A New Dream - Vol 10: Life Is Sweet, Life Is Sharp by MaryR
Summary: Life had become a series of dreadful accidents and incidents for Hilda and the school. Will these now settle down? Will she recover from the blood poisoning and resume all her usual activities? Will she be strong enough to welcome Meg back, or to go to Boston with Ellie? Will she survive till the end of term, spirit intact? And what, then, will the convent bring? And how will Ellie fare after Kathie’s terrible attack?
Categories: Ste Therese's House Characters: Hilda Annersley, Jack Maynard, Kathie Ferrars, Madge (Bettany) Russell, Nancy Wilmot, Nell Wilson, Rosalie Dene
School Period: Switzerland
School Name: Chalet School
Genre: Drama, Family, Friendship, Humour, School Story
Challenges:
Series: A New Dream
Chapters: 33 Completed: No Word count: 235522 Read: 25084 Published: 20 Sep 2016 Updated: 29 Nov 2017

1. Chapter 1: - And Light Is A Way by MaryR

2. Chapter 2 - Past The Boundaries of Knowing by MaryR

3. Chapter 3 - Shuttered and Barred by MaryR

4. Chapter 4 - Harden Not Your Heart by MaryR

5. Chapter 5 - Out of Difficulties Grow Miracles by MaryR

6. Chapter 6 - The God of All Grace by MaryR

7. Chapter 7 - A God of Surprises by MaryR

8. Chapter 8 - Fear Not For Your Fragility by MaryR

9. Chapter 9 - Two Young Warrior Souls by MaryR

10. Chapter 10 - Some Precious Essence by MaryR

11. Chapter 11 - The Tender Whisper of Thy Call by MaryR

12. Chapter 12 - My Strength, My Song by MaryR

13. Chapter 13 - A Soothing Tongue Is A Tree of Life by MaryR

14. Chapter 14 - The Lone Ranger and A Poem by MaryR

15. Chapter 15 - A Rose By Any Other Name by MaryR

16. Chapter 16 - The Fragrance of Forgiveness and Grace by MaryR

17. Chapter 17 - Gathering Golden Moments by MaryR

18. Chapter 18 - Come Dance With Me by MaryR

19. Chapter 19 - Water Pooling in Darkness by MaryR

20. Chapter 20 - Even Darkness Must Pass by MaryR

21. Chapter 21 - What Is Life Without A Friend? by MaryR

22. Chapter 22 - No Hand Left Unheld by MaryR

23. Chapter 23 - Landmarks Shift by MaryR

24. Chapter 24 - Dance of The Waters by MaryR

25. Chapter 25 - This Is The Wilderness Time by MaryR

26. Chapter 26 - Patches of Godlight by MaryR

27. Chapter 27 - Take Partners, Dance Forgiveness by MaryR

28. Chapter 28 - Love and Trust Nestle in Friendship by MaryR

29. Chapter 29 - The Partner of Her Loneliness by MaryR

30. Chapter 30 - A Child's Loving Heart by MaryR

31. Chapter 31 - A Crowded Half Hour by MaryR

32. Chapter 32 - The Tender Gravity of KIndness by MaryR

33. Chapter 33 - Stillness and Beauty by MaryR

Chapter 1: - And Light Is A Way by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Don’t forget to Favourite this new volume. Click on 'Add Story to Favourites' written above the little box at the bottom, and then click 'Submit'. A new page will appear, and again you need to click 'Submit' beneath the little empty box. I know some people have trouble trying to Favourite and get alerts.

I must thank some of you for your kindness in faithfully posting reviews on my re-posting. There are two more old chapters, and then we can finally pick up from where I lost the volume, and begin the new, unread stuff in Chapter 4, which I will post this coming weekend. Fingers crossed I never again do such wholesale deleting!
How long does nothingness last? Hilda never knew when it finally gave way to simple darkness, which gradually grew into a dim grey light, almost mist-like in substance. Silence was all-pervading. Pain was now non-existent. A feeling of expectancy buoyed her up. She waited with baited breath, and became aware of a gentle hand stroking her hair, a quiet voice praying over her, yielding her to God’s mercy. She yearned to speak to Ian, but was voiceless, her eyelids too heavy to lift. His footsteps went softly away. Then, fingers on her wrist, a pressure cuff on her arm, cream smoothed into her cheek. Pain edged its way back in, flirting with her.

Left alone again, she drifted in the grey mist, the feeling of expectancy expanding. Light mushroomed far away on the other side of the mist. Her heavy eyes fixed on it, but it remained stationary. Pain ebbed and flowed, ebbed and flowed. As it reached its worst, she heard a call, although could not distinguish the voice. Strength seeped into her, enabling her to creep out of bed and step into the greyness. The light ahead drew her on. She walked towards it with slow, measured pace, and it softened into a mellow light that was kind to her eyes, easing her pain.

Without warning, she walked straight through the light, and away from all pain. She heard the sweet singing of unseen birds. The cold earth under her feet gave way to the springiness of grass. The grey tunnel led into the glory of early morning, where ‘there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.’ She looked up and hailed the translucent blue of the sky. She cocked an ear and heard the gentle swish of unseen waves, though had no idea from which direction came the sound. An unseen hand led her across the grass. Sunlight touched her cold skin, warming her through and through. So much kinder than those icy chills! Taking in deep breaths of salty air, she closed her eyes, held out her arms and spun slowly round and round in rapture, free from all pain and weariness.

Her eyes opened as she spun round. Her arms fell to her sides. She gazed round in all directions, and what she saw stopped her dead in her tracks! Her heart faltered. Icy fingers ran up her spine. How stupid she was! She knew where she was!

Her heart pounding, she walked over the grass towards the black marble slabs, telling herself not to be afraid. The memory of this beautiful, peaceful place had brought unalloyed joy to her heart every time she recalled her dream, so why fear it now? Nothing had changed, as far as she could see. Her eyes searched in all directions. No Nell! But she was here, nonetheless, her broken body lying under the shining marble. Tears in her eyes, Hilda fell to her knees by the golden words of Nell’s dedication and traced the letters with gentle fingers, whispering her name the while.

Yearning for a closer connection, she laid her unscratched cheek on the cool marble, and imagined, in her mind’s eye, those cool, amused grey eyes. What would Nell have said about the deep trough into which her friend had fallen these past weeks? She smiled to herself, even as more tears welled up. Oh, she knew exactly what she would have said!

But then, if you’d been still alive, friend o’ mine, there would have been no trough. Your strength would have upheld me. Your common sense would have fired alternative solutions at me. Your irascible comments would have leavened the dreadful events of the last week. Would you have tried to annihilate poor Kathie with one scorching glance?

There was no answer, of course! How could there be? God wasn’t going to send Nell along at every needy moment of hers. Huddled against the grave, her cheek warming the marble on which it lay, her eyes searched the sky, the trees, the flowers, even the grass. Where were those vivid blue butterflies? Was it the wrong season? Or were they a once-only miracle, never to be repeated? Her heavy eye-lids fell, and she listened to birds calling sweetly on high, to smaller birds cheeping in nearby bushes, to the rise and fall of the waves below, to tiny insects scurrying through the grass. Her thoughts drifted. She thought she might well fall asleep, warmed into somnolence by the mellow sunlight…

No people! Why were there never any people? Her sleepy senses awoke. Did no one ever visit these mass graves, or the sea shore below the cliff? Why was it only Nell she met here? Were people too afraid to come, too overwhelmed by pain?

Wait! There was someone – or something – nearby! There had been no sound to alert her, no footstep to alarm, no word spoken, but someone had approached, and was now hovering nearby in silence. Was it Nell? Or another lost soul like herself, searching for a loved one?

She made to open her eyes, but some sixth sense forbade it. Her whole body trembled. Her soul stirred within her, sensing with awe who was waiting there so quietly, not one blade of grass disturbed by His feet. In the words of Frederick William Orde Ward:

‘I felt a Presence though I saw no face,
And it was boundless Love.’

If she opened her eyes, she knew she would see nothing, except possibly the air leaping and dancing for joy at His presence. All she longed to do was grovel at His feet and beg forgiveness for so many things. Would He be very angry at her lack of faith, her cowardice, her betrayal of Ellie?

Fear not, Daughter.

The words were gentle, the voice rich beyond compare. Her spirit was instantly calmed.

Why should I not tremble in the presence of the Lord my God? You are mighty beyond all knowing, yet You love me as tenderly as a mother loves her child. I’ve been a great trouble to You this year, but ‘You have been my constant shield and held me up in stormy waters.’

You are never a trouble to me, Beloved. It is other people who have been a great trouble to you. I’ve wept with you many times since Nell died and grown angry with those who torment you. But you contained your angry feelings and offered only forgiveness and mercy.

Because You strengthened me. You sheltered me under Your wing when I needed it most – or else sent someone with a loving heart to do it for You. I have been truly blessed, despite all my sorrow and struggles.


His love permeated the air around her. There was no need to open her eyes or speak aloud. Heart spoke to heart.

You aren’t taking me home, are You?

No, Beloved. I would rejoice to have you with Me, but there are many who look to that loving-kindness of yours to lighten their heavy hearts and reveal to them how precious they are. What would they do without you?

Am I a great coward, for wanting to leave Ellie and be with Nell?

