A blizzard traps Hilda and Nell in the School at Christmas, disrupting all their plans.
Ste Therese's House Characters:
Hilda Annersley, Nell Wilson
Adventure, Domestic, Romance, Seasonal, Slash
16 Jul 2014 Updated:
17 Oct 2014
1. Chapter 1 by Elennare
2. Chapter 2 by Elennare
3. Chapter 3 by Elennare
4. Chapter 4 by Elennare
5. Chapter 5 by Elennare
6. Chapter 6 by Elennare
7. Chapter 7 by Elennare
8. Chapter 8 by Elennare
9. Chapter 9 by Elennare
10. Chapter 10 by Elennare
AN: Inspired by the December 2013 Day Girls topic at Lime Green Musing, "christmas at home", and started in that month.
“Hilda! Hilda, wake up!”
Hilda opened her eyes reluctantly in response to the call, wondering why on earth her partner had such a deep aversion to sleeping in occasionally. ‘Just for once, couldn’t she simply get up quietly, and let me sleep?’ she thought grumpily, as she looked around for Nell.
“What is it?” she asked of the tall figure by the window, her voice still sleepy.
“Can’t you hear? There’s a blizzard outside,” Nell replied rather grimly, turning round to look at her.
Wide awake now, Hilda sat bolt upright in the bed, meeting Nell’s eyes in dismay. “A blizzard? But that means…”
“That we’re trapped in the School on Christmas Eve,” Nell finished the sentence. Stalking back across the room, she flung herself down on the bed and glared at the ceiling, muttering a stream of invective directed at the Swiss weather. Hilda lay back down next to her, sighing, and waited for Nell to run down. She knew from long experience that interrupting would simply mean coming in for a share of the insults herself!
“We should have listened to Joey when she said she could squeeze us in at Freudesheim, instead of insisting on staying at the School,” Nell said presently, having exhausted her long and colourful list of adjectives.
“Must I remind you why we insisted on staying here?” Hilda asked, one eyebrow raised, and Nell smirked.
“Oh, I think I remember,” she answered, and rolled over to kiss her.
A few minutes later, they pulled apart, both smiling now.
“What can we do about the blizzard?” Nell asked, returning to their problem.
“Wait for it to blow itself out, I suppose. What else?” Hilda replied, thinking. “We can’t possibly go out in it… We could try to phone the Maynards if by some miracle the lines aren’t down, but that’s all I can think of.”
“Freudesheim isn’t very far - ” Nell began, and was cut off by Hilda’s strictest tones.
“Nell Wilson, don’t you even think of trying to get across! It’s madness, as you know perfectly well.”
“All right, it was just an idea,” Nell said, attempting to pacify her.
“One of the worst you’ve ever had! Aren’t you supposed to be a sensible, weatherwise Guide Captain?” Hilda replied, frowning, then couldn’t help smiling at Nell’s grimace on hearing this description of herself.
“What a romantic picture you paint of me, love,” she complained.
“It’s not a very accurate one, if that’s any consolation,” Hilda said teasingly. “I would never describe you as sensible, and as for weatherwise, I don’t recall you predicting this blizzard.”
“Oddly enough, an ability that is based around observing weather signs isn’t much good when I’m asleep!” Nell retorted. “Well, we may as well get up now, and see if we can get in touch with the Maynards.”
Hilda nodded, though not without a longing thought of her projected lie-in. “We could do some work after, while we’re waiting to see if the weather clears.”
“What fun,” Nell said sarcastically. “Oh, I know it needs to be done, but on Christmas Eve? Have a heart, Hilda!”
“Just until lunchtime, I promise,” Hilda answered, rising and pulling on her kimono.
Nell looked at Hilda’s bedside clock and pulled a face. “That’s hours away!”
“It would be less if you’d stop waking up so ridiculously early,” Hilda pointed out with her sweetest smile from the doorway, then swiftly vanished before Nell could reply.
Left alone, Nell contented herself with sticking her tongue out at the place where her friend had stood, and began to get ready for the day, devoutly hoping the snowstorm would blow itself out soon.
Laying down the booklist she had been checking, Nell took a quick look at her wristwatch, then fixed her gaze hopefully on Hilda. Her friend gave no sign of noticing, however, but merely continued writing her letter. After a few seconds, Nell cleared her throat experimentally, and received such a glare that she instantly decided not to interrupt Hilda again.
Finally, Hilda signed her name, blotted the letter and slipped it into an envelope, then turned to Nell with a smile.
"I think we've finished for the day... Unless you'd like to keep going?"
Nell snorted. As soon as the word 'finished' had left Hilda's mouth, she had leapt out of her chair, and was already halfway across the study.
"Keep going? I should think not! You're a hard taskmaster, Hilda Annersley."
"You're just lazy," Hilda retorted, following her out of the room.
Nell turned to pull a face at her. "I'm tempted to sit back and let you do all the cooking for that, but I'd quite like an edible meal!"
Bickering amiably, the pair made their way to the kitchens and began inspecting their supplies. The place was well-stocked; Karen had made sure of that before leaving on her own holidays.
Closing the larder door, Nell looked at Hilda. “Well, we won’t be having a typical Christmas dinner, but we certainly won’t starve! There’s enough food for weeks in here.”
Hilda sighed. "Christmas dinner? Do you think it'll come to that?"
"It may not, but it's better to be prepared," Nell said practically. "There's still half of the chicken pie from last night left, we could heat it in the oven and cook some vegetables to go with it."
"That sounds fine," Hilda replied rather abstractedly.
"What's wrong?" Nell asked.
