"I sneaked a glance at her as we passed under the pine trees. It was not yet properly dusk above us, and even down here it was still light enough that the girls walking ahead needed little more than a cursory eye kept on them; nonetheless, night came earlier in the valley and the trees blocked out a large portion of the natural light that did remain, and I was glad of the lanterns we carried. Nell's chestnut hair shone in their light, and her eyes, too, sparkled."
Ste Therese's House Characters:
Con Stewart, Nell Wilson
Friendship, Romance, Slash
Nell and Con: Oddments
23 Aug 2014 Updated:
20 Sep 2014
1. A beginning by crm
2. To Innsbruck by crm
3. Fulpmes, and a little courage by crm
4. A very pleasant half-term by crm
5. Con by crm
6. ... And Nell by crm
7. The Stubai glacier by crm
8. The Alpinists' hut by crm
9. Two whole days! by crm
10. Some letters by crm
11. In which loose ends are tied up, and small plans are made. by crm
When Mademoiselle Lepattre said that I was to go with Nell to the Stubai at half-term, I thought I should burst with pleasure. I had the queer sensation of translucency, there in the staff room: felt certain that everyone must see my eyes shining, my skin flushed, my legs trembling, my breath ragged. But if anyone did notice, they must have thought nothing of it, or otherwise attributed my excitement to the trip itself - I was still a 'new girl' in the Tyrol, after all, and even those who had been there much longer still thrilled in the magnificence of the land all around us. My faith was never stronger, nor simpler, than it was in those Tyrolean years; the steadfast, unyielding mountains, and the beautiful tranquil lakes beneath them, constantly reaffirmed to me the existence of an equally steadfast, beautiful and loving God.
Neither did any of my colleagues notice, or at least pass comment on, the shaky grin I returned to a woman sat altogether too near for my easy comfort - close enough to easily reach over and pat my arm with a hand which was both brisk and firm, as I had expected, and gentle, as I had not. Certainly nobody noticed the way her touch seared through me, my skin surely exploding in flames beneath her palm. I suppose, once again, my relative newness counted in my favour; nobody here yet knew me well enough to recognise how very out-of-the-ordinary it would be for me - me! - to appear at all shy. The only person who might have begun to form a strong enough impression for such conclusions was Nell herself, but even she would have struggled for a yardstick to measure any irregularity against, since my behaviour around her was so awkwardly erratic, dancing from confident laughter to enthralled silence to panicked evasion.
The thought of half-term in Fulpmes glowed within me through a less than easy start to the term. The Easter term is never the easiest, with illness nearly as predictable as the weather is unpredictable, and Eustacia's antagonistic presence across two forms - as well as her almost immediate enmity with the prefects - served to make this a particularly trying one. Even still, as I came to bed tearing my hair out night after night, the thought of half-term could always raise a small smile and a shiver of anticipation.
From such heady heights, the sudden and persistent nag of toothache a mere fortnight later seemed utterly disastrous, a cruel trick of fate. Afraid of being instantly deemed unwell, temporarily delicate and a poor choice of half-term escort I kept it hidden for as long as I could, avoiding drawing any attention to myself amongst the rest of the staff and trying, without great success, to avoid the cycle of guilt-inducing temper and infuriating guilt as far as the girls were concerned. Through efforts of Herculean proportions, I evaded Matey's eagle eye for longer than I had expected, though Nell caught me one morning in the staff splasheries and asked if anything was wrong, said I'd seemed quieter.
I thanked her for her concern but insisted all was fine, an answer she seemed to accept, though not to believe: "I'm glad to hear it. I hope you know my door is always open, if you need - or want - to talk. I'd be happy to help."
Needless to say, I didn't take her up on it; but in the event it was only a few days later that the problem became impossible to hide any longer. The swelling, which had been near invisible until now, became far more pronounced, and I could no longer force myself to eat and smile through the pain, in spite of my best efforts. At the end of an especially trying day - in which the Fourth and Fifth both conspired to new feats of carelessness and time-wasting - I was spied and promptly hauled off to bed by the redoubtable Matron, bearing chilli paste and some other nostrum far stronger than the oil of cloves I had been fitfully self-medicating with, and promising a trip to Herr von Francius the following morning.
Matey would not have admonished any member of staff in the school corridor, but her face as she marched me to my room said all it needed to. Passing Nell Wilson on her way out of her own room added the final touches to my shame. Nell's eyes went swiftly to my swollen cheek, then to Matey.
"You'll have her fixed up and ready for half-term I hope, Gwynneth?" Her tone was light and she smiled at first Matey, then me.
"I'd have had her fixed up and ready a good week ago, had she come to me when the tooth first started." Matey's words, and face, were deliberately severe, but bore no malice, and I was certain I saw a twinkle of amusement in Nell's grey eyes. "Yes, she'll be right as rain in plenty of time. No need for mollycoddling over a bad tooth!" - this last addressed to me, of course. As if I had any wish to spend any longer in bed than absolutely necessary!
"I'm very pleased to hear it. I should hate to be solely responsible for all those girls up a mountain - so just you take what treatment's given to you and get better quickly, do you hear?" She grinned at us both, then strode off in the direction of the staff room.
The bolded bits are direct quotes from the book - or almost. I've changed tenses once or twice but that's all.
When the last day of teaching dawned, I woke before the bell and lay in bed for a moment collecting my thoughts, and feeling grateful to be fully fit and well. I felt guilty for the way I had allowed my stress to affect my behaviour, of course, and my cheeks burned to recall recent transgressions, but - if I were being completely honest - more than anything else at all I felt my own selfish relief. I was going to Fulpmes with Nell!
I sneaked a glance at her as we passed under the pine trees. It was not yet properly dusk above us, and even down here it was still light enough that the girls walking ahead needed little more than a cursory eye kept on them; nonetheless, night came earlier in the valley and the trees blocked out a large portion of the natural light that did remain, and I was glad of the lanterns we carried. Nell's chestnut hair shone in their light, and her eyes, too, sparkled.
She turned at that moment, and I blushed to be caught looking at her so. I caught a startled look on her face, so subtle I wouldn't have noticed it had I not been watching so intently: her mouth closed, as if she had thought better of whatever she had intended to say, and she gave me a quick smile before starting again. "I love the smell of the trees here. I remember my very first time coming out here, stepping off the train at Spartz and knowing that the School would have to fall very far short of my expectations for me to want to leave."
I grinned, grateful for the distraction from my blushes a moment before. "And it didn't, then?"
Nell smiled more broadly. "No, evidently! I hadn't really expected to - when I first met with Madge and Therese, I felt certain their school would be somewhere I could work well. I like my job, I like my boss, I like my colleagues and I like the location - I count my blessings every day, believe me. It's very much different from my previous position," and she broke off slightly and set her gaze straight ahead, though it was clear her eyes were unseeing and her mind elsewhere.
The small town of Spartz was now visible beyond the trees. Unbidden, the girls ceased their singing, and Nell came out of her reverie, falling into step beside me once more. "I hope this walk hasn't been too much for Robin. It's not such a long way, though, and I suppose she's rather buoyed by her excitement just now." She leaned closer, her shoulder brushing against mine, and murmured into my ear: "I don't mind telling you, though, I'm looking forward to tonight's hotel." She seemed to dwell a moment longer than strictly necessary, and her low voice so close to me made my own breath catch in my throat. I opened my mouth but no reply came. My ears burned. "Con? Are you all right?" Traces of sudden apprehension showed in the corners of her face, if you knew where to look for them.
I nodded, mutely, searching for the right words to allay her concern without giving myself away. "Yes, I - me, too. Glad to be - staying in Innsbruck, that is." I stuttered, keeping my eyes fixed on the girls as they marched neatly along ahead of us. Nell and I had got on well as soon as we had met, had talked endlessly on walk after walk, night after night in the staff room. And yet increasingly I found myself lost for words in her company.
Nell laughed softly and slipped her arm through mine. "Tired? It's not been the easiest of terms, has it? The second half shouldn't be so trying, I'm sure of it. And we'll be sat on the train soon now." She was right - even as she spoke we were coming into view of the station.
In the train the Robin promptly fell asleep, and some of the others were not slow in following her example. The sleepers in our company lent a peaceful air to the journey, which nobody much liked to interrupt. Even Nell looked suddenly softer, Dorothy Brentham's head resting on her arm.
As the train limped into the outskirts of Innsbruck, Nell began to gently rouse Dorothy, and Louise Redfield did likewise with quiet Violet Allison. Joey caught my eye and gestured questioningly at little Robin, still fast asleep. I shook my head; the baby's health was subject to Dr Jem's careful management and it seemed unwise to disturb her sleep unless absolutely essential, even if it was still quite early. "Better not wake her, Jo. I'll carry her from here." And as the train pulled into the station, I lifted the dainty child from her beloved "sister's" lap and carried her from the train, leaving Nell to shepherd the other girls and their luggage onto the platform where we were met by Herr Marani and Herr Mensch.