Daughter, you are pure courage. You’re still grieving, you’re very ill, and you have had so very many worries. Why would you not want to come home? But your inner strength, your vast courage and tenacity, your tender mercy, will see you through, if only you would lean on others a little more. The school and your many friends need you, as never before, but they also want to help you, walk with you, carry you when you stumble.

The school and her friends needed Nell. I needed Nell. You took her home.

It was done for her own sake, Daughter. Her courage in the earthquake enabled me to set her free. Very shortly you will discover the reason and be glad I did so.

How could I ever be glad she’s gone? There’s still an empty hole inside me where she lived.

Call on me in those empty times, Dearly Beloved. I’m only a heartbeat away, but you can find me even closer if you bring your pain to the Cross, where it will meet My own suffering. As for Nell, I know your wise and loving heart will be glad for her, if not for yourself, when the truth slips out. I also know it will make you even more willing to stay and care for my little ones, my wounded ones. Yours is such a quiet, peaceful soul.

Mine?

Yours! You are My peacemaker. You quieten troubled and wounded souls as very few can, and give them the strength they lack. You warm their aching hearts with such tender love, and bring peace to fraught situations. You try to persuade people to look on each other with love and give up their grievances. Even Kathie will find peace eventually, once she lets you in properly. Then there are My wounded ones who will seek your peaceful spirit in the convent, where your gentleness and loving-kindness will open their hearts to their own value and they will learn to live again, as you did. The world cannot spare you yet, Daughter. Yes, you will suffer, will be weary and in pain at times. Just remember, I am always with you.

And Ellie? Please tell me all will be well with her, that she will re-gain her lovely light-heartedness and her burgeoning trust in people.

It will take time, and she will have need of all your patience and compassion. How could I bring you home, when it would mean taking away from her all she’s only just found in your arms? She would never recover from such a blow, after all she’s already lost. You are her rock, her guiding light, until the day she learns from you how to trust Me for everything. She’s happier than she has ever been, for she knows how much she is loved, and you will nurture her many gifts as no one else can.

Forgive my cowardice, Lord.

No cowardice, Daughter. Only a great love for Nell and Me, and a terrible depression brought on by those who failed you. Continue to be merciful and gentle and you will win them round. Your relationship with Ellie will grow ever stronger and deeper, and you will have your reward very soon for your selflessness. In years to come, Ellie will bring your life full circle. You will wonder at the coincidence and weep for joy.

There are no coincidences in life, my Saviour, only Your beautiful plans working out for us. You do me too much honour. You have blessed me times without number in my life. Now You make me a promise of more blessings to come. ‘May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be pleasing to You, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.’ (Ps 19)

Your words and your thoughts are always pleasing to Me, Beloved Child. Have courage, and know I am with you in all your troubles, and in all the perils that come your way. ‘Do not be afraid of the terrors of the night, nor fear the dangers of the day, nor the disaster that strikes at midday.’ (Ps 91) I am with you in them all, even to the end of time.

I love You, my Saviour, and will trust Your promises, even when I walk through the darkest valley. Please tell Nell I love her, too.


Without warning, a hand was laid on her infected cheek. Intense pain exploded there, then rocketed like fire throughout her body. She never knew how long the agony lasted, but it was followed by a great tidal wave of love and peace and joy flooding into every corner of her mind, her body, her mind, her spirit, healing the very pain His hand had ignited.

You may tell her yourself, Beloved. Go well! Be well!

For long moments, she was aware of nothing but the love streaming into every nook and cranny of her being. How great a reward He offered for her puny efforts to help people! Surely her cup runneth over! Overwhelmed and fighting tears, she asked herself why He made so much of her. And what did He mean about Nell?

Still in shock, she opened her eyes, thinking the world would surely be completely changed after such a visitation. But no, it was as it had been. Except - there they were! That host of dancing, blue butterflies!

Entranced, she laughed softly and stretched her right arm along the black marble, holding it very still. They rose and fell in their hundreds, swirling this way and that in a blue cloud, some mounting higher and ever higher, others settling on the grave-stone. A goodly number came to rest on her outstretched arm, warming her skin. Some surprised her and flew to cover her injured cheek, stroking it with their delicate wings and tickling her. They gradually grew still and quiet, seeming at rest there. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they could nibble away all the damage there? But butterflies didn’t nibble, they sipped, she told herself, and smiled in quiet delight. She knelt there motionless, unwilling to have them leave. Such peace! Such joy! Such beauty! Such a loving, giving Saviour!

St John of the Cross spoke it much more tellingly, she thought: ‘God passes through the thickets of the world, and, wherever His glory falls, He turns all things to beauty.’

“Thank You, loving Lord, for this most amazing miracle of Your Divine Presence,” she whispered. “All is grace with You, nothing but heavenly beauty and unearned grace.”

Still the butterflies basked lazily in the sun on her cheek, on her arm, on the marble slabs.

“Are you going to sit there all day, dear girl?”

Her heart jolted. Her sleepy eyes opened. She smiled at the sarcasm she could hear in the beloved voice, but was unwilling to move and disturb her gentle guests.

“Hmm, I think you should start a new fashion. Wearing a cheek of butterflies to match your eyes would surely catch on.”

Hilda chuckled softly and wiggled the ends of her fingers. Nell knelt and covered them gently. The butterflies took no notice, remaining where they had settled.

“So this is what He meant!” whispered Hilda. “My joy is now complete. How are you, dear heart?”

“All the better for being able to touch you, and speak with you face to face!” Those clear grey eyes examined Hilda carefully. “Your pain and distress show, despite the joy.”

“Why would He honour me with such extravagance and beauty?”

“Why not, dear girl? He appeared to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, and revealed His heart on fire with His love for us all. His mother appeared to Bernadette and to the children of Fatima to tell them secrets kept from the great and the good. His Father moved as a living flame before the Israelites to guide them. So, why not you?”

“I’m no saint, nor even a good person.” A tear trickled down among the butterflies.

Nell kissed her gently on the forehead. “I know all, sweetheart, every drop of pain and hurt. He does but honour your courage.”

“Courage? What courage? I wanted Him to take me home a little while ago. Where’s the courage in that, when Ellie has need of me?”

“Your courage was never in question. You’ve been laid low and weakened by severe illness, and by sorrow, and by selfish people caring nought for the hurt they cause. Unfortunately, you’re the one who’s had to make it all better, which takes guts. Your forbearance and generosity are incredible, even to my eyes, and I know you well.”

As though to emphasise her loving words, the butterflies rose as one from Hilda’s cheek and arm and fluttered gently round her head, creating a blue halo.

Nell gurgled with delight. “I wish I had a camera.”

The larger mass of butterflies lifted off the black marble and flew towards the sea. The others fluttered away from Hilda and followed behind. Hilda sat up slowly, her eyes never leaving Nell, absorbing the beauty of that dear face, and storing it away in her heart for the dark days that still lay ahead. Nell drew her close with a gentle murmur.

She laid her head on Nell’s heart. “Oh, I’ve missed you!” she sighed. “I’ve needed you so much.”

“Why? You’ve coped magnificently without me.”

“But not on my own! I’ve needed the help of so many others. I’ve certainly not coped with Kathie. Why not let me come home and allow someone stronger to take over?”

Nell held her away and searched the troubled eyes. “You really are in a bad way, aren’t you? You are strong, dearest! You’ve dealt admirably with Kathie, doing it with such love – okay, some justice, but mostly mercy and love. I’m not sure how you keep your temper.” She laughed softly. “Anyway, there’s no way He’s allowed to bring you home. You’re literally knocking on Heaven’s door right now, but so many people are praying for your life, not just the school. Madge and Jem have been told you’re close to death, and they and the convent are all praying. That bossy friend of yours has spread the word as far away as Boston! If He didn’t spare you, she would really have something unrepeatable to say to Him!” Hilda’s astonished eyes stared at her. “He knows how lonely you are for me, sweetheart, but He wants you to go on spreading His love throughout the world in that uniquely gentle way of yours, and so has offered you good friends on whose strength you must rely, when your own strength grows weary and stumbles.”

Hilda hid her face in Nell’s shoulder and trembled. She was not this person they all described. Nell bent her head to touch Hilda’s. “I know you want to come home, that you miss me, but think of all those friends drawing closer and offering their love, now you’ve opened your heart to them. Take their love, revel in it, let it carry you, as I sometimes carried you. Ellie and Kate, Ian and Gwynneth, Vivien and Nancy, even Jeanne and Helen, they all love you so much. Let their love fill your heart to its fullest now. Just keep one small corner of that heart for me, so your grief no longer defines you. You are so much more than your sorrow and loneliness.”

She held her close, waiting for the trembling to cease, her heart breaking for Hilda. She was in such turmoil! But Hilda was to surprise her.