"Well, it may have escaped your attention, but there's a slight snowstorm outside! I know the School has been a home to us, but I still don't particularly want to spend Christmas here… At least if the phones were working we could talk to people... Oh, don't mind me, Nell, I'm just feeling sorry for myself." Rather ashamed of her uncharacteristic outburst, Hilda began hurriedly pulling potatoes out and piling them on the table.
Nell reached out and squeezed her arm comfortingly, then started to search for some carrots. "I know what you mean - though since I am stuck here, I'm glad you're here too. After all, Christmas should be spent with the ones you love..." she paused a second, then continued mischievously, "And since Gaudenz isn't here, I suppose you'll do!"
"Oh, so I'm second choice? How very flattering!" Hilda retorted.
"Well, I don't know if I'd say second..." Nell pretended to deliberate, then had to make a hasty leap to catch the cushion Hilda had intended to throw at her but had aimed badly. "I certainly wouldn't pick you for a cricket bowler! Lucky I caught that, Karen would have killed us if it had broken anything."
"I'm a perfectly good cricketer, I'll have you know, Nell Wilson," Hilda replied.
"I'll believe it when I see it. Now do you intend to peel those potatoes before next week?"
Hilda rolled her eyes, but picked up her peeler and started working, recognizing that they should start cooking if they wanted to eat at a reasonable hour.
"You know I was just joking, don't you?" Nell asked suddenly, looking at Hilda with a worried frown.
"About Gaudenz? I rather suspected it," Hilda said drily. "Why, were you hoping I'd have a fit of jealousy like the one you had over Michael Christie?"
Nell went bright red at the reminder. "Are you never going to let me forget that?"
"If you will make an absolute idiot of yourself, you can't expect me not to tease you about it."
"No, I suppose not," Nell said in resignation. "But what I meant was... When I said about you not being second choice... You're first. Always. You know that, don't you?"
Hilda’s eyes were bright as they met Nell’s, and her smile was very tender. "I do, my love, but I like to hear you say it."
They worked in silence for a while, then Hilda spoke again. "Nell?”
“Even for a cricket team?"
As they ate, an idea began to germinate in Nell's mind. Realising that Hilda would strenuously object, however, she was careful to keep it safely hidden there until she had all the details worked out. Finally, as they sat down in Hilda's sitting room after finishing the washing up, she decided it was time.
"Hilda, I have a plan," she began slowly.
Her friend looked at her wrily. "So I'm to hear whatever it is you were thinking about all through lunch?"
"Was it that obvious?"
"It was to me - and I have a feeling I'm not going to like it."
"I suppose it would be too much trouble to hear me out before passing judgment?" Nell inquired sarcastically. "We have so much to do, after all!"
"There's no need to bite my head off, my dear. Of course I'll listen," Hilda replied.
"Neither of us wants to spend Christmas here if it can possibly be avoided, right?"
"Right," Hilda said tentatively.
"Now, I know you objected to my idea of trying to get to Freudesheim earlier - and you were perfectly right," Nell added hastily as Hilda frowned. "Just running out into a blizzard would have been a terrible idea."
"I'm glad you recognize that," Hilda said tartly. "I may not be thrilled with the idea of spending Christmas here, but dying in the snow is far less appealing."
Nell glared at her. "I thought you said you were going to listen to me? I told you, I have a plan. It really isn't very far to Freudesheim, and we have plenty of long, strong ropes in the gym - more than enough to cover the distance. I'll tie one end to myself before I set out, and you can keep hold of the other. If I manage to find my way across, I'll give it a couple of tugs and you can follow me with the rope to guide you; and if I can't get across, I'll still be able to find my way back."
Hilda thought it over carefully. It was still risky, but Nell's idea of using the gym ropes did make it safe enough - just - for her to seriously contemplate the idea. And she had been upset and frustrated by the serious possibility of spending Christmas apart from their honorary family... If she and Nell had planned to spend it by themselves, she'd have been perfectly happy; but they hadn't, and she'd been looking forward to the reunion.
Looking up, she met Nell's expectant gaze. Expectant, and... determined?
"Just out of interest, Nell, what would happen if I refused to consider it?"
"I'd ask how exactly you intend to stop me?" Her tone was light on the surface, but there was steel beneath. Nell was determined to do this, and she was sure that even if Hilda were to abandon her dignity and attempt to physically stop her, her lover wouldn't be able to overpower her.
However, Hilda did no such thing, having reached the same conclusion about their relative strengths. Instead, she leaned back in her chair and replied calmly, "I'd refuse to have anything at all to do with it."
Nell's quick mind instantly saw what she meant. Hilda would refuse to follow her, knowing that Nell would never leave her alone at the School. It was a good strategy - but Nell wasn't about to give in so easily.
"Really? So you'd let me go and tell the Maynards that Auntie Hilda couldn't be bothered to come to them?" she counterattacked.
"Dragging the children into this," Hilda snapped, "is cheating."
"'Dragging them in'? They're the whole reason I came up with this, because I know how upset you are at not seeing them!"
"Are you claiming that you're not upset by it at all?" Hilda asked, eyebrows raised.
"Of course I am..." Nell sighed. Taking both Hilda's hands in hers, she entreated, "Don't let's quarrel about it, love, and do say you'll help me! It has a fair chance of working, and if it doesn't at least we'll know we did all we could."
Hilda took a deep breath and released it slowly. "Very well, we'll attempt it," she finally replied, a smile coming to her lips at Nell's pleased expression. Raising a hand to stop her thanks, she added in a warning tone, "I'm not having you wandering outside for hours, though! I'll give you ten minutes, then I’ll give the rope a pull to let you know time’s up, and you’ll come back.”
“Ten minutes isn’t anywhere near long enough!” Nell protested. “Give me an hour.”
“Twenty minutes, then, but no more. You’ll catch your death of cold!”