Once we had reached the great Europe Hotel, I settled the baby in the cot in the room she was to share with Joey. Jo was swiftly tidying herself for Abendessen, and Nell brought Robin's supper of bread-and-milk, ready for when she should wake - as she did, shortly after. She was undressed, bathed and tucked into bed, there to eat her supper, and Jo placed a gentle kiss on her forehead before slipping quietly from the room. I sat with her a while longer before crossing the hallway into my own room to splash some water on my face and run a comb through my hair before going downstairs.
When I descended, I found only Nell, sitting in the salon with a cup of coffee and a book. She smiled as I approached. "Joey, Elsie and Anne have gone to the Maranis, Eustacia, Louise and Violet to the Rincinis, and Dorothy and Ruth to the Mensches. We also had invitations, but I said we had better be here for Robin - I hope you don't mind?" She added hurriedly, the thought clearly having only just occurred to her.
I grinned, and shook my head. "Not at all. They're dear girls, but I'm glad for some time without the responsibility. - and I'm sure that feeling is mutual!"
Nell's laugh rang out, acknowledging the truth in my words. "Oh, I quite agree! Now, Abendessen will be served at twenty o'clock and it's currently a quarter to. I suggest we first decide any details of our journey tomorrow, and then we can stop 'talking shop' and turn to more agreeable topics."
"I thought we might take the longer route, taking the electric tram from the Westbahnhof to Wilten and then walking to the Stubaital-Bahnhof. It's a bit of a trot I know but, for the sake of the new girls, I think it well worth doing, so that they see as much of Innsbruck as possible. If they tire too soon, it's always possible to get a tram."
Nell nodded. "It is a good idea. And their cases will be sent on to Fulpmes, so they will have nothing to carry but small hand-bags. Well, that's settled, and we should arrive at our pension shortly before Mittagessen. I think they will send someone to meet us from the train, but if not I'm sure there will be someone who can direct us." Satisfied, she stood and extended an arm to me, gesturing with her other hand towards the Gastzimmer. "Shall we? Actually, I suppose that ought to be 'may I?'" She mused thoughtfully, taking my pale hand in her rather more weathered arm as she led me through the hotel.
Fulpmes, and a little courage by crm
This one got a bit longer than I'd intended, but I can't see a better place to split it. Again, the bolded bits are lifted directly from EBD's text.
I opened my eyes. The pink of winter sunrise streamed into the white-walled hotel room, and I could hear the soft sounds of gently splashing water. Turning my head in the direction of the noise, I realised it was Nell at the bowl on top of the dresser. I quickly turned away again, embarrassed, but she must have seen my movement in the mirror.
"Morning! I hope I didn't wake you. I don't think you slept very well last night - you kept tossing and turning. And I suppose we were up rather late... I was trying to let you sleep now, sorry."
"I don't think you woke me. I hope I didn't keep you awake with my restlessness, though." We had spent a wonderful evening, talking in the salon downstairs until after all the girls had been returned and sent to bed, eventually retiring to our room shortly after midnight - only to talk even more. I kept my face ostentatiously towards the wall.
"You didn't - I just don't sleep much. I brought you some coffee. You can look now." She sounded faintly amused. I turned and sat up, reaching gratefully for the coffee set down beside my bed, and studiously avoided watching her finish buttoning her blouse. My mouth felt dry, in spite of the hot drink.
Nell's attention had turned to her hair, which she was deftly pinning into her usual bun. "Your hair is really long! I had no idea." I said, almost without thinking, but glad to have not burst forth with any of my other observations at this moment.
Nell flashed a smile at me in the mirror. "Too long! I'd cut it all off tomorrow if it were up to me, but somehow I suspect that's not quite the look deemed appropriate for a school mistress and I'd rather avoid the inevitable scandal."
"I like it." I ventured. Nell raised her eyebrows. "Though I think you'd look good with it short, too..." I trailed off and stared out of the window, feeling the colour in my cheeks. Nell gave a short cough and - though I couldn't be certain - I had the distinct impression she was choking back laughter. When I dared to look back, she was smiling gently.
"Well, thank you." Polite, honest, amused. She slipped a final pin into her hair and gave herself a careful glance in the mirror. "I'm going to go and rouse any layabeds in our number now - you've plenty of time, don't worry, but somehow the slightest change to their morning routine and the whole operation runs much more slowly. You would expect that a jug and bowl saves minutes compared to their baths at school, but experience tells me otherwise!" And with that, she was gone.
After Fruhstuck, the girls quickly packed their night things away and we set off through the snow to the Stubaitalbahn. Jo was characteristically most enthused by the more touristic journey we had planned, delighting the younger girls in her tales of Andreas Hofer and Napoleon as we passed through the Andreas Hofer Strasse. All the girls, that is, except for Eustacia, who seemed equally characteristically determined to disagree.
"Aren't you biting your tongue to keep from jumping in?" Nell muttered discreetly to me, keeping her eyes carefully on our charges as they marched solemnly along listening to the two girls lock horns on the subject of Napoleon.
I smiled. "I don't think I could do without seeming hopelessly partisan, which would hardly improve our weekend. You know, they remind me of discussions I had at Oxford. I hope Jo will go on to read History when she leaves school. She'd be good at it, and it'd be good for her."
Nell opened her mouth to reply, but at that moment Eustacia uttered a smug rejoinder on the subject of poor history teaching, and Nell's face fell to sudden outrage. "Well! I'm biting my own tongue, now. Of all the cheek...!"
"Shh." I chuckled the rebuke softly. I was not offended by Eustacia's parroted and impersonal judgment, however much I was charmed by Nell's defensiveness. All in all, our arrival that moment at the station could not have been better timed.
By now the sun was properly in the sky, and the mountain train ran a slow and scenic route to Fulpmes, crossing a number of valleys and passing through tiny villages so picturesque they seemed more like paintings than real homes. The enchanting views provided a welcome distraction for the girls, and they watched through the windows in wonder, calling quietly to each other whenever they spotted a particularly beautiful feature.
Nell's attention, in the meantime, had settled on me. "You look tired." She said softly, putting a tentative hand to my cheek. "Goodness! Con, you're cold." It was cold on the train, and I could feel my disturbed night catching up with me. I could hardly tell her the truth - that lying in bed, knowing she was just feet away from me with nothing but blankets and air in between, had made it almost impossible for me to sleep - so I shrugged lightly.
"Just a restless night. I'm sure I'll sleep much better tonight." I promised with all the reassurance I could muster.
A queer expression crossed her face briefly, but I couldn't quite place it. In any case, I hadn't the luxury of sitting and wondering, for just then the little engine drew up before the platform of the Bahnhof of Fulpmes. Here we all tumbled out, and Nell looked round for someone to direct us to our pension. A tall lanky fellow, in faded green coat and breeches, with huge shawl-like scarf wound round his shoulders, came forward, hat in hand, to bow, and ask in a pleasant voice if these were the gracious ladies for the Pension Gisela.
Our baggage had arrived ahead of us, and was already waiting in our rooms when we reached the pretty pension and were welcomed by the big-hearted Frau Blitzen, and the girls fizzed with excitement as they inspected their charming rooms and readied themselves for Mittagessen. Their preparations completed, they ran downstairs to the Gastzimmer, where bowls of soup awaited them.
"Eggs in it!" murmured Anne as she lifted the first spoonful to her lips. "What a weird idea!"
"Oh, they often serve it that way," said Jo. "The worst part of it is they just let the eggs look at the soup, and they are so light that they are gluey!"
And so the girls found them. Still, the novelty of it reconciled them to that, and even when the soup was followed by pink boiled ham served with prunes, they only laughed. This course ended, and there came plates of something that looked, and tasted, not unlike porridge, and with this they ate cherries steeped in spirits. The whole meal was topped off by excellent coffee and rolls split and spread with jam of some kind. Eustacia looked rather askance at this queer mixture, and Nell saw to it that the Robin had only two cherries, and I wondered at her rather excessive caution; but the others enjoyed it all with keen appetite.
When the meal was finished, Nell sent the girls to unpack their suitcases and we retired to our room to undertake the same task. With characteristic efficiency, she finished long before I did and sat on her bed to watch me, grey eyes twinkling. "Don't tell Matey!"
I laughed, and remembered what I'd meant to ask earlier. Treading carefully - I wasn't yet completely sure where to trace the fine line between Nell's irreverent humour and her deep and serious commitment to her vocation and the girls she was responsible for - I asked about the Robin and the cherries.
Nell shrugged. "I don't know, really, but from Dr Jem's thinking it's always better to be safe than sorry as far as Robin is concerned. And it's not as if it seems any great hardship to her - that's not her nature. She has only two cherries, she simply delights in those cherries and doesn't ask for more. She certainly won't see the glacier, but she's thrilled just to be here with the others - especially Jo. Jem calls it instant obedience - I'm not sure that's quite what it is, myself, but the end result is the same. Mind you, they were a bit fierce, didn't you think? I could - eventually! - live with myself for accidentally permitting the other girls to grow tipsy on mysterious pudding accompaniments but, somehow, getting the Robin intoxicated seems an error of a different magnitude entirely!"
I laughed, pushing my now empty suitcase into the corner beside Nell's. "Did you think they were quite strong?" I built up my courage and hoped it wasn't misplaced. I couldn't look her at her as I spoke. "Strong enough that I might explain away any inappropriate actions as being committed under the influence, for example?" I held my breath, realising I had, at once, been both too vague and too obvious.