The blue eyes were wet with tears when she raised her head. “Thank you for reminding me of all I still have, dear heart. Your loss sometimes overwhelms me and robs me of my peace – but it won’t, if I give Him my pain and loneliness, my discouragement, as I told Him I would last year. As for you, I’ll leave you much more than one small corner of my heart, but I should open it up even more to the friends I’ve discovered recently, shouldn’t I, and lean on them, which seems to be what they want of me. ”

Nell smiled. “You’ve been leaning recently, even on Jack, and made Gwyneth and Nancy very happy by your openness with them. You must lean even more, though, if you’re going to do as He says and help the wounded children He sends to you. You’ll need strength and an uncluttered mind, which you won’t have unless you do that leaning. You can’t do everything on your own. It’s too much!” She held up a warning finger. “One more thing! Once you’ve made a decision, take it to Nancy or Jeanne for discussion, then leave it in God’s hands and put it out of your mind. You’ve come close to a complete breakdown because you’ve fretted so much about recent events, and tried to cope on your own. Kathie hurting Ellie was the nail in the coffin, wasn’t it?” Hilda nodded. “Trusting Him is the answer. He walks beside you, giving you His strength, even for the Kathies and Helens of this world. Try and find a diversion when horrors are rattling around in that addled brain of yours. Dump whatever it is in His arms and do some origami or read a book. Don’t pace the floor worry-gutting.”

Hilda choked. “So much for heavenly anthems! I do worry too much, now you’re not there. He’s only a heartbeat away, isn’t He? Near enough to slip my hand in His, like a child.” She stroked Nell’s cheek with a delicate finger. “Are you willing to help me forget my worries while I’m here? Then why don’t we follow the butterflies down to the beach? I want to paddle in the sea this time.”

“It’s cold,” warned Nell.

It wasn’t! It was warm and silky, refreshing not just to the feet but the whole body. They walked arm in arm through the shallows, foamy waves ebbing and flowing as they splashed each other just for the fun of it, and keeping an eye out for pretty shells.

“This is heaven,” whispered Hilda.

Nell snorted. “It doesn’t even come close. Heaven is as different from this as… as a coal mine is different from the peak of Everest.”

“Trust you to come up with such an earthy comparison,” chuckled Hilda. Nell poked her. “I don’t care if it isn’t Heaven. My mind returns here whenever I’m sad or weary. While I have the sea, the butterflies, the absolute peace, the black marble and the gold letters praising your courage – then I have you.”

Nell put an arm round her as they splashed through the creamy foam. She turned her head and examined Hilda with such keenness and anxiety that Hilda was astonished.

“What is it, dear heart?”

Nell took a deep breath. “Remember in Matthew, chapter twenty, when the mother of John and James asked Jesus if her sons could sit on His right and left hand when He came into His kingdom. Do you recall His answer?”

Hilda frowned. “He told her she didn’t know what she was asking, and put this question to her two sons, ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’”

“Why did He ask them that?”

“He wanted to know if they were willing to suffer all He was about to suffer.”

“Would you be willing?”

Hilda stopped dead. “I don’t understand.”

Nell’s eyes demanded answers. “Three times now you’ve lost someone who meant the world to you, more than the world. Were you willing to have it so, to drink the cup of sorrow and loneliness?”

Hilda’s eyes filled with shame. “You know I wasn’t. I railed at Him when mother died. I turned my back on Him when I lost you.” Tears gathered on her eyelashes.

Nell drew her close. “But not for long, and you’ve been willing, since, to accept the pain, and use your grief to show ever more love to others. You were willing to drink the cup when James died. You wept for such a very short time, then came to the school, hid your pain and showed us your calm strength and peaceful nature. I know you were willing to drink the cup when you took on Ellie, never counting the cost.”

Hilda smiled. “No cost!”

“I don’t agree! There’s always a cost to loving someone. What if she stopped loving you for some reason? Or there was a permanent rift and you never saw her again?”

“You’re frightening me, Nell.” Hilda’s lips quivered.

“I don’t mean to, love, but girls and mothers, you know! Think of Meg, and Helen.”

“I’m not her mother.”

“As good as!” Nell was listening for a wrong note. “Could you drink that cup?”

“I would have no choice, if it should happen, but I’ll never stop loving her. It’s part of who I am now, just as loving you is. We had our moments, didn’t we, but we supped them up and survived.” Nell’s lips twitched. “It would be painful beyond belief, but yes, I would drink it, for I could never turn my back on her. My door would always be open, and my heart.”

“What about the cup of physical suffering? Would you be willing to suffer whatever life sends, worse even than the coach accident, or the car crash last November? What if you had to spend the rest of your life on a bed of pain?”

“Why are you asking?” Hilda’s eyes were fearful.

“Could you?” Nell insisted, her eyes seeming to look deep into Hilda’s soul. “Could you drink the cup of physical pain as much as you could drink the cup of losing Ellie’s love?”

“Did I drink it after our accident?”

Nell’s face relaxed. “And how! I never understood how you could withstand that terrible pain for weeks on end without one complaint. It took its toll, but your patience and mental strength astonished everyone. You drank that cup to its dregs, and the cup that followed it, when you learned how much had been taken away by that blow to the head. Not to be able to read – when reading is an addiction of yours – nor to be able to walk properly ever again, felled you for only a very short while. You simply picked yourself up and applied your formidable will-power to regaining all you had lost When you finally revealed it all to me, I knew I couldn’t have drunk that cup myself. It seemed so unfair. I cursed God.”

“His grace was there, Nell,” Hilda murmured. “He produced the cure for my disabilities almost immediately, didn’t He? He’s no slouch!”

“But you were the one who had to endure those months of grinding physiotherapy so you could walk again, and the months of re-learning how to read. I can’t imagine the sheer tedium, and frustration, although I never saw any.”

“Oh, it was there!” Hilda gazed out to sea, pain evident In her eyes. “But you didn’t know it all, Nell. You didn’t know the terrible anger that would sweep over me, even after I returned to school. It could boil up in a second. If I’d given in to it, even once, I would have lost friends, or hurt a child badly, perhaps even lost my position. Jem and other doctors told me it was normal after a head injury, but every day - every day, Nell! – I pleaded with Him to take it away.”

Nell stared in astonishment. “And did He?” Hilda shook her head. “So you drank that cup, too. But how?”

“It was a daily battle, but He gave me the grace and strength to master it. I’d be shaking each time the rage was over, but gradually learned to control it.”

“And became even quieter and stiller, in the process!” Nell stroked Hilda’s cheek. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Hilda picked up a large, pink shell, turning it round and round in her hand. “It was a battle I had to fight and win on my own. No one else could do it for me, so why trouble them with the details? The struggle was hard and bitter, though, and there were times and seasons when I deeply regretted going away with you or that holiday. In His mercy, He showed me that the only way through was acceptance, just as Mother showed me that the only way out of my grief was to walk through it, and weep. Trying to avoid it wouldn’t help, hadn’t helped!”

“And now?”

“The anger went long ago, grâce à Dieu – but not the grief of losing you, not yet!” Hilda looked up with anxious eyes.

Nell embraced her with a groan, the shell falling unnoticed. “I’m so sorry, love. Sorry you had to go through it then, and sorry you’re going through even more pain now. I’m even sorrier I didn’t know any of it. I could have helped.”

Hilda smiled at her. “You couldn’t, so don’t grieve over it. It’s done! But God is allowing you to help me through this grief. Think of all the times we’ve talked! Such a miracle! I’ve found He never leaves us helpless if we turn to Him, no matter the depth of the cup of pain He offers us.”

“One more,” whispered Nell, guilt written all over her face. “What if Mother Abbess died? Could you drink that cup?”

Hilda’s eyes stared steadily into Nell’s. “I would drink that cup, too. With your death, I finally accepted that the price of love is always pain and grief. I’m willing now to pay that price, since I want the love.” She picked up the shell again, cupped it in the palm of her hand where it glistened in the sun. “I lost one mother. It would be very hard to lose another, but she isn’t the reason I’m entering, dear. If God diverted me to another convent, I would accept it as His will. No matter where He places me, He knows I have to be where there are long periods of silence now, so I can be alone with Him. I want to help His wounded ones, because I can’t live just for myself any longer, but He comes first, not Mother. He’s rescued me many times in my life, so I’m His now, wherever and however He wants me. Ellie and the school are my last great human attachments, but I’ve done my best for the school and Ellie has me for as long as she wants me.” She gave a quivering sigh. “Gosh, I never meant to talk about myself at such length. But you did ask! Are you satisfied? ”

Nell drew her close, hiding her own face. “More than satisfied, but I never expected any other answer. You’re courage personified. You’re certainly braver than I was, and have far more trust in Him.”

“You were ready to drink the cup when you went back into that hotel. You would have been crippled if you’d lived.” Hilda tried to see Nell’s face, but it remained hidden.

“Perhaps I was trying to make up for the cup I refused to drink, the cup I dashed from His hand and wouldn’t even consider. He’s forgiven me my cowardice,” Nell whispered.

Hilda heard the depths of her misery and put her arms round her. “Going to tell me?”

Nell shook her head. “Although I think He’ll make sure you find out before you come home, so there’ll be no barriers between us.”

“There are no barriers, Nell. Whatever it is, there is only compassion, and I’ll tell you the same when I’m finally called home.” Hilda’s voice was very gentle.

Standing in the shallows, they held each other tight, their hearts aching at how soon they would have to part, but filled with joy at this very precious gift.

Hilda searched the damp grey eyes. “No tears,” she ordered softly. “We love each other. That’s more than enough. God repaid me for the sorrows of my life when you became my friend, and more than a friend - mother, sister, playmate, fellow pilgrim… Oh, so many things you were to me, dear heart.” More tears fell at Hilda’s tender accolade. “Are you done with scaring me?”