Nell rolled her eyes. “Don’t be absurd, I’ll be well wrapped up - and so will you. Forty?”
“Half an hour. As you say, Freudesheim is very near; that should be more than enough time.”
Realising Hilda wouldn’t be pushed any further, Nell nodded. “Half an hour it is, then. Let’s get ready!”
Jumping to her feet, she pulled Hilda up and, linking their arms together, half dragged her in the direction of the gym.
Disclaimer: don't try the knot at home! I got it from this website of Scouting knots, but I have no idea as to how accurate it is. And, you know, don't try to walk through blizzards either :P
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.
Acknowledgments and thanks are due here to Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter and Arthur Ransome's Winter Holiday, which helped me immensely in visualizing what being in a blizzard would be like.
White, nothing but a white blankness as far as she could see. Nell took a tentative step forwards into the howling wind, suddenly doubting whether this was a good idea after all. Turning her head after a few paces, she peered back to where she knew without a shadow of doubt the school stood. She thought she could - just - make out the shadowy outline of the building, but wasn’t entirely sure it wasn’t wishful thinking. Well, standing here wasn’t going to get her to Freudesheim.
Looking ahead again, she walked forward purposefully. Mindful of the fact she couldn’t see where she was treading, Nell moderated her usual long strides, testing the ground as she placed each foot down before putting her whole weight on it. The school’s garden was well tended, and she was unlikely to step into a pothole, but there could easily be ice underfoot; and really, one broken foot and one broken leg were more than enough in a lifetime!
Reaching up with one gloved hand, she brushed away the flakes that were sticking to her ski goggles, grateful for the protection they provided to her eyes. The bare skin exposed by the gap between her cap and her scarf was already stinging from the cold and the scrapes of the icy snowflakes. She was grateful for the scarf, too, that let her breathe with relative ease. Taking another loop of rope off her shoulder, she paid it out, letting it fall to the ground behind her as she kept walking.
How far had she gone? Probably more than halfway to the hedge, she thought, but it was little more than a guess. Deep down, Nell knew she wasn’t really sure she had gone in a straight line; the whirling wind, now buffeting her from one side, now from the other, made it hard work even to stay upright, let alone to judge direction. She tried to look back at the rope that was her lifeline, to judge from that, but found that she could barely see a foot of it lying behind her before it vanished into the swirling whiteness that enveloped everything. Well, there was nothing for it but to keep going.
Left foot forward. Test footing. Put weight on. Right foot forward. Test footing. Put weight on. Pay more rope out. Left foot forward. Test footing. Put weight on. In this surreal environment, it began to feel as if she had been doing this forever, would be doing this forev -
“OW!” The yell was snatched away by the wind as soon as it left her lips. Rising painfully from the frozen ground, Nell glared through the snow, trying to see whatever it was she had collided with. A dark shadow… a narrow one… a cautious step brought her close enough to reach out and touch… a tree trunk. She had walked into a tree. She cursed vividly for a few seconds, then tried to work out from memory, using her unwitting assailant as a landmark, where she could be. There were too many options to narrow it down conclusively, but she was fairly sure she must still be heading for the hedge between the two gardens; she would have had to go very far out of her way if she wasn’t.
Moving carefully around the tree, she kept walking, stoically ignoring the aches and pains that suggested she’d have plenty of bruises from this incident. ‘It could have been worse,’ she attempted to encourage herself. ‘I could have gone full circle and walked straight into the school! At least I’m still going roughly the right way, and I can’t be too far from the hedge.’
Several minutes later, she was forced to admit that apparently she was still quite far from the hedge - or perhaps, maddeningly, it was just beyond the reach of her vision, simply waiting for her to take a step in its direction. It was very tempting to test the theory, to try stepping to one side or to the other; but Nell knew if she began to do that, she’d completely lose what little sense of direction she still had left. Better to just keep moving, and hope she was going the right way.
When the rope suddenly jerked in her hand, letting her know that time was up, she still hadn’t managed to find the hedge. With a sigh, she tugged on the rope herself to let Hilda know she had received the signal, then turned around and began walking back. She must have been so close… but honesty compelled her to acknowledge that she didn’t actually know whether she had been near the hedge, or if she had been wandering around the garden in circles. The bitter cold, too, had begun to make itself felt even through her warm clothing, and Nell knew - though it cost her to admit it - that she couldn’t have kept searching much longer.
The way back was easier to find, much to her relief; all she had to do was follow her rope, picking it up and returning it to the coil as she went along. She went slowly at first, wary of walking into her tree again. But she was on the alert now, and managed to see it in time to avoid a collision. Once she was safely round it, she picked up her pace a little, though she was still careful to test her footing.
Finally, the school came into view, a grey outline against the white background. Closer… now she could see light spilling from the door that Hilda must be holding open. ‘Idiot,’ Nell thought, half touched, half exasperated. ‘She’s freezing herself keeping it open for me!’ A few more steps… and she was through the door, away from the snow and the wind, back with Hilda and warmth and clear light.
As soon as Nell was safely through the door, Hilda closed it behind her, shutting out the blizzard. Ignoring the heaped-up snow that had made its way inside as she waited with the door open, anxiously looking out for Nell, she took her partner’s hands and pulled her towards the ceramic stove. Those few minutes of standing in the icy wind had given her enough of a taste of the weather outside to know that Nell must be half frozen.
“Thank you,” Nell said, as she took off her gloves and held her bare hands over the stove, sighing with relief. It was so good to be back indoors, out of the cold. The coil of rope felt heavy on her shoulder, and she realised she didn’t have to carry it any more, but could simply drop it to the floor. Her fingers still felt too cold to tackle the knot that held it tied round her waist, so she left it for the time being. Instead, she reached up to remove her scarf, but Hilda took the end from her.