Nell laughed, too, but her laught had a very different quality to my own one only seconds earlier. I dared to turn and face her, meeting her gaze full on. She had the same smile she had given earlier, when I had been wittering about her hair. "'Inappropriate' is such an imprecise term, don't you think Con? I don't think I could possibly assess the alcoholic content of those cherries in such an unsatisfactorily vague context. Now, what do I think? I think the cherries were delightful, and I think we ought to round up our little darlings before they come looking to round up us, and return to this very interesting question later, by which time you certainly won't be under any alcoholic influence you might, very theoretically, be under at the present moment." And with that, she donned her coat, her hat and her scarf and whisked out of the room, leaving me to feebly rush to copy her and follow the party down the stairs.
A very pleasant half-term by crm
Thanks for the comments!
As per usual, the bold is directly quoted from the text.
"Well! And are you planning to decimate my group any further?"
Nell had waited until the girls - all bar the Robin, who was in bed, and Eustacia, who was sulking back at the pension - were far enough ahead to be out of earshot. She was positively glowing. If I hadn't been paying careful attention, I might have attributed it to her satisfaction at making arrangements with Herr Siebur for the planned exhibitions, but this spark had been present since before then. I wondered if anyone else had noticed, and whether I, too, was marked by secret joy.
I laughed. "Poor Eustacia. But such a difficult child! She will have to learn to joke like a normal schoolgirl, sooner or later - and it would do best for her if she might make it the former." I exhaled as I recalled our ill-fated exchange over kaffee und kuchen, feeling far more annoyance than pity for the girl who had, so far, been the only blight on our trip.
Nell nodded. "I think she may still be smarting over that little set-to she had with Jo, about the Catholic service on Sunday. I suppose one of us will have to miss that too. Eustacia isn't the only one who wouldn't go, of course - it would be far easier if she was! But I don't want to leave her to argue with the others."
Watching the rest of our little crowd strolling ahead of us down towards the valley, I knew exactly what she meant. The absence of the prickly Eustacia had made this whole affair far more relaxing. The younger girls were in thrall to their elders, and the elder girls sobered by the responsibility this adoration bestowed upon them. Anne Seymour seemed to be pointing out various constellations in the darkening sky. The younger girls' body language indicated that they were hanging on her every word.
Nell's gaze followed mine, and she turned to me with an apologetic grimace. "I think we ought to draw closer to them now - it's growing very dark, very quickly, and... the last thing either of us want is for Joey to unwittingly mention to Madge, for example, that the mistresses spent most of their time whispering amongst themselves."
"Pity," I murmured, as we quickened our pace accordingly. "I think that would make for a very pleasant half-term." I was gratified to see her duck her head with a small smile, cheeks flushed. "Still, I imagine it will be straight to bed once we get back, won't it?"
Taking a former control of her expressions as we reached our charges, Nell shot me her usual grin. "Oh, I think we might stretch to allowing them a little supper first, perhaps."
Jo threw a suspicious glance over her shoulder at us. "What's that about perhaps a little supper?" She demanded, with scant regard for good grammar. "I say, you pair, have you seen the stars? So many of them! I don't think I've ever noticed the sky so - so full up of them before, somehow."
"It is a lovely night, isn't it?" I agreed amiably. "All right, since you insist, I suppose you might have some supper when we get back to the pension, as long as you stay on your best behaviour 'til then." As I spoke, I noticed little Ruth's eyes widen, and groaned dramatically. "Not you too, Ruth? Is my humour really so off-beam today?"
Nell grinned reassurance at the girl, assuming an air of mischievous sympathy. "Miss Stewart's jokes do seem to be falling a little flat today, I quite agree. I daresay I shall have to send her off to bed without any supper if she doesn't sweeten."
"Oh, will you? Two can play at that game, Miss Wilson," I retorted, eyes twinkling at the young faces so startled by this spectacle of their mistresses' good-natured bickering.
It was late when the walking-party got in, and Eustacia had betaken herself to bed. Hot milky coffee and buttered rolls were waiting for them, and when they had eaten their fill the girls were sent off to bed.
"Bedtime, and more than bedtime!" said Miss Wilson, laughing. "Joey, I know, is not having the climb tomorrow; but the rest of you are, and you need all the rest you can get."
They went, with many protests, but Miss Wilson was to be obeyed, so they ran up the stairs laughing and calling, for there were no other guests to be considered, and the Robin was likely to sleep through any noise they might make.
"Happy now?" Nell teased.
I raised an eyebrow. "You would have sent them up now in any case - it's nearly twenty-two! Shifting the blame onto me..."
"Well, there's fine thanks," she said, adopting her severest tones, before softening into laughter and gesturing at the empty plates and cups in front of us. "Do you want some more?"
I darted a furtive look about the empty room and paused, deliberately waiting to draw her attention - but as soon as her eyes met mine, I rushed on before I could lose my nerve. "I'd rather go to bed." I could hear the blood pounding in my ears, and my voice seemed unnaturally loud, though I knew it wasn't. Certainly I knew it wouldn't carry as far as the kitchen next door, where I could hear Frau Blitzen washing the dishes.
Nell swallowed, and looked away. "Yes, of course - I had forgotten how tired you were earlier - and what a long day it's been since then! Poor thing, you must be exhausted now."
"Nell," I waited for her to look at me again. "I'm not tired. Or at least," my conscience not permitting such an outright lie, "I don't want to sleep." I looked at her steadily. She raised an eyebrow, and I gave a slight nod.
She watched me, for what felt like several minutes, though I knew it could not really have been. I listened to the clinking of china and soft humming of Frau Blitzen in the next room, and panicked silently. I've got it all wrong, I've made a terrible misunderstanding and there is no possible way out of this. There was no explanation to cover it. I wondered if she would at least keep it to herself until I could leave at the end of term. I wondered what I would do if I couldn't get a reference.
At length, Nell nodded, and rose to her feet, inclining her head towards the stairs.
"Do you know what you're saying?" Nell demanded in a low voice, as soon as she had closed the door behind us.
I stopped, barely a step ahead of her, giddy with tentative relief, punch-drunk on terrified abandon. This didn't particularly seem to be a line of questioning which would lead its way towards a resignation with no reference, but even if it did, I was too far in to stop now. "You're not asking me whether I'm still drunk on those damned cherries? Yes - I mean no," ending in some confusion as I caught the look on her face, "no, I'm not still pretending to be unaccountable for my actions, and yes, I know exactly what I'm saying - and what's more, I mean it."
I watched her face, trying to follow the rapid series of decisions I could tell she was weighing up. Her breathing was shallow and, for all I couldn't guess her present thought process, I was reassured my basic judgment had not been wrong after all. Thank God. I stopped worrying about my reference.
"And you know - the implications? You know what would happen - what it would cost us both of anyone found out?" Nell gave me a searching look, and I understood.
"Yes, I know. I'm not," I cleared my throat awkwardly, "I'm not entirely a novice."
Nell raised an eyebrow and I knew I was blushing, but the tension on her face had eased. Almost shyly, she stepped closer to me. The room seemed to be spinning. I could hear her breath, and realised I had been holding my own. Then she slipped strong arms around my waist and kissed me.
That was - nice," I observed some time later - gingerly, foolishly, in the low tones experience had taught carry less than whispers.
Nell gave me an indignant nudge. "Watch out with that faint praise, my child."
I smothered a giggle. "I didn't want to give you cause for putting on any airs. Ow!"
I wriggled happily as she buried laughter and a gentle kiss at the nape of my neck. "Careful! You'll have us both on the floor if you keep that up," she murmured softly.
"Your fault." I countered, reaching for her hand in the darkness.
"My bed is bigger than this," Nell mused, absentmindedly. "My bed at the Chalet, I mean. Well, my bed at home is too, of course, but that's rather further away."
My heart skipped a beat. "Take me there, one day?"
She gave a quiet snort. "To my cottage? Or to my bed?"
I rolled over - very carefully, for the bed was indeed a remarkably narrow one - until I lay facing her. "Either one sounds just fine to me..."
When she spoke, I could hear that she was smiling, and her voice had a faraway quality to it. "I'd like that. I think you'd like it, too. It's gloriously out of the way - oh, the village is lovely and welcoming and always feels just like coming home; but the cottage itself is some way off the beaten track and, well - you don't have to have one eye open all the time, or whisper behind closed doors like this. Nobody's watching, there's nobody near enough to see. Not," she added hastily, "that there's not a certain charm to whispering behind closed doors. Tonight, I wouldn't change a single thing."
"Oh, but it would be wonderful to open the curtains and jalousies and watch the stars, without worrying we'd be overheard," I traced the outline of her jaw with my fingers as I spoke, gently matching the familiar visual to the newly-discovered feel, noting with pleasure the decidedly feminine angularity.
"Exactly. And as to my rather more spacious bed at the chalet - well. Oh, Con, we would have to be so very careful. It's the most unwise course of action imaginable - but I don't think I could not."
I chuckled in the darkness. "Well, as I say - it was rather nice, after all."