Nell buried her face in Hilda’s shoulder. “I wanted to make sure you’d never again sink into that numb despair my death caused you.”

“I learned my lesson the hard way, Nell. Love is all He asks of me. Giving into my sorrow and loneliness for you made me spurn Him and all my girls. I’ll spend the rest of my life making up for that sin, by loving others as best I can.”

“That’s why you’ve been so patient and merciful with Kathie.”

“I’ve tried, and He showed me what I had to do for her when she hurt Ellie, so how can I not trust Him?” Hilda stroked the shining white hair and led Nell back into the foam. “Come on! I’m here to get better, not be quizzed to death.”

Nell smiled, albeit sadly, and they splashed through the frothy waves. A little further out, the waves were growing higher, crashing onto the shore ahead of them.

“That nightie will get soaked!”

“It’ll soon dry in this heat. I love you, dear heart, love you and miss you, and I know I’ll still have some bad times, but one day we’ll be together. He won’t let us down.”

Nell smiled into Hilda’s shining eyes. The butterflies were once more dancing round the brown head. “They seem rather attached to you.”

“Oh, I have some of my own now, crafted by Vivien. Such a beautiful reminder…” Hilda had been staring out to sea, but now stopped dead and stared in wonder. Her eyes shone with a fierce rapture. She pointed. “Look, Nell, look! Dolphins! Three of them! Just for us! Oh, how good He is! I can’t believe it! Goodness, they’re beckoning to us. Come on!”

Before Nell could stop her, Hilda had stripped off her nightdress, thrown it to Nell and plunged into the pounding waves, leaving Nell stranded on the beach, staring after her with open mouth. She laughed out loud as Hilda ploughed steadily through the waves, the dolphins swimming towards her. She knew Hilda was a strong swimmer. James had insisted she learn before their long voyage to India, a voyage Hilda never made. She and Nell had done a lot of swimming on their world cruise, so Nell had no fears there. It was on the cruise that Hilda had seen dolphins following the ship, diving and leaping from the water beside them, a great attraction to all the travellers. Hilda had become an instant dévotee.

With a huge smile on her face, Nell watched the dolphins swim towards Hilda, dancing around her, diving under her, flying in great arcs over her, nudging her with their noses and rolling over, splashing her with their tails. Laughing for sheer joy, she patted their noses, rolled over in the water with them, caught hold of their fins and allowed them to pull her through the water at top speed, her head thrown back in ecstasy as she trusted her life to them.

Thank You, Heavenly Father, for giving her this beautiful, perfect miracle. I’ve never seen her so happy, so uninhibited and playful, and I appreciate the great love that created it for her. It may only be a dream to her, but she will never forget. She’s walking on cloud nine. You’ve created a wonderful, wonderful memory for her to bring to mind some lonely evening, and, when she does, she’ll be so very glad she was here.

She deserves every good thing I do for her. It’s a privilege to see her so happy and filled with life. You have done well today, Daughter, strengthening her spirit about so many things.


Hilda’s frolic with the mysterious dolphins continued, as they sailed up the high waves and danced down them, Hilda hanging on for dear life. Nell would have liked to join in, but decided it would be a shame to spoil the bond so evident between the four of them. It gave her joy to see Hilda playing so freely, all worry fled for the moment.

But all things come to an end. The dolphins grouped round Hilda, and swam with her nearer to the shore, where they gently opened out and allowed her to float towards Nell. One of them swam right into the shallows and nudged her playfully in the back, and she sank beneath the waves with a shriek. Recovering her equilibrium, she swam to him and blew gently into his face, gazing into those knowing eyes. She held onto his fin and he swam round in a complete circle with her, before nudging her back into the shallows. Nell heard the clicks as he returned to the others. The three of them slapped their tails in the water in farewell, and swam out a little way before plunging beneath the waves. Moments later, they exploded out of the water in great leaps, rolling over and over in mid-air, water dripping from their sleek, shining bodies. Hilda cried out in awe at the stunning beauty of it all. They repeated the performance, including the rolls in mid-air, before disappearing beneath the waves.

Hilda remained in the foam, peering out in hope across the empty sea, but eventually realised it was all over. She danced across the wet sand to Nell, her eyes a radiant blue. Nell held out the nightie, but she ignored it, flung herself down flat on the warm sand and sighed in exultation.

“Idiot! You’re wet through! The sand will stick all over you.”

“Let it stick! Oh, Nell!” Hilda gave an ecstatic sigh. “Wasn’t it wonderful? How generous He is! Such a sweet privilege! A dream of mine perfectly realised.”

“I wonder what the dolphins thought of your nudity. Have you no shame?” Nell asked with a laugh.

“Oh, they didn’t care, did they? It’s wonderful to be naked in the sea. The water was so silky, and their skin like shiny rubber, but so sleek and soft. It was just magical!” Hilda whispered. “You’ve seen me in my birthday suit before now, when we’ve shared a room, and there’s no one else around.” Her head suddenly popped up and swivelled round. “Is there?”

Nell snorted. “Relax, we’re all alone. No, you’re right, it wa….”

She fell silent in wonder. The butterflies were returning, and settling the whole length of Hilda, covering her completely in blue. Nell noticed one small group settling back on her cheek.

“Oh, they’re tickling!” Hilda said softly. “More magic!”

“They’re covering your shame!”

Hilda wrinkled up her nose at Nell and relaxed, scarcely daring to breathe in case she disturbed the delicate creatures. Her eyes closed to contain the joy. A tear rolled down the bare cheek. “How did I ever deserve all this?” she whispered. “Why would He do it for me? I won’t ever forget it, couldn’t ever forget.”

Nell reached out and clasped the chilly hand, but stayed silent, allowing Hilda to come to terms with the whole experience. Hilda opened her eyes, turned her head and smiled joyfully at her friend.

Nell returned the smile. “As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted by those beauties, you’re right. It was a privilege, and one you truly deserved. I know how much you’ve wanted to do that since the cruise, and am thrilled for you. You looked so happy out there,” she added wistfully.

“I was happy, deliriously so! It was a time out of time… Well, you know what I mean. I’m out of time here, aren’t I? Oh, dear heart, I can’t believe it happened. Was it selfish of me, though, not to wait for you to join us?”

“No, it was just for you, lovely girl.” Nell chuckled. “I wonder what the girls and staff would have made of their sedate Headmistress flaunting herself naked in the sea and on the beach.”

“They’ll never know, thank goodness! Anyway, the staff did enjoy our uni-cycle tricks a few years ago. Not much dignity there, either! So what’s the difference?”

“You have to ask?” Nell shook her head in disbelief.

She lay down beside Hilda and took her hand. They watched the sun slowly disappear into the sea, painting the clouds gaudy shades of pink and orange and lilac and turquoise, which gradually faded, all brightness leaving the sky. The butterflies lifted from Hilda’s body. Their day was over. They gathered together, hovering over her, the blue mass shifting and swirling. She held up an arm and they slowly fluttered round it and away into the gathering darkness.

“So beautiful… and their memory will stay with me for the dark days.” Hilda’s quiet voice held a poignant note.

Nell helped her into her nightdress, since she was beginning to shiver, but they sat on as the moon rose into the black depths of the sky, making the silvered waves sparkle and dance. Hilda searched in vain for one last glimpse of her friends, the dolphins.

“It’s time to return to your hospital bed, dear girl.”

“It went so quickly, didn’t it?” said Hilda sadly. “But I can’t complain. He’s more than made up for the difficulties and dramas of this term. Oh, Nell, it’s been an exquisite, perfect day.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” murmured Nell. “And there will be many more exquisite, perfect moments when you’re finally called home into His safe haven.”

They rose to their feet, Hilda's eyes still skimming the waters. “Will you come with me, at least part of the way?” she whispered.

“I thought you’d never ask!”

Nell took Hilda’s hand and led her back across the sand, up the steps cut into the rock, and along to the black slabs. Hilda stroked the cold marble, her eyes searching the area. Had her Saviour really spoken to her here earlier? Had He really provided this wonderful day out of the simple goodness of His heart? Nell heard her whispering:

'i thank You God for most this amazing day:
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes.'


“That’s rather fine, dear girl.”

“It’s from a book of poems you once gave me by e e cummings. It fits the day perfectly, don't you think?”

They walked on. The soft grass gave way to hard wooden floor. The moonlight disappeared and they walked in darkness, until they came to a door. Nell led her straight though the door and over to her bed, tucking her in with gentle hands.

Hilda’s eyes gleamed at Nell. “I don’t want you to leave,” she mourned. Nell took the slim hand between own two. “Thank you for this most amazing day, dear heart. Will you thank Him for me?”

“He knows, lovely girl, He knows what His precious gift meant to you. He wanted to show you how very much He loves you.” Nell bent to kiss her friend. “Sleep, sweetheart, and may you soon be well again.”

Hilda slept. Nell smiled at the suddenness of it, and stood watching the sensitive face she loved so well, reluctant to leave. But leave she must! She glided silently over to Matey, lying on a small cot between the two beds.

She leaned over to stroke the lined cheek. “Thank you for looking after her so lovingly, Gwynneth. You deserve the reward she has in store for you. Be well.”