“Keep warming yourself, I’ll take it off. So you couldn’t find your way across?” she asked, carefully unwinding the scarf from Nell’s neck.
“Couldn’t even find the hedge,” Nell admitted. “It’s dreadful out there, you can’t see a foot in front of your nose. I’m sorry, my dear, but it looks like we’re stuck here for the duration.”
“Don’t worry about it. You did your best, and you know you’d never have been happy if you hadn’t attempted it,” Hilda said comfortingly.
“I suppose so,” Nell replied with a shrug. She still felt frustrated by her failure, but it couldn’t be helped. Her hands were warm now, and she quickly undid the rope end knotted round her, letting it fall on top the coil. Realising she still had her ski goggles and cap on, she reached up impatiently and pulled both off, and Hilda gave an exclamation of horror.
“Nell! Whatever’s happened to you?”
Too late, Nell remembered that her unfortunate encounter would have left its mark on her face. Still, what else could she have done? She could hardly keep everything on for the rest of the day.
“Oh, don’t worry, it’s nothing much,” she said lightly, attempting to pass it off.
Hilda’s eyebrows shot up. “Nothing much?” she replied, her disagreement with that assessment ringing in every note. “Have you seen yourself? You look as if you’d been in a boxing match!”
She pointed Nell to the hall mirror, forcing her to admit that her partner did have a point. The blow had driven the goggles hard into the skin around her right eye, leaving her with a fine dark ring surrounding it. There were also a few other bruises on her forehead - and, she suspected from the way other points were aching, several more on still covered areas.
“A boxing match is rather an exaggeration, I think,” she said mildly. “I’ll put some ice on the worst parts - mercifully that’s one thing we’re not short of! - and I’ll be fine. Just let me get back into indoor clothes, and I’ll take care of it.”
She tried to turn and go to her room, but Hilda stood in front of her, blocking the corridor.
“You’re not going anywhere until you tell me what happened to you,” she stated, already inwardly reproaching herself. She knew it was too dangerous! Why had she ever let Nell go?
Nell tried to step around her, but Hilda held her ground, and she gave up with a sigh of defeat. “It’s nothing, Hilda, honestly. I just… ah… ran into a little trouble.”
“A little trouble? Perhaps you could be more specific, if it isn’t too much effort?” Hilda asked with the gentle irony the girls held so much in awe.
It had its usual effect. Nell looked heavenwards as if asking for guidance, then met her eyes reluctantly. “A tree, Hilda. I ran into a tree.”
Laughter, incredulity, anger - any or all of these were the reactions Nell was expecting. But the guilt that spread over Hilda’s features astonished her.
“I’m sorry, darling. I should have stopped you going…” very gently, she touched Nell’s bruised face. “This is all my fault.”
“I walk into a tree and it’s your fault? I’ve never heard anything so absurd in my life!” Nell retorted.
Hilda bit her lip. “If I hadn’t been so upset about missing Christmas with the Maynards, would you have come up with this ridiculous plan?”
“Yes, I would, because I was just as upset at the idea as you were,” Nell replied instantly. “And my plan was not ridiculous, thank you very much! It had every chance of working, I was just unlucky.”
Hilda’s eyes flashed, and she seemed ready to snap back. Then her expression changed to a rueful smile, and she took Nell’s hands instead. “We won’t argue about it, love. You’re back safely, and that’s all that matters. Come with me; let’s change our clothes, then we can see to your bruises.”
Nell linked her arm with Hilda’s. “Lead on, Macduff,” she cheerfully - and deliberately - misquoted, causing her friend to roll her eyes. “I’m starting to feel like a boiled lobster after standing by the stove in my ski suit!”
It wasn’t until they were back in the study, and Nell was sitting in an armchair holding an ice pack to her left elbow as the currently most painful spot, that she finally saw the familiar teasing twist in Hilda’s smile.
“Nell,” Hilda began in her most innocent voice, “how exactly did you manage to walk into a tree?”
“Quite easily,” Nell answered in a matching tone. “I just put one foot in front of the other until I collided with the trunk. Easy as falling off a log!”
Pulling a face at the cliche’d expression, Hilda instantly sniped back, and they settled into the familiar banter. Though she was careful not to let it show, deep down Nell felt extremely relieved; if Hilda could tease her about it, she was no longer absurdly blaming herself. Everything was back to normal.
I suck at crossposting and I am really really sorry! I just completely forgot I hadn't finished with this... there are three more chapters after this one, I'll try and get them all done during this week and the next.
Hilda clapped her hands over her ears as loud static suddenly filled the room. Exclaiming in dismay, Nell quickly turned the volume down until it was barely audible, then shot her partner an apologetic look.
“Sorry, I didn’t realise it would be so loud…” she paused a second, frowning as she thought, then continued, “though now I think about it, didn’t you use the radio last? Is there something wrong with your hearing?”
“If you care to recall, the last time that radio was used we had the entire Staff in here,” Hilda retorted crisply.
“You haven’t used it since then?” Nell interrupted, surprised. That had been nearly a week ago.
“I haven’t had the time; and if you have had time to sit around listening to the radio, I’m going to start sending you more of my paperwork,” Hilda teased - she knew all too well how much work Nell took off her hands, and if anything her efforts tended to be expended in the direction of stopping Nell from commandeering it all. “As I was saying, the last time we used it all the Staff were here, so naturally the volume would be higher than we’d normally set it.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Nell said meekly, adding “oh wise and ancient one” in an undertone.
Hilda heard, as she was meant to, and snorted. “Ancient? I’m not that much older than you - and I’m not the one who seems to have forgotten entirely why she switched on the radio in the first place.”