"Libel! Oh, in that case, consider all offers rescinded. I shan't mind too much -" I chuckled and placed a finger across her mouth, and she fell silent.
"No, you're right. I - I don't think I could go back to living so closely with you and not - at least occasionally - you know."
Her fingers twisted among mine. We lay in silence for several minutes and I found myself marvelling at the new discoveries of this closeness, her familiar body in a completely novel context. Up close, she felt and smelled and sounded just as she always had, and also nothing at all like I had ever known her.
"You were surprised, weren't you? That I wasn't entirely the unsullied novitiate?"
She exhaled slowly, in meditation. "Only a little. Balance of probabilities, rather than any strong inkling, I suppose - with a healthy dose of caution thrown in for good measure." She paused, brought my fingertips to her lips. "Tell me? If you want to, that is."
I smiled tenderly, though Nell couldn't see me. "Her name was Annie. She was the younger sister of my brother Charles' greatest friend, and two years older than me, though we were neither of us very much more than children, really. Oh, she was beautiful, and clever, and I suppose I just thought she was exactly as I wanted to be when I was older too. There was something captivating about the way she moved - so strong in herself, so self-assured; I'd never seen a girl like her before.
"Our families knew each other, more or less, and she was always welcome at our house. It's strange to think how much has changed in such a short space of time - she slept in my bed more times than I can count, and nobody thought anything of it. I was never entirely sure how usual or otherwise it was - the other things we were doing in bed, besides sleeping, I mean. But then - did the Well trial cross your consciousness much?"
Nell nodded her head against my arm. "I was in London. I remember it, yes."
"I was at Oxford. My uncle, I don't think I've mentioned before, is a psychologist. My father, I probably have mentioned, is a newspaper editor. It was a great area of mutual interest for them both, professionally. I came home that Christmas and my father had this awful look on his face. I don't know how, but I knew exactly what it was about, and sure enough the first afternoon Annie came round to see me, my mother made it clear we must stay and talk in the drawing room, where my brothers and Nancy were too." I stopped for a moment, collecting my thoughts and sort through the rapidly shifting responses I had experienced: anger, at being chaperoned in such a way; guilt, knowing full well this supervision had been warranted; confusion, as things which had seemed fine and normal had been suddenly reclassified as neither of these things; and frustration, at being thus barred from talking through this confusion with Annie, who might have understood - and knowing that even if we had been free to talk, neither of us had the words to articulate what was happening.
"I tried to write to Annie, once I was back at Oxford. But I didn't dare express myself too clearly, for fear of my letter falling into other hands, and in any case I hadn't much to say. What do you say? 'Thank you'? 'Help me'? 'All best wishes for your future'? I don't even know what she's doing these days - Charles must know, but he's never said, and I've never asked. Oh, I can't pretend I loved her, Nell - not in the way I imagine a girl expects to love a husband - but it was queer to have it all suddenly rearrange into something quite different and then disappear like that."
Nell squeezed my hand, and I knew that she understood.
"Then there was - someone else. Edith. Her room was two doors down from mine, and she read Literature. Her people were outlandishly wealthy, I believe, and thoroughly bohemian. She was what you might call a breath of fresh air, though it was very contrived, in a way. She was fearless - she used to strut through the town in trousers, waistcoat and cravat, just daring anyone to comment.
"It - it wasn't the way it had been with Annie: we had just fallen in together, somehow flowed naturally from going arm-in-arm like any girlfriends to the kinds of kisses that we thought maybe everyone else was sharing, except it seems to turn out that everyone else wasn't, after all; but with Edith, it was as though she spied something in me - she sought me out. But after all that, and all her parading about in britches, all she wanted to do was sit beside me and hold my hand while she talked."
I stopped for a moment, pressed a kiss on Nell's collarbone. The smell of her skin made me shiver slightly, and she drew me closer, perhaps thinking me cold. "That rather frightened me, when I thought about it - that she had seen something it was becoming clear one ought to keep well hidden. After that, I left well alone."
Without saying a word, Nell held me steadily, and I felt safer than I had done in a long time. At length, I placed another kiss on her cheek. "What about you?"
Nell shifted uneasily. "Oh, you don't want to know all that."
"Not if you really don't want to tell me. But I wouldn't - I wouldn't mind, Nell. How could I?" I slid nearer, my head resting just below her chin. She curled her arm around me.
"None of it is as charming as yours," she cautioned.
I snorted softly. "One's own stories never seem 'charming'."
"Oh, I know - and that wasn't the best word, either, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to reduce things like that. But you come out of it perfectly well, and more than that. I... don't." She fell silent, looking up towards the ceiling.
"I'm not going to judge you," I murmured firmly. She turned her face down to mine, kissed my forehead gently.
Several moments passed. "Nell, you don't have to-"
"I want to," she interrupted, her voice as firm as my own had been. "I'm just deciding where to begin." She gave me another absent-minded kiss, smoothed my hair away from my face with those wonderful hands, strong and gentle. My stomach lurched.
"I don't think I was so much like you, Con. I quite agree about the paucity of language - it made it difficult then, and it still makes it difficult now - but I knew, very clearly, that how I felt and what I wanted - who I wanted, and how - wasn't at all what was considered 'normal'. I can't really remember not knowing that I was different. I can't even remember when I first understood it was a difference not to be remarked upon - because it always was, as I knew it; I know what you mean about that trial, and it changed a lot, of course it did. But what it changed most for us was the opportunity for hiding in plain sight.
"There were two women who shared a house two streets away from us. We didn't know them as such, but I saw them about, and they came to our church. I remember thinking they were ancient, though thinking about it now probably neither of them had yet reached forty. I can't have been more than twelve, because the War wasn't over yet, but I knew there was something about these two women, that was about me too. I knew I wanted to grow up and set up home like they had."
She broke off for a moment, and I stayed still and quiet, waiting for her to continue.
"It's hard to explain how I knew it was different from just two friends, living together - because of course so many women were only that, and even more since then. And I really was only a child - it wasn't that I was even slightly thinking about - you know. But I had friends, and I had a sister, and I knew that what I wanted wasn't just to live with a friend, or a sister - and I knew that was what these two women were doing. They weren't filling time, or making do. I suppose they must have been in love, and I must have seen it, even as people much older didn't see it at all - or maybe they only pretended not to."
"Things were much more blurred together then," I speculated.
"Yes," Nell agreed. "Or at least, they could be blurred more easily. They mostly still looked rather clear-cut to me."
I smiled. How Nell! "I expect they would," I agreed. "Anyway, I do think this is quite charming so far. Dreamy young Nell scouting out the aged local inverts and envisaging her own quietly radical life..."
She gave an impressively quiet peal of laughter. "Something like that. That's the end of the charming part, though. Then follows a number of years in which, in spite of keeping my eyes open, I failed to find a likely contender for sharing this quietly radical future with. Then I started at the School of Economics -"
"And what better place to find your co-radical?" I teased, then immediately recalled myself. "Oh, I'm sorry Nell. You listened so quietly to me, and now here I am, rudely interrupting all over the place! I'll hush now."
She shook her head. "You don't have to. Your distractions are always welcome - ahem!" - this last exclamation as I ran my fingertips gently down the far side of her torso.
I tried to sound contrite. "Oh. Not that kind of distraction, then?"
"Well, we could, but it would certainly necessitate a proper break from this yarn..."
"You drive a hard bargain, Nell Wilson. How about you give me the short version and then we..."
Nell's attempts at sternness were no more effective than my contrition. "You were right, child, your manners are appalling. I shall send you off to your own bed in a minute."
I chuckled and removed the offending hand from its precarious position on her hip, laying it gently across her cheek instead and leaning to kiss her firmly on the lips. "All right. Now tell me about the School of Economics."
A smile spread across her face. "'Mid-way through my second term, I met Harry..."
"Harry was in my Meteorology class. It was some time before we ever actually talked - I was really only interested in the teaching, being content to get my fill of chatter from the hockey club. But I would see him around - he favoured the same corner of the refectory of me, and he was - oh, he was like no one I'd ever met before. He was gregarious and witty. He was so fast - everything about him was fast: his speech, his brain, the way he whirled from lecture hall to bar to members' club and back again. He had a flat of his own just off Kingsway, and took home a different boy every week - not counting the ones he never actually took home." Nell held her breath, waiting for my reaction. I waited, too.
"We had a lot in common, and also a lot we were completely at odds over, but I grasped very quickly that the things we had in common were rarer and more important. I had grown up in London, more or less - my parents' home was in Ealing: but Harry showed me a completely different London - it was like a hidden world, Con. I suspect it was the kind of place your Edith was looking for."
"Was it what you were looking for?" I tried to keep my voice level. Jealousy, distaste and fascinated awe simmered below the surface. I remembered my promise to not judge.
"In the end, not exactly. And I - I lapsed, badly, repeatedly. But it offered so many possibilities, and I learned a lot. I clarified a lot of things in my mind."
I tried to picture it - the gaudy colours and the gay dancing and the shrieks of laughter; the bright lights and the darkened rooms; the relief at being 'home' and the fear of being caught; the gin and the snuff and the men wearing lipstick and the fumbling in corners, and there in the midst of it all, Nell.