She drifted to the other bed, where the sight of Persephone in Ellie’s arms gave her quite a shock. She smiled tenderly and laid a hand on Ellie’s black hair. “Your guardian always knows how to make things better, doesn’t she? She was right to give you Persephone, and I hope you now know that you belong to both of us, little one. I can never thank you enough for all the love you give her, for being the daughter she always wanted. You suit each other so perfectly. Look after each other, and be happy.”

A few tears dripped on Persephone as she stroked the doll’s rosy face. She could feel her mother’s love there, even now. She admired Ian’s animal blanket, and could sense his mother’s love crocheted into it.

“Mothers are important, aren’t they, Ellie? Treasure yours while you have her, as I always did. She’s worth treasuring, as are you. God chose such a beautiful daughter for her, and gave you the kindest, most exquisite mother in all the world.”

She held her hand out to the room and spoke a blessing on its occupants. She and God had done their best for Hilda this night.

May she keep and savour its memories, Heavenly Father, and be assured that both You and I are always very close.


*****
End Notes:
The sentence I split to form the titles of the last chapter and this one, Dark Is A Way and Light Is A Place is from a poem by Thomas Hardy.

'Can you drink the cup?' is an idea taken from a small book by Henri Nouwen, called indeed Can You Drink the Cup? although nothing in this chapter is taken from the text of that book. If you enjoy Nouwen, it's well worth a read.

I owe the mention of Hilda's loss of the ability to walk and read to Lesley's fill-in. The continued rage was my own invention.
Chapter 2 - Past The Boundaries of Knowing by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Thanks so much for all the lovely words on that dream sequence. I did so enjoy writing it...
7am Tuesday

Helen Graves stood by Hilda’s bed watching Jack check their patient over, feeling unable to assimilate all they had seen in the last few hours. Did miracles truly still take place in this modern age? She smiled joyfully, tears stinging her eyes. A miracle had most definitely been delivered to this room earlier, without fanfare, perhaps, but in a beautifully-wrapped box labelled ‘For Hilda.’

Matey stood beside Helen, still in a state of shock. She was surprised how fearful she felt when Jack’s fingers settled on Hilda’s wrist. After a few tense moments, he looked across the bed and nodded, unable to stifle his smile. Matey crossed her fingers. Where there was life, there was hope, surely.

Please, Heavenly Father…

“Oh, where have the butterflies gone? They were…”

Hilda’s fragile whisper startled them. All eyes focused on her face, waiting for they knew not what. Her eyelids lifted slowly, oh so slowly, and she caught sight of Vivien’s mobile at the end of the bed.

Her face relaxed. “There they are! They’ve come with me…” She blinked several times as though to clear her vision.

Helen leaned over her. “Hey, there,” she murmured softly. “How are you?”

“Hey, there yourself!” Hilda’s whisper was practically non-existent.

“How’s the pain?”

Hilda thought about it. “No pain...”

“Still feeling ill?”

Without turning her head, Hilda’s eyes looked Jack’s way. She seemed to be searching. “I don’t feel ill at all, not like I did during the night. I don’t feel anything, actually. Am I better? Or worse?”

Jack laid his hand gently on the cheek that had been so swollen and inflamed. It was now as white as the other cheek, with just a few faint lines showing where the scratches and stitches had been. There was no reaction from Hilda to his touch.

“Remember how you thought I was using a cheese grater on it, because it hurt so much? Like molten lava, you said.”

“It doesn’t hurt at all.” Her brow creased in a puzzled frown. “What’s happening? Why... no pain? Why don’t I still feel cold? I'm just… warm and comfortable,” she whispered.

Jack took her hand gently. “You no longer have that dreadful temperature, that’s why. In fact, love, damned if I know why, but you have no symptoms at all! You seem to be cured.”

Tears sprang to her eyes. God had kept His word! He said He wanted her here, helping His wounded ones. Well, here she still was! All desire to join Nell had evaporated. Goodness only knows why she had been such a coward!

Her lips twitched at Jack’s perplexity. “But you told me I was seriously ill.”

He sat down, her hand still in his. “You were! Extremely, gravely ill! Six hours later, at four o’clock this morning, you were dying.” Her eyebrows shot up. “Your temperature climbed so high it was off the scale. Your pulse was non-existent. You were scarcely breathing. To all intents and purposes, we’d lost you. There was nothing else we could do. We’d tried everything. The antibiotics weren’t working – or else they’d been the wrong ones.”

His face was grim. He wouldn’t soon forget those dark moments. She gazed at him in consternation, more tears welling up. God had so nearly taken her at her word! She recalled the nothingness. Was that the moment when she was dying? Was traipsing through the grey mist her journey to the beyond, to meet with her Saviour? Had that meeting been to offer her a choice? Forward or back? He’d certainly made His points forcefully.

“Then why am I still here?” she whispered. How weak she felt! Lifting her eyelids had been a huge effort. Lifting her head off the pillow would be impossible.

He grinned, giddy as a young lad, simultaneously ecstatic, scared and in awe. “I’m still pondering that one, my feisty friend! Your body shut down, organ by organ. your breathing, your pulse, your heart… all stopped. You were dead! The battle was over. How on earth were we going to tell Ellie or the school?”

He felt her trying to squeeze his hand, but not making it. “We woke Gwynneth so she could say goodbye… and you suddenly began to speak! Something along the lines of, ‘You, O Lord, are my rock and my redeemer.’ But you were dead! Weren’t you?”

Her eyes widened. That hadn’t been quite what she had said to Him, but… they had heard her? Did they guess the rest?

He saw her shock. “Believe me, love, you gave us the fright of our lives. You’d stopped breathing. You’d died, so how could you possibly be speaking? Our own hearts nearly stopped from shock when you spoke so suddenly, much as yours had done from the blood-poisoning – only yours began again almost on the instant! I felt your pulse re-start under my fingers. I watched your chest begin to rise and fall – yet I’d watched it stop. Your off-the-scale temperature began to plummet. It wasn’t possible, but it happened. We three saw it all! I don’t think we’ll ever forget it.” He took a deep breath to steady himself.

She had died! And now she was alive! It was beyond understanding! She closed her eyes, recalling vividly to mind the moment He laid His hand on her cheek, when intense pain had rocketed through her whole body, beautiful peace following after. She had spoken those words to Him just before it happened. Had His hand jolted her heart back to life? Was that why it had been such agony? Had he cured her in that moment? Or had the butterflies done it? They had rested on the cheek a long time. Oh, Nell!

You, O Lord, are truly my rock and my Redeemer. Thank you for that most amazing day, and for this most amazing miracle. I’m not sure why You think I’m worthy of such whole-hearted healing, but Your words will be even more my guide from now on, and I’ll take all Your wounded ones under my wing. Were you waiting for me to choose life before you acted?

Jack had paused, seeing her so overcome. He needed to keep in mind how very frail she was.

“You okay?” he murmured. She tried to nod. “For the last three hours your temperature’s been tumbling, and is now back to normal. Don’t ask me how! I’m only the doctor! I don’t understand any of it.” He shook his head. “I shouldn’t be telling you all this. It would be enough to shock most of my patients into a heart attack, but I know you believe in giving people the truth, so there it is!” He winked. “As for your painful pink pancake, it slowly faded, as though something was eating away the dreadful infection.”

God’s beautiful blue butterflies, she thought. Or were they Nell’s? Is that why they rested there so long? Her eyes turned to the mobile at the end of her bed. What had made Vivien bring it? A nudge from Him? Something made her look at Matey, and she saw the raised eyebrows. Matey guessed! Not surprising, really, since she’d heard about the other dream the Friday before.

She tried to smile, but her eyes closed of their own accord. Her Saviour had rescued her from all her distress – there did seem to have been a lot of that lately! - and had given her caregivers the shock of their lives. Was she going to have to explain? Hopefully, they would just accept it, as they had accepted her turning back from death after the car accident. But how do you accept someone coming back from the dead? It wasn’t necessarily the same!

Her eyes were damp when she opened them and saw their glowing faces, their awe-filled eyes. They knew something out of this world had taken place, but were at a loss to understand. Who could understand something that went completely against the laws of nature? No one, except the miracle-giver Himself! She softly recited words from Psalm 107:

“’Then in their trouble they called to the Lord,and He saved them from their distress.’”


“You’ve certainly been under a great deal of stress for days, if not weeks! So yes, I’d say He heard you and saved you!” said Jack, his eyes searching her face. “Blood poisoning doesn’t cure itself at that speed, and dead people don’t come back to life, even if they are speaking to Him at the time. Perhaps you’ll explain it all one day, when you understand it yourself. His ways are truly incomprehensible, especially to weary doctors.”

“And nurses,” added Helen, enveloping Hilda in a loving smile. “’His eye is on the sparrow’, and there is truly no sparrow more deserving.” She stroked Hilda’s tangled hair. “Welcome back, my friend. We missed you.”

More tears brimmed in Hilda’s eyes. She was overwhelmed by the love surrounding her. Helen was such a good friend! She mastered the tears by reminding herself of the dolphins. They were enough to bring smiles to the saddest eyes.

“Ellie!” she gasped. How could she have forgotten? “How is she now?”

“Relax,” Helen murmured, her hand cupping Hilda’s cheek. “No worries there. She’s slept peacefully through the night.”

Another miracle, she reflected, knowing how Ellie would have reacted to the sight of Hilda dying in front of her.

