Half an hour later, Hilda was beginning to regret having agreed to this mad plan. They had spent quite some time in the gym, trying to decide which of the many ropes would be best suited to their purpose; balancing weight and length had proved a difficult task. In the end, they had picked three that would comfortably cover the distance if joined together, and didn’t seem impossible to carry. After making their choice, they had gone to their rooms to don ski clothes as the most sensible apparel for attempting the crossing - although, Hilda thought gloomily, sensible wasn’t really a word that could be applied to any of this - and, finally, had returned to the sitting room, where Hilda watched rather apprehensively as Nell tied the ropes together.
“Are - are you sure the knots will hold?” she asked, trying and failing to keep her nerves from showing in her voice.
Nell turned her head to look at her, eyebrows shooting up. “Am I sure the knots will hold?” she repeated. Her incredulous tone turned sarcastic as she continued. “Well, how should I know? I’m only Guide Captain, after all, what do I know about these things? Talk sense, Hilda! I know how to knot a pair of ropes together!”
“I know you do, but if they should slip…” Hilda trailed off, fiddling with the trim of her ski suit, not wanting to continue. Somehow, to speak the words would make her fears seem too real.
“These are Double Fisherman’s Knots, you can use them for joining climbing ropes together - and trust your weight to them! I’ve never known one slip, and I’ve seen them used hundreds of times.” She worked as she spoke, slipping the rope-end through a loop and pulling it tight. “If anything there’s more risk of them jamming, and if they do Peggy Burnett won’t love me, but we’ll still be perfectly safe.”
Shaking her head in indignation over her partner’s doubts about her expertise, Nell carefully inspected her work. Satisfied it was well done, she neatly coiled the joined ropes.
“Shall we go?” she asked, rising to her feet and slinging the coil over her shoulder. She looked down at Hilda, still perched on the edge of her chair, and her face softened.
“Don’t worry so much, my dear. I’ll be fine…” she hesitated for a few seconds, then went on, “if you really think it’s such a bad idea, we won’t do it.” It was a wrench to say the words; she hated the thought of just abandoning her plan, but she also hated to see Hilda so worried.
Hilda shook her head, standing and taking Nell’s free arm. “I appreciate the offer, but I agreed we should attempt it, and I won’t change my mind now.”
The flash of Nell’s pleased smile as they walked towards the entrance together reassured her a little. Nell had an excellent sense of direction, she probably would be able to find the way to Freudesheim; and if she couldn’t, at least she would be able to return with the ropes to guide her.
They stopped before the side door and made their final preparations. Caps, mittens and snow goggles were donned, the last meant to protect their eyes from the driving wind. Taking one of the rope ends, Nell tied it securely around her waist, giving Hilda a look that dared her to question the knot’s safety - a challenge from which her partner wisely abstained. That done, she uncoiled a few feet of the other end and handed it to Hilda, who wound it carefully twice round her wrist.
“Ready?” Hilda asked, unlocking the door. Now they were here, she was eager to begin, to have it be over, whatever the result might be.
“Ready,” Nell confirmed, her voice somewhat muffled by the long scarf Hilda had wrapped round her neck and the lower half of her face.
Together, they pulled the door open. Despite knowing what to expect, both flinched at the sudden blast of icy air that rushed in, carrying whirling snowflakes in with it. There was no time to waste now, and with a quick squeeze of Hilda’s shoulder, Nell stepped outside. Almost as soon as she left the doorway, the snow enveloped her so that, strain her eyes though she might, Hilda could see no trace of her.
Pushing the door to as far as it would go, leaving only the smallest gap possible for the rope she fiercely clutched to run through, Hilda leaned against the wall and fixed her gaze on the clock, counting down the minutes until it should be time to call Nell back.