“I haven’t forgotten, I was merely concerned for your health,” Nell replied in a haughty tone that didn’t fool her partner for a minute. “Since you don’t appreciate my concern, I shall return to my work.”
Ostentatiously turning her back on her friend, she bent closer to the radio and began carefully turning the tuning knob. Grinning to herself, Hilda leant back more comfortably in her chair and let her work.
The pair had passed a happy afternoon, making the most of the chance to spend a long time together, and talk unreservedly without fear of being interrupted or overheard. Their neverending duties as Heads of the two schools meant these chances came only rarely, but were all the more valuable and appreciated for it.
As they enjoyed a well-deserved Abendessen, Nell had expressed regret over not being able to attend Midnight Mass, which had led Hilda to wonder whether they might not be able to hear a service on the radio. Nell had jumped on the idea at once, and was now trying to find a broadcast - something Hilda was more than content to let her attempt on her own, since Nell was well known in the staff room as the person who could best coax the radio to provide crystal clear sound for any station she wanted.
Sure enough, after a few minutes of cycling through frequencies - punctuated by annoyed muttering - Nell gave a cry of triumph.
“Have you found something?” Hilda asked, leaning forward.
Jumping to her feet, Nell struck a triumphant pose. “We have a Christmas service! You may thank me.”
“Thank you, oh mistress of the radio!” Hilda replied, laughing, as she stood and curtsied to her friend. “When does it start?”
“In fifteen minutes. It’s in German, of course, and it’s a Protestant service - which I find distinctly unfair since I was the one who did all the work to find it!”
“Perhaps it’s a sign you should convert,” Hilda said with mock seriousness.
“Never!” Nell replied emphatically, her eyes sparkling with suppressed laughter. “It’s a sign that I should remember it’s the season of goodwill, and let you enjoy your heathen service.”
Hilda’s eyes twinkled back. This was an old argument, and one they both enjoyed. “Heathen? Do you remember who won our last theological argument?”
“You teach Scripture, how is a simple Science mistress supposed to compete? It’s not a fair playing field, which I call most unchristian of you.”
“If that’s the best argument you can come up with, I’m not surprised I won!” Hilda retorted.
“Oh, I can do better, I just thought it lacking in Christmas spirit to demolish you completely straight away,” Nell said, attempting a dignified expression, which was so incongruous with her bruised face and barely hidden grin that Hilda collapsed with laughter, Nell joining in seconds later.
“Shall we shelve the matter for now?” Hilda finally suggested, pulling herself together. “The broadcast will start soon.”
Nell agreed, and leapt to her feet to fetch her rosary. Hilda, meanwhile, made a quick expedition to the Library, returning with two of the many copies of the Luther Bible that were generally used for Scripture lessons on german days. Thus equipped, they pulled their favourite chairs up to the radio and prepared to listen to the service.
Returning from the bathroom to Hilda’s bedroom, Nell snorted at the sight of her partner carefully tucking the covers under the mattress on her side of the bed.
“There is such a thing as exaggeration, Hilda,” she remarked as she replaced her bathroom things on the dressing table. “You can’t possibly have been at that since I left the room! Or are you trying to make a point?”
“Well, I really don’t want to wake up freezing in the middle of the night because you’ve pulled all the covers off me yet again,” Hilda replied.
She hoped the last two words would distract Nell from the fact she hadn’t answered how long she’d been working on the bed. In fact, she had gone hastily to it only a minute before Nell returned; before that, she’d taken advantage of her friend’s absence to work on a surprise that was now residing at the back of her wardrobe. The Maynards kept to the custom of leaving shoes for the Christ Child to fill, but even in that generous household the chocolates could sometimes run short, so Hilda had had some bonbons ready to cover any sudden need. Since they were stuck in the School for the night at least, she had repurposed them to fill one of her own shoes and one of Nell’s, and intended to lay the shoes out early the next morning.
As she’d expected, Nell rose to the bait, forgetting her previous questioning. “Yet again? You make it sound as if I did it every single night!”
“You might, if I didn’t take precautions.” As she spoke, Hilda hunted for the cushions they always knelt on to pray. Locating them at last hidden under Nell’s clothes, she handed one over, giving her partner her sweetest look.
Nell grimaced back at her. “Cheek! Absolute cheek, Hilda Annersley! I only do it when it’s really cold, and you can’t blame me for what I do in my sleep, anyway.” Huffing, she dropped her cushion to the floor.
“I don’t blame you, but I’d rather it didn’t happen if it can be prevented. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to say my prayers.” With that, she knelt down, folded her hands on the bed, and closed her eyes.
Thus forestalled, Nell was left with no option but to keep silent, and content herself with a glare. Mirroring Hilda’s actions, she too dropped to her knees to pray.
Finishing first, Hilda quietly got into bed and slid over to her own side. As she did, Nell rose to her feet too, flashing her a look that said clearly that she hadn’t forgotten they were arguing.
“Oh, Nell, surely we have more pleasant things to do than argue over whether you steal my blankets every night or not?” Hilda asked quickly.
Her conciliatory smile was met by a defiant scowl. “There’s nothing to argue about, because I don’t!” Then Nell’s expression became suddenly downcast. “Half the time I don’t even have the chance to,” she said quietly, sinking down onto the bed.
Hilda moved over to hug her, her heart suddenly aching for them both. It was so hard, sometimes, having to keep their relationship a secret; it robbed them of so much time they could have spent together. Neither said anything for a little while, just clung to each other tightly. Then Nell took a deep breath and turned to her partner with a smile.
“I’m sorry, my love. I didn’t mean to upset us both. Let’s not think about it, and enjoy the time we can spend together.”
Hilda lifted a hand to cup Nell’s face. “We will, love; all the more because we know how precious it is.”