"It probably won't surprise you to learn that it wasn't entirely my scene," she continued at this point - had she been there in that reverie with me? - one hand idly running through the loose hairs at the nape of my neck. "I belonged, because they were like me - but I also didn't belong, because it all felt so unlike me. Maybe that's how it was for everyone - I don't know. I had fun, but I knew it wasn't how I wanted to spend my whole life. In any case, I knew I would have to work. There were ways and means of staying in that lifestyle without work, but, well..." She trailed off.
I laughed. "No, I can't quite picture you settling for anything like that."
"No, indeed. I - I had some offers, but I cared too deeply, and I always wanted the wrong things. Anyway, it wasn't so long until Cherry became ill - really ill, this time - and I stopped going out to those places. I went to my lectures and studied my books and every spare moment, I went straight home to see her."
She stopped and I wrapped my arm around her tightly. "Oh, my love. I know. I know."
At length, Nell continued. "I didn't miss it, and not just because I was distracted by more important things. I don't - I don't want to talk about that time, if you don't mind; it's not part of this story, it's just an interruption. Less than eighteen months after Cherry began to sicken, there was nobody left at home for me any more. I had finished my M.Sc and there was nothing, in every aspect of my life, nothing but this great void. So of course, I went back to Soho, and to Fitzrovia, all the familiar old places, and faces, looking for somewhere that might feel like home...
"It's like a circus, Con. Such bawdiness and hedonism but underneath it all is so much shared pain, mostly unacknowledged. I didn't ever forget myself, even for a moment, but I could at least pretend to. I could fill my time, keep the darkness at bay... There are no names in my story, do you see? I didn't know their names, or if I did I couldn't be sure they were real ones."
She broke off, again, and I waited for her to come back through the mists of time.
"Then a number of things happened, which weren't really connected, but began to nudge me along a little. There was a police raid on a club I was in at the time - I didn't get caught up in it, they were much more interested in the insolvent young men, but it felt like a warning. The Well of Loneliness thing came not long afterwards - it was all anyone talked about, until the lights dimmed and they stopped talking altogether. All the meanwhile, what money I had was slipping away. And then one Saturday afternoon I was walking alone through Hampstead, where I'd spent a night, or maybe it had even been two nights, when I bumped into an old schoolteacher of mine. It was strange, but pleasant, to speak with someone who still knew me from before - who didn't know what had happened - as if it were more authentically me, somehow. After I'd filled her in on my studies since leaving school, she wondered aloud why I wasn't either researching or teaching, and I realised perhaps that would be my way back, because I couldn't go on as I had. So I pulled myself together and got myself a job at a High School down in Devon. I wanted a clean break from everything - I let out the house in Ealing through an agency my father had had business dealings with, and took a room near the school.
"I taught mostly general subjects, with an emphasis on Maths - they were not, I think, much interested in girls learning Science, though I tried to surreptitiously include such snippets as I could. It wasn't entirely a labour of love, but it was good for me: I practised explaining my bereavement, or fending off questions, and I quietly reacquainted myself with God. I liked the local area very much, and I began to think that this new life wasn't such an awful compromise. I was lonely, and grieving, and I even missed the cameraderie of Fitzrovia, but it seemed like a way of living I could get used to.
"I had been there just over a year when a new Senior Mistress joined the staff. She took an instant dislike to me, and I couldn't fathom it at first; it took me more than a month to realise we'd met before. She looked," and here bitter amusement rang through in Nell's voice, "rather different, in her teaching attire. I suppose she was terrified for herself - or disgusted - or both. She never actually spoke to me. I stayed there another year, equally terrified of what she might let slip, or how she might squash me to save her own skin, while I tried to work out what to do next. Everything I had been running away from was catching up with me, and I wondered if it was really possible for an 'invert' to be a teacher. But what else could I do? I knew I certainly couldn't marry. I didn't want to be the dependent companion to some cosseted rich woman. And while I was hugely fortunate to have a home of my own, I wouldn't have had the means to heat it, or eat, without working.
"At that point I saw the advert for the position at the Chalet School. It seemed perfect: I would be able to teach the subjects I actually wanted to teach - they were already proposing a proper set of labs! -and it was further away. How could any awkward acquaintances catch up with me in Austria? Then Madge herself - Madge was loveliness personified. I told some half-truths, rather than outright lies, and of course she had also lost both her parents - much younger than I."
"Oh, Nell," I whispered, moved by the honesty of her account. "You've seen so much."
"Half of it I wish I'd never known," she responded, her low voice even lower than usual, "and the other half is largely over-rated. Still, here I am! Lived to tell the tale." She squeezed my hand gently. "I don't want you to - to worry over what to say, or anything. I'm not so fragile, and I didn't mean for tonight to become so serious, either."
I kissed her again. "We don't have to stay serious, if you don't want to..."
"Now that, my dear, is an excellent suggestion."
The Stubai glacier by crm
Bolded bits lifted directly from the book.
"I think we should both expire if we make this a third sleepless night," Nell murmured ruefully as she stretched out on top of the bedcovers late on Sunday evening. Herr Siebur had called at the pension at around twenty o'clock to say the weather for tomorrow looked well, and we should be ready to meet him at half past five. Accordingly, we had insisted the girls have an early night, and there had been few protests; even the buzz of excitement at the planned expedition to the Stubai glacier didn't seem, if I was any guess, to have kept them awake too long after we sent them up to bed.
I grinned down at her. "You're showing your age, Nell."
She swiped goodnaturedly at me. "Which you ought to accord some respect, young lady. If we weren't looking at such an early start tomorrow, I could be persuaded, but I am definitely too old for such climbs as tomorrow's without some amount of rest beforehand."
I crossed the room to begin my nighttime toilet. "I'm sure the early start won't do much to improve Eustacia's mood, either."
Nell's face darkened. "No, indeed. I suppose we might hope that the girls are excited enough about seeing the glacier to not rise to it. Eustacia must shake down into her proper place, and in the meantime it will do Jo good to meet with someone who didn't instantly fall under her insouciant charm. All the same, I can't help but wish it wasn't casting such a cloud over our exeat!"
"Well, don't let's think about that now..."
I woke to the sound of Nell in the hallway, rousing the girls with a brisk vigour I didn't imagine they would thank her for. Already? I didn't open my eyes, savouring the last moments in bed. Warm, soft, comfortable bed...
Nell crept across the room and slipped in beside me. "Time to get up, my darling," she whispered.
Still refusing to open my eyes, I pulled her towards me hungrily. She smothered a cry. "Con! You'll get me all creased if you carry on like that. Now get up, lazy object." She gave me a lingering kiss and stood up, pulling the covers back with her.
The cold of the early morning hit me and I gasped, ready to protest most strenuously; but then I caught her looking at me under the dim electric light, undisguised desire written all over her face, and the words died away unuttered. When she spoke her voice had dropped a register lower than usual: "I'm going to go now... make sure everyone is up and getting ready..."
Many weeks later, I would recall this unspoken exchange and comment that nobody had ever looked at me like that before. Momentarily I would regret my unguarded comment, suspecting it unlikely the sentiment would be matched - until I saw Nell look back at me, grey eyes steady with her usual frank honesty: "I've never felt like that about anyone before, either."
Alone, I resisted the urge to tug back the covers and rose, swiftly dressing in climbing knickers and nailed boots. I could hear Nell, commenting unsympathetically on sundry complaints of tiredness and cold emanating from the other rooms, chivvying the girls along.
It was still dark when we left to meet Herr Siebur, who greeted us with the comment that it looked to be a good day and he hoped we might at least get in sight of the glacier. I felt a little thrill, and saw it reflected on numerous young faces. We set off and some of the less experienced girls grumbled at the steady pace our guide was setting, though these complaints were quickly jumped on by those who knew enough to appreciate the energy conserved by setting off 'slowly'.
Over breakfast, Jo distinguished herself by managing to upset her coffee all over Eustacia, of all people. What next? I wished, not for the first time, that this troublesome girl had had somewhere else to go this half-term.
Miss Wilson leapt to her feet, and hurried forward to investigate matters. "Joey! What on earth were you doing? What possessed you to wave your cup about like that?—Are you hurt, Eustacia?"
"I’m—I’m all wet!" stammered Eustacia. ‘All that hot coffee! I wish I’d never come!—You did that on purpose, Josephine Bettany!"
Joey stared. "I say, that’s rot," she said seriously. "I never meant to wet you. It was an accident. I never thought the beastly thing would go in like that. I say, I hope you aren’t scalded or anything like that? Let me mop you up."
"It wasn’t an accident!" raged Eustacia. "You did it on purpose! You are always doing things like that to me! But you needn’t think you can always do it, because I shall jolly well pay you back—"
"Eustacia! Be quiet!" cried Miss Wilson, breaking in on the torrent of words. "Have you taken leave of your senses? Come here, and let me dry you, child, and kindly don’t talk like that again. Of course it was an accident.—Though I must say, Joey, it was one that might have been avoided. What possessed you to swing the thing like that?"
