have her finger on the pulse of the school?

The nuns watched and waited, aware of an interior debate that was clearly troubling Hilda. The grey eyes lifted again to face the cold presence across the desk.

“You couldn’t blame me any more than I blame myself, Sister.” Her voice was husky.

“So you let them go unpunished, despite the anxiety they put you through? You warned the Sisters not to tackle Ellie.”

“Oh no, Sister.” Hilda’s tone became rueful. “I am renowned for my comprehensive punishments. They don’t escape lightly, I assure you. What I do try to do is make them think, which they hate!” Her eyes held amusement. “Even the hardiest offender would rather be scolded, or sent to bed on bread and water, than be pushed to explain the reason for their actions. They know I will wait them out. I'm a very, very stubborn woman! Just ask Mother Abbess here!”

She flashed a grin at her friend, who was startled at this revelation of Hilda’s secrets as Headmistress. Yet she should not have been, she realised. Hilda was no ordinary woman, after all. She had had the intelligence to make her gentleness work for her. Gentleness and stubbornness! No one could withstand that combination for long. Hilda would persevere, steadily, quietly, until she got what she wanted. Then administer that great mercy the nun had heard about from Gwynneth. She remembered a line she had read in Hilda’s book:

The quieter you become, the more you can hear. (Baba Ram Dass)

Hilda was so quiet she must hear everything - the words left unspoken, the silences left unbroken, the faces left unguarded. That was how she had learned to read people, to get the best out of them.

“Is that what you think should happen to Ellie?” demanded Sister Catherine, her voice no longer cold but filled with a keen interest.

Hilda shook her head, then winced involuntarily. Mother Abbess caught it and looked more closely. Hilda seemed relaxed and at ease, but her hands were now clasped too tightly, perspiration beaded her brow, and that wince told the nun how badly the head was aching. She tried to catch the other nun’s attention but she was focused too intently on Hilda.

“No, I think she’s too old to be punished. Too old, and far too unhappy. I’m not sure trying to make her think will do any good at this stage. She's already been punished enough in her short life.” Remembering her promise, her eyes swung to Mother Abbess. “I’ll talk to her myself tomorrow, if Sister Infirmarian will allow me. Ellie clearly needs a helping hand.”

“I honestly don’t think you’ll be fit enough, Hilda,” responded Mother Abbess. “You got up despite my express orders, although I have to thank God that you did! We were all panicking, while you calmly asked the right questions. Getting in the police would have made Ellie feel like a criminal and driven her further away, made her even more resentful and upset!”

“Exactly! And she doesn’t need that,” agreed Hilda, glad her friend understood what she had been trying to do. She looked up at Sister Catherine. “Are there any more questions, Sister, because I...”

Sister Catherine’s gave her a smile of singular warmth.

“Mother Abbess is right. You’re ill and I apologise for my rudeness, and for keeping you here when you should be resting. Your school is very fortunate, indeed, to have you leading it, and will miss you greatly when you leave, but I've a feeling their loss will be our gain”

Mother Abbess, by this time, had her arm round Hilda’s shoulders and was surprised by their rigidity, but at the other nun’s words she felt the tension flow out of Hilda.

“Come on, love. It’s time you went back to bed!”

She tried to help Hilda to her feet. The latter did try. She locked her knees, ready to stand, but nothing happened. Sister Catherine had done her work too well!

“I don’t think I can!” Hilda closed her eyes and leaned her aching head against her friend. “My legs won’t work.”

“Sister Cath…” began Mother Abbess, but the other nun was already there.

Between them they got Hilda to her feet but, before they could move her away from the desk, her eyes rolled in her head. They caught her limp body as she lost consciousness…

******

Mother Abbess’s eyes opened in the darkness. She had been awoken by that sixth sense she seemed to be developing where Hilda was concerned, for there had been no sound, so far as she was aware. Switching on her light, she looked across to the other bed. What she saw there had her out of bed and across the floor in a flash. Hilda was sitting up, her head bowed on her knees, which were pulled up to her chest, her arms locked round them. She was still as a statue. The nun placed an arm round those bowed shoulders and felt the unseen tremors.

When she and Sister Infirmarian had undressed Hilda earlier, after she had been roused from her faint and taken back to the Infirmary, she had apologised profusely for putting them to so much trouble. She didn’t make a habit of fainting, and was heartily ashamed, especially after already collapsing the night before. The two
nuns had soundly scolded her.

“You were told to stay in bed because you’re not well, Hilda. Your body gave out last night because you'd pushed it too far. So what did you expect after just one day’s rest? To get up and fight dragons?” The nursing Sister’s voice was crisp. “Even Homer nods occasionally.”

“Hilda, she’s right,” said Mother Abbess. “I can only be thankful you did disobey me, because we needed you! But it was just too much – so please don’t apologise.”

They covered her up and told her to sleep, which she had done, once assured that Ellie was safely back and also tucked up in bed. Now, in the stillness of the night, Mother Abbess held her.

“Nightmares again?” The trembling body leaned into her, seeking comfort. “I’m here. In your own good time, but I do want you to tell me.” Her voice was soft, reassuring.

After a while, Hilda found her voice. “Nell and I were on holiday. I've no idea where. We decided to catch a train - then Ian suddenly appeared. Nell p-” She drew her breath in with a sob. “Nell pushed him in front of the train when it pulled into the station. She was so strong! He shrieked in terror, but Nell said - he wasn’t going to come between us. For some reason, you appeared and she did the same to you. I could hear the brakes screaming as the train tried to stop before it hit you. After that… Oh God, Mother!”

“Go on,” the nun whispered.

Hilda raised her head, her eyes deathly afraid.

“She told me we were going to jump in front of the train together– then we could be together for ever. It was horrible. I tried to run away, but she was like a…a demon… She grabbed my hand and forced me to jump. I was screaming - the engine was screaming - and -”

“You woke up!” Mother Abbess smiled down into eyes that were already losing their fear now the worst had been voiced. “It’s already fading, isn’t it? You know the why of that dream that, don’t you?”

“Ellie and the station last night.” Hilda laid her head on the nun’s shoulders. “I’m sorry I woke you. It’s just – they’re so vivid, and Nell is so frightening. I’ve never been afraid of the dark before, or of Nell. It’s all so disconcerting.”

“Major trauma can do that, love, especially if one remembers every last moment of the event, as you seem to be doing. It might have been better if your memory had never returned. You didn’t wake me, by the way. You were determined to fight this on your own in the dark. That took guts.”

She felt Hilda’s body relax a little more.

“There’s something else that took guts. Sister Catherine was very hard on you last night, but you restrained yourself magnificently. I was so proud of you. I saw that strong, serene Headmistress everyone told me about – the one who makes effective decisions and sorts out problems quietly but unflinchingly. The Headmistress who is so protective and understanding of the children in her care. It was a revelation! I learned a great deal about you and from you last night, child.”

She hoped Sister Catherine had learned something, as well. She intended to let her feelings be known to the nun, when she had the chance. She had been horrified at the way she bombarded Hilda with those cold questions, as though trying to provoke a reaction. Mother Abbess knew why the nun had done it, but there was no excuse when Hilda was so ill. Yet Sister Catherine had been tenderness itself when Hilda had roused from her faint, redeeming herself a little in Mother Abbess’s eyes.

“We’re all frightened of something, sweetheart. We all have our own bogeymen. You mustn’t be ashamed of yourself for that, or for all the other things that have happened and kept your grief alive. Grief has its own timetable. It doesn’t follow a straight line, but ebbs and flows. Sometimes, it leaps out of the darkness when we least expect it, as it has done for you since the accident, and makes us strangers to ourselves.”

“Like being in a foreign country with no language and no map,” whispered Hilda desolately, her fingers plucking at the bedclothes.

“Exactly. You react in ways you never did before, don’t recognise yourself, feel you’ve lost your identity.”

“I have.” Hilda’s voice was stark. “I’ve lost the best part of me. I’ll never be whole again, so I no longer know who or what I am. And I’ve always been so certain.”

“You will be whole again, child,” murmured Mother Abbess, holding her tight, her own head resting on Hilda’s. “It’s just that you'll be a different you, a person changed and enlarged from the one you were with Nell. You changed after your mother died, and again after James died. Each time, you’ve had to forge a new path, bringing something from the ruins to give you strength for the new journey.”

She paused to marshal her thoughts. How many times had she had this conversation with grieving people, helping them see they were not going crazy, that their dislocation was normal, their strange behaviour entirely natural? What she and Hilda had not bargained for had been the extra stresses poured on Hilda, making recovery a switchback ride of violently see-sawing emotions.

“You and Nell shared so many things – values, beliefs, the schools – but your personalities and skills were very different. Because of that, your partnership had a richness and a strength that neither of you had as single individuals. You could say, that the sum of the two of you was far, far greater than its individual parts.”

She could feel the intensity of Hilda’s listening as the cold fingers clung to hers.

“That’s what you’ve lost - that deep, pooled reservoir of inner resources you could both dip into at will. Now you’re having to find all those resources in yourself. It’s hard and lonely, I know, but you’re doing it, sweetheart. You’re becoming - have already become! - a fuller, richer person than the one Nell knew. You’re moving beyond what you were with her, moving away from her, in a sense, and that’s scary. It could be one of the reasons for these horrific dreams.”

Words drifted up that were infinitely sad. “I’m not more of anything, Mother. Look at me, clinging like a child. I seem to be weaker now than when I first lost her.”

The nun’s sweet voice was firm. “Not so, daughter. Make no mistake! Your sorrows and troubles are bringing out the gold in you. You've mined very deep, and brought up incredible riches. Vivien, Ian, Nancy, Gwynneth and I are all witness to that. You’ve given to each of us with vast abundance, and I’m sure there many more who’ve been touched by this new you, more than we’ll ever know.”

Hilda lay very still against her.

“Have faith in yourself, love, just as your Nell had supreme faith in you, just as God Himself has supreme faith in you. I know the loneliness, but:

'Faith is the bird that sings when the dawn is still dark.'”

Tagore




*****
Chapter 5 - Ellie's Despair and Hilda's Plans by MaryR
Mother Abbess yawned as she fell wearily out of bed. It had taken Hilda a long while to fall asleep again after that dreadful nightmare of Nell. Sister Infirmarian would insist on her Superior having a nap during the day, despite all she had to do, and she would be right. Unlike Hilda, Mother Abbess was keenly aware of the need not to get over-tired, for then she would be of no use to her community, of no use to anyone she was counselling.

Leaning over Hilda, she sighed gustily at the wan face and deep shadows. Why didn’t Hilda sink under the heavy weight of her grief, and of the sharp pain that was re-awakened time and again by the terrible dreams?

“Trying to blow me away? Had enough of me?” Hilda’s eyes snapped open.

Mother Abbess gasped. “Go back to sleep, you naughty child!” she laughed. “I’ll never get used to the way you sneak up on people and catch them on the hop. You did it in the San. God help any pupil of yours who's up to no good.”

She pulled the covers back round Hilda, who rolled over onto her back and grinned up at her friend.

“Well, if you let me back to my own room, you could misbehave at your leisure and wouldn’t feel the need to sigh over me with quite such gusto.”

“You don’t get round me that easily,” Mother Abbess responded tartly, tapping Hilda on the nose. “We sleep here until Sister Infirmarian sets you free. I’m just as afraid of her as you are. By the way, wretch, I don’t get enough leisure time to misbehave!”

“I’m not sure I believe any of that! May I get up later and have a chat with Ellie?”

Hilda’s eyes were closing, even as she asked the question, and never heard her friend’s response.

“We’ll see, child. How on earth do you summon smiles and good cheer, after such a horrid dream and those tears?”

She would be haunted for a long while by Hilda’s wistful words in the middle of the night:

“I’ve lost the best part of me, and will never be whole again. So yes, I no longer know who or what I am. And I’ve always been so certain.”

“You'll be whole again one day, child,” she whispered, stroking the sleeping face. “Perhaps it won’t be the wholeness you expect or had before, but wearing yourself out for others won't give your system any chance to recover that equilibrium of yours. If I had my way, I’d lock you up for a week and throw away the key. You really must learn to put yourself first occasionally.”

She laughed as she left the room. What an insane thing to say! Hilda? Think of herself? As much chance of that happening as the sun rising at midnight!

*****

Ellie was sitting hunched in front of the fire in the library after lunch, staring into the flames in a very perplexed fashion. No one had said anything to her about her escapade the day before, and this lack left her feeling rather restless, waiting for the axe to fall. What would her aunt say? Or that gentle, but very far from sweet, Mother Abbess, whom she sometimes found downright spooky? She had met her on the way into lunch and the nun’s green eyes seemed to reach down into her very soul. Why hadn't anyone scolded her, or asked why she had disappeared?

The sudden opening of the door wrenched her out of her sombre thoughts. A tall, elegant woman slipped in, who Ellie recognised immediately as the person who had given her the bambino. She had hardly seen her since, but had been intrigued. Why had she done it? Hilda closed the door and made her way over to a bank of shelves opposite the fire.

She smiled at Ellie, who found herself automatically rising to her feet. “Bonjour, Madame.”

Hilda paused and smiled again at the girl. She had known very well she was there. The Abbess had pointed her in the direction of the library after Sister Infirmarian let her up for a couple of hours, unable to withstand the soulful eyes Hilda had been making at her all morning.

“You’ll get no change out of me, young lady,” she had muttered, but in the end had laughingly given in.

She wondered to herself how anyone held out against Hilda’s blandishments? Yet the woman remained so free of artifice or guile! After allowing her up, the nun had insisted adamantly that she wanted Hilda back in bed before dinner time. Hilda had saluted sharply, and been ordered, with some vehemence, to run away and play.

“Bonjour, ma petite,” replied Hilda now, delighted that Ellie herself had made it so easy. “Comment ça va?”

Ellie’s eyes widened. “Vous parlez français, Madame?” she breathed in wonder.

“Mais oui,” laughed Hilda, continuing the conversation in French. “Is that so wonderful?”

“Vraiment, Madame!” cried Ellie, a small smile skittering across her thin face. “I have so missed hearing my own language. Please to come and talk to me awhile.”

She pulled another armchair nearer the fire, almost falling over herself in her eagerness to keep Hilda with her. Hilda subsided into the chair with one of her gentle laughs and considered the girl.

“Is there no one else here who speaks French?” she asked, taking in the vivid sapphire eyes and black pony tail.

Add to that her creamy skin and thick, black eye-lashes and she was beautiful, in a very Irish-looking fashion.
Ellie shook her head in answer to Hilda’s question.

“Mais non, Madame, there is no one, but no one. It is very disappointing,” and she shrugged, very Gallic in her earnestness.

Hilda smiled at this masterpiece of understatement. “And how long have you been here?”

The smile faded, the blue eyes grew sombre, and she sighed. “About seven weeks, Madame. Mon père, il est mort. He had an accident, you know, and he died.”

“And now you feel very alone,” said Hilda softly, her own eyes turning deep blue in compassion for this girl.

Ellie looked up and met those kind eyes. “Yes. I have no mother, and Papa… Papa…”

She stopped, her lips trembling, tears spilling over. Hilda leaned over to grasp her hand.

“I know, ma petite. Mother Abbess told me what happened. Life seems hard just at this moment, n’est-ce pas?”

Ellie nodded, the tears flowing faster. Hilda passed over her own pristine white handkerchief before going over to the window, turning her back to give Ellie privacy to compose herself.

“Merci, madame. Vous êtes très gentille,” said Ellie shakily.

Hilda returned and knelt in front of the girl, looking at her with a profound gentleness. She was aching to take her in her arms, but there was no comfort she could give. Ellie’s loss was untouchable for now. Hilda understood that with every fibre of her being.

“Ellie, I know about loss and loneliness. If ever you need help, or want to talk – or even if you don’t want to talk, but feel the need to be with someone - will you promise me something?” The soft voice was very sweet and Ellie nodded. “Come and find me and we'll talk French, or sit quietly or whatever you want. I'll be here for the next three weeks. Will that help?”

The girl gazed at her through drowned blue eyes. “I would like that,” she whispered. “You feel – comfortable, safe. I could talk to you, I think.” She seemed to remember something. “My aunt must have made a mistake. She told me you are a Headmistress in a boarding school.”

“Why do you think she made a mistake, ma petite? Do I not seem like a Headmistress?”

Ellie looked doubtful. “You’re so kind and gentle – and asked me if you could help. You didn’t order me to come to you. Not like my headmistress. She is strict.”

“I hate to disappoint you, little one, but I am very much a Headmistress.” Hilda watched the bleakness disperse a little from the sapphire eyes at her wry tone of voice. “I can be fierce – but very fierce!– when I need to be. But, you’re right. On the whole I tend not to order people around. It makes them resentful, especially girls of your age,” she added with a laugh, and had her reward when a smile teased the corners of Ellie’s mouth.

Hilda sat back on her heels. There was still last night to consider. She looked across to the window where she could see sunshine was brightening up the day.

“Would you like to go outside for a while? I can’t go far as I haven’t been well, but we could take a turn around the garden. Being in the sun might do us both good.”

Ellie’s face brightened further. Not only did she already like this kind woman with the so gentle eyes, but the chance to go on speaking her native tongue was too good to be missed. Eagerly, she pulled a laughing Hilda to her feet, already at ease with a woman regarded with wholesome awe by hundreds of her pupils.

Mother Abbess watched from her window as the two ambled round the gravel paths set in the lawns. They were deep in conversation, and she noticed that both of them were gesturing with their hands, something she had never seen Hilda do before. She realised they must be talking in French. That was a bonus she hadn’t even considered when asking Hilda to help the girl.

Working out Your own plan here, Lord? Trying to go one better than me, by any chance? Well, that’s Your prerogative, of course.

Already the girl’s air of gloom seemed to have lightened and Hilda was smiling - but then she hid her grief so well. As for the girl’s grief, Mother Abbess was unsure just who or what she was grieving for. Did she really miss the father she had hardly ever seen, or was it just her old way of life she was missing? Hilda would find out, of that Mother Abbess was certain.

She turned back to her desk with a sigh. So far, the first of her plans seemed to be working. It would do both of them good, for they were in desperate need of help. However, even she would have been surprised at Hilda’s machinations. The latter had been doing some quick thinking when she went to find her coat and shoes. She also offered up a prayer or two that the Sisters would not sit on her too heavily when they heard her plans.

“Tell me, child,have you a Christmas gift for your aunt?”

Puzzled, the girl shook her head. Why would she buy a gift for a nun, even if she was her aunt? Hilda read the girl’s thoughts clearly in her mobile face.

“Well, I was wondering…. Would you like to go up to London with me? There’s a gift I need to buy for Mother Abbess. Perhaps we could also find something to show your aunt how much you appreciate her care.”

Ellie’s face was bright. “Mais oui! I would like that. Could we visit Sarah while we are there?”

Without answering, Hilda looked down into the vivid blue eyes. The expression on her face caused Ellie to look away, ashamed.

“I see you understand, child,” she said gently.

They continued their walk round the convent’s extensive gardens, with its many little nooks allowing privacy for reading or meditation in warmer weather. The flower beds themselves were empty of colour, except for the scarlet berries of holly and catoniasta.

“Do you think you deserve to see Sarah?” Ellie surveyed the ground, kicking the gravel forlornly, unwilling to meet those steady eyes. She shook her head. “You frightened your aunt and the other sisters last night. Was that kind, when they've given you a home and tried to care for you?”

Hilda waited, letting silence do its work. Ellie looked up, expecting to see condemnation in the blue-grey eyes, but meeting only kindliness and concern.

“Non, Madame,” she whispered and a tear or two trickled from the still-swollen eyes.

Hilda tucked her arm through that of the girl, who was two or three inches shorter.

“Are you able to tell me why you did it?” Her query was put very gently.

Feeling oddly comforted by the arm through hers, and by the quiet questioning, Ellie walked on in silent contemplation of the ground, her brow wrinkled.

“Je ne sais pas, moi. Not really! It was all muddled up. But it is Christmas and I thought of my grandmother – she was so sweet – we used to have gentle Christmases at her house. Papa was never there, but still – we were happy.”

Hilda debated with herself, wondering how raw a wound the death of Ellie’s father really was. Was it wise to push, when she scarcely knew the girl? She recalled how Mother Abbess had pushed her, forcing her to be honest. As delicately as she could, she posed the question.

“Do you miss him very much, Ellie?”

The girl hesitated, looked up into the sensitive face.

“Truly?” she asked. Hilda nodded. Ellie gave another sigh. “But me, I do not know. I saw him very little. I think… I miss the idea of having a father, if you understand….”

Hilda wondered what had made Ellie decide to trust her with so much. She was unaware that Mother Abbess had long realised that just speaking to Hilda made one feel better. You sensed she was listening with all her heart and understood you even before you spoke. Ellie could not have articulated it in the same way, but she felt dimly that she wanted Hilda to know her inner feelings about her father. Perhaps this considerate, friendly woman could make sense of it for her. She began to speak again.

“How is it you can love someone you never see? Even when I had a holiday, he never was there, you know. My friends came to stay or I went to my friends. I learned very early not to… expect anything from him.”

Hilda’s heart ached for a girl orphaned spiritually, long before it happened in reality. She had learned self-reliance and resilience far too young. No wonder she had been searching, as Mother Abbess described it. Hilda reflected, savagely for her, on the cruelty human beings inflicted on one another, even on those they were meant to cherish. Being unhappy was no excuse for making others unhappy!

“What I do miss is my home and my grandparents, you know, even though Mémée died a few years ago. It was such a lovely home - but it was sold when my Pépé died. The apartment was never home, but la France was still my country. Tante Patricia is kind – like all the Sisters – but this is not home.”

The last word was said with such longing that Hilda had to blink back the tears. She understood all too well. Home for her had been Nell, but Nell was gone, like Ellie’s grandparents. She pressed Ellie’s arm.

“What made it so much worse yesterday?” she asked, her lovely voice a low murmur of encouragement.

Ellie looked at her in despair. “Moi, je ne sais pas, Madame. A Christmas card arrived from Sarah, and people from school have written - even my Headmistress!” she added in surprise. “I began to realise I would never see them again, you know. My school had become a second home, but I have lost that, also. I looked around at the Sisters last night and I saw - for the first time - they are all I have now. Everyone else has left me.”

Hilda tried to speak, but her throat was too tight. Ellie, meanwhile, tried to make this kind lady see why she had run away, her voice wobbling precariously.

“It was necessary to me to see someone connected to my life in France, to know they still cared. I felt so lonely, you know. Do you understand, Madame?” Tears brimmed over as she looked up.

“More than you think, child,” whispered Hilda. “Oh, so much more than you could ever know.”

Putting her other arm round Ellie, she drew the girl close. Ellie laid her head on Hilda’s shoulder and wept quietly. Resting her chin on Ellie’s head, Hilda looked out across the wintry garden.

“Ellie, if you ever feel like that again, I want you to find me immediately, even during the night. I'll show you where my room is. Don’t worry if I'm asleep. Wake me up and I'll listen and try to help. I mean it, mon enfant - any time, day or night. You'll be helping me as much as I'm helping you. I’m very lonely myself just now.”

Ellie raised her head and recognised, despite her youth, the sadness in the gentle eyes. Hilda cupped the girl’s face in gloved hands, smiling into tear-drenched eyes.

“Remember, Ellie, le bon Dieu is always there to help His hurting children.”

*****

Ellie went off happily when they finished their walk, saying, without any prompting from Hilda, that she was going to apologise to her aunt and Mother Abbess. Hilda extracted a promise from her that she would come to see her before going to bed, and watched the pony tail bounce away into the distance. With a sigh she herself turned towards the Infirmary, where Sister Infirmarian took one look at her white, weary face and spoke sharply.

“Why didn’t you come back sooner? You can’t keep pushing yourself like this.” She saw despair etch itself briefly in Hilda’s face and softened her tone. “Hilda, you can’t expend all your energy on others. You need some for yourself. Get yourself into bed and I’ll bring you some water. You can take something for that head. Don’t argue! It’s quite obvious your head's aching. You may sleep it off before dinner.”

Feeling as comforted as she always had when Nell had over-ruled her, she did as she was told and was soon fast asleep, to wake much refreshed a couple of hours later when Sister Infirmarian walked in with a tray.

“Well, you look a little less like a washed out rag,” said the nun with satisfaction, placing the tray across Hilda’s knees. She was about to leave her to it when she saw Hilda was looking at her with what could only be termed trepidation.

“What is it now? What have you done this time?”

“Do you think Mother has a few moments free this evening? It could wait till bedtime, but I’d like to speak to both of you, though I have a horrid feeling I’m going to be out-voted.”

Sister Infirmarian glared down at her, foot tapping on the wooden floor.

“Oh, eat your dinner. Whatever it is, you’ll get round Mother. You know exactly how to get what you want.”

“Not round here, I don’t!” muttered Hilda with mock-exasperation. “I’m roundly sat on. Not at all the thing for a dignified Headmistress.”

“Well, you shouldn’t be so stubborn and contrary. It will do you no harm at all to be trodden underfoot for a little while. Now eat! Before I take it away and present you with bread and water.”

When Mother Abbess appeared thirty minutes later, and she and the other Sister heard about the proposed trip to London Hilda was planning, there was utter consternation, as Hilda had expected. Sister Infirmarian got in first.

“You fainted last night. You collapsed altogether the night before. Or has all that conveniently been forgotten?” she asked with heavy sarcasm. “Might I also remind you that head is still giving you trouble. You’re not fit enough.”

She stood there, arms folded, glaring at Hilda in utter disbelief.

“What about thE feet?” Mother Abbess put in. “I saw how tender they still are, when we undressed you last night.”

Hilda sat upright, prepared for battle. “After two days here, I really do feel much better. It must have been the two of you bullying me.” She grinned and saw their faces relax somewhat. “I owe you so much and won’t destroy what you've done, I promise. It’s Tuesday today. Hard to believe I only arrived on Saturday, and in such a state!”

She held out her hand to Mother Abbess, who took it comfortingly. Sister Infirmarian sniffed but held her tongue.

“Give me another day to rest. I’ll be good, honest Injun! I was thinking we could go up on Thursday, stay with a friend overnight, one you know, Mother! We do our shopping early Friday and return the same day. We can’t leave it later, as Christmas Eve is on Saturday. I promise to take taxis everywhere. I know my feet aren’t up to much, but I really do feel Ellie needs to get away. The walls are closing in on her. She needs something to take her mind off her loneliness and all she's lost.”

She lay back against the pillows, having done what she could. Mother Abbess squeezed the hand she was holding.

“I knew I could rely on you. I'll spare your blushes and not reveal what Ellie said about you when she came to apologise. Very prettily she did it, too.”

“See! I said you’d get round her,” muttered Sister Infirmarian, and sat on the bed. Hilda eyed her with apprehension. Mother Abbess glared at her Infirmarian, who grimaced right back.

“You two are enough to drive one to drink! I never thought to meet another such as our revered Superior here.” She gave Mother a baleful glance and turned back to Hilda. “Make your plans, but I won’t say yea or nay till tomorrow. I'll tell Ellie it’s not definite yet, and if I do say 'yea' then she must look after you. She’s old enough, and probably has more sense in her little finger…”

Hilda leaned forward and kissed the soft cheek. “I see right through you. I’ll be good, I promise. May I be allowed to use the phone to make those tentative plans you mentioned?”

Sister Infirmarian returned the kiss with interest, winked at Mother Abbess, rose and walked to the door.

“Perhaps,” she answered with cheery insouciance, and made good her escape…


*****
Chapter 6 - Ellie's Perfect Day by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Thank you so much for the loving and generous comments. I hope you too enjoy Ellie's day.
“Hilda, wake up, dear!”

The voice spoke quietly, the gentle hands trying to still the slim figure threshing about in tangled bedclothes, but Hilda continued to cry out.

“Nell, please don’t! Nell, we must help Ian. Please, we must go back…”

Her voice rose higher. The other voice spoke louder.

“Hilda! Listen to me! You’re safe in my home. Wake up, please. There’s no reason to be frightened."

Hilda’s body went limp. Her eyes snapped open and she stared in bewildered relief.

“Vivien!” she gasped. “Oh thank goodness. I was dreaming of…” She closed her eyes, trying to control her fear.

“It’s okay, Hilda. Take your time,” shushed Vivien Knowles.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“You didn’t. I was awake, reading….”

Vivien already knew about the nightmares. After receiving the surprise phone call from Hilda, she had been thrilled at the idea of welcoming her Headmistress and the French girl into the pretty Georgian house she had lived in since her marriage, staying on when her husband decided to leave. What she had not bargained for was the later phone call from Mother Abbess, warning her of Hilda’s fragile state and the nightmares. So she had not been too surprised by the cries from Hilda’s bedroom.

She was alarmed by how ill her Headmistress still seemed when the two arrived in the early afternoon, but the adoration she saw in Ellie’s eyes, every time she looked at the older woman, delighted her. Hilda tended to have that effect on people, and yet seemed blissfully unaware. At Hilda’s suggestion, they spent the afternoon being taught the basics of origami. Or at least Ellie had. Hilda gave up in comic despair at the sight of her own bedraggled star, claiming to be all fingers and thumbs, although Vivien suspected her of some distortion of the truth to give Ellie a boost. Hilda sat back, watched and listened, as was her wont. Ellie herself was in raptures at learning such a wonderful craft and produced stars, doves and angels to her heart’s content.

She was stunned to discover that not only did Vivien also speak her language fluently, but knew all about Nice, for her mother also came from Provence. To Ellie that accent spoke of home. Her face alight with all these new experiences and at the kindness being shown, she bombarded the two women with eager questions about the school as she scored and folded paper. Hilda left Vivien to answer, for she herself had been similarly bombarded in the train. She began to appreciate just how much Vivien had to offer this lonely girl, and was grateful her plan was working even better than she anticipated.

Hilda and Ellie admired Vivien’s home, with its soft, subtle colours and all-pervading sense of warmth and comfort. They feasted their eyes on the huge, prettily-decorated Christmas tree, multi-coloured origami pieces nestling among red candles and gold baubles. They even spied an origami crèche in the dining room, which held kings crafted from shiny metallic paper, and a Mary in sober blue, cradling an exquisite little baby, whose face held a comical expression of perplexed sleepiness.

The two women wanted to take Ellie out for a meal that evening, but the girl was so happy to be in a ‘proper’ home again, and one with such treasures to explore, that she begged to stay in, so she and Vivien prepared the meal, chattering gaily in French, while Hilda was sent upstairs to rest. Before she drifted off to sleep she thought long and hard about Ellie’s excited questions…

Vivien came to wake her later, when the meal was ready. Looking down at the wan face and shadowed eyes, she felt sad at heart for her Headmistress. She understood all too well what Christmas could do to a grieving spirit.

“Hilda, before you come down, there’s something I have to say. When I returned home from school I found a letter awaiting me. From you! Telling me how pleased you were I'd come to the school, that I fitted in beautifully, the girls were doing well under my tuition – and the staff found me a hoot.”

Hilda’s smile broadened, but she merely swung her legs to the floor. Vivien chuckled at this reticence.

“I could take exception to that last bit, Miss Annersley! A hoot? Is that it?” Hilda’s eyes sparkled and danced. “I see I’m getting nowhere here! On the other hand, I remember what my last Head thought of my wild sense of humour, so I suppose anything is a bonus!” Her smile faded, and she spoke from a full heart. “Hilda, thank you. That letter meant a great deal to me, especially considering what an awful start I made.”

“Vivien, I meant every word. You made a bad start because of something I did. Oh yes, my dear, grief robbed me of my senses. You’ve proved your worth over and over, and your escapades in Lausanne showed me how justified I was in choosing you. Your bravery, your devotion to duty and your excellent teaching skills have all helped you find a secure niche in the school. We would be much the poorer without you.”

Vivien swallowed a lump in her throat, and watched the blue-grey eyes grow sombre.

“As for your wild sense of humour, all I'll say is that the school needs it very badly. Nell had a similar sense of humour and it's very much missed. We were in danger of becoming too serious, and how she would have hated that. So you’re welcome on all counts, and I’m quite, quite certain that Nell is smiling on you.”

Vivien was too moved to speak. How unworthy she felt to be treated so kindly by this gracious woman. God had been extremely good to send her to Switzerland, she thought, as she led the way downstairs. Now, in the silence of the night, Hilda’s eyes opened again, and Vivien saw how haunted they were.

“I’m fine, Vivien. Thank you for waking me. It wasn’t very pleasant…” Hilda grimaced.

“No, it didn’t sound it.” Vivien’s voice was sympathetic as she straightened out the bedclothes and tucked her Headmistress back in. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“No, my dear, it’s gone.” Vivien doubted that, somehow. “Please go back to bed and get some sleep. You’ll need it tomorrow. Shopping with a young girl will be no picnic, I assure you.”

Respecting Hilda’s private nature, Vivien wished her a better sleep for the rest of the night and departed with some reluctance. Hilda lay in the dark, staring at the closed door, the horror of the nightmare still all too vivid. Loneliness swamped her. The longing for Nell’s presence was so fierce that it was a hollow and physical pain inside, as was the need to hear the voice she had not heard since before the crash. Nell had deserted her. Or was she beginning to desert Nell?

A wild sob burst from deep inside and she rolled over, burying her face in the pillow to stifle the desperate weeping. She whispered Nell’s name time and again. In her agony, she never noticed a slim shadow slipping into the dark room, nor saw sapphire eyes filled with a similar pain, but did feel the gentle hand laid on her shoulder…

******

Hilda’s eyes were so heavy, her face so white, when she walked into the kitchen the next morning that they gave Vivien pause. What sorrow was exposed there! Before she could speak, however, Hilda looked at Vivien and Ellie sitting side by side at the table and raised one eyebrow quizzically.