Gently, Nell leaned forward and kissed Hilda’s lips, and Hilda responded in kind, twining her hands in Nell’s hair. And for that moment at least, nothing else mattered.
Moving quietly, an inch at a time, hardly daring to breathe, Nell slowly disentangled herself from Hilda’s hug. If she woke… but no, she was still fast asleep, and barely stirred as her partner slipped out of the bed. Cursing her own habit of kicking her slippers off and leaving them where they fell, Nell felt around until she’d located them, not daring to turn on her torch lest the light should wake her partner. Her dressing gown, luckily, was easier to find where she’d thrown it over a chair. Pulling everything on, she tiptoed to the door and carefully eased it open just far enough to let her pass through.
Only when she was safely outside did she switch on her torch, judging that the risk of its waking Hilda was now much smaller than the risk of making a noise by trying to move around in the dark. Still on tiptoe, she went first to the guest room where she was officially staying, and where several of her things had been left so as not to clutter up Hilda’s room too much. Quickly locating the things she wanted, she placed them in the ample pockets of her dressing gown so as to have both hands free, and slipped out of the room again, heading down the corridor.
Some minutes later, having visited the kitchen and the entrance hall, Nell made her way back to the bedroom. This time she wasn’t quite so cautious, and the door creaked as she pushed at it, causing her to freeze in dismay. But there was no sound from the room other than the quiet breathing of someone sleeping soundly, so she stepped carefully in. Hilda didn’t stir as she removed her dressing gown and slippers and got into bed; when Nell lay down, however, she cuddled up to her in her sleep. Smiling, Nell slipped her arms around her and closed her eyes; and soon, they were both away in dreams.
Hilda blinked, still half asleep, wondering what had woken her. Had Nell said something? A quick look showed that if she had, she must have been talking in her sleep. Perhaps it had been the wind that was still howling outside… Setting the question aside, Hilda lifted her head to look at her clock, but the room was still too dark to make out the hands. What time was sunrise these days? Around eight o’clock, she thought - there might still be time for her to get a little more sleep in, though it was odd her partner hadn’t woken yet.
‘Let sleeping Nells lie’, she thought with a grin, dropping her head back to her pillow and closing her eyes. A bare five seconds later, they flew wide open again as the date suddenly returned to her mind. Christmas Day! She wondered about trying to sneak the shoes she had prepared out of the wardrobe before Nell woke, but decided against it, remembering what a light sleeper she was. It would be much easier to get them while Nell was bathing. Even if it did go against the tradition of finding them outside the door, that was better than being caught taking them from their hiding-place.
Reaching out, she turned on her bedside lamp, shivering a little as the cool air struck her outstretched arm. Then she rolled over and propped herself up on one elbow, gazing at her lover. Nell’s clever, mobile face looked oddly gentle in her sleep, despite the darkening bruises that marked it, and Hilda felt suddenly reluctant to disturb her rest. ‘Though I don’t know why I shouldn’t, after all the times she’s woken me at ridiculous hours!’
The decision, however, was taken out of her hands. Perhaps it was the lamplight, perhaps Hilda’s movements were to blame, or perhaps it was simply Nell’s own body deciding she’d had enough sleep; whatever the cause, her eyelids fluttered open. As she saw Hilda above her, her lips curved into a smile.
“Good morning, love”, she said, her voice still sleepy, then her expression changed as realisation struck her. “Oh! Merry Christmas!” she exclaimed.
“Merry Christmas, darling,” Hilda replied, bending down to kiss her. Straightening again, she added with a teasing smile, “I’m glad you’re finally awake; I thought you were going to sleep all morning.”
Nell wrinkled her nose. “This is why I try to wake up first! You’re always so unbearably smug when you manage it.”
Hilda elected not to answer that, since she had to admit to herself that there was more than a little truth in it. Instead, she said, “since you are awake, shall we get up?”
“Why don’t you get up first? After all, you’ve been awake for hours,” Nell replied, smirking.
Hilda hesitated. This didn’t fit in with her plans for her surprise, but she was afraid a prolonged argument would make Nell suspicious. Deciding it didn’t really make much difference, she acquiesced, albeit with a great show of reluctance as she pulled on her slippers and kimono. She hoped her slowness might irritate her impatient friend into getting up; Nell seemed unperturbed by it, however, lying back comfortably and grinning as she watched her.
Eventually, she made her way to the door. The sight her eyes met as she pulled it open suddenly enlightened her as to why Nell had been content to wait; standing in the corridor were both their right boots, apparently filled with chocolates and nuts, and a gaily-wrapped little parcel sat on the top of hers.
Carefully picking them up, she returned to the bed, smiling broadly. “When did you find the time to do this? I’m sure you can’t have done it yesterday!”
“In the middle of the night, of course. Lucky for me you sleep like a log!” Nell replied with cheerful insult, taking her boot and pulling out a chocolate.
Hilda snorted, setting her own boot down and heading for the wardrobe. “Luckily for you, it’s Christmas,” she retorted as she reached in and pulled out the shoes she had hidden the night before. “Otherwise I’d not give you this, to teach you a lesson!”
“You don’t mean to say you prepared these last night, too?” Nell asked, laughing as she saw what was in Hilda’s hands.
“I did it while you were in the bathroom,” Hilda said, handing Nell her shoe. “That’s why I wanted you to go first, so I could sneak them out; and now I see why my slowness didn’t exasperate you to the point of going ahead.”
“I did wonder why you were delaying so much,” Nell owned. “I’m sorry I spoiled your surprise, but I was looking forward to seeing your reaction when you found mine! Clearly great minds think alike.” She smirked as she spoke, wondering how her friend would react to the mix of compliment and cliché.