But Eustacia was in a flaming temper and she didn’t care who knew it. "Of course you take Jo Bettany’s side!" she exclaimed. "You all do—always! It’s rank favouritism—"
I opened my mouth to interject with a sharp rebuke - how dare she? - but Nell beat me to it:
"Be quiet at once" said Miss Wilson sternly. "How dare you speak to a mistress like that?—Joey, kindly finish your coffee—the rest of you as well.—Eustacia, stand still!"
Her voice calmed the excited Eustacia a little. Miss Wilson had rarely spoken in such a tone to any girl all the time she had been at the Chalet School. As for the others, they made haste to finish off their meal and pack up. All in all, it was a much subdued atmosphere as we continued our ascent, and I inwardly cursed this difficult child who seemed able to single-handedly ruin any trip.
But the bad feeling seemed to ease as we climbed, Nell keeping up a steady flow of physiographic observations, and by the time we finally reached the glacier and took in its magnificence, such petty squabbles were duly dwarfed. The sun’s rays, striking across the ice, turned it to a thousand diamonds. But it was not white, as many of them had supposed it would be, it was a greenish-blue, even more wonderful to see. Had it not been for the tinted glasses they now wore some of them might have suffered snow-blindness. As it was, they were able to look in comfort at the mighty crown of the mountain, even though they were only touching the edge of it.
For ten minutes Herr Siebur let them look, then he came up to Miss Wilson and said something in a low tone, pointing, as he spoke, over his right shoulder. The mistress turned and looked. In the sky, hitherto clear, were some yellowish clouds, coming up with slow determination. She uttered an exclamation. She knew what those clouds might mean. "Girls," she said, "we must get back now! Fall into rank and turn back.—Miss Stewart, will you lead, please? I will tail off."
Following their gaze across the horizon, I didn't need telling twice. I hurried down the mountainside, clutching Ruth and Dorothy to me, eyes trained on the little Alpinists' hut we were aiming for. It seemed very far away, and our progress horribly slow. I did not dare glance behind.
The Alpinists' hut by crm
Bolded bits from Eustacia.
I didn't hear Nell cry out.
The first I knew of what had happened behind us was when I turned around in the hut and saw Herr Siebur, framed in a doorway rapidly filling with dizzying white snowflakes, Nell slung unconscious over his great shoulder. The cheerful jokes of relief I had already opened my mouth to make faded at once to nothing as I took in this unexpected development.
The first thing to do was to attend to Miss Wilson, and, while Herr Siebur hunted in one of the lockers in the hut for fuel with which to light a fire in the stove, the girls gathered round the mistress. As gently as my shaking hands could manage, I drew off her thick stocking, all the while fighting to keep my breathing steady, my face as bland as possible. Her foot was in a bad way, and I was almost certain of a broken bone. "A sprain," I said at length. "Get some more snow, some of you. We must use it as a compress. I want all the handkerchiefs you can spare, girls, as well. - Give me that scarf, Eustacia."
Once I had made her more comfortable, and packed the compress tightly, I rubbed a little of the burly Tyrolean's Schnapps on her lips - gently, lovingly, and trying to give the impression of cheerful briskness; and certainly trying to give the impression that those lips, and this casual intimacy, were new and unfamiliar to me. It did not take long for her to come round - startled, confused, and obviously in pain. I lay her back gently as she tried instinctively to sit, wishing for all the world that we did not have an audience. I felt sure I could have better cared for her, and more easily reassured her, were I not so hamstrung by the need to maintain propriety.
In the meantime, Herr Siebur had got the stove going and was hunting through the lockers of the hut to see what we might manage to eat. I gave silent thanks for someone else to attend to at least some of the practicalities, that I might better tend to Nell. As the hut grew warmer, the girls discarded their coats, and we used a number of these to make up a more comfortable bed for her. By the time Herr Siebur's oniony stew was served, she was drowsing beside me, and I turned my attentions to the rest of the party. So far, all seemed fine; but it was plain to me that we would need to spend the night here, for even if the snow stopped at once, it was now too late and too dark to safely continue our return to the Pension Gisela. This being the case, it seemed most sensible to encourage them to sleep as soon as the much-needed meal was finished.
I saw to it that the girls were all settled comfortably and well covered with the remaining coats. It wasn't long until all were sound asleep, for which I was grateful. Our guide, too, was sleeping deeply, curled up in the corner beside the stove. I watched Nell's face as she drifted soundlessly in and out of consciousness; the hut was dark, but between the still-glowing stove and the unnatural light that snow somehow produces, I could still make out the pain lining her face. I felt at once the heavy responsibility of the only person awake to watch over her, when I too was weary from the long day's climb and the terrible drama with which it had ended, and the comparative freedom of at least no longer needing to put on a show. I didn't dare whisper a word aloud, but I held her hand and stroked her hair, trying to offer such solace as I could manage in the circumstances. Twice I re-packed her foot with fresh snow from outside where the blizzard still raged, glad to be doing what little I could for her, frustrated that I could do no more. I wondered about Anne and Robin, back at the pension. I hoped, futilely, that they were not too worried by our absence. Perhaps the Robin would have gone to bed already, and would not miss us until morning. Anne was a sensible girl: perhaps she would guess we would have found refuge in a hut such as this. Frau Blitzen would have reassured her of it - wouldn't she?
Herr Siebur stirred around midnight, and crept over to enquire after Nell. I answered as best as I could, which did not amount to much, and asked, in turn, about the blizzard. He hoped it would pass within two days.
"Two days?" I echoed foolishly, knowing even as I said it - even as I went on to protest that we ought to be departing for the Tiernsee the next day - that it really came as no surprise.
Herr Siebur reaffirmed his prediction, rather apologetically, and - clearly judging that I was not thinking sensibly enough about our predicament - added that Nell herself would not be able to travel for much longer. The enormity of this had not yet hit me; I had been so concerned with getting through the night, with tucking the girls in to sleep and minimising Nell's discomfort as far as possible, that I had not yet considered what would happen when the snow stopped - only that I had to hold everything together until it did. I stared mutely at him, and - knowing there was nothing more to be said - he nodded at me and returned to his nook by the stove, and very soon he was snoring again.
Louise roused a while later, and came over to insist I rest and let her watch over Nell for a time. I turned it over in my mind, or what mind I still had, tired as I was: on the one hand, I was the mistress - now the only mistress in the party - and it was my job to keep watch over both Nell and the girls; on the other, what use could I be in the morning if I hadn't slept? Truthfully I didn't think I could sleep, but consented to at least lie and rest for a while. In the end, I must have slept, because it was from a sound sleep that I awoke to hear Jo Bettany and Eustacia Benson arguing passionately. Again! I lay there with my eyes closed, still and furious with them both. They were both alive and well. They had slept the night without a care for anyone but themselves. They had no broken bones, no bad sprains, they had not spent any part of the night bringing in snow to try to help the foot of their dearest friend, watching her pained face as she lay semi-conscious and helpless; they had not had to wonder whether the snow would ever stop and what on earth the next day would bring, and how they would deal with it. What possible right had they to be so petulant, given the circumstances?
As I listened, I came to understand something interesting. Jo - who had been the nearest to Nell when she fell, indeed had arrived breathless in the doorway alongside Herr Siebur as the blizzard took hold in earnest, limply clutching Nell's discarded boot - held Eustacia responsible for the fall. I contemplated this for a moment, and found it greatly plausible - and my anger rushed forth anew. Always Eustacia! I could picture her clearly, unthinkingly dragging on the arm Nell had lent her from kindness, somehow upsetting her balance as they rushed down the mountainside. Unwilling to hear any more on the subject, I struggled to my feet. "Girls! Be quiet at once! How dare you squabble like this? You may be very thankful that you are alive and well! Go and sit down, all of you.—Louise, you and Jo can help Herr Siebur with the breakfast. How is Miss Wilson?"
Continual compresses had helped to reduce the swelling in the foot, and ‘Bill’ was sleeping naturally now, so I moved away from her and went to help with the morning meal. It was the same as the night before, but they were hungry again and ate it thankfully. The rest of the party seemed well, if tired - even Violet and Jo, who were both somewhat delicate and I had been worried for. They managed to amuse themselves quietly telling stories for the morning, whilst Herr Siebur left to find help, for the storm had slackened, and he knew the mountain as well as he knew his own kitchen, so there was little fear of him losing his way.
The sun came out well before Mittagessen - far sooner than I had permitted myself to hope for. We couldn't get on, of course, as we were still waiting for Herr Siebur and what help he could bring, but knowing that we would be able to leave that day after all improved everything. Better yet, just as Mittagessen was ready, Nell came to properly at last, very well in herself but for the injured foot - how typically Nell, no time for malingering! Relief and joy flooded through me. The final lift came at half-past fourteen, when the sound of voices on the still mountain air told of our imminent rescue. As the girls hurried around the hut tidying up and putting on their own outer garments, I helped Nell into her coat and cap and permitted myself a gentle stroke of the exposed skin at her neck as I did so, earning a smile and a raised eyebrow from a beautiful face still etched with pain.
"It will be all right," I murmured reassuringly, wishing I could say more but not daring to, as distracted as the girls all seemed to be.
"I was going to say much the same thing to you!" She returned, trying valiantly to disguise a grimace. I smiled understandingly. Maybe no more words were needed after all.