“Not one, but two, saviours,” she murmured. “I do wonder who's been talking.”

It didn’t escape her notice that the two of them avoided looking at each other. Vivien even managed a quizzical look of her own.

“What do you mean?”

Hilda’s smile was grim. “Let me put it this way, my dear. You knew enough about my bad dreams that you weren't asleep last night, but waiting and listening….” She saw the abashed look on Vivien’s face. “And someone in this room knew all about my grief.”

Her eyes swung to Ellie, who was desperately trying to make herself smaller.

“Mother Abbess rang me,” confessed Vivien, realising yet again how little Hilda missed, how accurately she put two and two together. “She wanted to warn me….”

“That I might just be climbing your walls during the night. What did she tell you, Ellie, ma fille?”

“Why, n..n..nothing,” stammered the girl, but, under Hilda’s withering glare, she decided discretion was the better part of valour and offered up the truth. “She told me you had lost someone very close, and that I was to look after you.”

“Which is why you crept into my room last night, after Miss Knowles had left. You guessed something was wrong,” breathed Hilda, her eyes searching the girl’s face.

Vivien turned to stare at Ellie, while Hilda thought about that moment in the night when she had controlled her heart’s agony sufficiently to notice Ellie’s hand stroking her hair. Nothing was said, but when she held out her hand to Ellie, the girl knelt by the bed, laid her head on the pillow beside Hilda and wept inconsolably, as though Hilda’s sorrow was calling forth her own. Hilda drew the girl into bed beside her and held her until she wept herself to sleep.

Hilda herself lay awake for a long while, staring into the darkness, knowing absolutely that God had sent her to the convent to care for Ellie, and that, out of her own loneliness and pain, would come healing for the girl.

So deeply had Hilda slept, in the end, that she was unaware of the girl tiptoeing out of the room in dawn’s early light. Nor was she aware of the butterfly kiss bestowed on her. Ellie’s love-starved heart was being warmed back into life by Hilda’s compassion and understanding. The girl had been totally unreceptive to the affection offered by her aunt and the other Sisters, sensing, unfairly, a lack of true feeling on their part. She thought they accepted her only out of a sense of duty. Hilda’s gentle, kindly eyes, on the other hand, seemed to look deep inside, to touch the hurt and confusion there, and soothed and comforted in a way Ellie had never met before.

Now, Hilda walked round the table and knelt between them, putting an arm round each.

See how open I'm becoming, she spoke in her heart to Mother Abbess, as she kissed the other two.

“There are no words, for thank you seems inadequate somehow. You brought me much-needed comfort. It’s just... I’m not used to people knowing about my problems, and Mother Abbess is aware of that.”

They put their arms round her, holding her close, and her mind flashed back to a day when she had been held by Gwynneth and Nancy in much the same way. Mother Abbess was right, as usual. There was healing in the love of others’ arms.

Not wanting either of her guests to break down, Vivien cleared her throat. “Breakfast!”

“First, I'd rather like to avail myself of your phone,” responded Hilda, the light of battle in her eyes. After all, did her name not mean a battlemaid?

“Good morning. Saint Matthew’s Convent,” came the sweet voice over the phone.

The voice which answered was not sweet at all, but cold, very cold. “Good morning, Mother. I hope you are well.”

“Hilda?” queried a perplexed Mother Abbess. She pulled the receiver away and gazed at it as though it could give her an explanation. “Are you alright, child?”

“Oh, I’m very well, Mother.” The icy voice purred. “I've been well and truly succoured, thanks to your secret plotting.” There was a pause, and the purr grew dangerous. “Who said you could give away my secrets?”

“Ah!” said Mother Abbess. She had been found out! Had she expected anything less from Hilda? “Who betrayed me? I thought they were both trustworthy.”

“Oh, they are,” purred that deep voice. “Very trustworthy! Much more so than a certain Abbess I could name. Do credit me with a brain cell or two, Mother, dear.”

Surely she wasn’t really angry! The nun wondered how she was going to extricate herself from the morass. “Hilda, I…”

“Yes? You – what?”

Hilda was enjoying herself hugely, knowing she had at last got her friend on the run. How she had missed such conversations! Nell had always been ready for the fray. Nay, more than ready.

“You apologise? You kiss my feet? I seem to remember someone giving away secrets to Gwynneth not so long ago.”

The nun pulled herself together. “Hilda, you know you’ve not been well. I was worried -”

“Oh, you should be worried.” Mother Abbess could almost hear the licking of lips. A predator ready to pounce. “You’ll never know when I might just take it into my head to get my own back. A sword of Damocles hangs over you. When will it drop?”

Mother Abbess felt her throat tighten. Was this really Hilda, or had she entered the realm of Hilda’s nightmares? Pinching herself, she opened her mouth to make an attempt at amelioration – and heard a suppressed giggle. Being no slouch, the nun was on it in a flash.

“Hilda Annersley, you unmitigated wretch! Not fair, my dear! You really had me fooled, for a moment. No wonder your pupils quiver in their boots. That voice could freeze a sunbeam. Behave!”

“Don’t fret, Mother. I intend to behave – very, very badly. You just wait.”

The next moment wild giggles were heard coming down the phone and Mother Abbess’s face became one big beam. Talk about light at the end of the tunnel! Was this really the haunted woman who had walked so sorrowfully into the Convent less than a week ago, and had collapsed under the weight of all her tensions? What a miracle!

Hilda controlled herself enough to pick up the receiver again. “Ouch! Oh, Mother, I couldn’t resist. You were very, very naughty.” Her lovely voice grew warm. “But I forgive you. I needed them during the night, and they were ready. You chose your instruments well.”

“I chose you well, too, daughter. Ellie phoned us early this morning and told her aunt what you did for her during the night.” Hilda gasped. That she hadn’t anticipated! “I think she was so overwhelmed she felt she had to tell someone. You have such gifts of sensitivity and sympathy, Hilda. I’ve told you over and over, you heal whoever you touch. This convent has great need of your grace and mercy.”

“Mother, you’re not allowed to say such things.”

“I’m allowed to say anything I like, daughter of mine. I’m in charge around here, remember. Alhough there are some who choose to forget it! Oh, run away and play, before I reveal more secrets. Thank you for my first laugh of the day. When I think how I once boasted to Jack Maynard that I could out-ice you any day! Hah!”

“Oh, you did, did you? Well, I haven’t had my last word, I assure you. So don’t relax any time soon. That sword may drop when you’re least expecting it…”

Hilda hung up on a fascinated Mother Abbess. What a wicked sense of fun! How much of herself Hilda kept hidden away! No wonder Nell Wilson loved her! She was a woman who would never cease to surprise and delight you...

*****

It was a day to be treasured, forever. At the end of that busy day, all three knew they would never forget it, nor indeed the lovely evening that had gone before. Those hours were to forge strong links between them and give them precious memories to cherish in the years ahead. Hilda put out of her mind her worrisome nightmares and her loneliness, and concentrated on making it a happy day for Ellie, while Vivien tried to do the same for Hilda.

The whole day took on the aspect of a fairy tale for Ellie. She had never been so fêted and spoiled in her entire life, not even by her grandparents. On the Underground, all three prattling away in French, the two women tried to answer more questions about the school. The more Ellie asked, the more Hilda’s thoughts of the night before coalesced. And the more Ellie saw of the loving interaction between the two women, the more surprised she was. She had not seen anything like this at her school. The staff there had been austere and formal.

She found Hilda a most unusual woman, with a heart as big as the world, and yet, withal, keeping herself at a certain distance. One would not want to make the mistake of over-stepping the line with her. Had she but known it, Vivien Knowles agreed with her on all counts.

Their first stop was to one of the big bookshops, since Hilda wished to purchase a particular book for Mother Abbess, along with books for herself and others. They all browsed the shelves, dipping in and out of any book that took their fancy, wandering from room to room and gradually losing sight of each other. Hilda, at one point, stumbled over Ellie sitting on the floor in the chidren’s section, deep in the antics of Winnie the Pooh and his friends, and chuckling merrily. Realising that the girl had never come across English children’s books, despite her father being English, she took the book and the girl to the till and paid for it there and then, much to the girl’s astonished delight. She threw her arms round Hilda and gave her a hug, then carried her prize back to her corner and carried on reading. Vivien silently blessed Ellie for her impulsiveness when she saw how moved Hilda was by the hug. What a wonderful mother Hilda would have been, given the chance!

After a while, Hilda winked at Vivien and the latter bore the girl off, book still in hand, supposedly for elevenses, while Hilda made some secret purchases. Little did Hilda know that Ellie and Vivien had some secret purchases of their own to make, and were quite happy to be without her for a while. As the two of them walked out of sight, the smile faded from Hilda’s face. She leaned against one of the shelves and rubbed her aching forehead. How she wished she could rub her aching heart in the same way. The nearer it got to Christmas, the deeper grew her yearning for that most perfect of friends. It seemed impossible, at times, to grasp she was gone forever. If only she could have held her body,looked in her face one last time, how much easier acceptance would be!

By the time Hilda entered the café, a smile fixed firmly in place, the other two were sitting comfortably drinking their coffee and looking very smug. Dropping her heavy bags on the floor with a sigh of relief and sitting herself down, Hilda tried not to wince as she slipped off her shoes under the table. She sipped coffee gratefully, eyed the faces across the table and drew her own conclusions. They had been up to no good!

“Ellie, I’ve had an idea for that gift for your aunt. I thought we might go to the shop at Westminster Cathedral. They have some unusual things. In the meantime, I'd like the two of you to help me about something else.”

What was she up to now, wondered Vivien, as she searched the kindliest face she had ever known. Hilda’s first words seemed to go off at a tangent.

“I know the two of you have made some lovely paper sculptures for the Sisters, and they’ll love them, especially Mother Abbess. Remember how she admired those you made for me in the San, Miss Knowles?”

“I couldn’t keep her away. She was determined to help!”

Between them, the two women tried to describe the art work to Ellie, but how to create pictures with words? Then Hilda remembered and delved into her handbag.

“I brought these for Mother and completely forgot to give them to her.” She spread out four photographs on the table. “Jack took them for me, so I'd never forget your kindness, Miss Knowles.”

Ellie pounced on the pictures with cries of astonishment.

“You did these? With paper?” she asked in disbelief, staring at the large, colourful pictures on the walls of the hospital room, and the beautiful, autumnal mobiles hanging over the bed.

Vivien explained how they had done it, and the types of paper it was possible to buy, the textures, the colours.

“Oh, but me, I have not enough time,” moaned Ellie, looking at Hilda. “I want to learn more.”

Hilda held up her hands. “We can’t stay longer, ma petite. Christmas is the day after tomorrow and Miss Knowles has parents and friends coming to stay.” She paused, and looked a question at Vivien. “But perhaps we could persuade her to visit us at the convent when her visitors have gone.”

“Do you mean that?” gasped a delighted Vivien.

Hilda nodded, her eyes very soft. She owed this woman a great deal, and it felt good to have a place where she could invite friends to stay. After all, the cottage had been Nell’s, for all the welcome she always received.

Vivien held out a hand to each of them. “Consider it done. I'd adore to visit, and meet Mother Abbess again. I promise to bring lots of lovely paper,” she added to Ellie, making a swift guess at one thing Hilda might have purchased in secret.

Ellie clapped her hands, then turned to Hilda. “But you wanted our help, Madame.”

“I have something in mind I’d like to buy for the sisters, as a Christmas gift from you and myself.”

“Mais, Madame, you gave to them that wonderful crèche – and Mère showed to me the small one in her Office.”

Seeing Vivien’s puzzled face, Ellie hastened to explain, much to Hilda’s embarrassment. She looked at the girl’s shining face and could hardly believe this was the girl with the bleak eyes to whom she had given the bambino. She cleared her throat, reminding the others of her presence, as they got carried away in praise of her actions.

“What I have in mind now, Ellie, is something they may make use of all year round, but I’m not sure where to go,” and she turned to Vivien, explaining what she wanted.

Vivien smiled. “I think I know just the place, and it’s not far from here, so those poor feet of yours can relax.” She laughed at Hilda’s mortification. “You thought you were hiding your discomfort! I’m sorry, my dear, but it’s showing in your face, despite all your efforts to hide it. I have to confess I heard all about those feet from Mother Abbess, when she spoke to the girls about your courage. She thinks you’re very special, you know.”

“It’s entirely mutual, Vivien. Without her guidance and love, my life these last few months would have been very different. I could never repay all I owe her.”

She turned sombre eyes on Ellie, who was deep in her book again and not really listening. Hilda knew, without any doubt, that if she had not sought help from the Convent, Ellie was another who might never have been helped. Certainly not in the way she, Hilda, planned to help her! Truly, God’s ways are not our ways, she thought. Becoming aware of Hilda’s scrutiny, Ellie raised her head and smiled. An idea came to her and she passed the book across the table.

“Madame, would you write a message in the book for me? So I always remember this so happy day.”

Hilda took the book without a word, found a pen and sat in thought for a moment.

Dearest Ellie, may you one day find the love and the home you're seeking, and may a rainbow always touch your shoulder. May you find joy in the great things of life, but also in the little things: a flower, a rainbow, or a butterfly on your hand. Remember that God holds you in the hollow of His hand and will never let you go. When the darkness overwhelms you, just turn to Him and ask Him to be your light.

*******

An hour and a half later, the present for the Sisters having been chosen, paid for and dispatched to the Convent, being too bulky to carry, Hilda treated the others to lunch in a French restaurant, ignoring Vivien’s remonstrations about cost, and enjoying Ellie’s delight as she ordered food reminding her of home. Sipping a welcome glass of wine, Hilda listened with half an ear as the other two chatted, and thought how good Vivien was with Ellie, which boded even better for her plans.

Her mind drifted, the bustle and chatter of the restaurant fading, and her mind seeking a memory of the last time she and Nell were in London. It was during the summer holidays, two years ago, when they were interviewing prospective parents. For some reason Nell dragged her out for a walk in Hyde Park along the Serpentine….

“Nell Wilson, it’s after nine o’clock,” Hilda laughed as Nell tucked an arm through hers. “It will soon be bedtime, or at least it will be mine. I’m older than you, remember, and need my beauty sleep.”

“Oh, live a little, woman,” cried Nell, dragging her along. “As to beauty sleep, perhaps that explains a lot. I do put my light out very late most nights.”

“Fishing for compliments? Doing it far too brown, my dear,” responded Hilda. “It’s all rubbish, of course. That strong face of yours needs no beauty sleep at all.”

Nell grinned mockingly and pulled Hilda closer as they sauntered along. Hilda watched the rowers on the lake, then turned her attention to the sky, where the sun was sinking from sight, spreading a wash of rose and tangerine right across the horizon and setting the lake aglow. How satisfying this little corner of England was, so green and peaceful, despite the band playing to a large crowd on the other side of the park and the heavy traffic outside…

“You were right to drag me out, Nell,” she murmured. “It’s a beautiful evening and a refreshing change from the four walls of that interview room.”

“Mmm?” murmured Nell, scarcely listening, her eyes distant and rather sad.

“What is it? I hope I didn’t upset you about your face.”

“Don’t be daft, dear girl,” scoffed Nell, pressing Hilda’s arm. “No, I was building castles in the air. Do you know how rare it is to have you all to myself?There’s always something urgent to be done, someone needing us for this, that or the other….” She looked at Hilda, and the latter could sense her trying to find courage to speak. “How soon can we retire and be together for always like this?”

“Nell?” faltered a stunned Hilda. “What on earth? You’re a couple of years younger than I, only in your mid-fifties. I never dreamed….”

Nell smiled ruefully. “Neither did I, but something's caught hold of me while we’ve been here. I want us to be together while we’re still young enough to enjoy it. I want to sit in the evenings, just the two of us, not with half the staff room, and talk or just be silent, as the whim takes us. I want to get up in the morning and be able to say “Let’s go to a concert tonight” or “Let’s go to Venice for the weekend” – and be able to do just that. I want the chance to do it all before one of us….”

Her voice trailed off, as Hilda stared at her, lost for words. Where on earth had Nell stored all this? Why had she not realised? And who would have guessed it of Nell, who so loved her work? Unnerved by the silence, Nell gave a soft bark of laughter and turned to stand staring into the glistening waters of the lake, her hands in her pockets, her shoulders slumped.

“Ignore me!” she muttered. “Long day - stupid parents!”

A gentle hand touched her shoulder. “Nell, dear one, I could never ignore you. I simply never guessed. So much for my famed perception!” Hilda paused, adding softly, so softly Nell had to strain to hear. “I’m game if you are. Perhaps it is time to put ourselves first. Did the cruise and our more recent holiday have something to do with this?”

Nell nodded. Hilda turned her round and they began walking again as Nell explained further.

“The cruise, in particular. It was such fun, just the two of us, for five whole weeks – exploring new places, re-visiting others, seeing old friends, and just having time for each other. Every year the school gets busier, our jobs more onerous, our chances to be together fewer. It’s senseless. Life isn’t only about work! Or it shouldn’t be! Some weeks I scarcely get to say hello to you.”

“And it’s lonely,” whispered Hilda.

Nell’s head whipped round. “You’ve felt the same,” she stated, suddenly breathless.

Hilda nodded. “I just didn’t realise you did. And yet, I love the school, love my job, the girls…”

“It’s a conundrum, isn’t it?” queried Nell. “Would we get restless after a while and regret it?”


They promised they would do some hard thinking, discussed it a few times, even made tentative plans - until an earthquake smashed all options. Leaving Hilda lonelier than either of them could ever have imagined…

We never had a chance, did we, dear heart? Less than two years later you were gone. How tantalising life is – offering, then taking away, without fear or favour. But thank you for that sweet memory, even though it hurts. Only – when do I get to hear your voice again?

“Miss Annersley? Are you okay?”

The hand on her arm and the quiet concern in Vivien’s voice brought her back to the bustle and chatter of the restaurant, and she winced involuntarily.

“Miss Annersley?” came the voice again.

Vivien quailed at the anguish in the eyes Hilda turned on her, then watched in silent admiration as her Head summoned all her self-control, her eyes resuming their patient gentleness.

“Do you want to leave?” she asked.

Hilda clasped Vivien’s hand. “Thank you, dear, but I’m fine. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to tune you out like that. Please forgive me.”

Hilda looked across at Ellie and saw she was also watching anxiously. Just how long had she spent with Nell, she wondered.

“Ellie, sois tranquille, ma petite. I was thinking of the last time I was here.”

“It was not a happy time, Madame?”

Hilda’s eyes were very soft. “Oh yes, chérie, it was a very happy time. Now, how about a sweet? Tarte aux pommes, bavarois, îles flottantes….?”

Later, just before they stood up to leave, Hilda delved into one of her many bags and produced a beautifully-wrapped present which she placed on the table by Vivien. The latter gaped, thunderstruck, but Hilda’s rich voice was warm and appreciative.

“Miss Knowles, this is from Ellie and myself, to thank you for making us so welcome in your lovely home and taking such good care of us. I gave you very little notice of our arrival, and you have other guests coming, yet you never hesitated. Bless you, my dear! We’ve had a wonderful time.”

Blinking back tears, Vivien shook her head. “There was no need….”

“There was every need,” countered Hilda, her eyes full of warmth.

“May I open it now?”

Hilda grinned. “Oh, I think you would disappoint Ellie very much if you didn’t.” Ellie nodded vigorously.

Vivien pulled apart the paper to discover a large book about Switzerland. Flicking through the pages she was delighted to discover not only wonderful photographs and interesting details about each Swiss Canton, but also stories and legends from all over the country. She looked up at Hilda, her eyes teary.

“It’s magnificent. I don’t know what to say.”

“Don’t say anything, dear, just enjoy it.”

Before she could stop her, Ellie leaned over and opened the front cover, to display an inscription in Hilda’s elegant, flowing script.

Vivien, when one is with true friends, even water drunk together is sweet enough. Both of us have drunk deeply of your friendship these past two days, and will never forget your loving generosity. It has been truly a blessed time.

The rest of the afternoon floated by in a golden dream to Ellie, one she never wanted to end. All her unhappiness and resentment faded away under the love showered on her by the two women. Life seemed newly-minted. Christmas, instead of being something to be feared, was becoming something to anticipate with pleasure. She would have Madame with whom to share it all, and she had her precious book and all the origami.

They took a taxi to Westminster Cathedral, where Hilda and Vivien introduced Ellie to the marble splendour of the interior, before leading her to the shop, an Aladdin’s cave of books, statues, rosaries and a myriad other artefacts. Choosing a present for her aunt became more difficult the more she saw, but in the end she allowed Hilda to guide her and purchased something that might please an artist, as well as being something a nun might be allowed to keep and use. Hilda herself bought more books, ignoring all Vivien’s teasing remarks about besotted, addicted bookworms. She had heard it all before and been called far worse names. By Nell!

After that, staggering under the load of all their purchases, they hopped on a bus and went to Harrods, where Ellie gawped in sheer amazement at the window displays. The shop had taken as its theme The Snow Queen, by Hans Christian Anderson, each window depicting a different scene from the story. Ellie stood in silent wonder before a window that held even the two adults in thrall. The Snow Queen took centre stage. She stood near the sleigh in which Kay was already sitting, muffled up to the ears in thick, soft, white furs. The Queen was robed in a silvery-white dress that seemed to be constructed of snowflakes, all glistening like stars. On her flowing black hair reposed a delicate coronet, decorated with scintillating, blue-tinged ice crystals. She was dazzling, and Hilda saw Ellie herself was dazzled by the chilly beauty of the scene. However, her sapphire blue eyes were warm and glowing, whereas the Queen’s were glittering and icy cold.

In another window, there was a vast, empty hall built of ice and snow, all except for one wall. As though to emphasize the cold heartlessness of the place, this wall was lit by the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, flowing and flickering like fire, but an icy fire of dark greens and cold blues and lilacs, constantly shifting and changing. Kay, his lips blue, dragged huge pieces of jagged ice across the slippery, glacier-like floor, trying to fit them into the puzzle set there by the Queen. Gerda stood at the door, her face rosy and alive, her hands held out to her friend. The doorway around her was melting in the warmth that flowed from her. It was a masterpiece of stunning contrasts.

“This is giving me wonderful ideas for my origami, but how to create such loveliness?” groaned Vivien, as entranced as Ellie by the riveting beauty of the scene.

Oh, Nell, all it needs is you here to complete this perfect day! But if you were here, dear one, where would Vivien be now, and what would have happened to Ellie? Truly He is a God of paradox and mystery. These two days have been such a mixture of sweetness and bitterness, that my heart is torn in two. Christmas is looming, my courage is failing….


*****
Chapter 7 - Another Gift from Hilda by MaryR
Author's Notes:
I'm so pleased you enjoyed that day in London....
By the time they arrived back at the Convent after that unforgettable day, it was seven o’clock and Sister Infirmarian could see Hilda was totally exhausted, while Ellie was still bubbling over with excitement at all she had seen and done. Having already been alerted by a phone call from Vivien, who had waved them off at the station, the nursing sister laid the law down, just as she had two nights ago. Sister Patricia took the hint and immediately bore Ellie away to unpack and discuss her trip.

Hilda was left facing stern eyes which demanded the truth, so she admitted not only to the exhaustion, but also that she was still suffering both nightmares and flashbacks. Pauline at once marched her along to the infirmary. Hilda tried to demur but, by the time she fell into bed, she was shaking like a leaf. Sister Infirmarian took one look, quickly set down the tray she had brought in, and scurried out of the room. Mere moments later, she was back with two hot water bottles.

“Lie down,” she ordered, tucking the bottles close to Hilda and pulling the covers up to her ears. She waited anxiously, her eyes on the drained, shadowed face, but the shaking soon died away and Hilda lay quiet, eyes closed, head thumping, heart and feet aching. The nun wondered how she had found the strength to keep going in London, given the sleepless night and bad dreams, never mind the continuing fragility. She laid fingers on the wrist tucked under Hilda’s cheek. The pulse was hectic!

“I hope you think it was worth it,” she said bluntly, but Hilda didn’t trust herself to speak. The nun gentled her voice. “You’ve done Ellie a power of good, my dear, but whether it was worth this level of exhaustion is debatable. How are the feet?”

Hilda grimaced. “Very sore,” she admitted, finding her voice along with her poise.

She opened her eyes, and tried to smile at this woman who cared so much for her patients, yet hid it all, just like Matey. “Yes, Sister, it was worth it, for all sorts of reasons. Just to have seen the light in Ellie’s eyes these last two days would have been enough.”

Sister Infirmarian was her usual forthright self. “What about your own eyes, Hilda? I don’t see any light there at all.” Hilda’s eyes were indeed bleak as she stared back at the nun. “Christmas getting to you?”

Hilda swallowed and closed her eyes again, to hide the flaring of pain she knew must have been there. Sister Infirmarian sat down and waited. Her job was not solely to care for people’s bodies. There were hearts and spirits to be tended, as well. Hilda controlled herself, lifted weary eye-lids, producing a flash of humour.

“Not one of my secrets is safe around here. You and Mother winkle each one out of me, like prising a cockle from a shell. Sometimes, it hurts, as I’m sure it hurts the cockle. I’m not used to being so vulnerable.”

“No, you’re too used to being strong for everyone else, and hiding your own needs. Which is why you’re here, in this state!” The nun put out a hand to take Hilda’s.

“People don’t realise how much they give away when they’re weak or ill. Even you, stoic that you are, have been like an open book these last few days!” She smiled into grave, steady eyes. “I have to admit, however, that I don’t think any one of us is as good at winkling out secrets as you. I’ve watched you. You’ve had as many years as I have of reading others, if you count my hospital work, but you have something extra. You practise self-forgetfulness to such a degree that you almost become part of the other’s pain, and hence feel it more. You’re both intuitive and imaginative, and have such compassion that you bind up people’s wounds before they’re even aware they're bleeding.”

Hilda’s eyes were pools of astonishment as she gazed at the nun, who was the proud possessor of a sharp tongue, a brusque manner – and a heart of gold.

The nun nodded, adding softly, “The wonder of it is you can bring yourself to scold your pupils and administer justice. How it must go against the grain! If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were far too soft to do the job you do. But I do know better. I heard all about your run-in with Sister Catherine and how you brought Ellie to an awareness of her sins. You’re no lightweight, Hilda Annersley.” There was great respect in voice and eyes.

“And you’re soft as butter,” Hilda replied, when she had recovered from her shock. “And I don’t mean butter straight from the fridge!” Sister Infirmarian spluttered. “I told you two nights ago. I see right through you.”

“That’s what I mean. You don’t need any training for what we do here. You’re already far better at listening and healing than any of us. God broke the mould when He created you.” Hilda shook her head, but the good Sister rolled right over her. “There’s an old hymn by Frances Havergal that contains words which could have been written just for you:

"'And wing my words, that they may reach/The hidden depths of many a heart.'"

"I should imagine your words have the largest, shiniest wings this side of heaven. I've absolutely no doubt at all that you’ve reached the secret places of hundreds of aching hearts over the years.” She paused, weighing her words. “Open up to Mother about Christmas. Don’t keep it all inside. Let her help. Will you promise?”

Too moved to speak, Hilda gazed into the dispassionate grey eyes, so unlike Nell’s, despite the colour, and nodded. Sister Infirmarian smiled, cleared her throat and stood up, taking herself firmly in hand.

“Do you feel able to sit up, now?” She packed pillows behind her and placed the tray over her knees. “Eat this, then you can get some sleep, hopefully without dreams.”

Grateful for the simple meal of scrambled eggs, Hilda picked up her fork and took a bite. As she chewed she looked thoughtfully at the Sister, who held out a hand.

“Whatever it is, the answer’s no! You’re far too tired. I don’t want an extra patient over Christmas, thank you very much.”

Hilda smiled. “See? Sat on, trodden underfoot, squashed flat,” she murmured, after another miniscule bite.

“I take it whatever it is won’t keep,” stated Sister Infirmarian, ignoring the quip.

Hilda shook her head and made her request. Seeing she was in deadly earnest, and about to claim she wasn’t hungry, the nun laid the law down. She would see what she could do, but only if Hilda ate up! Ten minutes later, she was beaming as she took away the empty plate.

When Mother Abbess and Sister Patricia entered behind Sister Infirmarian later on, Hilda was dozing. They would have tiptoed out again, but the sound of their entry had percolated, and Hilda’s eyes opened sleepily. When she saw them, she rubbed the cobwebs away and struggled to sit up. Sister Infirmarian stuffed pillows back behind her, while Mother Abbess groaned inwardly at sight of the exhausted white face.

“Won’t this keep, Hilda?”

“It all depends on Sister Patricia.” Hilda turned to Ellie’s aunt, who had been wondering why she was there. “How did you find Ellie, Sister?”

“She’s a different girl. I don’t know how you managed it, but she’s never stopped talking. My head’s buzzing. I’ve heard about Madame, Miss Knowles, origami, Christmas shopping, books, the Snow Queen and goodness knows what else. Oh, and the Chalet School, of course!”

Hilda eyed the creamy-skinned face of Ellie’s aunt with curiosity. She was akin to Vivien Knowles in age, and with tender brown eyes very similar to Vivien's.

“What did she say about the school?”

The nun laughed. “What didn’t she say? She lost me completely. The main idea was that any school with you as its Head must be magnifique.” She grew serious. “I agree with her. You’ve been more than magnifique towards her, and I’m not sure how to thank you. You brought back such a different girl, that I’m almost tempted to ask ‘Where did you find this Ellie?’”

Hilda shook her head with a rueful smile. “How do you feel about the school, Sister?”

Mother Abbess stifled a gasp, at once divining what Hilda was after. She held her breath, and crossed her fingers behind her back.

Superstition, I know, Lord, but we do need help on this matter.

A puzzled look crossed Patricia’s face. “I don’t understand. Why would you want to know what I feel about your school? To listen to Ellie, it does sound magnifique, but that's all I can tell you.”

Hilda leaned forward, appearing to change subjects. “Let me ask you another question, then, before I explain. What are you doing about a school for her? Indeed, are you sending her to school?”

Sister Patricia sighed. “There’s no money. We could try and get her into the local Grammar School, but…”

“A convent is no place for a young girl to live, not full time, is it?” finished Hilda. When the nun shook her head Hilda spoke gently, as though scared to upset her. “How would you feel about her coming to the Chalet School?”

Sister Patricia stared at Hilda, mouth agape. “But... there’s no money!”

The other two nuns held their breath and said fervent prayers. Hilda took Sister Patricia’s hand.

“Ellie's a very intelligent girl, Sister. She speaks French and English fluently, and tells me she wants to be an interpreter. There could be no better place for her than the Chalet School. The girls learn English, French and German, spending two whole days each week speaking each of those languages. She could even do Italian, if she wanted. It’s a little complicated, because she’s been doing the French Baccalauréat rather than English A levels, so has a broader but slightly shallower grasp of more subjects, but it could be sorted. She would slot into Lower Sixth with no problem.”

She saw the unconvinced face.“I could do some work with her here during the holiday, to bring her up to scratch. We still have a little over two weeks, and the books are easy enough to acquire. Think about Ellie, Sister. It would mean she'd be living, working and playing with girls her own age, at least during term time. She needs the company of her peers.”

“But, as I’ve just said, there’s no money. Her father…”

“You don’t need to worry about the money.” Hilda’s lovely voice was soft. “I’ll pay for her.”

Mother Abbess smiled beatifically. Her new daughter was running true to form.

“Hilda, you can’t!” began a horrified Sister Patricia, but Hilda forestalled her.

“Why can’t I? What do I need with the money?” Her eyes were calm and steadfast. “I’d be happy to fund her. There are scholarships she could try for, both for her second year at school and for university, but if she doesn’t succeed with those, it doesn’t matter. I’m willing to fund her through university, as well. I’ll buy her uniform and books, and pay for any extras she may need, and all living expenses later at university, although she should be able to get a grant for those.”

There could be no doubting her total sincerity. Tears streamed down Sister Patricia’s face.

“I can’t accept such kindness,” she sobbed.

Even Mother Abbess herself was overcome by the scope of Hilda’s generosity.

“Why? You’ve all been so good to me, rescuing me from the worst of my grief. In return for all that, please let me do this for Ellie. I'd take great care of her.”

Sister Patricia buried her face in her hands. Hilda looked at her in some concern and turned to Mother Abbess, who smiled her absolute love for her friend.

“Even I, who now know you so well, daughter, never dreamed you would be the answer to all our prayers, when I suggested you become Ellie’s counsellor. I should have remembered your exquisite generosity and compassion. Hilda, there are simply no words...”

“Yes, there are,” said Hilda, her voice firm. “The words are ‘Yes, we accept, for Ellie’s sake.’ What other options do you have?”

“None,” whispered Sister Patricia, her damp eyes filled with hope.

She glanced across at Mother Abbess, who came and knelt beside her.

“My child, you would hurt Hilda very much if you refuse. She means it with all her heart, for she is generosity personified. You must accept, for Ellie’s sake, as Hilda said. It is answer to prayer. Ellie needs a school, and something to replace all she's lost. This is no real home for her, is it?”

Sister Patricia’s eyes searched those of her Superior, who nodded encouragingly. Lips trembling with emotion, Ellie’s aunt put out her hand to cover Hilda’s.

“I can’t let pride get in the way, can I? I accept, Hilda, although how I ever repay you?” She stopped to take a breath. “If there is ever anything I can do for you in return….”

Hilda clasped the hand on hers. “There is something you can do, and I’ll explain in a minute. But first, I should tell you there's one condition to all this." She looked from one face to another. "Ellie must never know I'm the one paying for her.”

There was a shocked silence. “Hilda, you can't…” Mother Abbess gasped.

“Oh, I can! I won’t have her beholden to her Headmistress. I don’t want her gratitude. It would change our relationship, and she would lose all that lovely naturalness of hers. You must promise.”