“Her finger seems to have stopped swelling,” added Jack. “We kept an eye on it during the night, but we’ll check again when she wakes up – and cross our own fingers that moving it doesn’t make it swell again. It will be sore, though,” he warned. “She won’t be using it for a while.”

Hilda made to turn her head Ellie’s way, but it was slow work. Her head felt like a heavy boulder, impossible to move. “Why am I so weak?” she asked in a panic.

“Squeeze my hand,” Jack ordered. All he felt was a slight pressure. “See? You might be on the mend, but you’re as weak as a kitten. You’re a long way from healed. That infection and the high temp have stolen all your strength, so you’ll have to take it easy, I’m afraid. There’ll be no school for a while.”

She lay looking up at him, her expression neutral. “I did want to welcome Meg home tomorrow. You did say tomorrow, didn’t you? I didn’t dream that?”

He tapped her lightly on the nose. “Yes, tomorrow, but I doubt you’ll be able to get out of bed, never mind wend your merry way back to school.” He saw the dismay in her eyes, which she tried to hide it by closing them.

Matey laid her hand on Hilda’s. “Stop fretting about the school. I’ll get Vivien and young Jeanne to look after Meg. That do you?” Hilda’s head moved slightly.

“As for the school, you’ve done enough this half-term to enable you to take the rest of the year off!” teased Jack. “Madge says you’re not to worry about anything, by the way. The school will still be there when you get back.”

Her eyes flew open. “Madge?”

So Nell had been right!

He shifted uncomfortably. “I thought she ought to know she was about to lose her favourite Headmistress, as well as a good friend. She and Jem spent the rest of the night in prayer, from what I can gather.”

“The convent, too!” added Helen. “All the convents, actually! Even Boston! Mother Abbess says your only tasks for the moment are to listen to us, to rest and to get better. If you start fretting, and take another turn for the worse, she promises to come after you with the frying pan when she next sees you.”

“And she would!” whispered Hilda, her eyes too weary to stay open. She retreated into her dream that had been no dream at all to her, but a sweet reality. She recalled the words she had heard when Nell tucked her back in her bed. It hadn’t been Nell’s voice, but a deep, rich, compelling voice that commanded her full attention:

‘In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength:’

Isaiah 30:15

He had given His orders! He had returned her to life, but she had to rest and stay quiet if He was to heal her grief and anxiety and return her to school. No fretting, no fighting Jack, just compliance with her orders, whether they came from Him or from Jack. She had to trust Him, and He would strengthen her in His own good time. He’d brought her back from the dead, but he hadn’t mended her completely. She had to wait upon Him, allow Him to follow His own timing. She had to sink into His depths and let herself be carried.

“Now you’ve taken all that on board, I want you to eat and drink a little, so we can wean you off the drip. You’ll stay on the antibiotics, until I’m sure the infection’s gone for good.” Jack took her hand again. “You okay? Something’s going on in that very inventive brain of yours.”

“Nothing exciting!” The heavy eye-lids lifted. “I hear what you’re saying, Jack, and will do my best not to fret or plead to return to school, but as for eating… I’m just not hungry.”

“It’s perfectly normal, but you have to try,” he said gently. “You’re fading away.”

“We’ll keep it light, Hilda,” put in Helen. “We could try some yoghurt, or fruit fool. I won’t force soup down you just yet.”

“Ice cream?” Hilda asked hopefully. “There’s a horrid taste in my mouth.”

“Baby!” giggled Helen. “Ice cream it is.”

Hilda had barely swallowed three mouthfuls, however, before her eyes closed and she slept! Helen and Jack smiled at each other. Having strolled back from the dead, she needed sleep more than anything, to combat her extreme weakness.

Alas, a noise startled her awake less than an hour later. A gentle hand covered hers. “It’s okay, Hilda,” came Helen’s soft voice. “Relax! Ellie dropped her spoon.”

Spoon? It had sounded like a small explosion!

“She’s awake?” Hilda whispered.

Another face popped up beside Helen’s, a face beaming joyously. “Madame! Oh, Madame, you are so much better!”

Ellie leaned down to kiss her, tears streaking her cheeks. Hilda tried to lift a hand to wipe them away, but lacked the strength.

“Please don’t cry, child,” she whispered. “I’m back now. I’m sorry I scared you.” She saw the terror still lurking in Ellie’s eyes, and looked at Helen. “Would you mind very much if she lay beside me?”

Before Helen could reply, Ellie carefully scrambled on the bed, and lay down on the very edge so as not to hurt Hilda. She leaned up on one elbow, her eyes devouring the thin, white face. A few more tears trickled down.

“Hey, hey,” Hilda said softly. “Don’t weep, chérie. You don’t get rid of me that easily.”

Ellie’s finger tips gently touched Hilda’s scratched cheek. "It's all gone," she whispered in surprise.

Hilda kissed the palm of that loving hand. “I won’t break if you give me a hug, dearest.”

Instantly, Ellie’s arm crept across Hilda’s waist. She lay flat and snuggled closer, her cheek against Hilda’s. Their faces told you all you needed to know about their relationship, thought Matey, moved to tears by Ellie’s gentle care of her guardian. She removed Ian’s blanket from the vacated bed and wrapped it gently round Ellie.

Hilda stared at it, her face creasing in a smile. “Is that Mr Stuart’s blanket, little one? He described it to me once. All those little animals… they’re exquisite.”

“He gave it to me yesterday, to comfort me, you know, when I was so…” Ellie buried her face in Hilda’s shoulder.

Hilda looked up at the two women, who explained the events of the evening before, when Vivien had come to occupy Ellie. “I’m sorry, child,” she whispered.

Ellie peeped at her. “But, you know, even when you were unconscious, you lifted the hand and laid it on my head.” Hilda stared at her. “It seemed to me you knew how very frightened I was in the middle of your sleep. It made me to smile, you know.”

Hilda’s heart thundered in her chest. “That was a very special gift from God, I think.” Yet another one! “See how much He cares for you, sweetheart.”

Thank You, my Saviour.

She closed her eyes to force back the weak tears. Ellie kissed her again and nestled closer, her cheek once more against her guardian’s. Hilda savoured the closeness, even as she wondered how she could ever have been so spineless as to ask Him to take her home, away from this precious child who meant so much to her; a child who loved and needed her.

Never again, Nell! Never again will I show such weakness and cowardice! I am utterly ashamed of myself. Thank goodness He knows better than I do what’s needed.

She drifted off once more, content to sleep in Ellie’s loving arms.

*****

An exhausted Nancy had been lying awake for an hour or more when the phone disturbed her fearful musings. Glancing at her clock, she saw it was quarter past seven. More than time she was up! But she and the mistresses were all tired, for Jack had phoned near to four o'clock that morning, to warn her Hilda was gravely ill and needed prayers, that there was nothing more he himself could do. She had heard the grief in his voice, and wept. She called the main school and spoke to Jeanne, at which point they decided to gather the staff of both schools in prayer. Jeanne had suggested the two sixths join her group, and Nancy had given permission. She herself had woken her own girls. There had been many tears and some very fervent prayers.

Picking up the phone now, she listened to Matey’s tale with bemused astonishment. Hilda had died, despite their heart-felt prayers – but had come to back to life almost immediately! She was now firmly in the land of the living! It didn’t make sense, but, like Matey, she’d take a miracle any day, if it would save Hilda’s life. Her heart danced for joy. Did prayer make so much difference?

“I’ll let everyone know, Gwynneth. Thanks so much for phoning, when you must be feeling exhausted. I’ll try and pop along later, but…” She sighed.

“But running two schools at once takes some doing, and you've been very worried. She means a lot to you.”

“And to you, Gwynneth! I know how close you are. You’ve been a wonderful prop to her this past year.”

“I don’t think I could have borne to lose her.” Matey’s voice trembled. “Nancy, talking of props, is there any way you could spare Vivien for the day? Hilda’s very weak, can scarcely talk or move, can’t even turn her head. She needs to sleep, not worry about things, but Ellie wants to be with her. Hilda wants that, too, but it’s too tiring at the moment. If Ellie can’t have Hilda, then Vivien’s the next best thing where she’s concerned. Would it hurt the school to lose her for the day?”

“Not if it means Hilda gets better sooner, no! Not if I can help it, anyway.” Nancy spoke very firmly. “Kathie can show she means her apologies by replacing her in the lower forms, and I’m sure Vivien will give the senior forms some work to be getting on with. Leave it with me, Gwynneth. How soon do you want her?”

“They’ve both gone back to sleep now, so perhaps after prayers and assembly.”

“Consider it done. Would you do me a favour in return, and ask Ian Stuart to call me? I’ll be here for the next half hour, and then over at the main school.”

“The poor man’s been up all night pacing the floor. Like me, he couldn’t have borne to lose her. Getting out for a while will do him the world of good.”

“That’s my intention, although I’m betting you, Jack and Helen were also pacing that floor.”

“No, they insisted I got my head down for a bit, until…” Matey’s voice trailed off.

“She’s alive, Gwynneth! That’s all that matters. Try and put those dreadful moments out of your mind. Not easy, I know. It’ll be rattling around in my own head today, and I wasn’t there.” Nancy sighed. “Give Hilda my love, tell her we all miss her, and we're rooting for her to get better. Oh, and tell her all’s well here. You know how she frets about her chicks.”