The men arrived half an hour later and found them all waiting. Joey and Louise had put out the fire in the stove by the simple method of shoving handfuls of snow into it. The smell in the hut was simply awful, but there was no spark left among the wood, as one of the men found when he examined it. A simple stretcher had been brought, and on it a hefty giant of a man laid Miss Wilson, covering her with a blanket that was odorous, to say the least of it. Another made Violet climb on his back, and two more accounted for Dorothy and Ruth. Herr Siebur took up the poles at one end of the stretcher, and the big man who had arranged ‘Bill’ took up the others. The four remaining were expected to look after themselves to a certain extent, though one man walked with each of them. So arranged they went down the mountain-side through the dying light of the day, and finally reached the head of the valley, where Neustift lies. Here two big sleighs were awaiting them, and they all piled in and were driven swiftly down the valley to Fulpmes, and to good Frau Blitzen, who, with Anne and the Robin, welcomed them with open arms.
The men were well rewarded for their labours, and Herr Siebur went off wondering dazedly whether he had fallen among millionaires. In addition to his normal fees he had been given money equal in value to twenty pounds, and Joey, hearing that he had three little daughters, had demanded his address, so that she might send them each something in return for all their father had done.
"Poor old Con! You have had a trying week." Nell's smile was sympathetic. She wriggled uneasily. "I wish you hadn't had to do it all - and all because I wasn't paying enough attention to my own two feet!" she added ruefully.
It was late Thursday night and we were lying on Nell's bed in the pension. I had not long returned from Innsbruck, where I had left Joey and the Robin in Herr Marani's capable hands: he would take them up to Spartz on the morrow, where they would be met by Dr Jem himself. I mentally gave thanks again for the great assistance Herr Marani had provided that week, and shuddered to think how much harder it would have been without his help.
"Don't blame yourself, my dear. Why, by all accounts it was that wretched child Eustacia - yet again! Oh, I wish we'd never taken her!"
I waved a hand around expressively as I gave vent to my exasperation, and Nell caught it gently in her own. "But what do you mean, it was Eustacia?"
I was thrown off-balance by her confusion at what seemed entirely logical, and had been universally accepted as fact. "The girls are all remarkably clear that Eustacia was the reason for your fall. Certainly I know it's what Jo thinks, and she was right beside you both..." I trailed off uncertainly.
Nell shook her head thoughtfully. "I don't think so, Con. Don't look at me so doubtfully, please! - I didn't bang my head, you know. - Eustacia was pulling on my arm a little, naturally; really I was going too fast for her, but we didn't have much choice in that. Truth is, I suppose I was going too fast for me, too - or at least too fast for me to be pulling anyone else along. I was so concerned with minding her footing, I didn't pay enough attention to my own. In a way, I'm grateful for that - it would have been terrible if I'd pulled her over instead, and now I think about it I realise I could very easily have done so."
I frowned at this new perspective. "You're the first person to describe it like that. The others were all furious with her, naturally. Are you quite sure, Nell?"
Her face was impassive, and I couldn't help wondering if this was a version of events Nell had decided upon, more than an account she truly remembered. It would be very like her to take the responsibility on her own shoulders and shrug off the part which might be blamed on others, but I felt discomfited by the possibility of her lying to me about it. "I'm reasonably sure, and the burden of proof must fall on anyone who says otherwise. I do wish they wouldn't use it as another reason to snipe at her. Heaven knows I'm as tired of her as anyone else is, but it doesn't seem very fair, and I feel unwittingly complicit, somehow."
To a certain extent, Nell was making a lot of sense; and yet, at the same time, this show of frank generosity jarred so deeply with Eustacia's own gracelessness it left me incensed on Nell's behalf. "But she's not even sorry! She's still as arrogant as ever! Do you know, she was even late down to breakfast on Wednesday morning? Any other girl would be trying as hard as she could to make amends and avoid further trouble. She's the absolute limit, Nell..."
"But why would she be sorry, if she doesn't think she's done anything wrong?" Nell pointed out, not unreasonably, trying and failing to conceal a smile at my careless slang. "Oh, what a mess! I don't mean to say Jo must be maliciously blaming Eustacia - she just wouldn't do that, she's too upright and honest - but I wish she'd think twice before opening her mouth!"
"She's very upset about Robin, though," I reminded her, and we both grew sombre and said nothing, for on that matter there was nothing that could be said, at least until Dr Jem had seen her for himself. It was my turn to feel awkward. "I daresay I haven't helped matters as I might have done, either."
Nell flashed me a sudden smile of support. "Don't - just don't. I'm sure if it had been your foot, I'd have been much less equitable. As it is, you've held everything together brilliantly and I just get to lie about being the magnanimous injured hero!"
"Your English," I murmured reprovingly, feeling better than I had done since Monday - had it really only been three days? It felt much longer.
"What of it? You knew what I meant, and what other purpose has language?" she retorted.
"Philistine." I leant closer and whispered a gentle kiss behind her ear. "Isn't it nice to be so completely off-duty like this?"
"It's almost like a holiday!" Nell offered, so brightly it made me giggle. "I should break my foot more often." She ran a hand lightly behind my neck and across my shoulder. "How long 'til you have to go back?"
I grinned enigmatically and leaned in for a very leisurely kiss before answering. "Sunday morning, my love. If I take the nine o'clock train I should get back to the School at a respectable hour of the evening." I smiled at her face on hearing this news. "Well, I couldn't leave you without seeing you properly settled, could I?"
"Very noble," Nell nodded, her fingers working lazily at the top button of my blouse, "quite the sacrifice, I'm sure. Two whole days here? How did you ever manage that?"
"I imagine Mlle was thinking of how bored and lonely you'll be over the next two weeks," I shrugged. "And really, since I couldn't possibly be back for lessons tomorrow, what real benefit would there be to me being there over the weekend?"
She looked suddenly pensive and her fingers paused in their task, resting on my third button. "I will be horribly bored and lonely, won't I?"
"You will," I agreed, "but the rest will do you good, and I'll write to you. Anyway, don't let's borrow trouble - you're not bored or lonely now, are you?"
She grinned wickedly and resumed her divestment. "No, that's true. Oh, just think - two whole days..."
Bolded bits taken from the book.
I am on the train back to Innsbruck and am missing you already! Yes, I can just picture your face on reading that - but it's true, so you needn't mock me. I have had such a wonderful few days, all thanks due to you, my dear. - and I do hope you won't be as bored as you fear over the coming week or so. If ever you are, remember that some of us will be dealing with at least twice as many impossible Middles in your absence, and redirect your pity accordingly!
But enough shop-talk: This train is so cold and I can't help but think wistfully of your bed. The unexpected ending aside, I have had the most wonderful of half-terms. I don't think I mentioned how thrilled I was to be going with you - how grateful I was that you declined our dinner invitations that first night in Innsbruck - or that it was entirely your fault I could scarcely sleep that night. How could I, knowing you were so close? Never mind sleep, I could hardly breathe! You have been the best possible company, my girl. No matter what else happens, I will always cherish these memories. I warn you I am not going to say anything so soppy on a regular basis, so you may stop raising your eyebrows and just savour it!
Right! My time is nearly up and I must finish this so that I can be sure to post it and still make my connection to Spartz. I want to reassure you that I won't be expecting anything nearly so florid in reply; even if you were struck by some uncharacteristic desire to pen such a screed, I imagine you'd hesitate to post it to me at School. I am merely making maximum use of the comparative freedom of your correspondence at the pension - and my own before I properly return to the Chalet. I certainly shan't be scribbling at such a thing in the common-room - can you just picture that?!
I am sending another letter, this same day, to Hilda, so the staff room needn't squabble over a single missive! That said, I have little news to impart: sleeping, reading, sleeping, eating, talking with Frau Blitzen when she comes up to see me, sleeping, prodding my foot to see if it's any better, eating, reading, sleeping - I could go on.
You'll be amused to hear that Frau Blitzen has been enquiring as to whether "das schone Fraulein" will be back to see me again before I leave - I think she is not persuaded by my stories of how busy you will all be - clearly she thinks I am entirely dispensable! I have tried not to take offence at this as she really has been most solicitous with her care and her time; but I am alone for much of the day and missing your company very much, my dear - though I know I am hardly a great prospect for such at present, still being largely confined to bed.
(I did try to venture outside earlier today with the aid of an alpenstock I found conveniently tucked away in the hallway here, but my good host was horrified and duly confiscated it before I'd so much as crossed the threshold, alas.)
I hope your journey from Innsbruck was fine and that things at the School are relatively peaceful. - I appreciate this latter may be a hope too far!
A nice touch, sending that letter to Hilda at the same time. It did indeed render my letter rather less loudly 'in demand', which was just as well as I don't know how I'd have explained my blushes. Your company, my love, is ALWAYS a great prospect, and no less so when confined to bed. (I can write this as I am at present hiding in my room on a 'free' and will take the post down myself today - you will, once again, recognise my usual noble and selfless generosity towards my colleagues.)