There was an urgency to her voice that concerned the Abbess.

“What if she asks?”

It was Sister Patricia who posed the question, but Hilda’s eyes went to all three women. “Tell her the Convent is paying. Tell her you’ve had an unexpected donation. It’s partially true, anyway, as half my assets will come to you when I enter.”

Silence fell again in the small room. Hilda’s very private nature rebelled at having to discuss such personal matters, but she had to convince them.

“Hilda, I don’t…” began Mother Abbess again, but was unable to continue.

Hilda’s eyes were a brilliant, blazing blue as she gazed, first at her friend, then at the other two, all women who had saved her sanity six months ago and who were still upholding her now.

“I’ll make it the literal truth, so none of us is telling lies. I’ll set up a trust fund for Ellie. I’ll go up to London again to see my solicitor about it, immediately after Christmas. You and Sister Patricia can administer it between you, Mother.”

Sister Infirmarian blew her nose and found a reason to leave the room, unable to trust her emotions. Sister Patricia wiped her tears away and smiled at Hilda.

“Van Gogh once said, 'Whoever loves much can accomplish much, and what is done with love is well done.' You do everything with such love, Hilda. We’re all blessed just to know you, Ellie included.”

Hilda shook her head, not wanting any of them to be beholden. It was only money, after all. She owed them so much, far more than she could ever repay.

Mother Abbess found her voice. “Sweetheart, we agree to keep your secret, although it goes against the grain. You deserve her gratitude, but if that's the way you want it, so be it. For now! Tell me, though, how you propose we break the news to Ellie?”

Hilda lay back, exhaustion laying its heavy hand on her like a smothering pillow, now she had had her way. She turned to Sister Patricia.

“Could we offer it on Christmas Day, as a gift?”

“A very special gift,” smiled the nun.

“Then I’ll take you up on your offer of doing something, Sister, for I’m no artist.”

Hilda explained what she wanted. Sister Patricia listened and nodded, glad to be able to do this little thing for Hilda. It was a good idea, for it would be something tangible Ellie could keep as a reminder of this most magnanimous of gifts.

Mother Abbess was still reeling. How carefully her new daughter had planned it out, every problem overcome with her usual foresight! She herself had told Hilda the other night that sorrow had brought out the gold in her. Gold? No! She was one of life’s richest, rarest jewels, with more shining facets than any diamond or ruby.

The clear, green eyes held Hilda’s when they turned her way, and the love in them was as warm as a mother’s caress. Hilda smiled back and let her eyes close, basking in the tender sunshine of that love. It steadied her heart and fed her soul, as a mother’s love should, and was needed so much, for her heart was turning cold now Christmas was upon them…


*****
Chapter 8 - Hilda Parts with her Treasures by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Thank you so much for the reviews on that last short piece, Elder and Squirrel. You've been so faithful to a story you already know that you overwhelm me.
Mother Abbess was woken by the bell at half past six, after a restful night in the Infirmary. Hilda had not woken her with nightmares, so assumed she had also slept, so tired had she been on her return from London. However, when she rolled over, she was startled to see Hilda standing by the window, so far away that at first the nun was unable to gain her attention. Mother Abbess was disturbed by the white, fixed stare and wondered how long she had been standing there. The quiet despair in the blue-grey eyes tore into Mother Abbess. She left her bed and went to stand beside Hilda.

“Nell got hold of you, now it’s Christmas?” She felt unable to touch Hilda, who seemed to have erected an almost visible barrier round herself.

“May I come to chapel with you, Mother?”

“Hilda, you should be in bed. You look…”

“I can’t,” whispered Hilda, and the nun realised it would be cruelty to force her.

“Sweetheart, please don’t retreat. Let me help.”

Mother Abbess’s arms ached to hold this white statue.

“You can’t, not now. Later, perhaps.” Hilda looked into her friend’s anxious eyes and recognised the loving concern. “Don’t worry. You’ve broken me down too well. Just give me breathing space….”

They dressed in silence and repaired to the chapel for the first office of the day. It was held later than most convents, so the guests could also attend if they wished. Today being Christmas Eve, many had availed themselves of the opportunity. Hilda knelt at the back, and could never afterwards have described her thoughts or feelings. She found prayer impossible, but the knowledge that others were doing it for her gave her the breathing space she had asked for. All she could offer up at that moment was her anguish and grief.

She came out a little more relaxed, but was unable to eat anything, much to Mother Abbess’s disquiet, although she did give in to the nun’s insistence and swallowed two cups of tea. The nun remembered, with fear, that six month anniversary which had torn Hilda apart. She had guessed Christmas might do the same, especially after the setback of the car accident, but had so hoped that the trip to London would help Hilda, as well as Ellie.

“Hilda, what can I do for you?” she whispered anxiously.

“See me, later,” murmured Hilda. “There’s something I need to do. Only you can help.”

“Alright, love. We haven’t had our usual chats since you arrived, have we? Apart from the middle of the night, that is! Come about eleven o’clock, unless you would rather do it now?” Hilda shook her head and rose from her seat. “Where are you going? You really ought to lie down for a while. You're pale and weary, I can see.”

“I’m fine, Mother. I’m going back to the chapel,” said this ghost of a Hilda, and was gone before Mother Abbess could find words to keep her.

The Sisters always spent most of Christmas Eve in prayer in the chapel, and now Hilda joined them. Her heart was leaden, pleading for help, yearning for what she knew she could never have again. Past Christmases held her in thrall. And what she was planning to do later that morning was tugging her every which way. God and Nell seemed impossibly far away.

Where’s that memory, dear heart? You gave me one yesterday but, though sweet, it reminded me how much we were never able to do. You promised me you wouldn’t forget – but, instead, you sent someone who looks like you to invade my dreams and terrify me. You were going to trace that rainbow for me, remember…

Her face buried in her hands, she was aware of movement beside her. Turning her head, she looked straight into Mother Abbess’s loving eyes. She had finished her own most pressing business and come to offer support to her troubled daughter. A cold hand reached out to press hers in gratitude, before Hilda buried her face again. Hiding her grief from others, sighed Mother Abbess to herself. She winged prayers to Heaven for Hilda, for Ellie, and for all the other souls in distress within, and without, the convent walls.

A little later she was aware of Hilda rising, and felt her shoulder pressed fleetingly as Hilda passed her and left the chapel. Respecting Hilda’s very private nature, she let her go, and applied herself with increasing intensity to her prayers.

She was not to know that Hilda was in her own room, lying on the bed in which she had so far slept only one night since her arrival. But she was not sleeping. She was propped up on one elbow, gazing fixedly at two objects lying beside her, one large, the other tiny. How on earth was she going to bring herself to do this? She was longing for the release of tears, some relief to her feelings, but her eyes were dry and burning, her heart crying out its agony.

Life isn’t fair, Lord, and yet I know I must accept. I do accept. I've already given her back to you. Now help me offer these, as well, my Christmas offering to you. Tell both of them I treasure these but, if I'm to follow your dream for me, then I can no longer keep them. Ask Nell to send another memory, instead, one with no bitterness attached…

A great wave of exhaustion washed over her, forcing her head down on the pillow. Her eyes closed of their own accord and she slept. She slept so heavily that she never heard the gentle tap on the door, never saw the figure of Mother Abbess enter, wondering why her daughter was late. Her compassionate eyes took in the white, drained face, the lines that stress had gouged there. How she longed to comfort Hilda, but there was no comfort to be given, and Hilda would reject her, anyway. Once again, she was fighting her own lonely battle.

Mother Abbess saw the two objects, one with Hilda’s hand lying on it protectively, the other snuggled tight in her left hand, and could now make a guess as to why Hilda had asked for the interview. She wept inwardly for this brave woman, so mentally strong, so physically fragile. She reached out a hand to stroke the silvered hair, then hesitated and let her hand fall again. Creeping out of the room, she repaired to her office. She could say her prayers there, just as well as in chapel, while she waited for Hilda to waken and find her way thither…..

It was over an hour later before she heard a tap on the door. Bidding Hilda enter, the shadowed, lined face saddened her. Mother knew all too well what Christmas could do to a grieving soul. She also saw the beautifully-crafted box in Hilda’s arms and knew she had been correct in her surmise. Hilda raised her eyes to her friend and Mother saw the resolve there. If she could, she knew she would make Hilda the Superior in her place right now. She already had all the attributes. She was truly one very special human being.

“I’m late,” Hilda said starkly. “I’m sorry, Mother. I fell asleep.”

“You needed it, sweetheart.”

The nun could sense the almost visible barrier still surrounding her, so, without more ado indicated the couch. Words were of no use. Hilda sank down and Mother Abbess heard a great sigh. Saying nothing, she sat beside her. The silence of the wood-panelled room settled around them, the fire spitting and hissing. Hilda sat with bowed head, stroking the delicate carvings on the box, whose dark polished wood was glowing richly in the firelight. Mother Abbess longed to place her hand over Hilda’s, but knew her touch would not be welcome. Hilda was far away in another time, another place.

Help her, Lord. Relieve this agony.

Hilda raised her head and looked straight at Mother Abbess. “You know why I’m here.”

Her haunted eyes were begging for assistance. The nun breathed a sigh of relief. The barrier was dropping.

“Yes, dear child, I know.” Her voice was gentle and low. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful box. I take it there’s a story behind it, that it belonged to Nell, and that you’re going to give it to me. You’re willing to part with it as a first step to offering all the rest. Oh Hilda, daughter, you are so brave,” she whispered, her voice breaking.

“Don’t, please don’t. I may yet snatch it back.”

Hilda glanced down at it again, as though to store the beauty of it in her mind. Mother Abbess held her breath.

All at once, almost by sleight of hand, the chest was in her own lap and Hilda was standing at the window, staring out, her hands clenched tightly in the pockets of her cardigan. Mother Abbess stroked the smooth texture of the birds and butterflies, leaves and flowers, all carved so delicately on the lid and sides of the chest. What miracles there were all around, she thought. To have had this beauty in one’s soul, and the ability to re-create such beauty so exquisitely! She could see exactly how it would have spoken to Hilda’s spirit.

“I bought it in Vienna,” said a ragged voice. “I found it many years ago, when I first went to the school.”

“It’s beautiful, Hilda, but that’s too poor a word for this work of art. I don’t wonder at your wanting to acquire it – or at your reluctance to give it away.”

“Beauty has nothing to do with it,” answered that ragged voice. Hilda came back and knelt in front of the nun, to touch the chest with a trembling finger. “It’s…”

She stopped, swallowed, fiddled with the small brass padlock and lifted the lid. Mother Abbess gasped aloud at what lay within. Christmas decorations carved from pale wood, some painted, all nestled in the blue, silk lining. Hilda reached in and picked up a delicately-crafted star, dangling it from its red silken cord. She stared at it, her mind far away, but her lovely voice once more in evidence.

“I gathered these during my years in Austria, thinking one day I might have my own home, my own tree.”

To replace the home you would have had with your James.

“When we fled Austria and the war came, my hopes of a home receded. One Christmas….” Hilda paused, unable to speak as the memories came flooding back. “One Christmas, early in the war, Nell invited me to spend Christmas at her cottage. I looked at these and knew the time had come. I had to give them away. They needed a home, needed to be used. But, when I arrived there, I couldn’t bring myself to part with them. Then…”

She dropped the star back in the casket, turned her head and stared into the flames leaping in the hearth, seeing in her mind’s eye a very different fire.

“Then?” prompted Mother Abbess.

Staring into the flames, Hilda told the tale of the cerise dressing gown* Nell had had made for her, how beautiful and precious it had been, and how Nell had used it to smother the flames of the Christmas tree when it caught fire as they were opening their presents.

“Poor Nell,” mourned Hilda. “She was distraught. She'd ruined the present she'd planned so carefully for me, and had lost all her ornaments, all the precious memories of her family which were attached to them.”

“And you knew the time had come. You didn’t hesitate,” stated the nun, for she knew Hilda.

“I knew then why I'd been collecting them. I told her she could make new memories with them, that they needed a home, needed to live and be loved.” She looked up at her friend, her eyes hauntingly sad. “I’ll never forget what she said to me, Mother. Her words made these treasures infinitely precious, as indeed she herself was becoming infinitely precious to me by that time.”

“'Oh Hilda, dear girl, how can I refuse you anything, anything at all? Not only your treasures, but you yourself, have found a home. You belong here with me, and these beauteous objects now belong to both of us. They're no longer yours or mine, they’re ours. And yes, we'll make new memories with them – but we'll make them together, for we both need them.'”

Hilda leaned her head against the nun’s knee and closed her eyes. Mother Abbess stroked the brown hair, knowing the barrier was lower still and the touch would be accepted now, if she were very gentle. Such a tale of love between these two splendid women! What a gift Hilda had received in return for her offering to Nell of these treasures! The Abbess knew she had just heard the beginnings of their true closeness, hearts and minds so much in tune. Some day in the future, Hilda’s sorrow and pain would be eased by her knowledge of just how fortunate she had been to have such a soul mate, someone who matched her in every sense, someone who had given her wonderful memories to treasure. But how on earth was she to take those treasures away from her?

As though reading her mind, Hilda continued her tale. “We made so many memories with them over the years. Her cottage became my only true home, or rather Nell herself did. I spent so much of my spare time there, though I never did get my dressing gown,” she added, with a reminiscent smile.

Tears brimmed in the green eyes. Hilda looked up and saw them sparkling in the firelight.

“Please don’t, Mother. There are worse tragedies, and one day I shan’t need my memories, for I'll see her again.” She looked into the open box. “These mustn’t be hidden away. They need to go on living, breathing, revealing their beauty, gathering new memories.”

“And you'll be here to help us make those memories, as long as you live.” The nun’s hand still lay protectively on Hilda’s hair. “Tell me, sweetheart, can you bear to see them used this year, if I take them? Would you like me to keep them safe, until the memories don’t hurt?”

“No, Mother. To me they speak of Nell, and of Christmas - which is why I gave them to you today. Not to see them would feel like being without Christmas, but, if there were no Christmas, there would be no hope. I have to have hope. Without hope, I couldn’t go on.” She turned soft, pleading eyes up to her friend. “So, please, use them! Show me there's still hope; hope that she still loves me; hope that I may make a difference to others in pain, and live a fruitful life without her; hope that beyond this pain there is healing; hope that my new dream is really what God wants for me, that it's truly meant to be the next and last step on my journey.”

Mother Abbess stared into the soft eyes and loved this woman with all her heart. She herself was surely blessed by God to have been given such a soul to nurture. How much He must trust her, because only the firmest, yet most delicate of hands, would do for this strong, gentle woman. In the hush of the room she moved her arm and brushed her fingers,light as a wish, down Hilda’s cheek.

“Gandhi once said that a person with even just one grain of faith in God never loses hope. You have so many grains, so much faith, daughter, enough for the whole world. So how could you ever lose hope? Nell still loves you, I promise. How could she not? You are so eminently lovable.” She saw the denial in Hilda’s eyes, but would not let her speak. “There will be healing. You're too strong not to seek it and find it. It just won’t be exactly as you imagined, and might not even feel like healing, at times. As for your new dream, you prove to me over and over that it's exactly the right path for you now. You walk so closely with God that there's really no-where else you would find true joy. Once, Nell was your joy, as you were hers. Now God Himself has come to take her place, for no one else ever could.”

She saw Hilda’s eyes widen and grow moist, but Mother Abbess had still more to say.

“You already make a difference, child. I tell you over and over, but you won’t believe me. You're living so fruitfully, giving so tenderly, that your echoes will roll on and on and never cease, even when one day you yourself will cease to be. Very many people are more than they were, because you exist. You've become what Oswald Chambers asks us all to become: 'broken bread and poured-out wine' for others, nourishing and sustaining them out of your own woundedness.”

Hilda continued to hold the green eyes for long moments, then leaned her head against the nun’s habit again and closed her eyes over her tears, listening to the echoes of the nun’s words in the silence of her aching heart. Joy! How she longed to feel it again, as she had felt it for a while before the accident.

The silence lengthened, and the nun knew she had to be the one to make the next move for this hurting woman.

“Sweetheart, you told me days ago there were two things you wanted to give me.”

No answer. The silence in the room stretched taut. Time was suspended.

A sudden sigh set time’s clock ticking again. Moving very slowly, Hilda put her hand in her pocket, then reached up and placed something in Mother Abbess’s hand, closing the nun’s fingers round it as though to hide it. She turned back to the fire, her head once more leaning against the nun. Mother Abbess opened her fingers to see a small, worn jeweller’s box. Taking a deep breath, she lifted the lid, and exhaled when she saw the plain gold band. She had been expecting an engagement ring.

“James?” she whispered.

“His grandmother’s wedding ring. When she was dying she gave it to James’ mother, asking for James to place it on his bride’s finger when he got married. He gave it to me just before he left for India, to keep it safe.”

Her voice trailed away as she lost the ability to form words. How she had loved him! How bereft he had left her! She had never forgotten that day in Oxford, just before his departure for India.

James knelt in front of her and cupped her face between his hands, his hazel eyes alight with his deep love for this slender woman who was so gentle and serene, yet glowed with integrity and intelligence. He had been blessed, indeed, to have his heart held and made whole by such a steadfast, faithful spirit.

“Dear love, it’s my job to take care of you.” His voice was exquisitely tender, and tears flooded her eyes. “Shh, dear heart. I must know you'll be safe there, for I couldn’t bear to lose you. I’ll return very soon, I promise...”

He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a tiny jeweller’s box, placing it in her hand. She looked down, puzzled, and opened it. Inside was a plain gold band. He took it out and pushed it very gently on her ring finger, beside her engagement ring. Hilda’s scalding tears rained down on their joined hands. With a groan, he settled beside her, his back against the tree trunk, and pulled her close. She nestled there, her damp cheek against his smooth one.

“It was my grandmother’s wedding ring,” he whispered. She looked up, tears once more flooding her eyes. “Mother asks for your forgiveness - and says will you let me place this on your finger when we wed. She says to tell you - my grandmother would have loved you, and found you good beyond the common measure, much like herself.”

He cupped her face once more in his gentle hands and his soft lips caught hers as her tears flowed over his hands, her joy and her sorrow intermingled.


Silence lingered once more as Mother Abbess waited for Hilda to return from wherever she had gone. She stared down sadly at the little ring that should have graced Hilda’s finger for many a long year. Hilda stirred.

“I gave my engagement ring to my niece on her twenty-first birthday. This, I've carried around with me for over thirty years, unable to part with it. It meant more to me than the other. It represented all James’ love.”

She looked down at the seal ring on her left hand. That one represented all Nell’s love for her. She touched it tenderly, knowing it would be even harder to give up when the time came. The grief was too recent, too devastating…

“No one's seen it since that day, not even Nell. By the time she knew about James, he'd become an ache in my heart, a sweet memory laid away, too fragile for the light of day.” Mother Abbess watched Hilda’s eyes. They were steadfast as she walked through the pain of this renunciation. “It seems fitting it should be one of the first things I part with. A first love being offered to my final Love, the Love who will lead me through to Eternity. I give it with a willing heart this Christmas. It has served its purpose.”

Oh, no, it hasn’t, not yet, thought Mother Abbess. She knew exactly how she was going to use this well-loved little ring. Like the Austrian treasures, it had a story to tell and was far too precious to be hidden away. It would come to rest right where it belonged before too long, and Hilda would discover the truth of Martin Luther’s words:

'I held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.'

“I accept your treasures, daughter, as God accepts them. How He must glory in your measureless courage and generosity.” The nun’s whisper scarcely disturbed the air. “You're giving so much to all of us this Christmas and, through us, you're giving it all to God. Bless you from the bottom of my heart, child.”

She gave Hilda time to recover, stroking the brown hair and praying for her friend’s agony at this renunciation. When she finally stirred, she hated herself for bringing the mundane back into these painful moments of tender memories.

“Hilda, sweetheart, it’s two o’clock. We both need to eat.” Hilda’s head moved against her and the nun’s voice grew firmer. “Oh, yes, daughter, those are my orders, I’m afraid. You also need to sleep, despite the nap you had earlier. Did you get any sleep at all last night? No answer for me? Well, that decides it. You’ll be late tonight because of Midnight Mass, so you catch up this afternoon.”

She placed the exquisitely carved box on the table beside the crib figures and rose to her feet. She helped Hilda up from the floor and settled her on the couch, placed another log on the fire and moved over to her desk. Storing the little jeweller’s box in her top drawer, she picked up Hilda's present and walked back to the couch.

“Read that page while I’m gone. Let Christmas revive your hope in your future.”

Hilda looked down at her own handwriting:

'What is Christmas? It is tenderness for the past, courage for the present, hope for the future. It is a fervent wish that every cup may overflow with blessings rich and eternal, that every path may lead to peace.'

(Agnes M Pharo)

She stared into the now-roaring fire, lost in her memories. So many Christmases behind her, sad ones and happy ones, lonely ones and love-filled ones…

She never heard Mother Abbess’s return, only coming back to harsh reality when the nun proffered her a spoon and a bowl of fragrant, steaming soup.

“Eat, love. You need something to keep you going. You’ve eaten nothing all day.”

Hilda took the spoon, but looked up into the green kindliness of the eyes watching her.

“There's another quote there, by Freya Stark,” she whispered.

"'Christmas is not an external event at all, but a piece of one’s home that one carries in one’s heart.'”

There was silence as green eyes held blue-grey ones.

“Mother was my home, and I lost her. James became my home, and I lost him. Nell has been my home for long years, and I’ve lost her. But all those memories are stored quietly inside me, and they'll warm and nourish me when I'm cold and lonely, as I am right now.”

She turned her eyes away and stared once more into the flames, seeing the flames of other hearths, now gone. Her voice was gentle, her eyes tender.

“Those memories are like Christmas ornaments, wrapped lovingly in tissue paper and stored away in special boxes. I must make sure I take them out from time to time, unwrap them and enjoy their beauty, even if they do bring tears, for they're fragments of the homes I've loved so much.”

Mother Abbess caught her breath in wonder. Where did Hilda find such beauteous images? Hilda was still a little remote, quiet and still, but the nun felt the barrier was down enough that she was allowed to put out a hand and lay it against a white cheek.

“Will you share that idea with Ellie, sweetheart? I think it would help. She, too, has more memories inside her than she realises.” Hilda nodded, her face very still. Mother Abbess took a deep breath. “You told me Nell once called you Titania, and how surprised you were, for she wasn't given to flights of fancy. She was right, daughter. You have such a delicate, fairylike grace in your approach to life and love, and in the way you handle people, especially life’s needy ones.”

She smiled wryly. “I’m going to join Nell and have my own flight of fancy. I think God must have scattered magical fairy dust over you at birth, for even then I should imagine you were marked out as one of His special ones. You’ve taken that fairy dust of hIs and poured it all out on others, just as the woman in the Gospel did when she poured her precious, priceless ointment over the Lord’s feet, for no other reason than to show her love for Him.”

She was gratified to see a fleeting smile ripple across the still features, but there was no other response.

“Eat, daughter,” she said softly.

She drank her own soup, and watched Hilda trying to do the same, but knew she was only doing it out of love for her friend. She was force-feeding herself, her soul still removed enough from this world that food was anathema to her. The spoon soon faltered and was laid down. Mother Abbess understood that to insist would be counter-productive, so she finished her own soup and stood to remove Hilda's bowl and spoon. She plumped up the cushions and knelt in front of the couch, keeping everything low-key and very gentle.

“I want you to lie here for a while and try to sleep. I won’t insist on you going back to bed, but you do need rest, especially as you can’t eat. I don’t want you collapsing again. I promise to stay and keep watch, in case of nightmares.”

Hilda touched the nun's cheek. “You should be in chapel. Not only is it Christmas Eve, but you’re their leader. They need to see you there.” The leader in Hilda knew how important it was to be visible. “I’m being very selfish.”

“Hilda, not one person in this Convent would ever call you selfish. At the moment, your agony is very real and you're in need of support. You've just done a very hard and brave thing, which has added to your pain.”

The nun laid Hilda down, and tucked the blanket round her lovingly. She removed the pins from the silvered hair and stroked it with a loving hand, trying to allay the anxiety in Hilda’s eyes.

“If there's an emergency with one of our guests, everyone understands. My Prioress is there to take my place. At this very moment, two sisters are doing exactly as I am. Service to others is also prayer, you know. Please don’t fret, child. Your need is greater than God’s, right now.”

She saw her gentle tone was having an effect. The white face lost some of its tension, the eyes grew drowsy.

“I should tell you Ellie's desperate to see you again.” Hilda’s face tensed again. “Sh, love, relax. She’s fine, very interested in all that's going on. She’s been busy wrapping all those mysterious gifts you helped her buy, and she’s now in the kitchen helping to make mince pies. I’ve told her she can see you after you’ve rested.”

While she spoke, Hilda’s eyelids fell and lifted a few times, but finally they gave up the unequal struggle and remained closed. She slept. Breathing a sigh of relief, Mother Abbess stroked the white cheek again, adjusted the blanket, then rose and retrieved her prayer book from her desk. She sat motionless, alternately praying and eyeing Hilda’s face with deep concern, even though her friend slumbered peacefully.

After a while, the carved chest began to insinuate itself into her thoughts. She considered it for a few minutes, imagining a young Hilda delighting in her discovery, relishing its beauty. She leaned over and picked it up. Opening the lid, she smelled once more the faint spicy fragrance that was released. She stroked the silk lining, now fragile and faded in places. She picked up some of the wooden treasures, holding them up to the light and admiring their artistry, while mulling over the wistful desires of a broken-hearted Hilda collecting these, and hoping one day to assuage her loneliness. Which she had, when she gave them away. And was given, in return, the home she had so craved.

In a way, she had done the same again this Christmas Eve – given away her treasures in return for the home she had found, her very last home. Mother Abbess knew she had to remove them before Hilda woke up, but she also knew that Hilda was correct when she said they needed to be used and loved. The nun did not want them buried amongst the other baubles and decorations on the tree in the lofty front hall. Something special was needed. Her thoughts flew to the Convent’s artist, Sister Patricia. Perhaps she and Ellie could think of something for her.

Acting at once on this impulse, she closed the chest and carried it quietly out of the room…

******
End Notes:
* The story of the cerise dressing gown and the Christmas tree can be found in The Four Gifts, a short drabble under my name, still in the archives or under my name here in SDL.
Chapter 9 - Nightmares and Blessings by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Ooops, for those of you who got an earlier alert, I was so tired I placed the update in Vol 2, instead of here! I do apologise. Blame the exhausting trip to see my own MA down in Chester, who I found only two years ago, long after I'd started ND, but she packs as much of a punch as Kate Stuart, I can tell you! So many of you have posted a review on the last piece and I am overcome at your generosity. Thank you! Lynne, you'll find out about the decorations in the next piece.
The nightmare crept in stealthily, furtive feet tiptoeing over her mind. Mother Abbess, deep in prayer, heard the soft moans, saw the eyelids quivering, the vulnerable lips trembling, and remained alert and ready…

She runs in from school, eager to tell her mother about her school day, looking forward to the companionable time they always shared at the close of the afternoon, but for once her mother's not glad to see her daughter. Puzzled, Hilda stretches out her hand, but her mother simply ignores her and walks away to the other end of the room. To Hilda’s horror, she walks right through the wall there, disappearing from view. Hilda runs after her, ready to follow through the wall – but runs into solid brick.

“Mother!” she cries, tearing at the bricks with bare hands, blood running down her arms as she sobs wildly. The last brick falls and she tumbles through…

…and finds herself clinging to James, ready to walk up the gangplank with him, excited and happy that they are at last going to be together. He looks down at her and she sees his hazel eyes are no longer merry, alive with laughter. They are full of scorn, his face impossibly angry. He grasps her by the shoulders.

“Where’s my ring?” he growls. “Why aren’t you wearing it?”

She stares up at him, surprised and hurt. “Why should I be wearing it, my darling? We’re not married yet. It’s here in my pocket, safe for when we reach India.” Her hand delves in, but there's no ring. Appalled, she tries all her pockets, frantically scrabbling in her bag, as well. Nothing!

He shakes her hard. “You’ve given it away, haven’t you? My grandmother’s ring, which you said you'd always treasure. You don’t love me at all. How can we get married without a ring?”

Her hands cling to his, pleading. “I do love you, I love you so much. The ring is safe, I promise.”

Impatiently, he thrusts her from him. “No, you can’t love me or you'd still have the ring. If you don’t love me, you can’t come with me. I'll go alone and find someone there who'll love me better than you do.”

He moves to the gangplank and in a panic grabs his arm. “James! Don’t do this. I love you. I will always love you! Please take me with you.”

He shrugs her off and walks up the gangplank. She tries desperately to follow him, but the sailors refuse to let her set even one foot on the gangplank. She shrieks his name as he ducks his head and goes inside the ship. The ship sails off into a glorious sunset, leaving her standing alone, tears coursing down her cheeks. Then, as she stands there, the ship suddenly and without warning sinks into the calm blue waters, disappearing without a trace. All she can do is scream out his name in utter despair…

…..to be answered by Nell. “Stop screaming like that, dear girl. You’re hurting me. I thought it was me you loved.”

“I do, I do,” mourns Hilda, wringing her hands. “But I never had time to hold him one last time.”

“Well, I’ll let you say goodbye to me before you leave,” says Nell genially. The Christmas tree stands behind her, all its candles alight.

“What do you mean?” falters Hilda. “Why would I want to say goodbye? You asked me to stay for the holiday.”

“You can’t stay,” says Nell, her voice cold. “You gave away my treasures. You don’t love me any more than you loved James. You’re fickle, Hilda. You have to leave.”

“I haven’t given them away,” sobs Hilda. “Look! They’re hanging on the tree behind you, along with James’ ring. There’s the box on that chair.”

“Well, there’s no point in keeping the box, since you’ve given away the decorations,” cries Nell.

Seizing the beautiful box, she hurls it at the tree. Immediately, both box and tree burn fiercely, flames leaping and writhing.

“Nell! What are you doing?” shrieks Hilda, looking for something to throw over it. “Where’s the dressing gown?”

Without further ado, Nell simply walks over to the tree and wraps her arms round it. As Hilda stands there, horror-stricken, Nell’s hair catches alight, sizzling in the heat, and her body is consumed by the flames.

“Nell!” screams Hilda. “Don’t leave me, not like all the others. I need you -”

She carries on screaming and runs over to the tree, her hands reaching out to stop the flames and pull Nell free, but the tree topples towards her and she screams even louder. The next moment it falls on her, its burning branches trapping her. Desperately, she tries to push them away, though, even as she struggles, she knows she's going to die in the inferno…


“Hilda, stop struggling, love. You’re safe. Whatever you saw, it’s gone.”

Hilda heard the words but they meant nothing, and went on fighting the branches pinning her down. She continued to scream, struggling desperately. She was going to die –

“Hilda, love, open your eyes. Nobody's left you! It's just a nightmare! Wake up, dear, come on.”

Fighting for breath, she opened her eyes. The next moment, she flung herself into Mother Abbess’s arms, sobbing wildly.

“They left me all alone – every one of them,” she cried, face hidden in the nun’s shoulder, horror overwhelming her. “Nell walked into that burning tree, told me I didn’t love her and burst into fla…”

Words failed her and she clung harder. Mother Abbess wrapped her arms round the shaking body.

“Sh, love. You’re not alone. I won’t leave you, but, please, wake up. It was just a bad dream. It didn’t really happen, I promise you. Nell still loves you,” her voice crooned softly,trying to haul Hilda back to reality.

“Nell's dead, so it must have happened. She told me I didn’t love her, I’d given the ornaments away, so she no longer loved me. They all t… t… told me the same.”

Hilda’s fingers were clenched tightly in the nun’s habit, and was trembling so violently the nun’s own body was shaking with the force of it.

“Hilda, wake up. You didn’t give their gifts away – you gave them to God, remember? They all know, sweetheart, and still love you and admire your courage.”

Mother Abbess was cursing herself. She had heard the moans, seen the emotion waking in the sensitive, sleeping face, but had waited, to see if Hilda would settle. Instead, Hilda had started screaming horrifically, arms stretched out in front of her, fingers like claws, and the Abbess had been on her knees, arms round her, almost before Hilda could draw breath to scream again. But Hilda had continued to fight her, to push her away. Now she held the shaking body close, but it had been bad, that much was clear, and had been brought on by parting from her possessions.

Dear God, give her strength. Make her whole. Ease this terrible pain. She loves You. Don’t fail her now, whatever You do.

“Child, however bad it was, it’s gone. It can't hurt you. They haven’t left you. They’re with God, and He's so very close, reaching out to you. Just hang on to me.”

The soothing voice was doing its work. Hilda’s violent shaking abated. She lay against her friend, desperate for comfort. Wisps of the dream still clung, and she was truly terrified. It was such a vivid dream that it was to haunt Hilda for many a long day. To see Nell’s body consumed by flames, to feel they had all abandoned her, as she had felt abandoned when her mother died…

Mother Abbess waited for the tears but none came. It had gone too deep, searing its way in, leaving scorched earth behind. The nun was scared to let go even to order some tea. She could feel the terror.

“Hilda, love, shall I return your treasures? Would that help?”

She felt Hilda’s fingers clutching convulsively at her habit, and sensed her intense yearning.

“No, I couldn’t go through that again. Leave them be. I know, in my head, that Nell and James don’t hate me.” Hilda was silent a moment. “Didn’t Jesus ask the rich young man to sell all he had, give the money to the poor and follow Him? Has He not just given me the same invitation? I can’t have it both ways. I must offer all – no matter the cost. I can’t refuse His invitation, not after all He's done for me in my life.”

Tears trickled down Mother Abbess’s face, but the trickle became a warm flood when she heard Hilda’s next words.