“I will, even if all isn’t well!”

“But it is!” Nancy crossed her fingers.

“Vivien told me about Kathie’s apologies yesterday.”

“Well, let’s see if she really means them, shall we?”

Nancy’s voice was harsh, and Matey could sense she had lost her trust in Kathie. She thought of her own anger the night before and understood, but her heart was sad for Nancy. She and Kathie had been so happy together. Now Hilda was out of danger, and not in need of so many prayers, Matey determined to put in a good word with God for Nancy.

“Gwynneth, do I tell the staff what you’ve just told me? I won’t tell the girls anything, except that she was close to death. I don’t want to unnerve them.”

“You could tell the sixth forms, though. Hilda would say they’re near enough to adulthood to hear the truth. She did that for them up on the Rosleinalpe, several months after Nell died. It was very moving to watch their response to her admission of weakness. She was teaching them how to grieve, as she’d been taught by Mother Abbess in the summer holiday.” Matey paused, debating the decision. “Yes, tell the staff, and the sixths, but not the younger girls.”

Before she left for the main school, Nancy gave the news to Gill and Julie, who were shocked and tearful. Both had known Hilda a long time, Gill as Head Girl, and Julie as a teacher who joined the school when Hilda became Head.

“Julie, I’d like our staff and girls to be at the main school by half eight. Can you arrange that, since I’m going over now? A word of warning, though! Say nothing to the girls. I’ll give the staff all the details at half eight, when you’ve arrived, and then the two sixths and our own girls after assembly. The rest of the school will only know how ill she’s been.”

When she walked into Hilda’s study later, she was greeted by Rosalie’s anxious face. Rosalie was very close to Hilda, Nancy knew, so gave her the unexpurgated version.

Rosalie went white. “We lost her?” she gasped. “Dear God, how can such a thing happen? People don’t come back from the dead!”

“But she did, Rosalie! Believe me, I’m not about to question it. That’s between her and God.”

Rosalie walked over to the window, arms wrapped tight around her slim body. “Do you think Kathie’s and Helen’s behaviour affected her so much that she just gave up?” she whispered, her eyes fixed on the mountain peaks.

Nancy went across and put an arm round Rosalie’s shoulder. “It’s possible, I suppose, but she was very, very ill, Rosalie. You saw her. Not ill just with blood poisoning, but in great distress mentally, as well. She came close to a breakdown yesterday. Remember those unstoppable tears? That’s not the Hilda you know, is it? She’s been pushed to the limit by the events of this term, especially Kathie’s and Helen’s behaviour. But God thought she deserved another chance, which shows how much He loves her, and I for one can’t thank Him enough. Losing Nell so suddenly was bad enough. Losing Hilda, too, would have been catastrophic. Just think what her death would have done to poor Ellie!”

A shocked Rosalie leaned into Nancy, tears falling as she absorbed the gentle words. Nancy hugged her closer. “You going to be okay? Good! Well, keep it to yourself for now. I’m not telling the girls, except for the sixths, but I’ll inform the staff while the girls are doing dorm duties after Früstück. There’ll be no assembly, just prayers in the Hall, Catholics and Protestants together. Ian’s coming over to do it with me. Poor man!” Nancy sighed. “He’s worn out! He’s been awake all night, apparently, in and out of Hilda’s room.”

A small giggle erupted from Rosalie. “Did Gwynneth tell you what I thought on Saturday night about him and Hilda, when he was so supportive?” Nancy stared at her, then spluttered and shook her head. “It’s okay. Gwynneth put me straight. But they do seem very close.”

Nancy leaned her head against Rosalie’s. “Mother Abbess is his sister, and we all know how close she and Hilda are, so I think Ian became family, too, by default. Then Ellie joined the mix. They all look after each other now. He’s brilliant with Ellie, and she loves him almost as much she does Hilda, it seems to me. I saw that on Saturday night. Perhaps he makes up for having had no real father for so many years. I think Ian does love Hilda, but accepts that she’ll never give up the convent. She knows his feelings, and is very gentle with him. She trusts him absolutely.”

Rosalie lifted her head and gave Nancy a wan smile. “Thanks for sharing that with me. It won’t go any further. They’d have made a lovely family, though.”

“They would! But life isn’t always what we want, is it, love? Hilda could tell you that.”

“So could you, Nancy. I’m sorry about you and Kathie. Now, what can I do to help?”

Nancy shook herself, looked at her watch. “Three things. I’d love a coffee. I need to speak to Vivien as soon as possible, and then to Kathie. All before Frühstück!”

Rosalie drew away. “I’m on it! I’ll get Vivien while the coffee’s brewing.” She pulled a face. “I don’t know whether to dance around the room, or hide in a corner and weep.”

“I have those same mixed feelings, my poppet, but she’s still with us, which is cause for thanks and celebration.”

Rosalie flew from the room. Nancy walked over to Hilda’s desk. She still found it hard to accept that Hilda had died, then sprung back to life. She picked up the photo on the desk. “Your doing, Nell? It wouldn’t surprise me a bit! I can see you ordering Him to get on with it, or else! But however it happened, tell Him we’re truly grateful.” She gurgled. “And yes, I know I’m going mad talking to someone who’s not here.”

She lifted her head. Was that a sardonic laugh floating in the air?

An apprehensive Vivien was shown into the study five minutes later. “How is she?”

Nancy gave her a beaming smile. “Much improved, all blood poisoning gone. I’ll let Gwynneth give you the gory details, but don’t cry all over her when you hear them, because she’s very tired. I’ll just tell you that Hilda woke up at seven, demanding answers. She’s very weak, but apparently wondering why she can’t come home tomorrow to welcome Meg.”

Vivien rolled her eyes. “Heaven help us! Or them! But it sounds to me as if she’s travelled a long and winding road between our prayers at four o’clock and the present moment, Nancy. That’s a miracle. Who knows if He won’t give her another one tomorrow? I’m so glad you woke us up. Storming heaven’s always a good idea, even if the Lord decides in the end it has to be His way. He knows better than us. But tell me why I’ll be seeing Matey.”

“She asked would I be willing to spare you for the day to look after Ellie.”

Vivien gaped. “I’m honoured, but what about my lessons?”

“I’d do anything for Hilda, so if this will help her, then off you go, no matter how many lessons you miss. One day won’t hurt! Hilda’s very weak, too weak to do anything but sleep, apparently, and Ellie wants to be with her, which means Hilda will start fretting. That’s where you come in. If anyone can keep Ellie entertained for a whole day, it’s you. You could leave work for your classes, couldn’t you? Golly, I haven’t even checked your timetable.”

“I’ve one lesson with my upper sixth group, and one each with Inter V and VA. They’re all doubles, so eat into the afternoon, but I could sort out stuff for them, mostly revision, which they do need. I also have a Scripture lesson with Upper IVA, but, again, I'll leave work.”

“No, Kathie will do that one. She has to earn her keep while she’s here.”

Vivien was surprised by Nancy’s harsh voice, but knew how shocked she had been by Kathie's abuse of Ellie. “She was very sorry yesterday, Nancy,” she said softly. “Could you find it in your heart to give her the benefit of the doubt? Hard, I know, after all she’s done.”

“She had her moments yesterday afternoon, Vivien, in spite of all those apologies. I’m not ready to dance a jig just yet, but she and I are not the priority right now. Ellie and Hilda are. Will you do it?”

“Need you ask? I’ll sort out stuff for those forms and write it up on their boards. I’ll also leave some work for Kathie to do in Scripture, as a follow-up. Then I need to sort out what to take to entertain Ellie, and possibly Marianne.”

“Don't forget to eat something! You can write on the boards while I’m speaking to the staff and taking prayers with Ian. Just go when you’re ready. Take my car or... would you like to wait for Ian. He’s offered to help me tell the school about Hilda. We’re going to have another service, one of thanks this time, with both schools together here. You’ll find out just what sort of thanks, when you speak with Matey. Believe me, Vivien, a mighty big miracle took place during the night.”

Vivien’s eyes lit up. “He came through for her! Oh, how wonderful! She deserves a miracle, because she sees everything as a gift from God, and lives in a state of perpetual gratitude. Einstein once said:

‘There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other as though everything is a miracle.’
She follows that last sentence to the letter, and has a truly thankful, contented heart. That’s what she’s been trying to teach Kathie - to thank Him for what she already has, instead of always demanding more and being discontented. Kathie simply doesn’t get it that we can do very little on our own account, that every good gift comes from Him.”

“I think Hilda’s fighting a losing battle,” Nancy said bitterly.

“We can always pray for another miracle. Hilda’s constant refrain is that everything is grace, His grace. Well, it strikes me miracles are most definitely due to His grace, since they’re outside the natural laws.” She smiled. “How much my faith has grown and matured since meeting her! But good for you, for having another service, Nancy! You’re a bit of a miracle yourself. I know the thought of doing such a service scares you.”

“Not this time it doesn’t! What happened to Hilda has galvanised me, and Ian will help.”

“Okay, I’ll get going with stuff. Thanks for the offer of your car, but I’ll go back with Ian, I think. I’ll pop into Prayers when I’m done, and join in.”