You may as well hear all the latest: the Juniors have made quite the penny-dreadful of your adventures at Stubai and though the Prefects did their best to promptly squash such exaggerations, the Third, Fourth and Fifth have all, to a girl, sent Eustacia to Coventry. You are evidently very much loved, my dear! The staff, too, are unimpressed by what they now know, though are naturally far more muted in it, and won't lay any blame outright - as you pointed out, there's no evidence for blame in any case - but the repercussions of Eustacia's refusal to cleave to the School and the other girls in it can hardly be ignored, now. It transpires that she and Jo had rather more history between them than we already knew of - Jo had barred her from the library, which I imagine explains that business of her causing havoc simply by 'reading' in the Chemistry lab - do you remember? Kit was quite ready to spank the pair of them, and I can't say I'd blame her! But, to be crystal clear, we are all getting on just fine - if missing you - so stop worrying and don't plot to come back sooner than you must - I know you! It is as well Frau Blitzen is keeping you in hand - trying to make off outside in this weather with your foot as it is - you are incorrigible!
I am bored, Con, and imagining your present fate does not make me any less so, whatever you say.
I am bored of the same white walls and ceiling, and even of the view from the window, since I can't go outside to see it more fully. Frau Blitzen has been very kind and attentive but our conversation feels, comparatively, limited: she clearly thinks I am just some mad English woman with no regard for my own safety - stop laughing! - and I rather yearn for a more meaningful interaction of some kind. However, you may be assured I am being a good patient and will certainly return to School thoroughly well-rested - indeed, I suspect I am now so very well rested that I shouldn't need any sleep again for weeks on end...
In my boredom, I have had an unusual amount of time to reflect on the question of Eustacia. It seems to me that any number of things could have been better managed, couldn't they? The poor child has nobody left in the world, really - you can't count her aunt in this, or at least she won't be counting her aunt, as all it must seem to her is that the woman spoke ill of her dead parents and then sent her away - and now she comes to learn that most of her old ideas were wrong. There are any number of us who should have been able to understand her grief and link it to her refusal to let go of those wrong-headed ideas of her parents', but none of us did. Of course she would fixate on Jo as the embodiment of all her parents wilfully failed to help her become! And Jo had no idea of it, nor how to deal with it - and none of us helped her there, either. Hindsight is a wonderful thing! - And naturally, none of this makes any suggestion as to what we might do now, other than hope the worst has passed and things will gradually improve on their own account.
The doctor from Neustift has been to visit again and thinks I will be ready to travel towards the end of the week. I will wire when all is confirmed - until then, I am just counting the days.
I see Frau Blitzen has certainly got the measure of you, and you couldn't be in better hands. Good!
Now to my own grumbles: It is a week in which everything seems to be going wrong. A feud of some sort is simmering between the Fourth and the Fifth, or maybe between the Fourth and the Third, it is hard to tell and all the girls are out of sorts to a greater or lesser extent. Matey has come down with a cold and is suffering fools even less gladly than usual, and meanwhile none of the girls can go five minutes without spilling or breaking something, or bursting into tears - or both! Even the Sixth are in a mess - I am sorry to have to say this, but I suspect it will be better if you know before you get back here: clumsy children that they are, they have broken one of your maps clean in two. I gave them a sharp scolding and made myself exceedingly unpleasant about it, naturally, and they are very contrite, but the fact remains the thing is torn, and no further good to anybody.
Meanwhile, the Prefects are still all revved up for the Sale and have got me knitting in a frenzy - which I suppose at least keeps my fingers busy and gives me a little space to think, uninterrupted. Oh, I have missed you, my dear.
I shan't write again, nor expect to hear from you - but will be thrilled to see you on your return. It remains only for me to wish you the easiest of journeys.
'Til then, all my love,
In which loose ends are tied up, and small plans are made. by crm
Final part! Thank you for all the comments. As usual, bolded bits taken directly from Eustacia.
It seemed a particularly cruel fate that, almost as soon as Nell had returned to the School, I should be sent off to Innsbruck for the weekend. Knowing that this one occasion hardly overbalanced the luck and timing we had had so far provided little comfort; those glorious two days - and three nights! - we had shared alone in Fulpmes, and indeed the very luck of both being placed together on that exeat in the first place, continued to bring a grateful smile to my face but did not make this unexpected distance any easier to bear. Still, there was nothing I could do but trot off obediently down to Innsbruck early on the Saturday morning with Hilda Annersley and fifteen victims who all stood in more or less need of dental attention. The afternoon spent at the museum, then the theatre in the evening, should have been an enjoyable time: the girls were an agreeable bunch and under other circumstances, it would have been a good trip, but I ached to have shared it with Nell. I had barely had time to speak with her since she'd arrived back, Joey having commandeered her company that first evening until Matron sent them both off to bed very early. And foolish I may have been, but not yet foolish enough to incur the wrath of Matey by visiting her patient after that!
Keen to not entirely waste the weekend - for 'waste' was precisely how I saw it - I took the chance to attend to a couple of letters and run an errand or two of my own, and then threw myself into enjoying the outing as best as I could. By the time we had returned as far as Spartz on the Sunday afternoon, however, our trip had become a rather tense affair. A general sense of foreboding had overtaken most of the girls, and the skies threatened rain. We cut short our kaffee, and met Herr Anserl who accompanied us back to the School with lanterns. Feeling certain the collective feeling of impending disaster was misplaced, my own concern - other than the weather - was simply to get back and see Nell as soon as possible. I was aware I was struggling to focus on the walk and Herr Anserl's rumbling chatter, my mind flooded with the only person I really wanted to be with. I remembered how the lantern light had dappled over her hair, how it had been reflected in her sparkling eyes, how much had happened between then and now. I remembered the scent of the pine trees, the tickle of Nell's breath as she murmured in my ear, her voice low and inviting. I remembered those same low, inviting tones whispering down my neck in the darkness of the room at the Pension Gisela in Fulpmes, and I was glad for the darkness now, concealing my blushes.
My excitement at finally reaching the School - just as the first drops of rain started to fall! - was promptly cut short as soon as we burst in, to be immediately surrounded by an agitated crowd, who demanded with one voice, "Have you seen Eustacia?"
Nell was in the staff room, in her chair. Her eyes met mine and said everything: concern, reassurance, post-injury fatigue; friendship, desire, understanding. I suddenly felt profoundly glad she was there: Nell was an asset to any emergency committee. Even after Matron had sent her to bed, having silenced Nell's wild objections with her usual last resort for the sleep-resistant, I felt the strength I derived from her presence push me through the night as the rest of us held counsel and waited 'til dawn, when the men's search might begin.
The news the next morning that Eustacia had been safely found, certainly alive if not yet entirely well, was naturally a great cause for celebration in itself and I gave prayers of thanks. There was a further benefit, though: the general air of excited relief provided a thorough distraction all round, presenting me with the opportunity to slip unnoticed into Nell's room during her enforced afternoon rest.
I stuck my head quietly around the door. "Are you awake?"
The patient grimaced. "Yes, I'm awake. Why on earth would I want to sleep yet again? If our industrious Matron doesn't stop sending me off to bed every five minutes, I'll -"
"Yes?" I enquired sweetly as I slipped inside and closed the door behind me.
"If she catches you waking me up, you're for it, you know." Nell propped herself up against her pillows and reached for the water-glass on the table beside her.
"English as she is spoke! Why, you hardly seem pleased to see me." I grinned wickedly. "As for waking you up - how could I possibly not, when it's so very enjoyable?" My remark struck home beautifully, and I watched, gratified, as she blushed at the memory.
"I can just see you explaining that to Matey! Why are you here, though - lovely though it is to see you?" She replaced the now empty glass and gestured at the bed beside her.
I shrugged and sat down nonchalantly on top of her plumeau, wishing I could move closer, not trusting myself enough to do so. "Because I could? And because I wanted to ask you something."
She raised an eyebrow and waited. I waited. When the silence threatened to become oppressive, and she gave me an encouraging smile, I summoned up all of my courage, all of my affected-casual, and blurted it out quickly: "What are you doing over Easter? Shall we go away somewhere together?"
Nell glanced sharply at me. "I thought you'd said you were staying with your parents?"
"I did. I wrote to say I'd made plans to spend it with a friend instead."
She regarded me with an amused stare, though the smile playing at the corners of her mouth betrayed her sardonic cool. "And what if I'd said no?"
I grinned. "Then I'd have spent it alone and had a perfectly jolly time of it too. You needn't feel obliged, you know."
She glanced quickly at the closed door and leaned closer, bridging the gap I had so ostentatiously left between us with a kiss. "I'd love to."
I flushed with pleasure.
"Where did you tell them you were going?" Nell asked interestedly.
I coloured more deeply, thus reminded. "Erm, Paris. As a matter of fact I, erm. Well."
Nell narrowed her eyes and I watched warily as realisation dawned. "You've already booked it, haven't you?"
"Very presumptuous," I agreed soberly.
"Mmm." Undisguised amusement. Noncommittal pleasure.
"I could cancel, though. We could go anywhere, really. I just wanted to spend some time with you, I don't mind where it is."
Nell looked away briefly, and my stomach flipped anxiously until I realised she was, for perhaps the first time, lost for words. She cleared her throat awkwardly. "Well. Paris would be very nice. Wouldn't it?"
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