“Abraham was willing to sacrifice his only son. My ‘all’ is as nothing compared to that. Did he have nightmares afterwards, do you think, even though God didn’t demand the sacrifice, in the end?”

The nun bowed her head and let her tears fall onto Hilda’s hair as she held her closer. She knew nothing would ever again be this hard for Hilda, once the nightmares ceased and a little time passed. It had been too soon for such a sacrifice. However, she had done it, and her magnificent courage would see it through. But oh, how it grieved Mother to see someone suffer as Hilda was suffering at that moment.

“Mother, let me go. I’m fine, but I’ve been such a baby.”

Hilda’s voice was husky, but she loosened her fierce grip on the nun and drew away. Her self-control was returning and, with it, the barrier. Mother Abbess cupped Hilda's face with great tenderness. It was parchment white. This nightmare had cut to the bone, following as it did the parting from her gifts, and the razor-sharp pain in her eyes told it all.

“Hilda…” began the nun, her own eyes full of concern. If only Hilda would cry, but her eyes remained dry.

Hilda shook her head. “No, don’t worry.”

Mother could feel her fighting the anguish, stacking it away behind walls, away from sight. She was going to fight this alone, too, now the first, fierce pain was over. No easy tears here!

The nun rose from the floor and sat beside her. “I won’t suggest you sleep again.”

Hilda shuddered. “Not a good idea.”

“But I am going to insist you stay here and rest. You may read or….”

“May I have Ellie, do you think?”

Mother Abbess searched the white face. “You may have anything you want, love. After what you’ve already done for her, and indeed for myself and Ian and all of us here since we first knew you, we would reach down the moon and stars for you, if you asked.” The pain in Hilda’s eyes sharpened. “What is it? What did I say?”

“Nothing,” said Hilda, with a quivering sigh. “It was just… I once said something like that to Nell to tell her how much I cared. It was the day they all sneaked up on me to celebrate my twenty-first anniversary.”

Mother Abbess cupped the impassive face, ignoring the barrier, and traced a cross on Hilda’s forehead.

“As we care for you, daughter, for all you do and all you are. Please remember that. You are not alone, even though you’re so lonely without Nell.” She paused. “What happened on that special day will soon, please God, be nothing but a happy memory – a memory of how much she loved you, and indeed still loves you.”

Hilda brushed Mother’s cheek with a delicate hand. “Albert Schweitzer must have known all about you, for he once said:

"'Sometimes our light goes out, but is blown into flame by another human being. Each of us owes deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this light'.

"I shall never be done thanking you for re-kindling my light and saving my life.”

Mother squeezed Hilda’s hand. There were no words that would help, so she simply settled her once more amongst the cushions, adjusted the blanket and bent to poke up the fire. She turned to speak, but, as she did, saw Hilda glance at the table, then avert her eyes, her face once more a closed book. Mother placed a finger under the determined chin, so Hilda had to face those keen eyes.

“I’ve removed them from sight for now.” Hilda’s eyes remained steady, if bleak. “They’re not hidden away, I promise. Do you trust me? Good girl! You shall have your reward later. For now, rest and I’ll send Ellie in. She needs you, I think, and I rather suspect you need her. I’ll go and show my face in Chapel for a wee while.”

She was gone. Hilda closed her eyes against the pain slowly encroaching as midnight approached.

Where have you gone, Nell? Tell Him I need you if I’m to get through tonight and tomorrow without breaking down. Why that terrible, terrible dream? What have I done wrong? Why are you hiding from me, dear one?

Ushered in by the Abbess, who hovered in the doorway, Ellie moved across to stand silently staring down at Hilda. Was she asleep? She looked up anxiously at the nun, but the latter nodded, smiled and closed the door, leaving her to it.

“Ellie?”

The girl heard the gentle voice and looked down to see a hand held out to her. She knelt by the side of this gracious lady she now worshipped. Hilda gave a welcoming smile, noting the flushed cheeks and the new light in the vivid blue eyes.

“Mother Abbess told to me you were unwell, that I had to be very quiet.”

Hilda stroked the girl’s petal-soft cheek. “I’m fine, ma petite. She worries about me too much.” Ellie’s face relaxed and she smiled. “I see I don’t need to worry about you. What have you been doing today?”

Ellie settled on the floor, her heart doing a tap dance at being with her idol.

“Alors, after I got up I wrapped the presents. I tried to copy the way Miss Knowles showed to us to tie the ribbons, because, me, I wanted them to look pretty, but…” She shrugged. Hilda grinned to herself. “I was not so successful, but they will do.”

“Perhaps you’ll help me later, when my tyrants let me up. I’m all fingers and thumbs when it comes to craft work. Think about my disastrous origami stars.”

Ellie's eyes showed she suspected her of exaggerating, but Hilda smiled back blandly, so Ellie gave it up and carried on talking.

“Then my aunt thought I might like to help with the baking, you know.” She looked at Hilda with puzzled eyes. “In France, you know, we do not have these – how you say? – mince pies. They are… bizarre!”

Hilda’s musical laugh rippled softly round the panelled room. She knew all too well how Europeans regarded English cooking! Ellie joined in the laugh.

“Then, not too long ago, we went out to collect….”

She stopped short. It was a secret, meant to be kept from Hilda for the moment.

“To collect what?” prompted Hilda, with idle curiosity.

Ellie gathered her scattered wits and looked round for inspiration. “Er… branches of the holly to decorate the dining room,” she gasped, then closed her eyes in despair. The dining room was already decorated!

Hilda stared at Ellie. It slowly dawned on her that plots were afoot, and the girl had inadvertently let the cat out of the bag. What were they up to out there? Ellie quickly tried to change the subject and picked up one of the crib figures from the low table. She turned it slowly in her hands.

“I’ve never seen figures like this before. In France we use the santons for our crèches.”

Hilda remembered the colourful figures, from tiny to very large, that were to be found everywhere in French shops, made from the fine clay around Marseilles.They depicted the traditional Provencal trades, activities and costumes, and were based on the idea of the Provençal inhabitants making their way to the stable with their local produce as offerings. There were santons of Mary, Joseph and the baby, with the kings and shepherds joining the villagers on their way to the stable. Looking back, Hilda could remember seeing such a crèche in Thérèse Lepâttre’s room in Austria long ago.

She watched Ellie moving the figures around, and into her mind flashed her own small crèche. She had finally found a home for it! Ellie would cherish the wooden figures, and they would be happy and safe in her keeping, handed down to her children and her children’s children. Many of her books would also go to the girl when the time came – her children’s books, especially, and her French, German and Italian ones. How the Lord answered prayer when one least expected it! Was He providing her, near the end of her life, with a mother and a daughter? As the Abbess had suggested months ago, out of the ruins of one life, was He creating a new and very different life, a beautiful one in which love flowed so bountifully and effortlessly that she could lower her walls, and allow herself to freely acknowledge bonds of affection, instead of storing them all away inside?

Tucking these thoughts away to be savoured later in her room or the chapel, her mind jumped back to her books.

“Tell me, Ellie, have you ever read a little book called A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens?” Ellie placed down the figures and shook her head. “Then why don’t you go the library and borrow the one I know is on the shelves there. We'll read some of it together, and learn more about Christmas. Would you like that?”

Ellie’s face shone with delight and she shot off, her heart singing. Hilda gazed into the fire, feeling that, somehow, by reading about Scrooge facing his worst nightmares, she might come to terms with her own, especially that last hideous one which had cut so deep.

When Ellie returned a few minutes later, Hilda was holding one of the angels and stroking it, her eyes far, far away. The girl settled on the floor again, her own eyes glued to the pale, sensitive face. The angel still in her hand, Hilda smiled at her.

“Tell me, ma fille, is life a little sweeter for you now?”

Ellie’s eyes glowed. “Mais oui, Madame. You have helped to me so much, you know. You have made me to see that there are people who still care that I am happy. Even Christmas itself, it seems happier since I have met you. You made me to feel so very special by taking me to London and sharing your friend with me. You do not treat me as a child, but make me to feel that I matter.”

Hilda set down the angel and took Ellie’s hand.

“You do matter, Ellie," she said lovingly. "You matter to me, and you matter to your aunt. She loves you very much. You're the only family she has now, so you must try to build a relationship with her. She’s lost her only brother, your father, and is sad for him, but she’s also sad for you.” Ellie stared, eyes wide, then nodded. Hilda’s intuition told her there was a problem somewhere.

“Mother Abbess also cares, mon enfant. She worries about you, as she worries about all of us.”

Ellie’s eyebrows rose. “But, she is so scary!” she said with such gravity that it was comical, but Hilda kept her face straight. “It is that she seems to know all my secret thoughts, you know – and she disapproves.”

Hilda grimaced in sympathy. “I know exactly what you mean. She scares me at times.” Ellie gasped. “But she only wants your happiness, dearest.”

Ellie frowned. “You are certain? You read my thoughts, too, but you are gentle about it, even when you think I am.. have done wrong. I could not tell to her all that I tell to you.”

“Oh Ellie, you’ll learn. She's the most magnanimous and compassionate of women. She seems scary because she challenges you to be all you can be, to dig deep and find more than you thought was there. Alas, so often we feel unable to rise to that challenge.”

Hilda’s eyes turned to the angel, which seemed to be watching her with a calm serenity.

How often in my weakness I've let her down, Lord. She expects so much of me, thinks I'm more than I am – yet still loves me when I fail. She loves as You do, unconditionally.

She was unaware of Ellie’s intense stare, but the girl’s next words brought her back to earth with a bump.

“You are the same, Madame. You make me to think, to examine the motives – but you never, but never scare me. Her eyes burrow inside, and her face tells to me she does not like what she sees.” Hilda opened her mouth, but Ellie hastened on. “Your eyes reach in, yes, but they calm me, they say ‘Ça ira! All will be well.’ You are forgiving, and patient, as though I have all my life to live up to your challenges.”

“You have, chérie. But, remember, your life might be short. Mother Abbess is in a hurry!” She looked at the book in Ellie’s hand. “There’s someone in there who wasted most of his life, even discarding the girl who loved him. Then, one night, his life is demanded of him, and he finds he's not ready. Why don’t we see how some challenges can be good for us?”

Ellie’s French accent was very noticeable as she struggled with some of Dickens’ language:

'Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that… Old Marley was as dead as a doornail. Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did.

Oh! But he was a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, covetous old sinner, Scrooge. Hard and sharp as flint; secret and self-containe. He carried his own low temperature with him, he iced his office in the dog-days; and he didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

“Out upon merry Christmas. What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, and not an hour richer? If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart'”


Ellie looked up in horror. “How can he mean this?” she gasped. Hilda smiled, indicating she should read on.

“'But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas,” returned his nephew, “as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely….and I say, God bless it!'"

Shut-up hearts

Hilda’s eyes misted over. Her own and Ellie’s hearts had become like closed-up clams in their loneliness and pain, but were being prised open again here in this peaceful place, allowing God’s grace to seep in and restore them.

*****

When Mother Abbess peeped in later, thinking to give Hilda some rest by removing Ellie, she found her friend fast asleep, a smile on her face. Ellie was also asleep, the book fallen from her hand, her head lying against Hilda, the latter’s hand resting on the black hair, as though in blessing. Mother stood looking down at them, inexpressibly touched by their closeness.

Moving round the couch, she bent over the girl and touched her gently on the shoulder. Ellie’s eyes opened and saw the nun, who put a finger to her lips. The girl slid out from beneath Hilda’s hand, picked up the book and rose to her feet. Before moving away, however, she hovered over the prone figure and smoothed a featherlight touch over the brown hair, intense love in her resolute little face. How reluctant she was to leave!

Mother Abbess was fascinated. This girl who, through force of circumstance, had matured too quickly and beyond her years, was unable to resist revealing just what Hilda was becoming to her – the mother she had never had. How had they come this far inless than a week? But the nun knew. Hilda’s sensitive perception and generosity had responded to Ellie’s intense need. Please God nothing would happen to put a stop to this new relationship, for it could bring only comfort to both in their loneliness.

Ellie looked up and saw the nun watching her, but Mother Abbess simply nodded towards the door. Ellie cast one last glance at Hilda’s relaxed face and walked away, as though still in a dream world. Pulling the door closed behind her, however, the nun turned to find an expression of anxiety on Ellie’s face.

“She seems ill, ma Mère,” said the girl.

Mother Abbess leaned against the wall and folded her arms, feeling unaccountably weary.

“It’s not been a good day for her, child, but she seems more relaxed now, for which I must thank you. She needed to sleep.”

The girl blushed at the praise, and remembered guiltily all she had said about this nun. Would she be able to read her mind? Mother, however, had other fish to fry.

“You know she was in a serious accident recently, and was badly hurt?”

“My aunt told it to me, and Miss Knowles gave me some more details. She told to me that Madame is a heroine.”

“Indeed, child! She saved my brother’s life and nearly lost her own in the process. She was in great pain and very afraid, but her courage never failed her. That's why she still looks so ill. You can learn so much from her, Ellie, simply by being in her presence.”

Ellie's eyes widened. She had not really understood that it was Mother’s brother who in the accident with Hilda.

“What may I do for her, Mère?”

Hilda’s earlier remarks were taking root, encouraging Ellie to relax a little with Mother.

“Exactly what you're doing, Ellie. Just be yourself, do things with her to distract her from her own sorrow, and show her you love her. You've already given her more than you know.” The girl’s look of gratitude impelled Mother Abbess to ask gently, “May I hug you, Ellie? To thank you for helping her, for she means such a lot to me.”

Ellie looked with grave composure at the woman who had so scared her, and found herself nodding, much to her own surprise. Mother Abbess’s lips twitched, for Ellie’s thoughts were written so clearly on her mobile face. She stepped forward and wrapped her arms lightly round the girl, pulling her close.

Thank you, Hilda, for I have no doubt whatsoever it was you who removed this child’s fear of me. Bless you for finding a way into her heart and helping her, where I couldn’t. I scared her away with my bluntness, so she didn't feel she could turn to me for help and sympathy. I don’t have your gentle nature. So many souls you will heal when you enter here, but this child's heart and soul are yours forever now. You've beguiled her with your gracious, tender spirit. Truly Milton’s words were written for one such as you:

“Grace was in all her steps,
Heaven in her eye;
In every gesture dignity and love.”


After sending Ellie into dinner, promising she could see Hilda later, Mother went back into her office and sat down in one of the easy chairs with her correspondence. It had been a long day and there were still many hours till the Midnight Mass of Christmas. Hilda slumbered on, making up for the disturbed nights and this stressful, emotional day.

The nun sat back and gazed at the quiet face lit by the flickering flames, and pondered. Should she force the details of that nightmare out of Hilda, or leave it be? It was certainly the worst she had had in the convent. Had she had similar at school? Mother Abbess shuddered. No wonder that tense ghost had walked in a week ago. Hilda had done so much for Ellie, despite her own pain. Would giving up her treasures bring relief or more pain?

She sighed, placed her friend in the Lord’s safe hands and immersed herself in her correspondence. Many of her former guests wrote to her, keeping her abreast of their current situations, and expressing their thanks.

As she worked on in the silence of the shadowed room, a prickle ran down her spine, and she sensed she was being watched. Raising her head, she met Hilda’s open eyes, but they were no longer remote. The barrier was gone! There was peace nestling in the pain.

The nun smiled. Hilda’s lips curved in reply. There was perfect accord between them, as there would always now be, their love for each other forged in the fire of Hilda’s anguish. Nothing would destroy that accord, just as nothing had destroyed the love between Hilda and Nell. Only death had seemed to have that power – but love was stronger than death.

Mother Abbess struggled out of her chair and knelt by the couch. The floor seemed to be a favourite place for the pair of them! She took Hilda’s hand.

“You've found a little peace.”

Hilda’s eyes had never left the nun’s.

“Since Nell died, the darkness has been deep. Sometimes, I’ve stumbled around blindly, unable to see the way ahead. But God didn't hesitate. After Nell's death, He gave me a new light, one to hold when times are dark and I need comfort. He found you for me, Mother, you and your unconditional, transforming love.”

“Oh, daughter,” whispered Mother Abbess, her voice breaking. She felt as though she had been given another gift, one to equal Hilda’s mother's words to her tiny daughter. Hilda lifted a hand to stroke the nun’s cheek.

“Truly, God answers prayer. He sent you as a gift of light and life, when my life seemed over. He gave me this new and already beloved home. He's now given me Ellie, if she'll have me. He's given me so much, pressed down and spilling over, and yet…” She faltered, her eyes darkening.

“And yet you still cry for Nell in your heart,” replied the nun softly. “It’s Christmas, child. What did you expect? Our loved ones always come to mind at this festival, and Nell was loved so much, wasn’t she?”

Hilda’s eyes dwelt lovingly on this woman who renewed her every time, brought her new insights, gave her more comfort, yet always pointed her straight back to God – and Nell. Mother Abbess’s clear green eyes were very tender as she tried to offer solace.

“A parable for you, daughter. A butterfly alights beside us like a sunbeam as we sit quietly on a log. For a long moment, its beauty and glory belong to us, and us only. Then it flies on. Oh, how we wish it could have stayed, but we feel so lucky just to have seen it.”

Tears glimmered in Hilda’s eyes. “Glory and beauty? Oh yes, Nell brought me all that, and more,” she murmured. “Lucky? Oh, Mother, I was more than lucky she alighted close by me for so many years. I was blessed beyond telling.”

The tears slid down Hilda’s cheeks, even as her eyes shone like the brightest of stars…..


*****
Chapter 10 - Nothing is lost if offered freely by MaryR
Author's Notes:
I keep saying it, but you are all so kind. Celia, this is for you, one of those 'loyal hearts' mentioned by Hilda at the end.
Mother Abbess finally released Hilda to return to her room and make her own Christmas preparations. She had managed to eat a little under the nun's gimlet eye, and Mother sensed that, somehow, Hilda had found her way through this traumatic day better than either of them had foreseen. It even seemed to have brought her a measure of peace, which the nun hoped would carry over to Christmas morning. Hilda’s eyes were quiet now, though echoes of her anguish still lingered there.

Hilda made her way through the silent corridors, wondering about all the secret preparations that must be going on in different parts of the building. As she passed the library, Sister Patricia came out, something in her hand. She smiled in delight when she saw Hilda.

“Just the person! Are you feeling a little better now, dear?” she asked, with concern. “We've all offered up many prayers for you today.”

“Your prayers have been answered, Sister," Hilda said softly. "The day did start badly, very badly, but, somehow, it’s drawn to a peaceful end, thanks to you all.”

Sister Patricia searched her face and was reassured. She held up what she was carrying.

“I’ve finished what you asked for last night and was about to leave it in your room. I hope it’s all you imagined.”

Hilda took what the nun was proffering and looked at it, then raised her eyes in delight.

“It’s beautiful, and you’ve even framed it for me. You are truly gifted, Sister. I could never have done this.”

Sister Patricia’s smile was happy, for she had wanted to give something back to this generous woman. Hilda examined the nun’s eyes and came to a swift conclusion.

“I wonder, Sister, have you time for a few minutes conversation?”

Hilda lead the way to her room and settled the nun in the easy chair, while she herself sat on the bed. She came straight to the point.

“Sister, I’m worried you might think I’m trying to take your place in Ellie’s heart, by my actions these past few days. Nothing could be further from my thoughts. She’s your niece and I respect that.”

Sister Patricia’s eyebrows climbed into the wimple encasing her forehead as she stared into Hilda’s steady eyes. How typical of Hilda to worry about another’s feelings! She leaned forward, her own eyes very warm.

“Hilda, I don’t have a place in Ellie’s heart. I’m a nun. I was never part of her life when she was little. I scarcely saw her until her grandparents died and she spent more time over here, but she was never happy here, and my habit set me at a distance from her. So please don’t worry. I’m just glad that someone finally does have a place in her heart. She’s had no one the last couple of years, because Edward certainly did nothing for her, and I feared for her future.”

“You’d be surprised, Sister," Hilda said with great gentleness. "Ellie has genuine feelings for you. She knows you love her, that you’re family – “kissing kin” so to speak – and she clings to that. She needs to know she still has family, people to whom she belongs. We all have that need. And she's grateful for all the convent's done for her – while also resenting the need for it. She really doesn’t want to be here, does she?”

Sister Patricia shook her head. She was silent for a few moments, some interior debate clearly going on. Finally, she nodded to herself.

“No one knows this, but I asked Mother if I could leave the convent for a few years, set aside my vows temporarily, so I could make a home for Ellie until she was able to lead an independent life.”

“You would have done that for her?” Hilda asked in wonder, appreciating what a sacrifice it would have been.

“It seemed the only solution, but Mother told me to wait a while, that our prayers might yet be heard.”

“How would you have lived? The convent couldn’t have afforded to keep you.”

“No, we'd have had to depend on my art to survive.”

Hilda grimaced. The nun was a true artist, but how many succeeded in making a living from painting? She grasped the nun’s hand in sympathy. Her brother, by his criminal dishonesty, had left her a huge burden, but one she seemed willing to shoulder. Sister Patricia squeezed Hilda’s hand in response, knowing that the latter, with her uncanny gift of perception, understood it all.

“Thank you, dear. Yes, Mother refused to allow it. She had more faith and said there would be answer to prayer.” Tears stood in her eyes. “She was right. There was answer to prayer. There was you, Hilda. God could not have chosen a better person if He had searched for years. She is utterly safe with you."

“But I can’t provide a home once I enter here, even though I'll be providing funds for her upkeep. My entering will coincide with her leaving school. Yet again, she'll have nowhere, except the convent - unless I do what you were thinking, make a home for her here in England until she’s finished university.”

“You’ve done enough and more than enough. No one would ask that of you. God certainly wouldn’t. He’s answered prayer once, He’ll do so again.” She held up her han . “No, Hilda. You’re needed here, and Mother wouldn’t allow it. God wouldn’t allow it.”

Hilda was extremely moved. The call was quite clear. Indeed, it was urgent, as though God had pressing business with her. She sensed His impatience that she was delaying for so long, no matter the reason. She knew, beyond all shadow of doubt, that it was not her loneliness summoning her here. For some reason, God wanted her planted in the soil of this out-of-the-way place. She herself had no choice in the matter.

Sister Patricia continued, “As for taking her from me - you haven’t! She needed someone to love, and she found someone. She found you and your boundless, giving heart. She has given you her heart, Hilda, and I’m glad. Do you hear me? Glad she has found some happiness again, and glad she's found that happiness with such a wonderful woman, a woman of integrity and honour, who will never let her down. God has been so very gracious to her.”

Hilda swallowed the huge lump in her throat and tried to speak, but failed dismally. Sister Patricia saw her dilemma and waited. Hilda mastered herself.

“He’s been gracious to me, also, Sister, for I already love her. I’m not quite sure how it happened in such a short time….” She tried to control her tears. “Believe me, this is no one-way relationship. I receive as much – no, far more - than I give to her.”

Sister Patricia left her chair to kneel beside Hilda and put up a hand to catch the tears.

“That’s not true, but you would never be convinced, so we’ll leave it. We’re all grateful to God that He called you here. You have so much to give, both to those we help and to those of us who live here. I know you’re lonely and grieving, but we’ll try to ease that for you. We love you, Hilda.”

More tears chased each other down Hilda’s face at this heartfelt little speech, the tears Mother Abbess had wished for earlier, but which had refused to flow. How much love she had been shown during this long and difficult day! God could not have chosen a better home for her than this peaceful house of prayer and praise and abiding love, so much love.

After Sister Patricia left, Hilda remained seated for several minutes, her mind dwelling on the twists and turns of the day, thanking God for Sister Patricia’s generosity of spirit and Mother’s wisdom and compassion. Trying to thrust away the deep, persistent yearning mushrooming within, she rose and knelt at her chest of drawers to remove bags, books, paper and ribbon – only to push some of it back again and close the drawer when there came a tap at the door. She opened it, to find Ellie standing there, with company.

“I see you’re still feeling lonely.” Hilda said blandly.

“You don’t mind?”

Ellie was cuddling a small silver and grey tabby cat in her arms, while its twin ran in with tail pointing straight up in the air, and proceeded to investigate whatever the room might have to offer.

“You, Polly and Patch haven’t really given me much choice in the matter.”

Hilda closed the door and eyed the intruders. Polly had leapt from Ellie’s arms and joined her brother, who was now trying to find his way into the bags Hilda had removed from the chest of drawers.

“You seem to be on exceptionally good terms with these rapscallions.”

Ellie gazed at her sheepishly. “Not to tell anyone, but they spend the night in my room sometimes.”

“Ah!” was all Hilda vouchsafed, and the girl had the grace to blush. Hilda had no doubt whatsoever that Mother Abbess, at the very least, knew all. Nothing escaped those keen eyes. Compassion for the girl’s loneliness had clearly won out over her intense practicality. Hilda put an arm round the girl and drew her close.

“Setting aside the tiny problem of mice cavorting merrily in Sister Aiden’s kitchen, thinking all their Christmases have arrived in one fell swoop with the absence of these two, I must ask your pardon, ma petite, for falling asleep earlier.”

Ellie looked up at her mentor. “But me,I fell asleep myself, you know, until Mère sent me to dinner. Do you feel better now?”

“Oui, mon enfant, I feel much more rested. Now, to work! All your presents wrapped?”

“Certainement, both the origami for the Sisters and the gift for my aunt.”

Ellie smiled, thinking to herself of other, secret gifts she had also wrapped.

“But not the chocolates for the guests?”

“I think you have the little boxes to put them in.”

Hilda considered, then went to her many bags. After some rustling, she held up the pretty little boxes, and Ellie held up the bags of chocolates they had bought in London. They settled at the small table by the window, chatting merrily as they filled each cherub-shaped box with a few chocolates and one golden sugared almond, before sealing each one at the top with a gold star. Laying them to one side, they next considered the large carton sent on from London. They emptied it, only for the cats to take charge of it, jumping in and out like things possessed.

Ellie would have joined in the fun, but Hilda reminded her of the time. They knelt on the floor and struggled to wrap paper round the largest item, both laughing out loud as Polly joined Ellie, when she lay flat on the floor to get the red ribbon under the unwieldy parcel. Polly kept pouncing on the ends of the ribbon, playing tug of war, her little rear end wriggling in ecstasy.

“I don’t think they’ve quite honed their parcel-wrapping skills yet. Perhaps you should give them lessons at your next secret rendez-vous,” said Hilda, her face impassive.

She watched Elle tie a splendid bow, worthy of Vivien herself. “I'll need your assistance when carrying this tomorrow, young lady. I’m an agèd lady now, remember.”

Ellie wrinkled up her nose in sheer disgust, and Hilda was overtaken by a surge of deep and tender affection for the young girl. Christmases with Nell had been times of perfect sunshine, oases of merriment and contentment. Fun and frolic had never been far away when Nell was around! But never had Hilda imagined how delightful it could be to perform the same Christmas rites with a daughter, and fill the moments with love and laughter. What tender memories they brought back of her own childhood, creating these same magical moments with her mother. She saw the glow in Ellie’s face that she felt in her own heart at this tender togetherness. She knew neither of them would ever forget. There would be other happy times, but this was their first Christmas Eve and it was very special.

Bending to wrap the smaller items that had come out of the large carton, Ellie glanced up.

“You know, you are a so generous person, Madame. You have much love for people.”

Hilda touched the girl’s flushed cheek. “What else is there, ma petite, except to make life easier for others, to light up their dark and empty places?” She searched for something to help a young girl understand the concept of living for others. “An English poet named W H Auden once wrote words that I never allow myself to forget: Love each other - or perish. To live only for oneself leads to nothing but unhappiness.”

Ellie remembered Mother Abbess had told her how much she could learn from Madame. It was true! She was already learning the joy to be found in giving, something no one had ever taught her before. Although she was beginning to realise, even in her youth, that most of Madame’s giving was done in secret. She seemed to want no thanks for any of it, which puzzled the girl.

“You have assurément made my own life much easier, Madame, and brought to me so much happiness, even though you have known me but one week.”

How she wanted to stay in Madame’s presence! How she wanted to soak up the love this gentle woman was pouring on her! But what would happen once Christmas was over?

Hilda saw the sudden yearning and read Ellie's mind. Did she not understand all too well that yearning?

“We'll have plenty of time to be together, child,” she whispered, mentally knocking on wood as she tempted Providence.

They finished their wrapping, then Hilda suggested Ellie should go and change for the midnight service, then return to collect her. Ellie obediently gathered up the little boxes and made her way to the door. Before she left, Hilda held her and kissed her cheek.

“Merci, ma petite. You have made me a very happy woman by your presence here, and I've so enjoyed these last few days, getting ready for Christmas with you.”

Ellie returned the kiss with interest, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, and went on her way with her heart singing and dancing for joy. Hilda closed the door and leaned against it, eyes closed, hand clamped over trembling lips.

Nell, dear heart, did you send this beautiful girl to help me through Christmas, a very special gift? I have a Mother, and now Ellie, so why do I still weep for you?

Tears crept down her face as she leaned against the door and thought about the terrible nightmare. She was tempted to throw herself on the bed and give way to the storm that had been brewing inside her all day. But no, she had been greatly blessed. She must endure! There was less than an hour to the Midnight service. Once started weeping, she might not be able to stop in time. Rubbing the tears away, angry with herself for weakening, she wrapped the rest of her presents and hid them away. She changed her dress, brushed out her hair and pinned it back up neatly, then knelt by her bed, buried her face and asked for help to get through this holiest of nights.

A cold nose nuzzled her hand. Opening her eyes, she saw the Dietrich Bonhoeffer book which Mother Abbess had given her earlier in the week, and Polly curled up beside it. She stroked the warm little body, wrapped her arm round it and drew it close, relishing the comfort. She opened the book at the prayer which had spoken so much to her when she first read it. It encapsulated all her feelings of loneliness and grief. The cat held close to her chest, its rumbling purr of contentment reverberating through her own body, she spoke the words out loud with intense fervour:

"'O God,
Help me to pray
And to think only of You;
I cannot do this alone.

In me there is darkness
But with You there is light;
I am lonely, but You leave me not;
I am feeble of heart, but with You there is help;
I am restless, but with You there is peace;
In me there is bitterness, but with You there is patience;
Your ways are past understanding,
But You know the way for me.'"


*****

Strolling with Ellie through the hushed corridors on their way to the chapel, a little later, Hilda was at a loss to understand the girl’s suppressed excitement. It seemed more than just anticipation of the Midnight Mass of Christmas, for she was almost dancing. As they drew near the chapel, there came to their ears the soft sound of carols being sung. They turned the last corner and the doors of the chapel came into view, a gentle radiance emanating through the glass, the singing now louder and sweeter. Mother Abbess stood there, greeting everyone, guests and sisters, as they entered.

“What a lovely gesture!” Hilda thought.

They drew nearer. Hilda saw what was standing beside the nun and stopped abruptly, with a loud gasp. Mother Abbess heard and turned her head, her penetrating gaze flying to Hilda’s face. She moved forward on the instant, but Hilda ignored her and crept on shaking legs to the doors, her lips trembling, but a dawning hope in her eyes. She recalled Ellie letting out a secret – and here it was in all its glory. How Mother Abbess cared!

A delicate cloth, seemingly woven from golden cobwebs, had been draped over a small table set between the chapel doors, and on this cloth stood a tall, shimmering, green vase. Rising out of it were bare branches sprayed with gold, branches Hilda now realised Ellie and others must have collected while she herself slept. Hanging from those branches, in all their exquisite simplicity, were the wooden decorations she had offered to Mother that day, their beauty displayed for all to see and enjoy.

Her eyes devoured the treasures she had long ago presented to Nell, the ornaments which held so many memories: she and Nell decorating the tree, she and Nell setting off to Midnight Mass, she and Nell opening the gifts they had laid underneath those ornaments, she and Nell glorying in their friendship….

Miracles still happened – courtesy of Mother Abbess! Lost in a world of her own, her face rapt, Hilda put out a hand to her very first purchase, the little star, and set it spinning. A snowflake and a pastel-coloured crib were next to be set twirling. Her hungry eyes feasted on them all and came to rest on the carved chest, there beside the vase for all to admire. She stroked the carvings with A tender hand, and opened the lid to inhaled the faint spicy fragrance.

Overcome, she let the lid fall and covered her eyes, as the tears finally brimmed over. Loving arms were instantly wrapped round her and she leaned into the comfort. It was too much!

“You haven’t lost them, child, neither these nor your ring. You’re just sharing their beauty with a wider audience. The gifts we offer to God are never wasted, for God wastes nothing, nothing at all. Nell sees – and sends you love and joy and hope.”

Mother’s whispered words soaked into her heart as she felt other arms being wrapped round her. Lowering her hand, she looked into Ellie’s anxious sapphire eyes.

“Did we do right, Madame?”

Hilda kissed her. “Very right, little one,” she murmured.

Raising her eyes she saw Sister Patricia behind Ellie and laid a hand on the nun’s arm. “Thank you so much,” she whispered, her heart laid bare for all to see.

Sister Patricia nodded, satisfied, before entering the chapel. Hilda turned her head to look into the green eyes of the woman whose motherly love had organised this little Christmas miracle of hope. Hilda’s tear-filled eyes were a tender, shining blue. How to repay such love?

Her rich, mellow voice did it for her:

"'Loyal hearts can change the face of Sorrow,
Softly encircle it with love’s most gentle
Unearthly radiance.'"

Bonhoeffer

That gentle unearthly radiance carried Hilda into the candlelit chapel, where she knelt with Ellie to offer her thanks for all the tender care being showered on her.