“What’s happened to your trumpeter?” Hilda retorted immediately, and Nell chuckled.
“I might have known you wouldn’t be caught so easily.” She picked up the little parcel placed on top of her bonbons at the same time Hilda reached out for hers, and they both laughed.
“You go first,” Hilda said, letting her hand fall again. They always took turns opening presents on such occasions; half the joy, for both of them, came from seeing the other’s reactions.
“I suppose that’s only fair, after I made you get up first,” Nell agreed, and began to pull the paper off. As it fell away, she looked at the round metal case revealed in some surprise. Why was Hilda giving her a pocket watch? It was lovely, certainly, but hardly as practical as her wristwatch…
“Open it!” Her friend urged, laughter in her voice.
Nell pressed the release, and it popped open to reveal “A pocket compass! Hilda, it’s wonderful! Thank you.”
“I knew you’d smashed your old one, and when I spotted this one I thought you’d like it,” Hilda replied, well pleased with the success of her gift.
“Like it? I love it! My old one was nowhere near as nice as this.” Nell kissed her partner in thanks, then added mischievously, “You know, with a compass, I’m sure I could navigate to Freudesheim...”
She had to stop there, for the look of sheer unmitigated horror on Hilda’s face proved too much for her self control, and she burst out laughing.
“Don’t look like that! I’m not going anywhere, I promise. Yesterday’s experience was quite enough for me. So take that worried look off your face - it doesn’t suit you in the least, my dear.”
Hilda shook her head, laughing ruefully. “You’re an absolute wretch sometimes, Nell Wilson.”
“You flatter me,” Nell said, grinning.
Hilda pulled a face at her, then picked up her own present and began to unwrap it. Nell popped one of her bonbons into her mouth and watched her friend eagerly, suppressing her impatience at Hilda’s careful unwrapping. She did usually try to get the paper off without tearing it herself, but there were limits! At last the contents of the parcel were revealed, and Nell had her reward in the way Hilda’s face lit up when she saw the little photograph in its pretty frame.
“Oh, Nell, it’s beautiful,” Hilda said softly. Her partner had taken several photos of them together during the summer holidays, making the most of her new camera’s self-timer, and this was clearly one of them… struck by a sudden thought, she asked mock-severely, “I thought you said you hadn’t developed these photos yet?”
“No, I said they weren’t ready,” Nell pointed out. “Which I am perfectly aware was prevaricating, before you say anything, but I did want to surprise you when I saw how well they’d come out. The rest are still at St Mildred’s, I’m afraid. I didn’t think we’d have the time or the privacy to look them over, so I didn’t bring them, but I thought this one was respectable enough you wouldn’t complain.”
Her eyes twinkled as she said the last sentence, for she had been at her most mischievous while taking the first snaps, until Hilda had plaintively complained that she’d like at least one photograph were they looked half-way respectable! The one in the frame certainly fulfilled that condition, for they were sitting demurely side by side on the sofa of Nell’s cottage.
“Laugh all you like, but now I have an excellent picture of us that I can proudly display - which I doubt would have been the case if I hadn’t said anything!” Hilda retorted.
Suiting actions to words, she jumped up and placed it on her dressing table, moving back an old family picture to make room. Nell rose too, and came to stand behind her, wrapping her arms around Hilda’s waist. Hilda turned in the embrace and kissed her.
“Thank you, darling. I love it.”
Washed and dressed, Nell made her way towards the kitchen, from where a delicious smell of coffee was emanating. Hilda turned as she walked in, and held out a steaming mug.
“I thought we could do with a hot drink. It’s so cold!”
“Well, we are in the middle of a blizzard,” Nell pointed out, eyes twinkling, as she accepted the coffee. “But you’re quite right, this is just what I wanted. Let’s go to the sitting-room and drink it there.”
“Why don’t we stay here? We should really start preparing breakfast in a minute. We can finish opening presents later, ” Hilda said gravely, then sipped from her mug to disguise her twitching lips.
Nell stared at her. “That’s an excellent idea - I don’t think! Have you gone mad?”
“You’re very easy to tease sometimes, my dear! You can’t possibly think I’d really mean that,” Hilda laughed. “Now come along.”
Catching up a plate with buttered rolls she had prepared earlier, she turned to lead the way to her salon. Nell followed, pulling a face at her friend’s back.
“Well, one never knows with you. You might have decided to be all responsible and headmistressy about it!”
Hilda stopped short. “‘Headmistressy’,” she said in a pained voice, “is not a word.”
“I say it is, and I’m a Headmistress,” Nell said, taking advantage of her partner’s pause to step round her and push the sitting-room door open. “Besides, language evolves!”
“I wouldn’t describe your command of the English language as ‘evolving’,” Hilda retorted, following her friend in.
The room was pleasantly warm, since one of Hilda’s first actions when she came downstairs had been to turn up the heating there. There was no Christmas tree - the School tree was in Hall, naturally, and both women had agreed that it would be an absurd waste of power to keep it heated for just the two of them, especially as they hadn’t intended to spend Christmas Day there - but a beautifully carved wooden crib was displayed on a small table, and two parcels stood in front of it. Hilda smiled at Nell as she saw them, realising they’d had the same plan once again; she had left her present here while Nell was bathing, and Nell must have left hers before joining her in the kitchen.
They drank their coffee and ate their rolls in companionable silence. Then, relinquishing her empty mug, Nell leaned down, picked up one of the parcels, and held it out to Hilda. Hilda raised her eyebrows in surprise at the weight as she took it, then smiled slightly at the realization of what was probably in it. She carefully removed the wrapping paper, and her suspicions were confirmed - it was, indeed, books. Three books to be precise, in a slipcover. She looked at the title and gasped.