******
Chapter 11 - An Untrammelled Spirit by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Thank you for the generous reviews.
Loyal hearts can change the face of Sorrow,
Softly encircle it with love’s most gentle
Unearthly radiance.
(Bonhoeffer)


That gentle, unearthly radiance carried Hilda into the candlelit chapel, where she knelt with Ellie to offer her thanks for all the tender care being showered on her. The choir began to sing the Gregorian chant Veni Redemptor Gentium (Come, Thou Redeemer of the earth), and it soothed and calmed her, enabling her to lift her head and absorb the splendid raiment now adorning the chapel, since the austerity of Advent was over and Christmas upon them. Her eyes feasted on the beautiful flowers spilling their fragrance and beauty into the warm air. All this would soon be an integral part of her life, offering wholeness in the midst of her brokenness.

Honey-coloured beeswax candles stood tall on altar and window sills, scenting the air with fragrance, their carved silver holders gleaming. The candles’ flickering flames illumined the dimness of the chapel, imbuing it with an incredible, shifting brilliance, casting dancing shadows on the wood-panelled walls and stretching long fingers of radiance up into the high, beamed ceiling. The grace of light…

The singing ceased. A hushed quiet fell. The silence lingered, expectant, then the organ pealed out joyfully, the triumphant swell of Adeste Fideles filling the chapel. The bells inside and out now joined singing with powerful accents to ring out news of the Saviour’s birth, the everlasting symbol of joy and hope.

Hilda and Ellie left their places and walked slowly to the altar, where they turned to face the congregation, Hilda’s hand imparting courage to the girl. The singing transmuted to gentle humming. The organ notes softened. Hilda’s tender eyes moved from one shining face to another as her rich, melodious voice reached to the furthest, darkest corners:

December 25th

The darkest time of the year,
The poorest place in the town,
Cold, and in a taste of fear,
Man and woman alone.
What can we hope for here?

More light than we can learn,
More wealth than we can treasure,
More love than we can earn,
More peace than we can measure,
Because one child is born.

(Christopher Fry)

The sweet echoes of her mellow voice faded. Organ and voices joined once more in exultation as the triumphant last verse rang out:

Yea, Lord, we greet Thee/ Born this happy morning.

Ellie left Hilda’s side to kneel in front of the wooden crèche and place the bambino in the manger next to His mother. She stayed there a moment, on her face an expression of awe and joy at being part of this beauteous, ageless ritual, before allowing Hilda to draw her to her feet. Hilda’s arm lay protectively round Ellie’s shoulder as they returned to their pew. Hilda’s eyes met Mother's in a moment of loving communication.

Why, they belong together, thought the nun, moved to tears by their closeness. She looked at the bambino, inundated by a great surge of gratitude and peace. God was in charge and all would be well.

The singing faded, people settled in their seats, and the age-old message rang out in the celebrant's clear voice:

Today a Saviour has been born to you….

Hilda let the timeless yet familiar Gospel story wrap itself round her, a beacon of light and hope in a world that seemed made of fragile peace and broken promises. Beside her, Ellie was overcome by the beauty of the chapel and the music, which opened up her hungry young heart to listen more carefully to the age-old message of God’s love for the world. It sounded new and fresh to her this very special Christmas night, for she had found someone who knew how to love, who seemed to understand what a young heart needed, who seemed to reach out and gentle her sadness. She tucked her hand in Hilda’s, in a moment of sheer happiness. The latter grasped it warmly, even while she followed the unfolding drama on the altar.

Who could say where her thoughts had fled? Who was there to notice the soft sheen of tears in her eyes?

The Celebrant’s words challenged the congregation: “Unto you this night a King has been born, a King of love and mercy, of salvation and understanding, a King who will bind up your wounds, take away your sorrows, who asks you only to, ‘Follow Me.’ He waits for you in the manger. Will you not see?”

His words resonated deep in Hilda's heart. She thought about her vow two months ago, when she heard that soft Voice telling her:

The light of my glory will shine on you. Your days of grief will come to an end.

She had promised she would follow Him, but she had let Him down these last weeks, failed in her vow. Now, He was yet again reminding her that it was He, Love Himself, who would tend and heal her. Would He ever forgive her? Why had she let the accident destroy her new-found joy?

Her thoughts swirled round chaotically, seeing the candles and flowers through a shimmering haze of tears. The singing of Silent Night faded into a soft, distant beauty. Without warning, the beloved contralto voice spoke in the quietness of her aching heart for the first time since her accident.

Oh, dear girl, how dark the days and nights have been for you, so dark I couldn’t find a way in, for you had shuttered your heart. At last a little light has now crept through that chink in your armour, a chink opened up by your friend and Ellie. Let me open it wider for you. I want you to find the book you bought for Ellie, and read what Christopher Robin said to Winnie the Pooh when they worried about parting from each other, words I reminded you of a few years ago when you were scared at the thought of losing me. Believe those words, lovely girl. They’re as true for us now as they were then.

“Oh, Nell,” Ellie heard Hilda whisper.

Turning her head, she saw Hilda's face buried in her hands, hands which were shaking uncontrollably.

I will always be with you. I haven't left your side for one moment. In the midst of my own joy, I've yearned to pierce your darkness. I've grieved over your sadness and loneliness. Rejoice, my lamb. “The Word has been made flesh….”

Tremors ran the length of her body. Heart and spirit strained to catch and keep the echo of the beloved voice and those words. Alas, the gossamer veil could only lift so far. It drifted back into place. The beloved presence was gone. But not the words, and never the love. They lodged in her heart, whispering grace notes of hope, and light, and life. Nell was given back to her this holy night, a night she had been so afraid to face alone. Nell’s face was before her, Nell’s courage and vitality a force within, infusing her with strength and overflowing gratitude.

A tiny bell sang out, summoning them to partake of the Eucharist. Hilda lifted her head dazedly, returning to the reality of the chapel. Or was this the dream and Nell the reality? She smiled at Ellie, but to Ellie that smile hurt, for it was inexpressibly heartrending. In her youth she could not have said why, but she wanted to weep. They returned to their places and knelt to give thanks. Peace fell on the chapel, the organ murmuring gently.

In that quietness, Ellie felt Hilda flinch beside her, as though she had been struck. She heard a gasp, as though drenched by cold water. Putting out a hand, Ellie touched Hilda’s arm. It was rigid. Her face was once more hidden, but the hands were now still. Hilda was immobile, turned to stone. Terror took hold of Ellie. What could she do?

She sat there frozen, scared to go to anyone for help, and not really understanding why she would need it. The last carol drew to a close. The celebrant made his exit. As though warmed back into life by the candlelight, Hilda lowered her hands, but her face was pale, mask-like, her eyes focused on the crib figures to the exclusion of all else. Ellie was too scared to touch her again. The organ played on softly. Sisters and visitors got up to leave. Ellie reached out to catch her aunt’s arm as she passed. Sister Patricia stopped, wondering what was wrong, but when then saw Hilda’s face, as carved and still as any plaster effigy.

Not the moment to intrude! She took Ellie’s arm and drew her out of the pew.

“We’ll give her a little peace, shall we? Come along and join the others for a drink.”

She led Ellie out, the girl turning for one last frightened look before she followed her aunt to the sitting room where the Abbess had arranged for drinks and mince pies to be served, a little feast before bed.

Mother herself, bringing up the rear, paused by the pew and frowned, but Hilda was too far away to notice. What was going on there, wondered the nun. Some sixth sense warned her to leave Hilda alone for now. Interfering might do more harm than good. She would return a little later, if Hilda did not appear in the sitting room.

The organ faded away. Only a fragrant silence remained. The organist descended to extinguish the candles but, after a quick glance at the motionless figure, left two of the larger candles alight, before making her own exit, her robes whispering in the silence. The stillness was now extreme in the chapel. No sound, no movement disturbed the air. Did someone still breathe there? Was someone still praying? Were other presences hovering, ready to comfort and uphold?

Suddenly, shockingly, the intense silence was torn apart by a loud sigh, almost a groan, and in the dim sweetness a rustle was heard, as Hilda came back to herself. Turning her head she realised she was alone. How long had she been lost in that other, colder sphere, where breathing had been difficult, and the demands made on her harsh and insistent? To have been so consoled, then stripped and laid bare…

Exhausted, her brain bruised and numb, she rose and left the pew. On her way out through the chapel doors, she paused to touch the decorations. Catching sight of the little crib as it swung on its branch, she thought of the bambino tucked away in her drawer. With one last, lingering glance she turned away.

“Look after them for me, Nell,” she whispered, and found her way, more by good luck than judgement, to her own room, distantly aware of chatter and laughter coming from the sitting room.

Bambino in hand, she left her room and padded through the dim corridors, nothing coherent in her mind, just an urgent need for the baby to reach his mother. What she would do after that, she had no idea. However, help was at hand. Turning a corner, she walked straight into Sister Infirmarian, returning from checking on her patients. With an exclamation, the nun steadied herself and Hilda, but drew back in alarm when she saw the blind look in Hilda’s eyes. This woman scarcely knew where she was, never mind who was with her! The nun took her arm, steered her to the Office and ushered her inside.

“I’ll send Mother. Wait here. Make yourself comfortable.”

When Mother Abbess opened the door less than five minutes later, she was surprised to find her room in almost total darkness. The fire burned very low, for she had damped it down before making her way to the chapel. Her eyes searched the dimness, but there seemed no sign of Hilda. Switching on the little lamp on her desk, she moved round the couch to poke the fire, and found her! She knelt on the floor, face buried in the crook of one arm on the low table beside the crib figures. The other arm was stretched out, the bambino clutched tightly in her hand. She neither moved nor spoke.

Mother Abbess took in the air of complete abandonment and her heart quailed. What to do? Was Hilda even aware she was there? Gnawing her lip, uncharacteristically indecisive, she shook herself. The first necessity was more warmth. She removed the fire-guard, poked the embers, took a few sticks from the basket beside and waited until they caught alight. Replacing the guard, she knelt across the table from Hilda, her hand edging out to stroke the loosened brown hair with infinite gentleness.

Like a doe ready to run, Hilda’s slender frame quivered at the touch. Mother Abbess’s hand stilled. With obvious effort, Hilda raised her head and the nun saw the ravaged face. So! The tears had come, cascading down her cheeks in great torrents and blinding her. How Mother Abbess yearned to gather her wounded daughter in her arms, but she didn’t have the courage. What sorrow was here! Such a painful contrast to the merriment in the sitting room. Her hand moved to cup the wet cheek, but Hilda shook her head and lowered her face into her arm again, body rigid with her attempt to control her tears.

“Give in to it, Hilda! It’s been there all day, brewing up a storm.”

Hilda’s stiff body relaxed at being given permission. She wept softly in the dimly-lit room, and tears pricked the nun’s own eyes. But wait! Her keen perceptions awoke. This was not grief! Or not just grief, despite the trauma of the day. Something else was happening.

“Hilda?” she whispered, trying to penetrate the mists.

Between the sobs, distorted words floated up. “I’m so ashamed. Will He ever forgive me?”

“Daughter, the Lord will forgive anything, anything at all, if you're truly repentant. But why do you think you need forgiveness?”

Hilda lifted her head again, her face disfigured by all the weeping. She opened her far-flung hand to gaze at the bambino lying within.

“Three times,” she whispered, sobs catching in her voice, “three times now I have had a tremor of bliss, a wink of heaven.”

“Three times?” Mother Abbess guessed instantly what she meant. God’s Spirit had, indeed, been abroad this Christmas night. Hilda’s eyes remained glued on the wooden figure.

“Nell came back to me tonight, Mother. My own Nell! Not the one in the nightmares! And I rejoiced for long, golden minutes. But I didn’t deserve it!” She looked up, her eyes full of sorrow, regret, shame. “Did I not promise to cling to Him twice before, when He spoke to me? Did He not tell me to trust?”

“Oh, dear child!” breathed Mother Abbess, her heart aching. “You were doing exactly that, but shock and physical pain have done their worst. There is no blame.”

She stated the last few words clearly and distinctly, but Hilda still stared at the bambino. She closed her eyes, bowed her head to her chest.

“Oh yes, there's blame. I betrayed Him, Mother. He was harsher tonight, despite His loving words. He showed me what life would be like if I wandered away from Him and stopped trusting. It would be a harsh, featureless plain where all hope had fled. He showed me the depths of my self-pity. How could He have been gracious enough to speak to me a third time like this?”

Mother Abbess reached out a trembling hand and tilted Hilda’s head up until drowned grey eyes were forced to meet compelling green ones.

“My child, there was never any self-pity. You’re too hard on yourself, as always. He came only because He loves you, and knows you love Him. Tell me,” she commanded. “Tell me what He said.”

“The self-same words as before. How much clearer can He make Himself? Am I so deaf? 'My grace is sufficient for you.' How many times do I myself remind people of those very words?” Hilda groaned. “Then to ignore them myself, at my peril. He told me:

"'I will dry your eyes and be your light… You are My beloved. Wait and see what I will do through you.'

Mother Abbess moved once more to cup the damp cheek. Hilda yielded to the comfort this time, but spoke slowly, despairingly.

“I made a vow to lean on Him. I promised to be a channel of His love for others. I felt His joy flow through me. But I let it all trickle away…”

Her voice broke, and she shook her head, as though in disbelief at her stupidity and lack of faith. Mother Abbess replied with tender severity.

“You never once let it trickle away. You've broken no promise, not a one. Every day – every day, Hilda – you become more of a channel of God’s grace and love. Ellie and I and countless others can testify to that. The only thing you lost was your joy, and who can blame you? I certainly couldn’t.”

She paused. She had no choice. The very intensity of Hilda’s gaze was undoing her. How could this sensitive, loving, generous woman ever think she failed anyone?

Help me, Lord. You’ve done Your bit, but she's so hard on herself. Give me something, anything, to remove this terrible remorse before it kills her.

The fire chattered softly. Rosy shadows curtseyed and swayed on the panelled walls. Hilda continued to stare into the nun’s eyes, as though only she could rid her of this awful burden. Tears ceased falling down the haggard cheeks. She was waiting, hoping….

Mother Abbess smiled into those sombre eyes. This should shake her!

“If I were a Catholic, love, I'd call you a saint.”

Hilda’s eyes widened in shock. It was certainly not what she had been expecting.

“A saint?” she whispered. “Believe me, Mother, I have far too many faults. You just heard….”

Mother Abbess interrupted her. “Hilda, we all have faults and failings, we’re all frail, even the saints. Do you think they found it easy to trust, to follow where He would lead them? Look at Saint Peter, impatient and quick-tempered - neither of which fault could ever be laid at your door. You talk about betrayal. Did not Peter three times deny he even knew the Lord? And that after three years of close friendship! Pure cowardice! Some-thing else that could never not be laid at your door.”

She paused again, praying for more help. Her words were having an effect. Some light was creeping back into the anguished eyes.

“All of us, even the saints, are in constant need of immersing our broken selves in the fire of God’s extravagantly forgiving love.” She saw with satisfaction a little more light creep in, but where her next words came from, she never knew. “Tell me, child, what was His voice like? I will tell you, one day, why I ask.”

For a long, uncertain moment she thought Hilda would refuse to answer. Those eyes were still searching her face, still looking for answers. Then, like a sudden shaft of sunlight in a darkened room, a smile of such radiance transfigured Hilda’s face that Mother Abbess almost cowered before its brightness.

"'…… His voice
Hovered on memory with open wings
And drew itself up from a chine of silence,
As though it had lain long time in a vein of gold.'"*

(Christopher Fry)

A charged silence filled the room as the melodious tones faded away. Mother Abbess knelt there, transfixed.

Hilda whispered, in awe, “It was a voice that made me want to weep - not from pain, but from peace.”

Something happened, then, that the nun was never to forget. Like the dawning rosiness of the new day, the beautiful radiance crept from Hilda’s face into her eyes, turning despair to hope, sorrow to joy. Into that radiance stole a deep, sweet solemnity. She stared into the fire, her spirit no longer penned inside that panelled room, but roaming God’s vast, star-filled spaces, silken hair blowing behind her in the heavenly winds. Would the return to earth be too much of a shock?

Haunted by the feeling that this was too private to watch, Mother Abbess closed her eyes and prayed, until a light touch on her cheek roused her. Opening her eyes, she saw the return to earth had been no shock at all. She should have known better! This was a woman who understood all too well that one cannot remain forever in the rarefied atmosphere of the mountain tops; a woman who understood one can only truly live and breathe in the valleys. Hilda smiled, a smile that was exalted, grave and peaceful, all remorse gone, and in her eyes…

Mother Abbess gasped. There was the joy she had so longed to see, that other-worldliness spoken about by Gwynneth and Nancy. Once more she was bereft of words. That smile of sweet solemnity stole across Hilda’s face. She placed the bambino beside His mother, reached across and held her friend’s hands.

“I don’t need to feel shame, do I?” she whispered. The nun shook her head, silenced by awe. “He loves me, and Nell still loves me, and all that is enough, and more than enough. Has anyone before received such a precious Christmas gift? To be blessed like this a third time…. “

Mother Abbess found her voice, albeit a husky one.

“I've asked Him so many times to lighten your darkness since the accident. I should have trusted more.”

Hilda’s face shone with her love for this compassionate woman before her.

“As should I, Mother, as should I. And yet, my sorrow is still there, side by side with my joy. I don’t feel jolly or want to sing. I just feel… serene, quiet, solemn.”

“You’re right, child. Montaigne wrote long ago,

"'The most profound joy has more of gravity than of gaiety in it'".
"It settles silently in the heart, assuring you God loves you, will never leave you, is there for you when you weep, as you still will on occasions. But joy also insists you face life’s journey with fortitude, stooping to lift others as they stumble. True joy can be infinitely painful, daughter.”

She forced herself to stop speaking, for words were an intrusion. Gazing into Hilda’s radiant eyes Mother, Abbess knew she was treading on holy ground, that there were burning bushes all around.



******
End Notes:
*Those lines come from the play, The Boy With The Cart, by Christopher Fry. A play I once acted in at school.
Chapter 12 - Christmas Morning by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Only a short chapter tonight, to thank you for all the kind words.
Hilda’s rapture during the morning service of Christmas Day was so profound that at first the spoken words went unheard. It was a gentle, peaceful service, with none of the triumph and glory of the Midnight Mass, but it suited her present state admirably. She had slept little during the night, spending the time in trembling prayer and praise, and had sped here on winged feet, eager to be once more in His presence, pausing only to spend a long moment with the wooden ornaments.

Despite the severe headache assaulting her senses, her eyes held that luminous other-worldliness, her sensitive face tinged the faintest of pinks, her vulnerable lips hovering on the edge of a smile. Morning sunshine poured molten gold through the tall, stained-glass windows, scattering patches of rainbow light on pews and people, warming both body and spirit.

She pictured the A A Milne book mentioned by Nell during the Midnight Service, opened the page in her mind and read the words Nell had spoken to her a few years ago, on le Puy de Dôme in the Auvergne:

If ever there is a tomorrow when we’re not together, there is something you must always remember: you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think, but the most important thing is, even if we are apart, I’ll always be with you.

Hilda could feel a wave of tenderness reaching out from faraway, yet very near, almost too sweet and powerful to be endured. Was it God? Or Nell? Did it matter? Her joy ran unfettered and she renewed her vow to trace the rainbow through the rain. Once more she gave Nell back to Him. He was God, and in Him she would live and move and have her being. She would let the remainder of her life be a love song to Him.

Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.*


She knew there would be days, weeks, months, when she would have to will the peace and joy that were hers this day; knew it would be all too easy to lose them again. She must not let that happen, no matter what life threw at her. She was not yet done with grief. It still had its sharp claws and teeth in her. She knew God’s boundless, forgiving love, but she also knew how lonely she would always be for Nell. But she had her memories and must never let them go. She thought of Mother Abbess’s words a few short hours ago:

“'Remembering, it seems to me, is a kind of stepping outside the limits of time, to bring into the here and now a reality that was once experienced as lovely, life-giving and so wonderfully worthwhile. At the hour of their happening, those events might not have been grasped as such, but recalling them can give so much comfort, can give them the added lustre they deserve.'”

Memories! Meeting Nell for the first time; long walks in the early morning light in Austria; a Head Girl toppling on Nell from a great height; a coach accident forging a new closeness; skiing together in Switzerland; a dressing gown and a fire in Nell’s cottage; sitting side by side on a cruise ship enjoying the sunset; a talk of retirement in Hyde Park; a balloon flight in the Auvergne. So many memories! So much to treasure! What a very full life they had had. There was so very, very much for which to be grateful.

Oh Nell, dear heart, in truth might morning angels sing that we were there, and are together yet, and will be still.

She was brought back to reality by a gentle harmony, as the nuns sang Corde Natus ex Parentis by Prudentius in the 4th Century. She rose to her feet with the rest of the congregation and thrilled to the sweet sounds, while remaining mute. They knelt again, and there was only sunlight, enhanced by silence and flowers. Her glowing eyes lingered on the Christmas roses revealing their quiet beauty to all, now they were no longer overshadowed by the brilliance of the tall candles.

The flower so small, whose sweet fragrance fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendour the darkness everywhere.

(from a 15th century poem)

She revelled in their loveliness, all her senses heightened. The legend attached to this little rose came to mind. When the Magi laid their offerings of myrrh, frankincense and gold by the bed of the sleeping Christ Child, a shepherd maiden stood outside the door in despair. She, too, had searched for the Child. She, too, desired to bring Him gifts. Alas, she was poor, and had nothing to offer. In vain, she wandered the countryside looking for even one little flower she might bring, but the winter had been cold and harsh and there was nothing. Saddened beyond bearing, she stood there, weeping. An angel passing overhead saw her sorrow and came down to offer her comfort. Stooping, he brushed aside the snow at her feet, and there sprang up a cluster of winter roses, waxen white with pink-tipped petals.

“Nor myrrh, nor frankincense, nor gold,” said the angel, “is offering more meet for the Christ Child than these pure Christmas roses.”

Joyfully, Madelon gathered the flowers and went to worship the Holy Child, laying at His feet the gifts of her heart and of her tears.

Hilda’s lips trembled into a smile. In the winter of her grief, He had made sweet flowers bloom for her, too - Mother Abbess, Ellie, her new dream. Were they not flowers of the rarest, blossoms the fairest? And what about the generous people who cared that she be healed - Gwynneth, Ian, Nancy, Vivien, Madge and many others? Here in this sun-drenched, peaceful place, like the young Madelon, she laid them all at the feet of the bambino, asking His blessing on them. Were they not all His anyway? She was only borrowing them for a while, as she had borrowed Nell for long, happy years.

Even as she made her offering, she felt once more that urgent little tug on her heart, that little voice asking why she was delaying. She had a fleeting sense that if she waited too long, this peaceful place might never be hers. As she wrestled with this, her eyes alighted on her friend, as she led her Sisters out of the chapel. Hilda was stunned. Never had she seen such a look on that lined and kindly countenance. Mother Abbess’s face was sombre, her gaze inward. She was not in that chapel at all. Hilda stared. What had she been missing?

Mother Abbess herself was unaware her face had betrayed her. Standing ready to say grace in the dining room, she watched in amusement as nuns and guests discovered small gifts beside their plates. She had already found her own and guessed the donors! She said grace, then waited until everyone had settled. Her eyes were drawn to Hilda and saw the anxiety in her face. Hilda raised her eyebrows IN questioN. So! She had given herself away! To Hilda, at least! Her sensitivity and perception heightened by grief, and perhaps also by the emotional turmoil of the midnight hour, Hilda had noticed what countless others missed. Why did that not surprise her?

Mother Abbess nodded. Hilda understood and smiled. She could wait.The nun shook herself, focusing on the room.

“You'll have noticed Father Christmas dropped in while we were at our prayers. I see he left his two little helpers behind, so you may thank them.”

She grinned at Ellie’s delighted smile, and laughed outright when Hilda raised one hand to her face, pointing behind it to Ellie with the other, grimacing the while.

There were murmurs of appreciation from all corners when the guests discovered the chocolates in their pretty cherub boxes, and the Sisters opened their flat little parcels. Out of the latter came angels, doves, stars, shepherd boys and kings in many colours and guises. Ellie and Hilda went round from table to table, showing the nuns how to open up the folded paper, so that the flat, two-dimensional shapes became three-dimensional models capable of standing on their own. Excitement ran round the room as guests and Sisters admired and exclaimed over these little marvels.

Mother Abbess opened her own parcel, which was a little larger than the others, and out fell an angel. With Ellie’s help she opened it out and stared, awestruck. It was a miracle of loveliness. Its gown was made of white velvety paper, its wings golden and feathery, its arms held out wide as though to embrace the world, and tiny, iridescent stars tumbled from each hand. How on earth had Vivien done it? She heard an amused whisper in her ear.

“Vivien made that one to my specific orders. A special angel for a very special person. My special angel!”

The nun swallowed an enormous lump. “Hilda, it’s exquisite. Please thank Vivien for me.” She met Hilda’s steady, inquiring gaze. “Eleven o’clock, my office,” she whispered, before her eye was caught by Ellie. “Um, I think there’s a surprise there for you as well, since you're Ellie’s special angel.”

Hilda gripped her arm and moved across to her own place, where Ellie was waiting with a broad grin on her face. There was, indeed, a parcel there. Hilda was stunned into silence as Ellie helped her open it out. Not one, but two angels were revealed, one with brown hair and blue eyes, the other with white hair and grey eyes, their hair bound with sparkling silver stars. Mother Abbess hurried over, wondering what was amiss, and gasped at what she saw.

The brown haired angel wore a gown of deep rose pink, the white-haired one's a luminescent pale green. Their wings soared behind them, softly shimmering, rainbow-hued. They each had one hand outstretched, on which rested a dove of the purest white. Their other hands were clasped, and stars fell in a silver stream to curl round the hem of their gowns. The angels were a foot high, and exquisitely beautiful, their expressions peaceful and loving.

Ellie saw tears gathering in Hilda’s eyes, and the stunned expression on the Abbess’s face, and was frightened.

“Do you not like it, Madame?” she whispered.

Hilda drew her close with trembling hands. “Like it? Oh, ma petite, it is beautiful beyond all telling. You and Miss Knowles have given me a very special blessing this day.”

Ellie pressed even closer as Hilda closed her eyes over her tears. Nell had been so very present these last few hours, renewing her spirit and warming her heart. She felt Mother Abbess clasp her other hand reassuringly.

Her past and her future meeting in the present. The friend she had lost, standing alongside the new home and family she had gained, all bound together, as one, on this very blessèd Christmas morn.




******
End Notes:
* from a hymn by Frances Havergal
Chapter 13 - Mother Abbess Tells her Tale by MaryR
Author's Notes:
An awfully long piece for you tonight.....
Eleven o’clock! Hilda tapped gently on the Office door but received no reply, so slipped through the door. Mother Abbess was standing at the window, staring out into the bare, wintry garden and giving no indication that she sensed anyone’s presence. Placing a small package on the desk, Hilda moved over to stand beside the nun, careful not to startle her.

Mother Abbess gave a soft sigh. “Hilda...” was all she said, her sweet voice very sad.

“Come and sit down. We can just be quiet together if you don’t want to talk, but you shouldn't be alone.”

“How they will miss that gentleness and perception of yours when you leave school,” the nun said tangentially, allowing herself to be settled on the couch.

Hilda sat at her feet, a favourite place of hers now, and took the cold hands in her warm ones, searching the strong, kindly face.

“I’ve never seen you like this. Christmas Day is not a good day for you, is it? How on earth were you able to comfort and uphold me the last few nights, feeling as you obviously do?”

Mother Abbess looked down into the gentle eyes.

“You're a beloved daughter, and were in desperate need. Strange as it may seem, the joy you’ve re-discovered is helping me.” She gave a glimmer of a smile. “Do you know, child, you’re the first person ever to notice what Christmas Day does to me, yet I’ve been here a good many years. I know you’re very perceptive, but I have to ask myself if I wanted you to know, and so allowed you a glimpse inside?”

“You don’t have to tell me, but, if it would help, I would do my utmost to support you.”

Mother Abbess’s tender hands cupped Hilda’s wan face.

“You help me by the very love you give me, child, and I think, after all that's developing between us, I’d like to reveal myself to you. Only two people ever knew, here in the Convent. Pauline, who entered at the same time, was a tower of strength in our noviciate…. What?”

“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” Hilda took the nun’s hands in hers again.

Mother Abbess chuckled. “Ah yes, you and your prescience. Only the sick ever see beneath that brusqueness of hers, and even then not all of them.” She turned to stare into the fire. “The only other person who knew was my Abbess. She refused to tell the Mistress of Novices, simply insisting that when things got too bad I was to go straight to her. She was the one who taught me that slavishly following the rules is wrong.”

Silence fell. She went on staring into the flames. Hilda waited as patiently as she ever did for a child or mistress who needed time and space. The logs settled in the fire, the wooden panelling creaked, footsteps could be heard moving past the door.

Mother Abbess turned to Hilda and asked abruptly, “What were you doing the Christmas of 1931, sweetheart?”

Hilda blinked in shock. “That was the year I lost James. I was twenty-seven. I don’t remember very much about it.”

“So! We have that in common, as well. I was thirty - and pregnant, very pregnant.”

Hilda’s eyes widened. She clasped the nun’s hands more firmly. Mother Abbess looked away again, and one sensed she had left that peaceful room.

“We lived in Edinburgh, had a beautiful house on the Royal Mile. Stephen came from money and my parents were well-to-do. Money can’t buy everything, of course, no matter what they tell you. The one thing we really wanted seemed beyond us. We’d been married several years and loved children, but I had three miscarriages in as many years. I was beginning to despair and then, unbelievably, this little one seemed determined to cling to life. We were ecstatic, and more in love than ever…”

Her voice broke. She looked down at their clasped hands. Hilda loosened one hand and stroked the lined cheek.

“You can stop any time. You don’t have to do this.”

Mother Abbess lifted her head and saw the deep compassion in Hilda’s eyes.

“Oh, I think I do, for all sorts of reasons.”

She took a deep breath, a diver about to plunge into dangerous waters.

“Usually, we went to the Midnight Service on Christmas Eve, but, being eight months pregnant, I needed a lot of rest, so we went to the Morning one instead. When we got back, Stephen sent me into the sitting room, telling me to put my feet up and he'd bring breakfast. We'd let the servants go home for the holiday and were on our own.”

Her gaze was once more fixed on the flames in the hearth, but Hilda wondered if she saw them. Her hands were gripping Hilda’s hard, and the latter had to force herself to keep still and not wince.

“Lying there on the couch, I looked at the shining tree and thought how wonderful it would be the following Christmas, with presents for the little one piled up there, Stephen playing the proud father. He was so excited about this baby.” Her hands gripped even harder. “That was when I heard the shot.”

“The shot?”

“It didn’t dawn on me at first what the noise was, but then I heard another. Oh, I knew the sound of gunfire. My father kept guns, and used to take me shooting. It was how I met Stephen.”

“So that was why…”

“Why I was so shaken the day that boy climbed over the wall?” Mother Abbess nodded, her voice and face distant. “It took me straight back thirty years. I had no courage and left it all to you.”

“You had plenty of courage. We’re still here, aren’t we? You were the one who took action – with your paperweight.”

Hilda squeezed the cold hand and waited, but Mother Abbess simply went on staring down at their joined hands.

Hilda pushed her. “What did you do after the second shot?”

Mother Abbess laughed mirthlessly. “The stupidest thing ever! Why on earth didn’t I think about my baby? I levered myself off that damn couch and went through the door into the hall, and saw…” She freed one hand and lifted it to cover her eyes. “Stephen was lying in the doorway to his office - a huge pool of blood all around him… It kept growing and spreading. A man was standing over him, pointing a gun down at him...”

She swallowed, licked her lips, tried to continue but nothing emerged. Her hand fell away from her eyes. She looked into the fire, licked her lips again and went on with the horrific tale, voice quivering with emotion.

“I don’t think I’d really taken in what was happening. I ignored what all my senses were screaming at me and started to walk towards them. The man heard me and turned his head, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to be with Stephen. I was no more than halfway there when he pointed the gun at me, and fired.”

She heard Hilda’s gasp of horror but was in full flow now.

“At first, I was unaware of pain, even when I found myself lying on the floor. I don’t remember falling. When I looked up, he was standing over me, gun at the ready - but he didn’t shoot again, which had clearly been his intention. He was staring down at my stomach. You couldn’t really miss it, after all!” she laughed harshly. “I waited for the shot that would kill me, wondering if I would feel it. But... he looked me straight in the eye, like he was trying to tell me something, then just ran off through the front door.”

“Why didn’t he shoot?”

Hilda was beginning to have an inkling. Mother Abbess looked into the stunned eyes, anguish in her own.

“I loved my unborn baby, Hilda. I would have protected her from anything, given my life for her, but, in the end, it was my wee bairn who protected me. She gave her life for mine. That man shot me in the stomach. He shot my child. Was that why he ran?”

Her voice trailed away. Horror in her heart, Hilda rose to her knees and put her arms round her friend. She rocked her, just as the nun had rocked her, times without number. How did you recover from something so terrible? Why had she thought her own heart broken?

“I’m okay, love. You can let me go.” Hilda pulled back a little, and looked into the green eyes. “Talking about it after all this time has made me live it again, but, like your James, it was all a long time ago. It's become an ache in the heart, not the great, gaping wound it once was. Thirty years is plenty of time to heal.”

“Not so, Mother. To lose a baby, a much-wanted baby, in such circumstances. How do you recover from such a thing?”

“You don’t, sweetheart. You know that yourself. The ache in the heart remains, but you somehow make it part of yourself, of your spirit, and find a way to go on living – which is more than I wanted to do as I lay there that day.”

Her green eyes grew very dark, and Hilda was concerned.

“Give yourself some time.” She settled back on the floor, her hands round the nun’s. “This is torture for you.”

Mother Abbess shook her head. “Not any more, child. One day, not so very long now, I'll see them again. I know that now. But lying there that day on that cold floor, that was torture, of the worst kind. I tried to move closer to Stephen, but I seemed glued to that spot. I whispered his name, stretched out my hand, and he turned his head. He smiled. Dear God, Hilda, he smiled at me with so much love!”

Hilda put up her hand to cup the soft cheek of her friend. Mother Abbess leaned into the comfort.

“I watched the love fade as life left him, and I screamed out to God to let me die, too, that He couldn’t leave me there all alone, without my man and my bairn. May He forgive me for that, some day.”

“He understood,” whispered Hilda, her heart almost breaking. “Did He not watch His own Son die? I would have felt exactly the same, did feel exactly the same. Three times! You were badly injured, had just watched your husband die, knew your baby was dead. How else should you feel?” There was no answer to such a question, as she well knew. “How on earth did you survive? You said there was no one else in the house.”

“One of life’s little ironies! I could see my own blood, my wee bairn’s blood, pumping out onto the floor and I thought God had answered my cry. I would die there beside Stephen, along with our bairn. I lost consciousness in the end, and knew nothing more until I woke up in hospital. How did I get there? My father had been due to come for Christmas lunch, but decided, though he never knew why, to come earlier. He found the door open – the murderer had left it so – and walked in on a scene straight from Hell. It killed him. He had a heart attack less than two months later.”

“Oh, my dear,” murmured Hilda.

Mother Abbess smiled down at her. “You care!”

“So much!”

The nun touched her lips to Hilda’s forehead. “That helps.”

Hilda grasped her friend’s hand, guessing what was coming next. There was a deep sigh from the woman on the couch, a sigh that seemed wrenched from her very soul.

“When I regained consciousness, they told me I’d lost the baby – which I already knew, as I lay watching Stephen die – and that I'd never be able to have another. They'd had to remove my shattered womb along with my dead baby.”

Hilda gasped in horror. It was getting worse.

“I didn’t care, Hilda! Why would I want another baby? The only child I’d ever wanted was gone, lost forever, along with the only man I could ever love.”

Mother’s voice fell to a whisper, traces of the land she had left so long ago still evident in her voice.

“My bairn! My puir wee bairn! They told me it had been a little girl – a baby daughter who had who saved her mother’s life and lost her own.”

Silence fell between them at the thought of the child who had meant so much to her parents. Hilda found the courage to look up into the nun’s glorious green eyes, and found them watching her with so much love that her breath faltered. Watching her, and waiting... For what? Then she remembered!

In the faintest of whispers, almost too scared to voice it, she said, “That's why you told me the other day…”

“That you had become the daughter I never had?” Mother reached out to stroke Hilda’s cheek. “Yes, sweetheart, you've somehow become her. I'd shut my heart against love from that day, vowing never to care for anyone or anything as much as I'd cared for Stephen andour precious child. All the Sisters I’ve lived with over the years, all the people who've come to me for help, not one of them ever made a dent in my armour. Then you come along, scarcely three years younger, and find your way overnight into this sealed-up heart of mine, nestling there as though you’ve always belonged.”

The nun saw the love shining in Hilda’s eyes. How those feelings were reciprocated!

“You told me in the San that I’d become your mother. It was the first time I was willing to accept the word from another’s lips. I’d never wanted to be a mother to anyone, after losing ma bairn. Another of life’s little ironies! Becoming Abbess meant everyone calling me Mother, but that was different somehow. I could accept it. You, however - even though you’re only a few years younger - I feel for you all I would have felt for that tiny daughter of mine, all I did feel as she grew inside me. I would have stood in the way of all danger to protect her from harm, much as you did for Ian and myself.” Hilda shook her head. “Oh yes, child! You nearly died to save the pair of us. Now, just as my daughter gave her life for me, so I would do the same for you. I would step in front of a speeding train or a rampaging bull to keep you from harm, and count it worth the cost. Truly God has blessed me in my old age.”

“And me!”

Hilda was overwhelmed by the nun’s love for her. She buried her face in the grey habit and wept – for the love bestowed on her, for her friend’s agony, for the beloved lives lost beyond recall. Mother Abbess stroked the silvered hair. How Hilda’s walls had fallen! Where was the impassive, self-contained woman now?

“Sh, child. Please don’t weep. It’s only on Christmas Day that it really hurts. You haven’t heard it all yet, but have already taken away much of the pain with your gentle listening, indeed your very presence in my life. If she’d been even half as good as you, my daughter would have been beautiful. How I envy your Nell the years she shared with you.”

Hilda’s head lay against the nun long after her tears had ceased. Oh yes, they had been good years, those years with Nell, years she would cherish forever. She would take comfort from them, find her joy in them.

“I didn’t have your courage, child, or your faith,” Mother then said abruptly.

Hilda raised her head. “Wh... what do you mean?”

“I ran away. I couldn’t face any of it. I had no courage to walk through such agony.”

“But I was older,” stammered Hilda, “and I did run away. For two weeks I couldn’t eat or sleep. Was I starving myself to death, so I could be with Nell? Is that not tantamount to running away?”

Mother Abbess tilted Hilda’s chin so they could look into each other's eyes.

“You didn’t run away. You stayed, you suffered. For all you couldn’t pray for a wee while, you still knew God was there. I rejected Him, totally.”

Hilda opened her mouth, but a finger was laid on her lips.

“You may have been older when Nell died, but what about James’ death? You were young then, almost the same age as I, but you clung on to God. You stayed and saw it through. How ever did you get yourself to school every day and face those shining faces so filled with hope, when you’d lost not just James, but your very future? You were so faithful, child.”

“There was nothing else I could have done,” responded Hilda in bewilderment.

Mother Abbess gave a soft laugh of derision.

“Oh, there were plenty of things you could have done, my dear. Turned to drink, or to other men, even committed suicide….”

Appalled, Hilda stared up at her. Mother smiled grimly.

“Oh, yes, child! In that hospital I tried with desperate single-mindedness to kill myself. Is that not the best way of all of running away? What did I have to live for? I pulled out tubes, refused to eat or take their medicine, begged them to let me die. I even managed to steal a nurse’s scissors once and tried to cut open my stitches. I was in despair. No, I was in Hell.”

Hilda grasped the nun’s hand and put it to her lips.

“You understand so well, don’t you?” Mother's sweet voice was very low. “I don’t think I even told Pauline all I’m telling you. I wasn’t prepared to reveal the depths to which I'd sunk - too frightened of losing her respect. But you and I, we’ve gone beyond that, haven’t we?”

Hilda nodded. Only to this strong, compassionate woman had she dared to reveal her deepest self, all her faults and failings, as she had with Nell, knowing it was safe to do so. Mother Abbess watched the play of emotions on Hilda’s face and was satisfied.

“They kept me sedated most of the time, afraid of what I would do, and I was watched constantly. Ian and my father tried to talk to me, for they knew what a wayward, impulsive person I was, but I refused to listen. Stephen was the only one who’d ever been able to control me. Without him, I was lost. In the end, deciding I would get nowhere in hospital, I bided my time until I could leave. God didn’t figure in this at all. I had turned my back on Him. He'd taken away all I loved, and there was nothing He could put in their place. But I was to discover that God had not turned His back on me at all.”

She sighed over her vast hatred and despair back then.

“I left the hospital to return home, although my father pleaded with me to go home to him. He felt going back to where I'd been happy would be my undoing. He couldn’t have known how right he was. I stood for a long while in the nursery that night, listening to the silence, staring at the empty cot, the unused toys, the tiny clothes, and imagining what might have been. I lay on our bed, my head on the pillow where Stephen had last lain and cuddled his pyjamas, smelling his nearness, desperate for the touch of his hand, needing his arms around me to take away the coldness, the emptiness. I begged him to come back to me.”

Tears gathered in Hilda’s eyes at the desolation in the sweet voice. A desolation she recognised all too well, the desolation she herself had felt, not once, not twice, but three times. Her heart ached at the thought of this despairing woman's search for comfort in that silent, empty house. No wonder Mother understood so well what the loss of Nell had done to her.

“Finally I could bear it no longer. I would put an end to it once and for all.”

The words were shocking, ugly in their abruptness, and Hilda’s grasp on the coldhand tightened as though to ward off a blow. Mother Abbess stared down into the fearful eyes, her own haunted by her actions.

“I got up and prepared everything with a chilling exactness, even made the bed and tidied the room, put the pyjamas to be washed. I was completely out of my mind, of course! I know that now!” Tears sparkled in those green eyes staring down at Hilda. “What, in the end, stayed my hand? Was it Stephen? My baby? That still, small voice of God? I’ll never know, but, when dawn came, I put away the knife I’d taken upstairs. I let out the bathwater in which I’d intended to die. I threw on the fire the letter I’d written to my father, detailing the reasons why I had to kill myself.” She grimaced. “There could have been no forgiveness for what that would have done to him.”

“What did you do, instead?”

Hilda ached at the pain this woman had endured. Mother Abbess laughed harshly.

“Why, child, as I said, I ran away. If I couldn’t do it one way, I'd do it another. I threw things willy-nilly into a case, left a note for the housekeeper and fled – trying to leave behind not just my pain, but all those well-meaning do-gooders who said time would heal, all those hateful people who told me I would marry again, that I would forget Stephen.”

She shook her head at the foolishness and cruelty of such well-meant platitudes.

“I also fled that tiny voice which was whispering to me even then. Was He mad? Turn to Him after all He'd done to me and mine? I told Him what He could do with His so-called love. I fled to our house in the South of France and gave myself over to a life of heedless pleasure, trying desperately to drown the memory of Stephen’s face, his voice, his love.”

How do you drown the pain of losing those you've held so close to your heart, thought Hilda. Mother read her mind.

“You can’t, dear. I was stupid and childish – and hurting almost beyond belief. Francis Thompson could have written The Hound of Heaven just for me, at that point in my life. You know it surely,

“'I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after!
Across the margent of the world I fled.
And troubled the gold gateways of the stars,
Smiting for shelter on their clangèd bars.'”


Hilda’s rich voice came back at her like a refrain:

"'Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?’ declares the Lord. “Do I not fill both Heaven and earth?’"

(Jeremiah 23)

“Ah, yes, child, you're the faithful one. I've known that from the first moment I met you. I had to learn, the long, hard way what you seemed to assimilate with the loss of your mother – that, in the end, there is no escape, from pain or from Him.” The nun turned her face to the fire. “But I tried, oh how I tried! There were plenty of other young fools in the south of France in the Thirties, out for nothing but the good time only vast amounts of money can buy. Some of them were like me, I expect, trying to drown those tiny voices they might hear if they stopped even for one moment. I drank, partied, spent my time on yachts, in hotels, you name it. Strangely enough, although there were men, I never once entertained one in my bed. Plenty wanted it. Money talks, after all, and I had masses of the stuff.”

She rubbed her forehead, looked down into those steady grey eyes watching her.

“Oh yes, plenty of men, but Stephen and my baby stayed me from that final step on my path to self-destruction.”

Her eyes were dark with pain. How close she had come to losing herself completely in those years!

“How calmly you wait, love. You’re so easy to talk to. You walk through things with others, touch them where they are, accept what they tell you and never flinch.”

“Why should I flinch? My heart aches for you, wondering how long you lived like that?”

“Years, sweetheart, years!" sighed the nun. "My father’s death moved me not one jot. Just one more thing to lay at God’s door. What fools we are to ourselves. Ian pleaded with me time and again to go home, but how could I? I had no home.” Her lips twisted wryly. “I was one determined lassie, Hilda. My Stuart blood showing - and my red hair!”

“Did they ever catch the man?” asked Hilda, massaging the cold hands.

A heartfelt sigh echoed round the room.

“Oh, yes, but I refused to come home and identify him.” Hilda caught her breath. “I couldn’t! I wanted to know why he’d done it, yes, but I'd have torn him limb from limb if they’d let me anywhere near.” She shook her head at the person she had been. “To see him - would have forced me to confront it all over again. There was no proof he was the guilty one, and since I was the only one who could identify him, they had to let him go. ”

She stared into the fire, gnawing her lip. When she spoke again her voice was wistful.

“I did find out why, a couple of years later, and almost wished I hadn’t. It wasn’t a pretty tale.”

“How did you find out?”

“He wrote to me.” Mother Abbess smiled grimly at Hilda’s blank astonishment. “Stranger things have happened. You just never know what’s round the corner. The letter took a long time to reach me, because he addressed it to our house in Edinburgh, which I’d closed down but never sold. Ian visited it from time to time to make sure it was okay. Anything he thought necessary he sent over. So it came among a bundle of other letters.”

“I’m not proud of what I did that night,” she murmured.

“Whatever it was, I’ll listen,” promised Hilda.

“For the first time, Stephen lost his hold on me and I very nearly ended up in bed with someone.”

Mother Abbess voice was so sad that Hilda’s grasped both hands tightly.

“I was out of my mind with rage, despair, pain, grief. I had to do something, anything, to escape it all. I had far too much to drink and ended up on the boat of a very attractive man, one much sought after by other women. I was so desperate that I gave him the idea his attentions were welcome, but came to my senses before I got too carried away, then had to fight him off. He wouldn't take ‘No’ for an answer. Why should he, when I’d encouraged him? I jumped into the sea to get away, in the end. An edifying story, isn't it?" she finished bitterly.

She closed her eyes. "You will never know, love, how easy it would have been to end it all, then, and just let myself float away. Somehow, Stephen, Ian, my father - they all seemed to be there, giving me a nudge in the right direction, holding me up when I got too tired to swim any more. The Lord hadn't forgotten me at all!”

There was a long silence. Hilda was longing to offer comfort but stayed still and quiet, and the nun spoke again, her voice steady.

“What was in the letter? You should know, first, that Stephen’s father was a hard man and used violence on all his tenants, driving them hard. Stephen didn’t get on with him at all, hated all he stood for. So, instead of learning about the estate, he left when he was eighteen and went to university to study law. He had his mother’s money. She had died when he was seventeen. We never went to see his father, never visited the estate, so I didn’t know any of the people who lived or worked there.”

Hilda gasped. “You’re not saying it was one of them!”

“He was the head gardener, had been there since the end of the First World War. He was just twenty and a corporal when it ended. Perhaps that explains the ease with which he could shoot to kill. He’d had a great deal of trouble finding a job when he returned to Scotland, but Stephen’s father took him on and he transformed the gardens, apparently. He married one of the housemaids after a few years, and they lived in one of the small cottages on the estate. But, as I said, Stephen’s father was very hard, and had little loyalty to his staff. One mistake and you were out.”

“What happened?”

“It seems there was an altercation with one of the under-gardeners. A fight, not to put too fine a point on it - in one of the greenhouses. Robbie, the man who wrote, doesn’t excuse himself, so we’ll never know who started it, but the finish was that the greenhouse was wrecked, all the glass broken, the plants ruined. It must have been some fight. Stephen’s father sacked them both on the spot, refusing to listen to any explanation.”

“Robbie was looking for revenge?” whispered Hilda, in disbelief.

“Not at that point, no. But this was late on in 1930. The Depression was having a devastating effect on everyone. Times were hard, even in Edinburgh, where he and his wife ended up. Jobs were few and far between, and he had no references. They lived in one room in a backstreet, but with no money they didn’t eat. Then his wife became pregnant.” She paused, gripped Hilda’s hands. “It doesn’t bear thinking about. Stephen and I were living in the lap of luxury, while this poor man and his wife…”

She fell silent, her mind far away, and Hilda kept very still. The nun sighed with regret.

“Life is so unfair, Hilda. To say that God ordains it so is to misrepresent who and what He is and does.” She laughed harshly. “Life is all too often the way it is because too few people care to make it any better. What did I, for example, with all my money, do for anyone? Nothing! Not then, anyway!”

Hilda remained silent. She had heard it all before, too many times. Her mother had been so good to the poor and needy in her husband’s parishes, but her 'good' was a mere drop in the ocean, when there was no Health Service, no Welfare State, and eventually a war to be fought.

Mother Abbess took up her tale with a note of weariness.

“His wife was ill, needed medicines and food. You see where I’m heading, don’t you? He turned to thieving and broke into a shop, but, being unused to such activities, he was caught. He got off fairly lightly, as it was a first offence, but while he was in prison his wife and baby died. He spent the rest of his short prison sentence plotting, with only one thought in his head.”

“Revenge!” whispered Hilda.

It was not a pretty tale, yet there was no real villain, unless you could call Stephen’s father such a thing.

“In that prison he wept for days, he told me, then decided, since his employer was the cause of all his grief, he'd cause his employer a great deal of grief, and the best way was to take away what the man cared for most, just as Robbie’s wife and child had been taken away. He soon found where Stephen and I lived. He was released two days before Christmas, so decided Christmas Day itself was to be the day.”

Her throat tightened as she remembered the moment she had opened that letter and what it had done to her. Even now, thirty years on, she could remember the overpowering emotions. Her grief had returned in full measure and left her reeling. She gripped Hilda’s hands hard.

“Do you want to stop?”

Hilda was concerned. Mother’s face was very pale, the freckles standing out in sharp relief.

“No, child, let me spill it all out. He found a small window left open in the kitchen and waited in the office for Stephen. He said he’d had no hesitation in pulling the trigger, that his hatred consumed him. Then, he shot me…” Her voice trailed away.

“And he thought about that baby of his that was never given a chance of life,” Hilda finished for her, “and realised he'd just done the same to yours.”

Mother Abbess shuddered. Her eyes were sharp shards of pain as she stared at Hilda, whose own heart was full of anguish for all this wonderful woman had gone through - was still going through, for one never got over it. One just learned to live with it, to make a life in spite of it, but the memories still lurked, ready to pounce.

“When I read that letter, barely two years after I lost Stephen, I cried out that he should have finished the job! That I was in a hell of his making, and he dared to think I could forgive him. I read that far and could take no more. I wanted to burn it, but something stopped me,so I hid it from sight, and went out and got drunk – with the result you know. Not a good day!” she sighed.

Hilda was staggered by the nun’s courage in revealing herself so openly.

“When did you learn the rest? I assume there is more?”

“Ian came out to see me six months later. I showed him the letter, asked him to read the rest of it for me. He was stupefied, but forced me to listen. He might be gentle, my Ian, but he has his own way of taking care of those he loves.”

Hilda smiled up at her. These last few weeks, since the accident, she had found solace with Ian. In his quiet, unassuming way he tried to help her renewed grief, and was probably the one who soothed her the most when his sister was unavailable. Mother caressed Hilda’s cheek.

“You care for Ian almost as much as I,” she whispered, before diving in again. “Apparently, when Robbie was arrested, there was no one more surprised than he to find himself being set free. He had resigned himself to being hanged.”

She shuddered, and Hilda felt the same frisson.

“I think, at that time, in his own way, he wanted death as much as I did.”

“But he didn’t find it at your hands,” Hilda said with great surety. Mother Abbess shook her head. “Did he say anything else?”

“Very little, actually. He didn’t say he was sorry – he probably wasn’t! - just that he’d written because he thought I had a right to know why. I couldn’t forgive him at the time, despite the letter and all Ian said to me. I did wish I’d had the courage to return and identify him when he was arrested. I was so bitter.” Her face was very gentle as she added, with quiet conviction, “Now, in my saner years, I think it was wiser to have left him to the tender mercy of God, who sees into people’s hearts much better than we do. Robbie had suffered as much as I had. I like to think that taking my baby’s life changed him in some way, that she and Stephen didn’t die completely in vain.”

They sat in silence, thinking of a hurting woman, a longed-for baby who never saw life, and two men on a collision course that would take the life of one of them.

Hilda placed a gentle kiss on Mother’s cheek, then rose to her feet and went over to the desk. She poured a glass of water from the pitcher there, brought it over, and knelt once more on the floor. The nun smiled and drank deeply, while Hilda placed a fresh log on the fire, poking the embers to help it catch light. She took the glass, setting it down beside the crib figures, and searched her friend’s face, noting the heavy eyes.

“Do you want to stop? This is draining you, and you've a long day ahead of you. It’s still only Christmas morning, after all.”

“No, child, it’s been hidden long enough. I think it’s been waiting all these years just for you, so you could release the poison. You’re the first to whom I’ve dared admit just what I'd become. Apart from Ian, of course! Even my Abbess never learned it all, and certainly not Pauline. But you… I'm not sure I could hide anything from you, now. In a way you’ve become, not just my daughter, but my own anam cara.

The Abbess’s green eyes were very soft.

“Not that nuns are supposed to have such a thing, but God knows what He’s doing. My heart needed rending wide open, and that could only happen with a quiet and generous spirit such as yours.”

Hilda gave the nun a brief hug, then settled back on the floor, took the cold hands in her firm grasp again and waited. If there was one thing Hilda Annersley was good at, it was her patient, attentive listening, ears and heart attuned to all that was spoken and all that was left unspoken. Mother Abbess thanked God for it and for her friend’s gentle compassion, which enabled her to walk hand in hand with people through their pain.

“You said you spent years trying to escape. How many?”

Hilda turned the story away from the murder and to Mother’s life after it.

“Too long!” groaned Mother. “Four long years of mindless madness. All to escape what could not be escaped. Stephen and my daughter began to haunt my nights, which just drove me to further excesses. Then the troubles started in Spain.”

Hilda saw the green eyes were distant now, as if she were looking down the long vista of years. Her voice was low and rather hesitant.

“A lot of my friends found a cause, something finally to believe in, and off they went with their youth and idealism. Too many of them died in the chaos that followed. In a way, it was my first wake-up call. I even toyed with the idea of going myself, but it all seemed like too much trouble, so in the end I ignored it, like I ignored so much else. What did it have to do with me, anyway? I tried to bury that, along with my dead, and continued my games with increasing abandon.”

Her eyes returned to Hilda, the green almost blinding.

“But that moment’s pause allowed the Lord to come nearer, too near. He was becoming as insistent as Ian. I could hear Him! But I tried to block Him out:

'Still with unhurrying chase
And unperturbed
Came on the following feet.
And a voice above their beat –
‘Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me.’


“And, indeed, I could find no rest, no peace anywhere, although I tried hard for another three years. Seven wasted years! Dear God, why didn’t I see the years passing?” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “What did I think I was achieving? What will Stephen say to me when I see him again? What gave me the right to feel my tragedy was worse than another's? There was so much needed doing in those years, and I abrogated all my responsibilities. How much I still have to make up to God and to my fellow man for all I didn’t, wouldn’t, do!”

The anguished words disturbed the peace of the room, and Hilda gave silent thanks for the way He had kept a firm grasp on herself, never letting her wander too far from Him. Mother could only be in awe of Hilda’s courage and constancy in the face of so much tragedy. She had never turned her back on life, or on God, for more than moments, never allowed herself to attach blame to Him for long. She had trusted, much as Job had.

“I wish I'd had your shining courage and faith, child.” The nun’s green eyes were impossibly sad. “You'll never have to account for wasted years, and missed opportunities. How He must glory in you! How much I need to learn from you! No wonder He sent you here.”

Tears brimmed again in Hilda’s eyes. “There's no courage attached to me at all. You and He did it all for me.”

“Not so, child. I wasn’t there when your mother died, or James. On your own, you shouldered the pain. You grew - in ways that I will never grow.” Mother Abbess rubbed Hilda's tears away with gentle thumbs. “You are truly beyond me in every way. I only pointed the path you should take after Nell’s death. You were the one who had to follow it. And follow it you did, stooping on the way to lift up those, like Ellie and Ian, who also needed a helping hand.”

She wiped away more of Hilda’s errant tears. “If those tears are for me, sweetheart, think again. I learned my lesson, eventually. Save your pity for other lost souls out there, for they are legion.”

“Hitler overran France? That was your real wake up call?”

The nun nodded. “I took a good hard look at myself. I was about to turn forty. What did I have to show for it, except an ever-present heartache and a soiled spirit. Francis Thompson must have been in some Hell of his own, because his words suited me so well:

“I slept, methinks, and woke.
I shook the pillaring hours
And pulled my life upon me; grimed with smears,
I stand amid the dust of the mounded years –
My mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap.
My days have crackled and gone up in smoke…


“I was indeed ‘grimed’ and had wasted my youth till it was ‘mangled'. I'd filled my days with bitterness and despair, and thrown them on the bonfire, instead of seeking to give them to others, as you're doing so faithfully, have always done. I hated what I’d become. What would my beloved Stephen think of me? I still took no thought of God. He was like the deadliest poison to me.”

She released a hand from Hilda’s and picked up the bambino, rocking him gently in her palm.

“Where to go? What to do? I begged Stephen to forgive me and help me. I got out of France. No choice there, once the Germans arrived, even though the south was safe enough at first. I couldn’t face going back to Edinburgh, not after all those years, so I turned up on Ian’s doorstep in London with nothing but the clothes on my back. Ian, however, had a shock for me.”

Her hand clenched on the carving, unheeding of the sharp edges digging into her skin. Hilda’s hand moved to cover it. The nun’s voice grew harsh, full of self-loathing.

“He'd volunteered as an Army chaplain and was leaving in just forty-eight hours. I laughed in his face, Hilda. How cruel I was! I told him God was making a fool of him.” She closed her eyes in anguish. “My gentle, sensitive Ian, who should never have volunteered, took me in his arms and quietened me. For the first time since I’d left my home seven years earlier, I wept. Ian held me all night and I wept ceaselessly. It was like I had a bottomless ocean inside me. Ian wept with me, for he, too, had loved Stephen.”

Silence fell, a long, fragile silence that one could have reached out and touched. Her legs cramped and stiff, Hilda still sat at her friend’s feet, searching for some steely self-control to help her stay calm in the face of so much pain. No wonder this woman knew the anguish and tears stored inside others, and knew how to keep them at bay with her strong arms and compassionate spirit.

Mother Abbess's eyes snapped opened and searched Hilda’s sorrowful face, the tear tracks all too evident.

“Still no contempt?”

“Only love, Mother, such love. You are truly amazing.”

“Oh, child, in those seven wasted years of mine, think of all you achieved, while hiding such sorrow in your heart for your own lost love.”

“I don’t have your passionate nature. I was too self-controlled, too determined to cope. It cost me in the end, I now realise. Look how I fell apart this year.”

Mother’s lined face was beautiful with her love for this new daughter of hers. She cupped Hilda’s face

“You didn’t fall apart, sweetheart. You grieved – for Nell, for James, for your mother. There’s a vast difference, believe me. You still held down your job, still supported your girls. There were only ever two days when you couldn’t face the world, and who could blame you? Grief is not made better in six months. Look at me, if you need proof of that. You've given so much of yourself during these past lonely months, something I couldn’t find it in my heart to do in seven long years.”

She paused. “And if you will go round saving people’s lives, putting your own on the line, then you must be prepared to pay the price. Which you were! Saving Ian's life nearly cost you your own, and left you in severe pain. So don’t ever underestimate yourself or your actions, Hilda Annersley,” she admonished. “Or you'll have not only myself, but Nell Wilson, after you.”

Hilda smiled. She could handle that! She renewed her grasp on the nun’s hand and waited for the next instalment. The latter saw she was being coaxed into revealing more, and her haunted eyes turned to the fire.

“My years of wastefulness were not over, despite Ian’s help. I might have returned to myself, but I didn’t turn back to God. He was still the enemy. Even more so now, for look what He was doing in Europe…”

Hilda gasped. “But you couldn’t…”

“Oh I could, my dear, and did. I blamed God for it all. Was He not all-powerful? Could He not have stopped it all? As far as I was concerned, He had turned His back on the world He had made and supposedly loved.” Her lips twisted. “If He wasn’t going to do anything about it, why should I? Ian went off, leaving me all alone, but soldiers were always useful for giving a girl a good time, helping her hide from her loneliness. London was full of them. Then the bombing began, and something changed. I found a task worth doing. I became an ambulance driver.”

She grinned rather fiendishly.

“In fact, I became the first female volunteer, and, boy, did I have to fight long and hard to get accepted. I’ll have you know, my dear, females are fragile flowers and need protecting from the baser side of life. I soon put them straight!”

Hilda giggled appreciatively. She could imagine the scene, with Mother Abbess in full flow, never afraid to speak her mind.

“In the end, they had no choice, as they were short of men who could do the job. I was strong and not afraid. What more did they need?”

She saw Hilda’s eyes glow with admiration. Was Hilda reflecting that her own war service seemed rather tame by comparison. The nun sincerely hoped not, for she had heard from others of Hilda’s fortitude and faithful leadership during those dark days.

“No, love, it wasn’t bravery, not the quiet bravery you and Nell showed as you led your girls by example during the war. It was the same heedless, reckless behaviour as before. I didn’t care if I lived or died, so the nights of bombing, the falling buildings and fierce fires, held no terrors for me. If anything, they were exciting. I laughed at the dangers, told Him to do His worst. Oh, yes, He was still there, those feet still pounding the pavements behind me as I dragged people out of burning buildings, still telling me I was His as I drove my ambulance round the holes in the roads and swerved to avoid the falling bombs.”

Her tale by now had Hilda so mesmerised that she said nothing when Mother Abbess paused, her face a mask of sheer disbelief at her blindness and foolishness.

“One night, I dragged a young child from a pile of rubble, trying desperately to stop her bleeding to death. I failed miserably. I held her little dead body in my arms, there in the street, and screamed out to God, asking Him what the Hell He thought He was doing. Quick as a flash, I heard Him reply:

I’m trying to get you the Hell out of Hell, that’s what I’m doing.’”

In the pregnant pause that followed, Hilda's breath caught in her throat.

“I kid you not, daughter. I thought I’d gone mad. This was no quiet, gentle voice, such as you heard last night. This was a bully of a sergeant-major swearing loudly at his troops.”

“And you…?”

Hilda’s eyes were riveted on the nun’s face. What a woman! No wonder she was so challenging and bracing! The nun laughed, amusement rife in her face.

“I’m sure it was Churchill who once said, ‘When you're going through Hell, keep going.’ Well, I didn’t need God to help me do that, did I? I could keep going all on my own, thank you very much, even if I was in Hell! So I told Him what He could do with His help and His swear words! I think I may have used a few swear words of my own in the process. Oh no, I hadn’t done fighting Him. He wasn’t getting away with thinking He’d won.”

“But He had!” stated Hilda with soft conviction.

“Yes, child, you’re right. I just couldn’t see it. I was talking to Him as an equal, sparring with Him, acknowledging Him, which was all He wanted. He was already the victor.”

Be Thou Thyself the answer to all my questionings,” Hilda recited softly.

“Frances Havergal?” Hilda nodded. “A lovely old hymn. Yes, He was not only the victor, but the answer… I just wasn’t ready yet to admit it. I buried that little body myself and nearly broke down in the doing. I felt I was burying the tiny daughter I’d never had a chance to cuddle. I’d pulled so many children, dead or alive, from the wreckage, so why did this little one affect me so?"

Her face was sad, her eyes distant.

“The trouble was, in my arrogance and bitterness, I actually felt He had let that child die just to “get me the Hell out of Hell”. What a fool I was! The war had killed her. God was just pointing out my utter blindness, giving me a nudge in the right direction. It worked, too. I decided I needed to learn more, needed something extra to help me save these innocent ones from His anger. Because, to me, He was still the enemy, and I couldn’t bear to bury any more little bodies. So I went off to St Thomas’s and trained as a nurse. At the ripe old age of forty! No thought went into it, no worry about whether my idle brain was up to the task. It was just more of that same recklessness and sheer bravado – and defiance.”

Amusement flooded her eyes.

“I’m sure Stephen nearly fell off his fluffy pink cloud when he saw some of the tasks I did as a nurse. After all, apart from my ambulance driving, I’d never done a day’s honest labour in my life. Some things turned my stomach, but I was as determined as ever. I would defeat Him if it killed me. It very nearly did, at times. I’m not altruistic by nature.”

“Such rubbish!” Hilda shook her head.

“Not so, love. Only God helps me give to others.” The green eyes grew reminiscent. “They were wonderful years, Hilda, years of back-breaking work and great joy. It opened my eyes, for I never knew working hard could be so exhilarating. But what really rewarded me was that we saved people by the score. I was taking my revenge for all God had taken from me. These He could not, would not, have.”

She laughed harshly.

“Who did I think I was kidding? Just when I thought I had Him beat, the very day before I was due to receive my nursing certificate, my house of cards tumbled. Another child died in my arms, and I knew I was no more recovered from Stephen and my baby than I had been all those years ago. There would never be comfort for me anywhere, no matter what I did. I thought I’d found it in idle pleasure, then I thought I would find it in the ambulance driving. If not that, then surely nursing would help me heal. That night, I finally accepted nothing on earth could fill my brokenness. My heart was truly:

“…a broken fount,
Wherein tear-drippings stagnate, spilt down ever
From the dark thoughts that shiver
Upon the sightful branches of my mind.”


Her voice petered out. She stared into Hilda’s soft eyes, and something she saw there encouraged her. Her voice dropped to a whisper.

“It was midnight. Everywhere was silent. I stood in the middle of my room, and knew there was nowhere else to turn. I had tried everything I could and reached a dead end. There were only two ways out: suicide or…”

Hilda’s steady, loving eyes told the nun the answer was already known.

“I fell on the floor, begging Him to tell me what He wanted of me. I told Him I still hated Him, but there was nowhere else I could go to find relief from my grief or comfort for my pain. Defenceless utterly before Him, I asked Him why?”

“That voice is round me like a bursting sea:
‘Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fleest Me!
Strange, piteous, futile thing!’”


The green eyes opened wide when Hilda softly recited the lines that had given the nun her answer. She nodded.

“Or words to that effect - except it wasn’t a bursting sea, that voice of His, not like His sergeant-major voice. That’s why I asked you last night to describe His voice. This time it was the voice you yourself heard, a voice as soft as tears. I felt He was crying for me, with me. It hurt, Hilda. His words sank to my very core, pointing out so clearly the futility of all those years of running.”