“Nell! You extravagant creature! This is - ”
“No more than you deserve,” Nell interrupted her protestations firmly. “You’ve wanted that since you heard it was going to be published.”
With gentle fingers, Hilda traced the embossed letters on one of the spines. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. “How did you get it?” she asked, looking up. “I didn’t think it was even available in England yet, let alone Switzerland.”
“I have my ways,” Nell said, grinning. “A magician never reveals her secrets!” Privately, she reflected, Lucky we have American friends, and there’s such a thing as a postal service!
Hilda gave up the question, knowing she wouldn’t get a better answer than that, and returned her delighted gaze to the books. Nell was right, she’d wanted this from the moment she heard about it. She’d been horrified to discover, years earlier, that Emily Dickinson’s poems had often been altered by publishers; now, she’d be able to enjoy them in their original form. With an effort, Hilda tore her eyes away, resisting the urge to start reading at once. Later, perhaps - now, it was time to give Nell her gift.
Setting down her books, she lifted the remaining parcel and passed it to Nell, saying as she did, “be careful with it.”
“What do you think I’m going to do? Throw it across the room?” Nell asked, voice loaded with sarcasm; but she took the large parcel carefully, resting it on the sofa before she began to unwrap it. As she pulled the paper away, a sturdy box came into view, and on opening that a layer of cotton wool.
“I feel like this should be labelled fragile,” Nell remarked laughingly as she saw it.
“I thought about it, but I could imagine what your reaction would be,” Hilda said, waiting eagerly for Nell to continue.
Nell considered continuing the argument, but her curiosity had been piqued by the wrapping, so she lifted off the cotton wool, revealing a record.
“Mars, the Bringer of War - Hilda! Is it…”
“The original recording of Holst’s Planets,” Hilda confirmed with a gentle smile.
Nell looked at her silently, then back at the records. This had been one of her family’s favourite works, one they listened to again and again. Her father’s old records had been one of her most treasured possessions, until a leak in the roof of her cottage had let water drip down to ruin them. Finding Holst’s own recording almost impossible to obtain, she had settled for a newer version; but, though she knew it was musically good, it had never been the same to her - something she had told Hilda once, years ago. She’d forgotten she’d ever said anything, but clearly Hilda hadn’t.
“And you call me extravagant,” she finally said, her eyes bright with unshed tears as she met her lover’s gaze.
To her surprise, Hilda blushed. “Oh, don’t! A good half are second-hand - it’s the only way I could get them, though I made sure they were in good condition.”
“And how much time and effort did collecting them all cost you?” Nell asked quietly. “Besides, it means so much - Hilda, I - thank you, my love.”
Standing, she pulled Hilda to her feet and into a fierce embrace. Hilda held her just as tightly, feeling Nell’s shuddering breaths shake her body.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“Idiot,” Nell said affectionately, her voice still catching. “I’m not upset, just overwhelmed.”
“Would you like to listen to it now? I can get a gramophone,” Hilda offered.
Nell shook her head. “I’ll get one in a moment,” she answered, still clinging to her. “Just… stay with me.”
Hilda did as she asked, gently rubbing Nell’s back and whispering soothing words. For her part, Nell concentrated on getting her breathing back to normal, suddenly grateful for the blizzard. It would never have done to put on a scene like this in front of the entire Maynard family, even if Jack and Jo did know about their relationship, but suppressing the upwelling of emotion Hilda’s gift had caused would have been close to impossible.
It was a few minutes before Nell recovered herself enough to go in hunt of a gramophone, leaving behind a rather ashamed Hilda. In her wish to please her friend, she realised now she had underestimated how moved Nell would be; and she too gave thanks for the blizzard that had enforced privacy on their gift-giving. The thought of gifts turned her eyes once more to her own, and she found herself unable to resist the temptation of pulling out the first volume.
That was how Nell found her when she returned, so deeply absorbed in the pages that she never heard her come in. It wasn’t until Nell was halfway across the room, setting down the gramophone, that she realised her friend was there, and looked up, startled, to meet her laughing eyes.
“Keep reading!” Nell cried as Hilda set her book aside. “I didn’t mean for you to stop.”
“I can’t read and pay attention to music at the same time,” Hilda pointed out.
“We can listen to the records later,” Nell offered, sitting down next to her, but Hilda shook her head.
“I told you to get the gramophone, didn’t I? I’ll read this afternoon.” To add force to her argument, she took up the slipcover, intending to replace the book, but Nell stopped her.
“Read me something first,” she coaxed - not that Hilda needed much coaxing.
Scanning the index of first lines, she quickly found an old favourite. It was the work of seconds to hunt it up, and she read it out in her beautiful voice.
“That I did always love
I bring thee Proof
That till I loved
I never lived -- Enough --
That I shall love alway --
I argue thee
That love is life --
And life hath Immortality --
This -- dost thou doubt -- Sweet --
Then have I
Nothing to show
The pair were silent for a few seconds, both reflecting on the words. Then Hilda closed her book, and told Nell to put the first record on in a tone that brooked no argument.
Conceding the point with a smile, Nell turned to the box holding the precious records and lifted out the first one. With utmost care, she set the record playing, then returned to the couch, curling up next to Hilda. As the first notes rang out, she kissed her cheek and murmured in her ear, “Merry Christmas, my love.”
Many thanks must be given here to the wonderful folk at Little Details on livejournal, for answering all my questions about Holst's recording of The Planets. I'd also like to link you to the Emily Dickinson Archive - I'm still in awe over the fact that I can look at a picture of the original manuscript, and all the variant texts! The Internet is amazing sometimes.
Finally, thank you so much to everyone who's read this! I hope you've enjoyed it :)
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.