She gave a deep sigh and rested her head on the back of the couch, closing her eyes.

“I was so ashamed. What forgiveness could there be for one such as me? But He took me in His arms, there in the nurses’ home - I could feel them – and spoke again:

'Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He whom thou seekest'
.

"My heart was instantly at peace and I fell asleep there on the floor, the deepest, sweetest sleep I’d had in twelve long years. Why did I fight Him so long? Why did I think I’d lost everything that made life worth living?”

Once again, Hilda gave her the answer:

“All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home.
Rise, clasp My hand and come.”


The rich voice spoke the words with a calm surety, and when the nun opened her eyes she saw the radiant joy glowing in the blue-grey eyes. Mother Abbess’s lips curved in a gentle smile and she nodded.

“I went, daughter. In the end, it was as simple as that. I followed Him home. There was nowhere else I wanted to be. He was now the wellspring of my life, the cornerstone, as He's been to you the whole of your life.”

Hilda rose from the floor, sat beside Mother and drew her close. She knew there must be more, that the story was not finished, but, for the moment, silence was necessary to take in the richness of this Christmas gift she had been offered, the gift of Mother's inner torment, of the worst she had seen and done, nothing held back.

Having opened themselves utterly to each other, and received total acceptance in return, they were now as close as two people could be, hearts and minds in perfect accord. An accord Hilda thought she had lost forever with the loss of Nell.

Their heads leaned one against the other in love and trust, and they gazed into the fire, each contemplating her own long and winding journey to this peaceful, Spirit-filled home.



******
Chapter 14 - The Tale Continues by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Much shorter chapter today, in thanks for your generous words.
“How did you find St Matthew’s?” Hilda asked, her eyes still on the dancing flames, in which she suddenly saw Nell’s face.

How her friend would have loved this nun, would have appreciated her passion, her strong will, and would have applauded her desire for action. She knew that, no matter how close they were becoming, Mother would never dislodge Nell from her lonely heart, but the compassionate, bracing nun had found her own niche there.

Mother stirred. “The next day, as though in answer to my cry the night before, I received the Gold Medal for best nurse of the year. I nearly fainted with shock when they told me that, not only had I scored top marks in the exams, but was the most hard-working nurse on the wards.”

“Not much has changed, then,” remarked Hilda blandly.

Mother snickered. “Behave! After the ceremony, a woman in a Sister’s uniform approached to offer her congratulations. It was Pauline. She’d been a Sister there for about ten years, but I’d never worked on her ward, for which I used to thank my lucky stars. She had a fearsome reputation, and many bore the scars to prove it.”

This time it was Hilda who snickered. Mother dug her in the ribs and realised, with surprise, that revealing all this to Hilda had loosened the hold Christmas Day had over her. Safe now in Hilda’s quiet heart, her tragedy had lost its sharp teeth.

“That day she seemed thoughtful and serene. I caught myself watching her at the small party afterwards, which I later discovered Pauline herself had organised. There was a glow about her that seemed very attractive. I edged nearer and nearer until I stood right beside her, and waited. For what? I have no idea. I just knew I was meant to be there. You can imagine my shock when she opened her mouth and told me just what she thought of me! It didn’t make for pleasant hearing!"

"'I’ve been watching you and listening to the rumours about you. ‘Wild’ would seem to be the only word for your antics, even allowing for the gold medal. Do you really deserve it, I wonder?.'"

The nun shook her head. “I gaped at her and she stared right back, waiting for me to fight my corner, no doubt. But what was there to say? I remained silent and she added, 'Funnily enough, today I see peace in your eyes. Sadness, too. Something has changed.' I nodded, and then, to my absolute horror, heard myself asking her would she find a place for me on her ward.” Mother laughed. “The words just popped out, of their own volition. We often have a quiet chuckle over it now. She didn’t reply, at first, just looked out over the small crowd still eating and talking, as though considering their innermost thoughts. Silence seemed to wrap itself round her and set her apart. She turned to me:

'I don’t know why I’m telling you this, but you can’t work for me, I’m afraid, though it might have led to some interesting moments. I’m leaving nursing. Today is my last day. I’m entering a convent next week.'

“So it was she who planted the seed!”

“You could say that! Or you could say He chose His instrument well! Very well! The strangest thing, Hilda! Without a moment’s hesitation, I asked if they could use someone like me! What an insane thing to do. A nun? Me? After all I’d done? She never murmured, simply took out a pen, reached for my hand and wrote a phone number on it. She said to call there, and left without another word.”

The two women fell silent, in awe at the magnificent simplicity of God.

“She was right,” Mother finally chuckled. “We’ve had some very interesting moments over the years. That same afternoon I rang here and learned the principles on which the place was based. I didn’t want to be locked away somewhere, spending my life in meditation. I needed to be doing, and this seemed to fit the bill. What I hadn’t anticipated were the words of the Abbess over the phone, assuring me my former life amply fitted me to becoming a nun. I listened in total disbelief. She was running ahead of me. I hadn’t even mentioned wanting to enter, didn’t realise that was what I intended.”

“She knew what she was talking about.” Hilda was once more rapt in this fascinating tale.

“I came the following week, telling myself it was just for a trial period, that I could always leave. It was so quick, you see. It felt like being on an express train, with no idea how to work the brakes and hop off.”

Hilda squeezed her hand, understanding how hard it must have been for her, after all she had seen and done.

“I was forty-three years of age, and felt far too old when I saw all the younger ones here, so eager and keen. Their faces shone with anticipation, while I was mired in my murky past, and still grieving what I’d lost. But the Abbess was so good to me. She took me under her wing, ensured I had space to recover, time to find if this was really my desire. She had a mind of her own and often did the unexpected, if she thought it was better than slavishly following the Rule.”

Her eyes grew sad. “How I missed her when she died. I’d only been here six years at that point, but had grown to love the place and the people, and relished the work. Pauline and I propped each other up in the Noviciate when the bad times came. She was wonderful. Without her and my Abbess, I doubt I'd still be here.”

“Oh, I think you would,” Hilda retorted with conviction.

Mother turned to look at her.

“Perhaps you’re right. I’d found peace, sanity, joy. I’d also found Stephen again, as I'd known and loved him. Why did I run for so long? Why did I hide from God, try to escape my pain? Can you tell me that, daughter?”

Hilda answered in a voice vibrating with tenderness:

“'….though I knew His love Who followed,
Yet was I sore adread,
Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside.'”


“'Naught beside?'" There was a vast pain in the nun’s voice. “What a fool I was! Having Him meant having everything. If only I’d known, then, how fulfilled a life it would be, and that remembering Stephen would no longer bring pain, but peace.”

“When I first came here you told me He brings beauty out of the ruins.”

Hilda’s arm tightened involuntarily round the nun. She had not yet found much peace in her memories of Nell, but it was coming, albeit at a snail’s pace. Mother felt the sudden spasm and understood.

“He does, sweetheart. Look at me, now you know my story. I had to accept it was man who'd done his worst with me, not God, who just did His best with the fragments that were left. His very best, for I could never have married again. As for having another child…” She shuddered. “I think I would have spiralled into madness. So, ever since, I've listened very closely to His words, followed His every desire, done my utmost to be what He wanted.”

“And have succeeded beyond any possibility of doubt.”

“I never expected this, though,” added the nun. “To become Abbess, when I’d entered so late, led such a turbulent life, let Him down so many times. There were many others who’d loved Him their whole lives, followed Him every step of the way. Why me?”

Hilda's eyes turned to gaze intently at her friend. She had heard from Sister Infirmarian some of the details of the day of that election four years ago, and how Sister Kate begged them to choose someone else, that she was still a youngster in religious terms. She told them she hadn't led the best of lives and didn’t deserve the honour. When informed that almost every Sister in the Convent had voted for her, she wept as though her heart were breaking.

Hilda put out a gentle hand and turned the lined face towards her. Her voice had never been more beautiful.

“If you had saved only me, I would have said your years of despair were fruitful. But I see how demanding, yet magnificently loving you are, and I know there are many, many others also the better for your wisdom and understanding, which were forged in the hell of those years. You might not suffer fools gladly, might often feel you’re too forthright for your own good, but you have infinite compassion for the sinner, for the lost and lonely. Look what you did for Sarah! So why not you? Who else could they choose to be their leader?”

Mother Abbess’s vivid eyes were caught and held by the truth shining in Hilda’s eyes. She recalled the day of that election. When she’d heard the results of the ballot, she knew God had forgiven her years of wilfulness and despair. She had wiped away her tears and humbly accepted the burden placed on her shoulders, one which would endure to the end of her life. It was a burden few would care to have thrust upon them, but she had trusted that this was God’s plan for her, that He knew what He was doing and would walk alongside her:

'As thou goest, step by step, I will open up the way before you.' (Proverbs 4:12)

She came back to herself and looked into those shining eyes once more. Hilda smiled with great understanding.

“Of course they chose you. You are wise like Solomon, and as generous and tender, and as bracing, as the Lord Himself. Your Sisters chose you just a few short years ago, but He chose you before ever you were born. He loved you before you were born. He followed you patiently, relentlessly, all those years, because He wanted you right where you now are, guiding and nurturing His little ones with your steadfast light, and that love of yours which is beyond measure, just like His. I could write a book about what you are - a library even! - and still only scratch the surface.”

Tears streamed down Mother’s cheeks at the radiance in Hilda’s eyes, and the beauty and sincerity of her words. Their eyes held for long moments, then the nun drew Hilda to her, laying her head against Hilda’s.

“Bless you, my gentle daughter. If I am wise, then you are wiser. If I am loving, you are more loving. If I am challenging and steadfast, you are more so, for you've been so quietly, courageously faithful all your years.” Hilda nestled closer. The sweet voice grew softer. “Just when I think the Lord has endowed me with more than I deserve, He sends me an extra-special gift - a daughter of integrity and courage, the daughter I once thought I’d lost. Not only a daughter, but a soul friend. Truly, once I had given my all, He returned it a thousandfold.”

Peace came dropping slow into that wood-panelled room. They sat on, their spirits savouring that peace, while the flames danced and sang in the hearth, lighting the crib figures in front of them. Moments later, a shiver of pure awe ran down Mother Abbess’s back as that most beautiful of voices set the quietude quivering:

"'Christmas – that magic blanket that wraps itself round us, that is so intangible it is like a fragrance. It may be a day of feasting or of prayer – but it will always be a day of remembrance – a day in which we think of everything we have loved.'"

Augusta E Rundel





*****
Chapter 15 - Stars to Hold by MaryR
Author's Notes:
As Squirrel says, "It's so tempting, when we first meet someone, not to realise all that must have gone into making them who they are. Kate, the confident, guiding MA - it is so easy to take the image that she shows to the world and imagine that she must have had a life of ease, that she has spent all her days in the convent, taking from God to give to those in need. And yet, here she is, baring her soul to Hilda, telling her of so many horrors she has been through, of all that has made her the person she now is." It's odd you should have picked up on that, Squirrel, as my own MA - who I met long after the creation of Hilda's MA - also has an astonishing and very sad tale to tell, one that made her the fine and very bracing person she is. I guess suffering can teach us to be selfish and think only of our own hurts, or it can teach us to reach out to others with all the compassion and wisdom that our experiencea have taught us. It's our choice.
Stirring with some reluctance, but aware that the time for Christmas dinner was drawing near, Hilda turned infinitely soft eyes on the woman beside her.

“Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me it all, with nothing held back. I’m so filled with love and admiration and awe that it’s hard to find words.”

“It’s enough that you listened and cared,” answered the nun, thinking to herself how beautiful Hilda was, inside and out. “What need of words? Your exquisite sympathy is like balm on a wound. It will never hurt so much again.”

Murmuring gentle words of affection, Hilda rose and moved to the desk where she retrieved the parcel she had laid there earlier, and placed it in the Abbess’s lap. The nun stared in disbelief.

“Another gift? You are surely a spoiler of your friends.”

Hilda merely smiled, thinking of all the gifts stored in her own and Ellie’s rooms. Christmas had only just begun!

Mother untied the ribbon, peeled back the paper, then cried with delight. She stroked the picture on the front cover of the book that had been inside, just as she had seen Hilda do the week before.

“Your own Little Prince – in English!” Hilda laughed wryly. “I suppose the joke's on me, really. After hearing your story, I realise now that you must understand French as well as I do. You kept that very quiet, friend of mine!”

“Not really, sweetheart. I did learn it enough to understand and even to speak it fairly competently, but there were so many English-speaking people out there in the Thirties that it wasn’t really necessary. I’ve lost some of it in the intervening years. I still understand a fair amount, but didn't feel equal to trying it with Ellie. Stumbling over my words would have made things even worse for her. I see now we were waiting for what only you could give her, including your fluent French. God's plans are always so much better than our own.”

She looked down at the book. “Bless you for this. I shall treasure it. Who knows? It might help some other person who’s struggling, as you were.”

She flicked through the pages, reflecting how far Hilda had come since the day – was it really less than a week? - when this very book had been used to break through her defences. What a lot had happened since! A grieving woman and a lost, lonely child had not only found each other, but inspired each other to turn a vital corner. Now they would journey on together. Truly a Christmas miracle!

By chance, the book opened inside the front cover, where Hilda’s elegant handwriting was revealed. Mother’s throat tightened as she read the words:

The well the little Prince and the aviator discovered in the desert was more than just nourishment for the body. The water sang in the sunshine and brought healing to the heart. In the same way, Mother, you've been the wellspring which has fed and watered the desert that was my heart, loosening the tentacles of loneliness and grief. You’ve made my heart bloom again, opening it up to God’s grace and mercy.

We’ve drawn so close that you're now friend and mother. You look gently on all my faults. You shelter me round and wrap my spirit in such tender love that I dare to be myself with you, nothing held back. You’ve taken your own place beside Nell in my heart. Together, you shine the
light of your souls on me, give me stars to hold so I may never again lose my way.


“Don’t!” whispered Hilda, as more tears found their silent way down the nun’s face. Drowned green eyes turned her way. “I need it recorded somewhere just what you mean to me, what you’ve done for me. I know it’s already recorded in God’s little black book. That’s a given. If anyone has your number, He does.”

Her teasing words did the trick. Mother’s trembling lips curved and she reached out to squeeze Hilda’s hand. No more was needed, and she turned back to the slim volume, finding sentence after sentence that resonated within, finding ideas she had used to help others in the past, all expressed here in Saint-Exupéry’s immaculate prose.

I didn’t really know what to say. I felt so clumsy. I didn’t know how to reach him. The land of tears is so mysterious.

Oh, yes! Those were her exact feelings as she had tried to help Hilda, especially in the San after the accident. Grief is such a personal thing, a mystery to others, everyone’s needs so very different. With Hilda it had been especially hard, for one had to break through those walls, and burrow under the self-containment, to make some connection. A mystery woman indeed! So little of herself on show! No matter that you demolished one wall, there was always another just behind. It had been rather like peeling away the layers of an onion. And, as with peeling an onion, she herself had been reduced to tears almost as often as Hilda. She had occasionally felt that her own forthright and bossy nature must have seemed to Hilda like having clumsy elephant feet trampling all over her soul and bruising it, but she had never once complained.

What moves me so much about this little sleeping Prince is his loyalty to a flower. It’s the image of a rose that radiates from him like the flame of a lamp and he seems even more fragile. Lamps need shielding, a gust of wind can blow them out.

“Or a bullet,” whispered Hilda bleakly, when Mother’s soft voice paused. “Or an earthquake. Just when life seems so settled and good…”

Mother took one of Hilda’s hand in hers. “It was Stephen’s love for me which radiated from him, and put the light in his eyes, just as it was Nell’s love for you which gave light to her life and made her happy. Your love for her does the same, sweetheart. It shines from within and makes you very beautiful. Your unswerving loyalty to each other was a miracle of grace, and the best part of both of you. Still is! Death hasn’t changed its depths.” The nun turned another page. “There really isn’t anything sad about old, empty shells. The love goes on in the memories, once the shell is empty:

And once you have got over it (one always does get over it) you’ll be glad to have known me. You’ll always be my friend. You’ll feel like laughing with me…'"

“I laughed so much with Nell,” Hilda voice was wistful. “More than at any other period of my life. She took such pleasure in everything, laughed at life’s idiosyncracies, refused to fret about things for long. But that little man was wrong, you know. I don’t think I will ever get over it. My heart will always be fractured now.” The silence in the room stretched taut. “But I’ll be forever glad I knew her, and that she loved me in spite of all my faults, or perhaps even because of them! If the price of her love is this agony now, then I’m willing to pay the price, even if it lasts the rest of my life… Oh, but I envy you, Mother.”

“Why so, daughter?”

The nun, too, had been willing to pay the price, in the end, but she could still feel and taste the desperate anguish and heavy cost of it.

Hilda’s voice was a distressed whisper. “You were there… with Stephen. You held out your hand to him, you looked into each other’s eyes as he left you. He knew you loved him. He smiled at you as he took that love with him. James and Nell – they both died in great pain, far from home and friends, and I wasn’t there to offer them my smile. I didn’t hold their hands, or tell them how much they were loved. They were so alone, in so much pain, and so far away from me.”

“Oh, sweetheart!” Mother drew Hilda close again and tried to speak coherently. “I know how cruelly it hurts that you weren’t there, not even for your mother. If I hadn’t been with Stephen, I too would always have wondered how lonely he might have felt. It did bring me comfort, in the end, that I’d been with him. But your loved ones, they knew, daughter. How could they not? You have such a loving spirit. Your love did ease Nell in her last hours. She told you so in that dream. And why else would she have written as she did to help you in your own sorrow? In a way, you did hold her hand, for she told you your love kept her going in the midst of her terrible pain.”

She cleared her throat, easing the tightness so she could help this lonely woman.

“When all is said and done, daughter, those empty shells are nothing. The flame within, which kept them alive, is gone from them. Nell’s spirit is now free, she's with God, at home where she belongs, filled with joy, and probably laughing at Heaven’s idiosyncracies, if all you tell me of her is true. And it was your love which sent her joyfully on her way.” Her voice grew quieter. “She will always be your friend, child. Your rich and rare relationship will never end. It will just flower in even greater beauty when you leave your own empty shell and join her, and that flowering will not be born just of all the years you spent together. It will also be born from your anguish and loss now, and from Nell’s invisible presence beside you in your moments of desperate need. It will also be born from the gifts and the love you pour out for others, now you no longer have Nell. Saint-Exupéry knew exactly what he was talking about:

"'This water was more than just nourishment. It was born from the walk under the stars, the singing of the pulley, the work of lifting it. It did the heart good, like a present. When I was a little boy, the Christmas tree lights, the music of Midnight Mass, and loving smiles, all contributed to the magic of the Christmas present I received.'”




*****
Chapter 16 - Presents for All by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Thank you for reading and commenting. I wonder if you can detect the small addition I've made to this chapter....
Christmas dinner was over. Peace reigned throughout the Convent - except in the Abbess’s office, where there was a small gathering. It was time to give Ellie her special present. Mother Abbess, still reeling from revealing herself so comprehensively to Hilda, was replenishing the fire. Sister Patricia and Sister Infirmarian were in the process of hiding a rather special present. They grinned wickedly at each other, but quickly straightened their faces when they heard a quiet tap at the door.

Mother bade whoever was there to enter, but nothing happened. Puzzled, she went over to the door, opened it, and gaped. Hilda and Ellie were standing there, wreathed both in smiles and an abundance of presents. They carried between them a large heavy-looking parcel, and perched rather precariously on top of this was a goodly array of smaller packages.

“May we come in, do you think, Mother?” pleaded a laughing Hilda, taking in the stricken look on her friend’s face. “I don’t say we’ll drop this, but it will be a close run thing, and I have a suspicion Father Christmas has given away all his replacements.”

Ellie giggled. Mother Abbess choked out, “Hilda, you’ve already…,” but quickly realised the utter futility of saying anything where Hilda was concerned.

Wordlessly, she opened the door wider. They staggered in and laid their gifts on the large desk, a grunt of thankfulness escaping Ellie as she wriggled cramped fingers. The nuns watched in astonishment as Hilda and Ellie removed all the smaller packages, stashing them here and there around the room, and left the large one sitting in splendid isolation, just begging to be opened.
Receiving an almost imperceptible nod from Hilda, Ellie ran forward, took hold of Mother’s hand, and pulled her over to the desk. Hilda put a hand on the gift.

”All the Sisters should be here, really, as this is to each and every one of you from Ellie and me, to thank you for your care of us.”

Mother Abbess tried to make her friend see sense.

“Hilda, my dear, you’ve already given us so much – the money every month, the crèche – no, two crèches! – and all that lovely origami. Not to mention my book,” she added sotto voce.

“The crèches can only be used at Christmas. We thought this would bring some pleasure the whole year round. Go on, Mother, indulge us. It comes with all our love, n’est-ce pas, petite?”

The other two nuns drifted over as Mother Abbess, after wagging a finger at Hilda, undid the big red bow, removed the ribbon and paper, then stared in stunned amazement at the most up-to-date record player Hilda and Vivien Knowles had been able to find. It was a perfect match for the vivid hue of the ribbon.

“Hilda, this is far too much!” gasped Mother Abbess.

Hilda merely leaned to kiss her, while Ellie raided the pile of smaller presents and produced three flat parcels, one of which she handed to each of the Sisters.

“A record player has need of the records,” she said, very French in her excitement, “so Madame et moi, we chose the music we have thought you would like, you know.”

The three women received the extra presents with expressions of bemused wariness, making Hilda giggle.

“One would think Ellie was handing you each a stick of dynamite. Relax!”

With sheepish grins, they tore open the paper and gaped again. Records! Lots of them, ranging from classical music, including Gregorian chant, through to jazz, Thirties and Forties easy listening, and modern pop songs. They turned them over, reading the titles, then looked at Hilda, not knowing what to say. She laughed again, guessing what was going through their minds.

“If there’s something else you’d like, just say the word, but I thought these might be a start. Those modern ones are for your postulants and novices, your younger ones,” she emphasised. “To remind them they haven’t left their youth behind, that they can still have fun! The songs might even teach you a thing or two!”

At these words, Mother Abbess cast her such a dirty look that Hilda was convulsed. The nun herself was thrilled at the fun she could see brimming in the blue-grey eyes, unaware as she was of the merciless pounding in her friend’s temples. Giving the nun a broad wink, Hilda leaned backwards and produced another, flatter package which she also handed over.

“This is just for you, Mother.” Her friend gave her a searching look, opened it quickly. “This record’s quite new. The songs are from a musical which opened in London recently, although it’s been on Broadway for a year or two now. It tells the story of the von Trapp family, who fled Austria at the time of the Anschluss.”

Her eyes darkened at her own memories of that time.Mother saw it and pressed her hand.

“Mm! I’ve read the story,” she said in a sardonic voice.

Hilda’s lips quirked. “Well, then, you know there’s an Abbess in it who’s even more high and mighty than you, although I would have thought that an impossibility.”

The nun’s expression had to be seen to be believed and had everyone else in the room laughing out loud.

“In fact, I could take you all up to London to see it, if there are any tickets left.”

“All of us?” asked Mother Abbess faintly.

“Well, your Sisters at least. It might give them some pointers on how to deal with you.”

“Impossible!” Sister Infirmarian muttered behind her.

Mother Abbess eyed Hilda with a wicked glimmer.

“I seem to remember that Mother Abbess had a lot of trouble with a certain novice, who had a very strong mind of her own. Remind you of anyone, ladies?” she asked blandly. They all spluttered, much to Ellie's bemusement. “Perhaps the show will give mesome pointers.”

“Remind me to leave her behind, Sisters. She needs no help from any show.”

Mother laid the record down and took Hilda in her arms.

“Oh, I’ll need all the help I can get very shortly. But, for now, this is way beyond kindness, though I know you think it necessary.” She kissed Hilda, and turned to Ellie. “Merci beaucoup, ma fille. C’était très gentil.”

Hilda was now not at all surprised by the French, but the other three stared at Mother as though she had suddenly sprouted an extra head. The latter just gazed straight back at them, and Hilda decided now was the time to hold out a parcel to Ellie.

“Mon enfant, this is for you, always supposing Mother Abbess will let you anywhere near her precious new toy.”

“Pour moi?”

Ellie opened the unexpected parcel to reveal records by Sacha Distel, Johnnie Halliday, Françoise Hardy, Sylvie Vartan and other modern French artists. She stared, wide-eyed, then threw her arms round Hilda, nearly dropping the records in her excitement.

“Madame, vous êtes tellement gentille, so kind,” she whispered. “Sacha, il est formidable, mon favori - mais tous ces autres aussi…. Merci, Madame, merci.”

Words failed her and she reached up to kiss Hilda, who held her close and returned the kiss.

“De rien, ma petite. Cela m’a fait grand plaisir,” she replied.

And it was, reflected Mother Abbess. It was Hilda’s total pleasure to give to others.

“Et ta tante, chérie?” Hilda prompted Ellie, who drew away from Hilda and lifted off the desk a package wrapped in shimmering opalescent paper and tied with a ribbon blue enough to match her shining eyes. She presented it to her aunt.

“For me?” stammered Sister Patricia, overcome.

She stared wide-eyed at Ellie, then glanced over at Hilda, sensing how this gift had come about. Hilda indicated she should open it, which she did, only to stand in total shock, the paper and ribbon falling to the floor unheeded. Wondering what was wrong, Mother Abbess and Sister Infirmarian came closer, but when they saw what she held they were astonished.

“But – what is it?” Mother reached out to touch it.

“It’s bogwood,” whispered Sister Patricia, her eyes glued to the panel she held in her shaking hands.

It was about eighteen inches square and almost as black and shiny as ebony. She ran trembling hands over the figures carved there.

“It’s beautiful,” said Sister Infirmarian. “But what is bogwood? I’ve never heard of it.”

So engrossed was she in her gift that Sister Patricia’s voice was almost dreamy as she replied, “It’s from Ireland and probably three to five thousand years old.”

Hilda took up the tale when the nun’s voice faltered.

“It’s made from trees which died long ago, trees like yew, oak and pine. They fell into the bogs and lay there undisturbed for thousands of years. When the Irish started culling the turf for fires, the drowned trees were discovered, and eventually some enterprising artist found a way of transforming them, when he saw what happened once they were taken out of the water. Others soon latched on, as you can see.”

Sister Patricia took back the tale. “When they uncover it from the bog it’s brown, but, once it comes into contact with the air, it hardens and darkens, so if an artist wants to carve it or work it in some way it has to be kept wet and pliable. Once carved, it’s left exposed to the air to dry, and it turns this deep black colour, and becoming almost as hard as steel. Then it can be polished.” She stopped to stroke her present once more, and one could hear the trace of an Irish accent when she added, “Each piece is unique. The carving depends on the shape of the piece when it's found. The artists say all they do is release the magic and mystery trapped inside.”

The Abbess and Sister Pauline were spellbound, feeling the artist had found something very mysterious and rather compelling in this piece. Sister Patricia traced an outline on the panel and raised her eyes to Ellie.

“How did you know, child? How could you…?”

“It was Madame. She told to me how very special wood it was and that you would like it.” She added tentatively, “She helped me pay for it, you know, because, me, I did not have enough.”

Sister Patricia’s eyes turned to Hilda, who gave her an understanding smile. “It seemed appropriate.”

The nun looked down again at her present. It was very appropriate for someone who was both nun and artist, an artist who worked in many different media. Teased out of the dark wood was the rather brawny figure of St Joseph, instructing a young and slender Jesus how to carve a cradle. Joseph’s bearded face held a hint of pride in the talent shown by his son, while Jesus’s sensitive face was a picture of concentration as he learned his craft.

“It’s exquisite,” breathed Sister Patricia, tears in her eyes, “How do I ever thank you?”

She pulled Ellie close and kissed her, Ellie giving her a big hug in return.

Hilda said, with some hesitation, “We thought it could be displayed in your studio. I know you help many people there through your art, and this might prove a good starting point for any kind of contact.” Sister Patricia stared at her. “I also happen to think you deserve something special in the place where you produce so much that is beautiful. A little reward for the much-needed funds you generate for the Convent.”

Sister Patricia’s face had a rapturous beauty of its own at this acknowledgement of her work and she looked back down at her present to hide her blushes. Hilda’s eyes moved to Mother, who nodded approvingly. Trust her friend to have thought everything through with such care and to have chosen so wisely. Her perceptive nature had recognised how much the shy, retiring Sister Patricia offered, not only to the Convent but to the troubled people who came for help. The gift was not only very appropriate, but truly unusual and magnificent.

Coming back to herself and clutching her precious gift to her chest, as though scared it would jump out of her arms and scuttle away, Sister Patricia moved to reach down behind Mother Abbess’s huge desk and produced a package which she handed to her niece, who screeched with delight. Tearing it open, she squealed even louder when she found a camera and several films.

“But, please,how did you know I wanted one?” she gasped, her eyes almost popping out of her head in excitement.

Everyone laughed as Sister Patricia tapped the side of her nose.

“Well, a little bird could have told me – or a little niece could have dropped several thousand very pointed hints just recently,” she murmured lovingly.

Ellie gasped indignantly. “But, me, I never did this thing,” she cried, then had the grace to giggle. “Well, peut-être, perhaps I did, but not that many, you know, Marraine.” She looked round. “May I take a photo of everyone? I want to remember this forever.”

They laughingly did as they were told, allowing her to arrange them as she saw fit, and smiled obligingly as the camera flashed. Mother then plucked the camera out of her hands and told her to go and sit between Sister Patricia and Hilda, knowing full well the girl would want one of herself with Madame. While Ellie was thanking her aunt, Hilda removed a flat parcel from the bookshelf where she had placed it on entry, and moved across to Sister Pauline, who looked at her in astonishment.

“When I was here in the summer, you were extremely good to a very stubborn woman. This was to be a thank you gift.” Hilda rolled her eyes. “Little did I know, when I brought it with me, how you were going to excel yourself this past week, treading me underfoot with a very firm hand, and steam-rollering right over me. I've no doubt at all that some people here would say I deserved every cruel word and action.”

Pauline nodded vigorously, the other two nuns spluttered and Hilda heaved a huge sigh, but her eyes were dancing as she held out the gift.

“You deserve far more than this very small token of my gratitude for all your care and concern, Sister, but it comes with a great deal of love.”

Pauline was horrified. “But you’ve already given us so m…”

Hilda put her hands on her hips. “Are you going to take it or do I have to force it on you?” Her tart voice was such a good imitation of the nursing Sister’s that everyone laughed. “Am I not the Abbess?”

Pauline’s lips twitched. “Oh, have it your own way, woman, before Mother here puts me on bread and water.”

She took the parcel, removed the paper and ribbon and found a book, thinner than the one Hilda had given Mother, but also velvet-covered, this time in burgundy. She opened it, then raised her head in awe.

“It’s… how did you….?”

Mother and Sister Patricia flocked over to see, and stared in their turn. On each left hand page of the book was one long poem or several short quotations, all of them about Christmas, all written in Hilda’s elegant script. Opposite each page of writing was a small painting. Mother Abbess read the quotations while Sister Patricia admired the pictures.

“But each of these is painted by a different person,” she said, with a frown. She flicked over the pages and looked at Hilda, who smiled and nodded.

“You’re right, Sister, well done. I presented my art teacher with a little competition for her ‘A’ level students. Their brief was to paint a Christmas picture to the dimensions of those pages, and I offered prizes for the three I liked the best, but I promised I would use all of them, and I have. I wonder if you can guess which ones I chose for prizes.”

Sister Patricia perused the pictures carefully, before pointing out three. One was of Bethlehem seen from a distance, with angels dancing in the dark sky, their radiance illumining the stable below. The second was a Victorian Christmas tree with beautifully drawn old-fashioned toys underneath it. The third was just a depiction of the child in the manger, but it had a magnificent simplicity that breathed peace and hope.

“That won first prize,” Sister Patricia stated. Hilda raised an eyebrow. “It’s extremely fine painting. You have some very talented artists, Hilda.”

Sister Pauline read out one of the quotations beside the painting of the stable:

“He was created by a mother whom He created. He was carried by hands He formed. He cried in the manger in wordless infancy. He is the Word without Whom all human eloquence is mute.

St Augustine


She looked at Hilda. “It’s beautiful, dear. To do all that for me…”

Her voice broke, and she looked down at her book to hide the tears.

“But none of it was my talent, Sister. The girls painted the pictures, and I certainly didn’t write the words. All I did was copy them out. I thought… I thought it might be something to read to your patients when they can’t sleep, or for you on those nights when you have to keep watch.” Hilda’s voice grew warmer. “You’ve done so much for me, but there isn’t much I can do in return, apart from things like record players. I wanted something more personal just for you.”

“Every Sister in the convent is going to want a turn with it, Pauline, so I think you should chain it to your medicine cupboard and hide the key,” Mother said with a glint in her eye.

They all laughed, but she knew both nuns were moved to tears by the generous love Hilda was pouring out on them. How had she found the energy to make this book for Pauline, and the longer one for her Superior, when feeling so ill? And organised the crêches?

“It’s as beautiful as an old illustrated manuscript, love, and so very personal and unique," Mother added. "Please thank the girls for their efforts.”

To take the attention off Pauline, who was looking rather overcome as she glanced through her already-treasured book, Mother gave a slight nod to Ellie, who went over to her little stash and brought out a small parcel which she handed to Hilda.

“Miss Knowles gave me ideas of what to choose, as I did not have an idea of what to give to you, you know.”

Ellie's love for Hilda was written all over her face as she spoke.

“So that’s what you were up to when I sent you to have coffee,” cried Hilda mock-indignantly. “Merci,petite.”

Ellie gave her a smile so dazzling it moved Hilda to tears. How dreary and hopeless this Christmas could have been for the girl! Carefully, she unwrapped the present and discovered a large, beautiful, light-blue silk scarf scattered with tiny pink roses, and a silver brooch inset with a stone of the same blue. There was also a small leather bound book which, when examined, proved to be the writings of Meister Eckhart, a mediaeval philosopher and mystic. She knew he had been accused of heresy by the Church during his lifetime, but it had never been proven, and she for one admired his writings. She smiled at Ellie and opened the book, flicking through the pages, stopping here and there to read out words which caught her eye.

"'Whatever God does, the first outburst is always compassion.'"

Mother Abbess smiled to herself. That was true of God, certainly. She was here to testify to that. But it was also true of Hilda herself, who was compassion personified. Then Mother's breath caught in her throat as she heard Hilda’s rich voice fall to a whisper:

"'What could be sweeter than to have a friend to whom, as with yourself, you can discuss all that is in your heart?'"


Nell’s face materialised on the page in front of Hilda, making her blink. Quickly, she shook herself. This would never do! She refused to spoil Ellie’s pleasure. And she might have lost Nell, but the latter had sent her another to whom she could reveal herself and not be condemned. She gave that suddenly anxious friend a gravely beautiful smile before turning back to Ellie and kissing her.

“Merci, ma chérie. The scarf is lovely and I’ve admired the writings of Meister Eckhart for a long while. Miss Knowles gave you good advice.” Ellie moved closer and returned the kiss, to find two parcels being pressed on her by Hilda. “These are from Miss Knowles and myself.”

Ellie quickly tore the paper apart to find two books about origami from Hilda, and a huge selection of origami papers from Vivien, plus a pair of small, sharp scissors.

“Everything you need to start right now,” teased Hilda.

Ellie was overcome, but soon found herself staggering under the weight of a larger and heavier package Hilda placed in her arms, one that certainly had not been on top of the record player earlier. On opening, the parcel was found to hold some of the childhood books beloved of Hilda, to add to Winnie the Pooh, which she had already read twice. There were books such as The Wind in the Willows, the Narnia books of CS Lewis, books by Arthur Ransome and E. Nesbit, A Little Princess and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, plus a whole set of Anne books by L.M.Montgomery.

“Those should keep you out of mischief for a day or two,” Hilda said dryly, as Ellie excitedly examined them. “I know how quickly you consume books, but you’ll have to make do with the library here if you finish those before next week. I’ll point you in the right direction.”

Ellie raised her head and they saw how serious she looked. “You are spoiling me, you know, Madame. You took me to London and gave to me a wonderful, but wonderful, time. Now these…” Tears sparkled in the sapphire eyes. “You do not know me. Why are you doing all this?”

Her voice broke and Hilda drew her close again, guessing she was remembering other Christmases, and loved ones now departed. She pressed her lips to the girl’s black hair.

“Ellie, ma petite, I do it because I’ve grown very fond of you, like everyone else here in this room, but also because you’ve been a wonderful support to me this Christmas. God sent me a very special gift when He sent you here. Will you believe me?”

Mother Abbess remembered a quotation by Dickens in Hilda’s book: 'Christmas happens every time someone reaches out to touch another life with love.'

Hilda held Ellie a few moments, the girl’s face buried in her shoulder, then glanced at the others. Was this the moment, or would they undo Ellie completely? Mother Abbess read her silent question and moved behind her desk, where she retrieved a flat package.

“Ellie, little one, we in this room have another surprise for you, a welcome one, we hope.” Hilda took the girl by the shoulders so Ellie had to look into her eyes. “But you must promise that if you don’t want what we offer, you will say so. It is entirely your own choice as to whether you accept or not. We don’t want to force you.”

Ellie stared up at her blankly, and frowned as her aunt came over and handed her a package wrapped in gentian blue paper. She looked round and saw how serious they all were. Her eyes dropped to the package and back up to Hilda, who nodded in sympathy, her eyes full of love.

“Open it, chérie. I promise it won’t bite.”

Sensing somehow the importance of the moment, Ellie removed the paper with great care, and discovered a gentian blue picture frame and a booklet. She looked at what was contained in the frame, but could make no sense of it. Her expression gave a whole new meaning to the word dumbfounded. All at once her hands began to shake, the booklet fell to the floor, and the frame would have followed had Hilda not caught it.

Ellie raised her eyes in disbelief. “It says….it says…,” she gasped, but was unable to get the words out.

One arm round the girl, Hilda held the frame so Ellie could see the picture. In delicate water colours, Sister Patricia had painted a flower-bedecked Chalet School and set it in a green meadow, with a view of the mighty Jungfrau in the distance, its summit veiled in wisps of cloud. There were lower mountains set all around, tinted a rosy pink in the early morning sunshine. Overlaid in dark blue on the pale sky was the Chalet School crest. Painted on the meadow at the bottom of the picture were the words:

Eléanor Claire Drake

Chaletian

Ellie and Hilda gazed down at the picture while the others waited, in hushed expectation, but Ellie was totally robbed of breath and could only stare and stare.
Hilda disturbed the girl’s reverie.

“Well, ma fille, has it sunk in yet?”

Ellie raised her eyes. Hilda saw the doubt.

“C’est vrai?” whispered the girl. “Am I really to go to your school?”

“That’s what it says, petite. If you want it, it’s yours.”

Ellie flung her arms round Hilda and burst into tears. The latter gathered her close and laid her own head on the girl’s, her eyes turned towards the Sisters. Mother's own eyes were very soft, Patricia had tears streaming down her face and Sister Infirmarian was blowing her nose hard and clearing her throat.

“I take it that’s a yes, chérie,” whispered Hilda.

Ellie looked up, tears streaming down her own cheeks. “It has been my dream since I met you, you know. But how? There is no money, none at all.”

Hilda gathered her close again. “Money has been found, chérie, and you shall have your two years there, if that is your wish, and if you fancy having me as your headmistress! I’ve told you before, I’m very strict.”

That did the trick. Ellie tried to wipe the tears away with her hands, until Hilda proffered her a clean white handkerchief. She took Ellie by the shoulders again.

“If you would rather return to your old school, ma petite, that also could be arranged.”

Ellie shook her head fiercely. “Mais non, Madame. Me, I was unhappy, but very unhappy there, before I left, you know. I could not return. But to go with you…”

Her face transformed into one of utter bliss, she stood on tiptoe to kiss Hilda’s cheek.

“It’s the good Sisters you should thank, petite,” whispered Hilda, “especially your aunt, who has wanted this so much for you.”

Ellie went to each of the nuns in turn and hugged them. Her aunt drew her close. “Make the most of it, love,” she said through her own tears.

Ellie nodded and looked down at the picture again, tracing the crest with her fingers. Hilda bent and picked the booklet up from the floor.

“I borrowed this school brochure from Miss Knowles. There are pictures and lots of little details you might find interesting, and you and I can talk more about it during the remainder of the holiday.”

Hilda smiled as she held out the brochure. Ellie took it, but looked at Hilda with shining, red-rimmed eyes, and straightened her shoulders.

“I make to you a promise, Madame,” she said in solemn and rather formal English, her French accent much in evidence. The others listened in sudden awe.

“Me, I will work hard, but so very hard, and make you to be proud of me. En plus, I will never let you down in any way, you know. I will be your champion, should you need one. You have made me the most happiest of girls and you have my total allegiance.”

Fighting for composure, Hilda’s years of teaching young girls came to her aid.

“Ellie, I'm truly honoured by your words, but to know you're happy is reward enough. All I ask is that you be yourself and make the most of your opportunities.”

Unable to continue, her eyes dark with emotion, Hilda took the gallant figure in her arms again and looked across at Mother Abbess helplessly. No one had ever offered to be her champion before, though Nell had often behaved like one, running interference for her, imaginary sword in hand.

The Abbess wondered to herself if Hilda had any idea just how much she had done for this young girl:

'For I was hungry and you gave Me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave Me to drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in.



******
Chapter 17 - and a special one for Hilda. by MaryR
Author's Notes:
This is for you, Sarah, to let you know I’m thinking of you after the very bad news you received today.


Um, those of you who couldn’t guess the additonal bit – it was the book for Pauline. I decided she shouldn’t be left out in the personal present stakes. As to time, it doesn’t actually take THAT much time to write out quotations, if you’ve a quick hand, and she didn’t decorate either of the books herself, so….. *grins*
Silence lingered for a while, giving Ellie time to take it all in and for the others to recover.

Mother looked at her sisters, then cleared her throat.

“Ellie, would you take Madame over to the couch. She needs to be sitting down for a surprise we have for her.”

Hilda and Ellie looked round, saw the secret grins on the faces of all three Sisters. They looked at each other.

“Shall we do as they ask, Madame?”

“Well, it would never do to disappoint them, ma fille, so lead the way, and do try to look suitably impressed, no matter what you secretly think,” Hilda admonished her.

Ellie giggled, but Hilda wondered what on earth these three women were plotting.

I hope you didn’t have anything to do with this, Nell, you and your crazy sense of humour. Just make sure I don’t let myself down.

Still clutching her gentian blue frame, Ellie led Hilda over to the couch. Sister Infirmarian and Sister Patricia each took one of the chairs. Hilda thought their expressions seemed almost hungry as their eyes feasted on her. The next moment, Mother was there, laying a large, flat parcel on Hilda’s lap and plumping down beside her. Hilda took in the gaily wrapped present with some apprehension, and turned to look into warm green eyes.

“What have you done?” she asked fearfully.

“You didn’t really think you were going to escape scot-free, did you? My Sisters would have something to say to me if you walked out of here without a gift. This is from all of us, the whole community, to thank you for your boundless generosity since you entered our lives. It does have another purpose, too, but I’d rather you opened it first.”

Hilda remained still, afraid to touch it. Mother understood. “I hope it will help soften those memories, take away their pain.”

Fingers trembling, Hilda pulled the ribbons off, removed the paper, then froze. It was impossible. How could they...? Her eyes flew to Sister Patricia, whose brown eyes shone warm sympathy on her. Even as she painted it, the nun had divined something of what it would do to Hilda. She just hoped she had got everything right, for she herself had never seen the places depicted, nor indeed one of the two people inhabiting them.

It was another delicate water colour, this one about two feet in length and a foot tall, in the form of a triptych. The two narrower end sections showed large wooden houses, their balconies bedecked with colourful flowers. One was the school as it had been in the Tyrol, the beautiful Tiernsee in front and the mountains behind, crowding down to the blue, blue lake. The other end section held the school building on the Gornetz Platz, the Jungfrau standing proud in the distance, shades of evening beginning to darken the lower slopes.

However, it was to the larger middle section that Hilda’s eyes were drawn. Two women stood there, leaning on a gate and talking to each other in the soft evening light. It was the white-haired woman’s face which Hilda’s finger gently traced. Behind the women rose a graceful, grey mansion on a slight rise, the sunset painting all the colours of the rainbow across the sky, warming the grey stone building. Lights were coming on in the windows, endowing it with a welcoming, friendly air.

It was an elegant, tender work of art, but to Hilda it was so much more. Here was depicted her life’s work, her homes – and Nell, her true home – all together in one beautiful whole.

“How?” she whispered, totally undone.

Mother Abbess put an arm round the slender shoulders.

“I borrowed some photos from Nancy and Gwynneth while I was at the San. I had an idea, even back then, of what I wanted, but I left it to Patricia as to the how. I felt you should have a reminder of what and who you are, of all you've done over the years. More especially, though, I wanted it to be a gentle reminder of who you shared all those years with.”

She felt a quiver run through Hilda’s slight frame.

“Your life isn’t over, sweetheart, it’s just changed, and your memories of what you once had should be gentle, happy ones. After all the generosity you’ve shown this Christmas, I’m even more delighted I organised it. It’s a reminder that you’re still very much loved, by us here, by your friends at school, and by Nell herself.”

She was about to add more, but remembered just in time that Ellie knew nothing of Hilda’s plans for entering. The others remained silent, but Hilda could feel their compassion, as she could feel Ellie’s hand holding hers, and the supporting love in the nun’s arm. Drawing strength from them, she pulled herself together and lifted her head to look into loving green eyes.

“Bless you!” she whispered, tears sparkling on her eyelashes.

She had heard the unspoken message in the nun's loving words. It would hang here in her new home, now and in the future, a vivid reminder of what had been. Mother had ensured that she would still have Nell with her, her memory enhancing Hilda’s vocation, not taking anything away. For Nell was part of who she was, part of all she would be offering to God.

Euripides had expressed it so beautifully: Two friends, one soul.

Shaking herself, Hilda gave a thought to the person who had executed this wonderful thing. Laying the painting on Mother’s lap, she turned to the armchair beside the couch and took Sister Patricia's hands.

“I shan’t attempt to thank you, but you’ve given me something not only very beautiful, but healing. It’s gentle and peaceful, and a great tribute to your many gifts. You've somehow conveyed the very essence of Nell.”

Her rich voice was like mellow music, revealing her heart to these dear people.

“I don’t need thanks, Hilda,” Sister Patricia whispered, reaching out to clasp Hilda’s hand. “Your face and your tears say it all. It was a pleasure and an honour to paint something so meaningful. It was a lucky day for all of us when you chose to honour us with your presence, even if the reason was such a sad one for you - but we could never have guessed what a wonderful blessing you would prove to be for all of us.”

Mother watched Hilda’s face as she tried to smile at Patricia and decided the poor woman needed some quiet, some peace, or she would break down. Something her self-contained new daughter would not want to do in front of others! She glanced at Sister Infirmarian, who at once rose to her feet, settling her robes around her.

“Time I returned to my patients,” she said briskly, then leaned over Hilda and helped her to her feet, noting the sudden pallor. “Hilda, on behalf of all of us, thank you for your presents, all your presents. I love your book and so will my patients.”

She kissed her, a rare caress from the sturdy, practical woman. Hilda returned the kiss with interest. She understood the nun even more now, after hearing that riveting story a few hours ago. Sister Infirmarian turned to leave, and Patricia also rose to her feet. She pressed Hilda’s arm lovingly, and looked at Ellie, who was flicking through her precious brochure.

“Come, Ellie. Mother would like a few words with Madame.”

Annoyance flashed across Ellie’s face and was gone, but Hilda had caught it. The girl rose to her feet to gather her gifts, and Hilda, ever the peacemaker, murmured, “Ma petite, would you take my scarf and book, and wait for me in my room? I know you have lots of questions. I’ll be along shortly.”

Ellie’s face brightened on the instant. With her aunt’s help, she collected everything and departed. Hilda sat down again and took back her picture, laying it on her own knee and staring at it as though her very life depended on it.

Mother had watched that little scene with interest, but now scrutinised Hilda’s face. How white she was, creases marring her forehead. Pain? The nun reflected that the last twenty-four hours had been very hard, with that terrible nightmare, the brave relinquishment of her treasures, and the searing emotions during and after Midnight Mass. Added to which, Hilda had slept very little, if at all.

Then this very morning she listened with total concentration and compassion to my own tale of woe. Now the final touch, this picture…

Mother broke ruthlessly into Hilda’s reverie. “You should be in bed, child.” Hilda raised bewildered eyes. “Your head aches badly. Don’t deny it! You look like a ghost. Hardly surprising, after the last two days. Before that you wore yourself out in London and… Well, you know the state you were in when you arrived.”

“I can’t,” stammered Hilda. “Ellie needs some attention.”

Mother Abbess gave a sigh of total exasperation.

“Daughter, when are you ever going to consider your own needs? Do we have to wait till Hell freezes over?”

Hilda was equally determined. “We’ve just told her she’s going to the Chalet School. She needs to talk about it. She’s ripe for an explosion, anyway, for she’ll be very flat after all the excitement today. All her loneliness and loss will come crashing in on her. Ask her to bottle up what we’ve just given her, on top of all that, and you’re asking for trouble. Are you prepared for the fall-out?”

“What about you, love?” The nun conceded defeat, for she always chose her battles very carefully. “You need rest.”

“I’ll manage, but I'll miss the evening service. Ellie will go off like a rocket if I ask her to wait longer.”

“Scattering her burning shards over us all?” quipped Mother. “I could do without that, thank you. I saw her face, before you so neatly stepped in, and happen to agree with you. But you mustn’t help her at the expense of your own health, or you’re going to be ill again. I do not want a repeat of last week, child.”

There was intense sadness in Hilda’s face as she stared down at her picture. “To be quite honest, Mother, all I want is to hide away with this picture and gloat over it, absorb all it means to me.” Mother was silenced by such openness. “But that would be selfish when there are others in need. Only – you took my breath away! I haven’t quite taken it in yet. To organise such a thing for me…. What did I ever do to deserve such kindness?”

The nun gaped in disbelief. “You have to ask? Oh, child, so much you've done. The trouble is, you only ever remember what you’ve received, don’t you? You forget all you offer to others. No wonder your Nell loved you.”

Hilda’s eyes dropped to the picture and Mother laid her hand on Hilda’s, where it lay beside the figure of Nell.

“Enjoy it, daughter. It will stay in your room while you’re here. Afterwards... well, it will find its own niche, where you'll be able to see it for the rest of your days. It will evoke memories of your old life, memories you must never forget, memories which you must take forward and make part of your new life, otherwise you wouldn't be the Hilda we know and love.”

A lone tear rolled down Hilda’s cheek. The nun’s sweet voice held a wry note when she added, “I have a feeling Nell Wilson's going to haunt my convent, anyway, once it becomes your home, so she might as well be present visually. After all, she wasn’t one to hide her light under a bushel, was she?”

Hilda’s watery smile at those heartfelt words was so poignant that Mother drew her close again. She sensed Hilda’s feelings were intensely bitter-sweet right then; that even though she had found love and joy again, they in no way replaced her deep, abiding longing for Nell’s presence. More tears slid down Hilda’s white cheeks as she stroked the figure of Nell.

“It’s so beautiful and tender,” she whispered. “Sister Patricia's a talented artist. I know you allow her as many hours as possible for her art, and she sells some of it to your guests, but does she honestly sell much, other than that?”

Mother shook her head. “After all you’ve heard me say on the subject, you know I encourage my nuns to develop their gifts when they come to us, as long as it doesn’t interfere with their counselling, or their spiritual development and relationship with God. After all, to deny one’s gifts is to deny what one is, and that's not what a convent's for. Certainly not this convent while I'm Abbess! I want rounded, well-balanced nuns with something to offer. If you want to stand still, go elsewhere.”

She coughed. “Sorry, love. On my hobby-horse again! To answer your question, Patricia refuses to make any attempt to force her work on the general public or to have an agent, which I’ve suggested several times. She paints and sculpts, and goodness knows what else, purely for love of it, because she can’t help herself. Some of our guests do buy her work, and are willing to pay a lot of money. They see her worth, just as we do.”

“She should be hanging in a gallery,” mused Hilda. “One of my former school mistresses is married to Sir Peter Young. How do you feel about me making some approaches, asking if he would look at her work?”

She stopped, wondering if she was being too forward, but Mother Abbess’s eyes lit up.

The Peter Young? The well-known artist?”

Hilda cocked an amused eyebrow. “I thought you called yourself the original Philistine where art was concerned?”

“You leave my character out of it! Are you serious about offering to ask his opinion?”

“Why not? She deserves to be noticed – and I should imagine the convent could use the figures she'd command, if her work were displayed to its best advantage.”

Mother Abbess laughed out loud. Hilda’s eyes widened, and the nun spoke softly, but with the utmost seriousness.

“Hilda, sweetheart, are you planning to work your magic on every person in this convent? Is anyone going to be safe? Ellie, myself, Sister Patricia – who’s next in your big heart?”

“It’s not so big,” murmured Hilda, her eyes still on her friend, rather haunted eyes. “What else can I bring to the table, Mother? I don’t have many talents to offer the community when I enter.”

“Only a loving compassionate spirit, a generous nature, a skill for gracious listening and reading people’s hearts, an unparalleled sensitivity and perception – all allied to a knowledge of languages we can certainly use, an innate gift of leadership that's always needed, and which enables you to stay calm and focused when problems arise, an ability to teach others with passion and secure knowledge, a sympathetic understanding of teenagers, and so on and so on. And that’s only scratching the surface where you're concerned. Not much at all, love. I can’t think why we're so desperate to have you.”

The nun’s voice was exceedingly dry, but for once it was lost on Hilda. She was staring into the fire, frowning hard, and Mother waited patiently. All this thinking couldn’t be good for an aching head! Hilda turned to her.

“I don’t know what to do,” she stated baldly.

“About what, sweetheart?”

Hilda’s eyes held those of the nun. “I said I would wait two years before I entered, because of the school. Suddenly, that doesn’t seem to be enough for Him. I keep getting the feeling He wants me here right now, that if I don’t come soon it will be too late for my new dream. I know life is fragile - I learned that yet again this year! – and we must seize our opportunities when they present themselves, but….”

Her eyes grew dark, as though with pain, and she cried almost angrily, “But I can’t! I won’t let all Nell and I worked for fall apart. Nancy and Kathie need more time. He’s not playing fair!”

Mother Abbess stroked Hilda’s agitated face, gentling her, and some of the strain faded.

“Perhaps He is, love. Perhaps He is playing fair.” The sweet voice was very soft. “It could be you’re not hearing Him aright – or it could be you’re hearing a message really meant for someone else. Do you trust me?”

“You know I do.”

“Well, I might be able to sort it out for you before you return to school. I may already have the answer. In fact, I think the message is for me rather than you, so thank you for being so honest. You’ve shown me that what I have in mind is the right way to go.”

She saw Hilda’s questioning look and smiled again.

“Are you willing to leave it to the Lord and me, just for a wee while? Will you put your worries to one side and let that joy shine in your eyes? I’ve waited so long to see it.”

Hilda’s keen eyes probed those of Mother Abbess, seeking some clue, but saw she would get nothing more.

“You’re my Superior. I'll wait – a wee while!” and she laid quiet stress on the last three words.

Mother Abbess chuckled. “I’m suspicious, love. You gave in far too easily.”

She was rewarded by seeing some sparkle returning to Hilda’s eyes. She cupped the white face in gentle hands.

“Thank you for all your gifts today, and for listening to my tale of woe with grace and love. I meant every word I said. You are truly a daughter of whom to be proud.”

Tears sprang to Hilda’s eyes. “And only a mother’s love could have produced such a precious and wonderful gift for her daughter, could have known what would speak to her daughter’s heart.”

“I think, child, before we both break down completely,” teased the nun through her own tears, “you should go and put Ellie out of her misery, or that aforementioned rocket might just go off.”

As she watched Hilda leaving the room, her precious picture tucked under her arm, Mother’s face was sad. How she wished there were more she could do. Hilda had poured out her love so generously on all this Christmas, never counting the cost. She had hidden her own physical and mental pain, joked and laughed and listened and healed, and given a young girl her heart’s desire. Yet, through it all, she yearned for the one thing she herself was lacking – the presence of Nell Wilson. She had re-discovered the joy of the Lord, but that only existed side by side with the anguish. It did not take it away.

How did one who had been through so much become so beautiful a healer? She was never selfish or impatient, only gentle and serene, somehow shining the light of her loving kindness on everyone, be they friend or stranger. She never judged or criticised, but was always ready with a quiet word of acceptance or encouragement. She made all she met feel privileged and special…

The nun’s thoughts stumbled. Her eyes went blank. She gasped out loud. How could she have been so blind? She rose to her feet, moved round the couch and bent to pick up the angel she had offered to Hilda as comfort.

“Is this how you sometimes felt in her presence, Nell?" she murmured brokenly. "As though you'd never measure up? Did she change you without you even being aware of it? Does she do the same to the girls – subtly, oh so subtly? Did you ever discover her secret? Because whatever it is, it should be bottled.”

She sank down into the soft comfort of the couch, angel still in hand. Her eyes sought the bambino on the table before her, as her stunned thoughts coalesced with stunning clarity.

How on earth do I thank You for sending her, Lord? Yes, she found her way very quickly into this sealed-up heart of mine, but, now, suddenly, I’ve realised that all my Sisters have trooped up the path behind her and taken root in that heart, the door of which Hilda left wide open. My love for them has changed, and become warmer, brighter, lighter. I’ve become truly their mother, instead of just their Mother Abbess. Hilda, my gentle daughter, how do you work your magic?

But she knew! Oh, she knew! Hilda stood behind people, upholding and renewing them, like Chaucer’s parfit gentil knight.


******
Chapter 18 - An inexplicable bond. by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Thanks to those of you who reviewed the last chapter and, indeed, to all of you who have written reviews in Vol 3. It is very much appreciated.
Meanwhile, the subject of Mother Abbess’s ruminations made her weary way through the corridors. The nun had been right, Hilda admitted. The day had taken its toll. She was unsure she had anything to spare for Ellie, and was worried her headache would cause her to utter words better left unsaid. But it was only five o’clock, and Ellie was only a young girl, with a young girl’s impatience. It was going to be a long, long evening.

She looked down at the painting in her arms and drew strength from Nell’s smiling face. She had sensed her friend’s presence very near since midnight. Even now, she felt that if she were to look sideways without warning, she would catch a glimpse of that belovèd figure, that 'precious friend hid in death’s dateless night'. However, she had been blessed enough this very special day, and would not ask for more.

Opening the door to her room, she found Ellie sitting in the armchair, scowling ferociously as she thumbed through her new books. Knowing better than to make any comment about it, Hilda bent to kiss her.

“Thank you for waiting so patiently, child.”

She moved to the chest of drawers and propped the painting against the mirror. As she stood back to soak up its beauty, Ellie moved to her side. She met the girl’s eyes in the mirror.

“You have a very gifted aunt, Ellie. No wonder you took to origami like a duck to water.”

There was no answering smile, but the scowl had gone and Ellie's lips looked more relaxed. She pointed to the building on the right of the picture.

“That is the school, oui? I recognise it in the booklet.” Hilda nodded, tensing up. “What are the two buildings each side? Why are they in the picture?”

It was not the question Hilda was expecting, so she relaxed a little and gave a short, concise history of the Chalet School. She tore her eyes away from the picture and looked back into the mirror. Ellie was watching her intently. She tensed again.

“And that is you in the middle, with a friend. Is she the one who died? The one who made you sad?”

Hilda nodded again. Ellie stared at the picture, gnawing her lip.

“Mère told to me a little and so did my aunt, but not too much, you know. Will it hurt you to tell to me who she was? And why her hair was white? Yours is not like this.”

Where to start? How to explain Nell? Hilda drew the girl over to the bed and they settled with their backs against the wall, Ellie curled up in Hilda’s arms. Where were the cats, Hilda wondered. They would have added their own brand of warmth and comfort. Nothing quite like a cat to ease the hurt!

“To put it briefly, petite, she was my deputy head when I became Headmistress long ago, just before the war. During the war, I was in a very bad accident and spent a whole year recuperating, so Nell took over as Head. When I finally returned, she became my co-Head. I couldn't ask her to go back to being deputy, when she had worked so hard to keep the school going, could I?" She smiled tenderly to herself. "When we moved to Switzerland, she took over as Head of the Finishing School, while I continued as Head of the school proper.”

She stared at Nell, while Ellie stared up at Hilda.

“Why was her hair white, little one? Because she was a heroine, a true heroine, who always denied she was any such thing.”

Her beautiful voice making a compelling story of it, she told of the escape from Austria. The girl sat enthralled, never knowing that Hilda was recalling how afraid she had been for her friend during that terrible time. How had Nell escaped all those horrors, only to fall victim so senselessly to an earthquake?

The musical voice eventually stilled. They sat in silence, eyes on the picture, until Hilda felt a butterfly kiss planted on her cheek.

“You miss her very much, Madame.” Ellie’s face was sombre.

“She was part of my life for nearly thirty years, child. I miss her every moment of every day, but it's getting better slowly, just as it will for you. I know how much you miss your home, your family and friends, your very way of life, and I can never make any of that up to you, but I hope that coming to the school will help.”

Ellie nestled into Hilda’s side. “To be near to you is helping, you know, Madame. Now I can be near to you all the time at school, even when the holiday is finished. I feel to have found a home again. I was afraid of how lonely I would be when you were gone.”

Hilda kept silent, unsure what to say. She was touched by the girl’s trust in her, but there were things Ellie needed to know, to understand. Nerving herself, she took a deep breath.

“Ellie, mon enfant, it won’t be the same, can’t be the same, once we're at school. I’m the Headmistress, with lots of calls on my time, and, believe me, it wouldn’t help you make friends, if you were seen spending too much time with the Headmistress.”

She laid her cheek on Ellie’s hair and gathered her closer, as though to ward off the coming blow.

“You won’t see much of me, I’m afraid. I won’t be as available to you as I am here. Oh, I'll ensure we have quiet moments together each day, and try to be there if the need is great, but I can’t promise, and it would be wrong of me so to do. Miss Knowles, however, will be there, and you’ll make friends among the girls…”

Her voice faded, for she knew she was inflicting hurt. Ellie sighed, that sigh held so much longing, and Hilda almost cried out at the injustice of the girl’s life.

“I understand, Madame,” Ellie murmured. “I will try not to ask too much, when you have already done so much for me, you know. We will be together til then, n’est-ce pas?”

Hilda’s heart quailed, but she knew she had to be honest.

“Chérie, we will indeed spend time together, yes, but I’m here because I’m grieving. Do you understand?” Ellie’s head moved. “I need time to be with Mère, who's helping me recover, as I've been trying to help you. I need time to be quiet by myself, to think, to pray, to go for walks, or to read. If I don’t have that solitude and silence, I won’t be able to help you with your own grief.”

Another silence. Another gentle sigh. Hilda held the girl closer, knowing how difficult this was for her. She felt almost as though she was abandoning her, pushing her out of the nest before her wings were strong enough to fly. Hilda could not explain why it was she cared so much for Ellie. It just was. And would always be, now.

So many girls had passed through her hands over the years, and even though she may have felt drawn to some more than others, she had the obligation to treat them all alike. Her relationship with her Head Girls grew deeper, occasionally, as they shared difficult problems or discussed tactics, and she received the secrets of many of them long after their departure from the school. But never before had she felt this sudden and irrevocable bond. An inexplicable trust had sprung up between them the moment they met in the sitting room. Was that why the austere Head of the Chalet School was revealing so much of herself to a young girl she had known only one short, intense week, but one she felt she had known forever?

She was not, nor ever had been, a woman who gave her heart away for the asking. With Nell, as with James, the love had grown slowly, unobtrusively. It had taken a near-fatal accident for she and Nell to discover and express their hearts. Even then it had remained largely unspoken. So why this instant recognition, taking her completely unawares? She wanted to sing at the sheer, magical blessedness and beauty of it, even while she wanted to weep out loud at Nell’s death. God surely had a great sense of irony. After all, it was the loss of Nell which had made possible this bond with Ellie.

Her spirit returning to the room, Hilda took her by the shoulders. She looked her in the eye, smiling so beguilingly that the girl had, perforce, to smile back.

“Ellie, chérie, despite what I’ve just said, we’ll see a great deal of each other here, for we have much to do. You’ve missed a whole term of lessons, so I intend to make sure you catch up! We’ll study French and English Literature every day. Don’t frown!” she laughed. “Some of the books are in the library here, and I'll order others from London. You do need to be speaking some German, at least, to be able to communicate at school, so we work on that, too. I know you wanted to start Italian. Well, the more the merrier, if you want to be an interpreter!”

Ellie looked shell-shocked at this barrage of information. Hilda chuckled and pulled her close again.

“Tu vois, ma petite, it all falls into place. In those times when I’m with Mother Abbess, or just need to be quiet and alone, you may be getting on with some set work or some reading. You’ll have neither time nor energy to miss me.”

Horror descended as she felt Ellie begin to shake. Had she been too outspoken? Was it all too much for a young girl? All at once, a loud gurgle escaped.

“Ellie?”

Ellie looked up, face wreathed in smiles. “Me, I see now why you have called yourself fierce.” Hilda raised one eyebrow. “In your oh, so gentle way, you go to demand more of me than my other Headmistress asked, you know, and make it sound so raisonnable. But, Madame, it is my Christmas holiday, non?” she finished in mock-outrage.

“Ah!” said Hilda.

What else, after all, was there to say? She grinned.

“But I can be so very much fiercer even than that, I promise you, as you will discover. We all have our faults and failings, even your esteemed Headmistress. Give me a bad day and I’m likely to bite you or throw things. So make sure you learn to duck.”

Ellie giggled again, knowing quite well Hilda was joking, but then sighed and nestled close.

“Feeling lonely, child?” asked Hilda, tightening her arms. How she longed to take away the girl’s pain. “I know, petite. I promise you I do understand. That sheer hellish misery that they're gone forever and nothing, nothing at all, can bring them back. It takes your breath away and leaves you weary. And you've lost, not only your loved ones, but your very home and whole way of life. It will take time, Ellie. Just lean on me…”

Her gentle voice trailed away and they sat on in silence, each giving warmth and comfort to the other. Hilda leaned her aching head against the wall and closed her eyes, her thoughts fleeing to her own lost loved one.

Nell, if you can hear me, help me be a guiding light for this child you sent. May she find her own new dreams. May she, one day, find that new home she seeks so desperately, and new loved ones to take away the agony of loss. Never allow me to fail her, now or in the future, wherever that future may take us. Be with her when I can’t, dear heart, and instil in her soul your own irresistible grace and courage.



******
End Notes:
I will be starting a new volume with my next piece, as Christmas Day is now over and Volume 3 is long enough. So you will need to favourite Vol 4 if you wish to carry on reading.

'precious friend hid in death’s dateless night' is from Shakespeare
This story archived at http://www.sallydennylibrary.co.uk/viewstory.php?sid=348