Vivien gave Nancy a hug and departed. Nancy wondered why Kathie didn’t have that same easiness about her. Like Hilda, Vivien made you feel comfortable and at home in her presence. She was always willing to listen or comfort, or just be there with you in your pain. For all her jollity and love of jokes, she had the same inner stillness that Hilda possessed.

*****

Hilda roused suddenly. In her confusion, she thought it was Nell holding her. She opened her eyes, and saw Ellie tucked up against her, wrapped in that wondrous blanket. Of course! She remembered, now. For a moment or two, her eyes blurred. Such love this stranger child had gifted her! She tried to lift her hand to stroke the black hair, but was again defeated by her own weakness, so dropped a kiss on the soft cheek.

Her eyes wandered round the room, and found there the same ’dearest freshness deep down things’ she had found in her dream on the cliff top. The morning, the room, the bed, the very air seemed freshly minted, when she thought about being dead and never seeing it – or anything! – ever again. He had chosen life for her, when she was too weak and cowardly to do it for herself, and had sent her back to live out that life, depending on Him for everything. How gracious He was!

Her eyes continued to explore the room, but stopped dead when she saw Ian sitting silently beside the bed, tension written all over him. His skin seemed stretched tight across his face with weariness. She smiled tenderly.

He leaned forward. “It’s good to see you back in the land of the living, my friend. How are you feeling?” He spoke very softly, so as not to disturb Ellie.

“I gather I gave you all a terrible fright,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry, dear man. I know how much you care, and what it will have done to you. You look so very weary, and should be in bed.”

She tried to move her hand, but, yet again, it was impossible. He saw it twitch, guessed her problem and lifted it into his own warm one. “That better? I can’t go to bed. Kate says I have to find out the state of play – in other words, how you’re feeling – and phone her.”

“Once a bully…”

“Always a bully! Ain’t that the truth!” They smiled at each other in perfect amity.

“Tell her I’m feeling better than yesterday or last night. Better in every way! Tell her… it was the Lord who intervened. Tell her… I had a dream. She’ll understand.”

“Going to tell me?”

Her eyes searched his. “You’ve been so good to me this past year that you deserve to know. So I might, one day very soon, when I’ve come to terms with it myself. It’s not every day one is gifted with quite so powerful a miracle. Oh, Ian,” she whispered brokenly. “He’s so good, but very firm on what He wants from us. If I could sort out my addled brain, I’d pray properly, instead of just chanting ‘Thank You, thank You’ over and over again.”

His eyebrows rose. “You mean it, don’t you? It really was a…”

“A miracle? Oh, yes! No question!”

He gazed at her for long, curious moments, saw the cheek with only a few faint scratches on it, where less than ten hours ago it had been swollen and red and complete agony to her. He saw the joy and puzzled wonder in her heavy eyes, but he also saw shame, and asked himself why. He felt the same puzzled wonder himself. She was alive and speaking to him and cuddling Ellie, yet at four o’clock that morning she had died. Jack was a doctor. He wouldn’t mistake the signs.

She was right. It was a miracle, but he wondered where a dream came into it. Then, as he watched her, her radiant joy spoke to him. “You met God, didn’t you? In that dream?”

“Was it a dream? Or was I in another reality?” She stopped to gather some strength. “No, Ian, I didn’t meet God, but His Son - also God, of course, but infinitely different. Gentler? Perhaps, but also demanding and determined – and so very, very forgiving.” She paused in thought. “The Jesus I met was the Jesus who confronted the Samaritan woman by the well, and brought her very gently to a sense of her own sinfulness.”

He saw her eyes change, the joy eclipsed by shame. “You’re not sinful,” he gasped.

“We’re all sinful, Ian, I more than most. But He sweetened the pill, afterwards…” She saw the question in the green eyes. “No, I’ll only cry if I tell you now. Another day, when I have more control. I’ll tell you this, though: it was beyond anything your imagination could conjure up.”

She closed her eyes and pictured the dolphins and their antics to calm herself. Telling him now, giving into her emotions, would only do away with what meagre strength she had. She felt him gently squeeze her hand. He was such a loving man, and asked so little of her, that she felt guilty for remaining silent.

He changed the subject. “The other reason I can’t go to bed is that I’m going over to the school. Nancy wants Prayers this morning to be a service of thanksgiving to God for saving your life.” He saw how stunned she was when her eyes flashed open. “You said it was a miracle. Jack said the same. The staff at both schools got up before four o’clock this morning, to pray for you when you were sinking. The sixth form girls joined them. I think they deserve to know their prayers had an answer, don’t you? A huge, unbelievable answer!”

Tears slid from the corner of her eyes, soaking into the pillow. “Make it about God, and not about me, Ian. I’m deserving of very little right now, certainly not special prayers ‘at wakeful midnight’! If you only knew…” More tears escaped, and he wiped them away gently. “I’m behaving very badly, aren’t I? Tell them I’m intensely moved by their prayers, and I’ll be with them in spirit this morning. Tell them, also, that their prayers had more than one answer, that God blessed me in very many ways, thanks to them.”

Her voice was weaker. She was growing frailer by the minute. He thought about her words regarding prayer and clasped her arm. “Would you like me to pray this morning’s Office out loud, since you haven’t the strength to read it yourself. It might take the edge off whatever’s bothering you.”

Her eyes lit up. “Yes, please, but be careful not to wake Ellie.” She looked at the blanket tucked round her ward. “Thank you so much for lending her this, dear man. It’s as beautiful as Kate’s shawl. I love the little animals. You’re kindness itself where Ellie and I are concerned.” He smiled tenderly. “Ellie calls me her guardian angel, but you, Kate and Gwynneth have become my guardian angels, watching out for me, keeping me going in the bad times, loving me… As for Jack, he’s more like the recording angel, keeping a tally of my disobedient ways.” Ian snorted. “Although he was so good to me over the weekend, wasn't he? Vivien’s a companion at arms, like Nancy, but she’s become another guardian angel for Ellie. She and I are so blessed in our friends.”

Her eyes closed abruptly. He lifted her book off the cupboard and opened it where the ribbon marked the day’s readings. At first she tried to give the responses, but his voice gradually faded in her ears and she slept. He closed the book and surveyed the gaunt, white face, praying there would be no relapse and she would soon be herself again. Ellie and Meg both depended on her, and would be lost if she were to disappear from their lives.

“Oh, Hilda,” he whispered, “who am I kidding? You’re necessary to so many of us, not just the two girls. Even the Lord must find in you His heart’s treasure, for you cherish so many of His children for Him. How would He manage without your loving heart enfolding us all?"

"'Long may thou joy in His almighty love,
Long may thy soul be pleasing in His sight.
Long mayst thou have true comforts from above,
Long mayst thou set on Him thy whole delight;
And patiently endure when He doth prove,
Knowing that He will surely do thee right.
Thy patience, faith, long-suffering and thy love
He will reward with comfort from above."'


(Aemillia Lanyer)



*****
Chapter 3 - Shuttered and Barred by MaryR
Author's Notes:
I can't find words to thank you for all the lovely reviews on those two re-posted chapters. I'm so glad you still liked Hilda's dream, as I so enjoyed writing it and had such fun with the dolphins. One of my own dreams there!

Anyway, we've finally come to the new stuff, the stuff you were expecting to read weeks ago, alas. This is only half of the chapter I posted then, as it was seemingly too long for it all to fit in one chapter.
Vivien turned to smile one last time at Nancy before disappearing through the door. Nancy wasn’t to know it, but Vivien went on her way singing softly in praise of God and His mighty works for healing Hilda so quickly, instead of allowing her to die. He had blessed them all greatly that morning. Losing Hilda would have been traumatic, not only for the school, which had already lost Nell Wilson, but for Ellie and Mother Abbess, and for all Hilda’s friends, both in school and elsewhere.

Thank You, also, for putting it in Gwynneth’s mind to ask for me like this. I’m not quite sure why You think I deserve the invitation, but being with Ellie always fills me with delight, and seeing for myself how Hilda really is will be a beautiful bonus. Bring Hilda back to us soon, if such be Your will, for I have a terrible feeling that both Kathie and Ellie will sink without her presence. And, Lord, please grant me the gift of making that home for Ellie and Gwynneth - and a home from home for Hilda. It can only be You who planted such an idea in my head, for I would never have dreamed up such a future for myself, nor dared to suggest it. Are You now willing to bring it all to fruition, and allow Ellie to accept my offer?

Nancy, meanwhile, took a deep breath and a sip of coffee before opening the door to Kathie.

“How’s Hilda?” asked Kathie, jumping off Rosalie’s desk. She seemed far less tired than her Headmistress.

“Didn’t Rosalie tell you?”

“She’s not here!”

Nancy peeped through the door. Rosalie was indeed not there! Nancy suspected she had disappeared deliberately, so as not to show Kathie how upset she was. Rosalie still wanted nothing to do with Kathie, despite the curt encouragement she had offered her the day before.

“Perhaps she’s gone to make some fresh coffee,” Nancy said, indicating the couch to Kathie and seating herself opposite. “I’m telling the staff the latest update about Hilda at half eight. We’ll then have prayers as a whole school today, including St Mildred’s staff and girls. Ian Stuart’s coming over to lead it, and will then help me share with the two sixths what I’ll shortly share with the staff.”

Kathie frowned. “Why not share it with the whole school?”

Nancy gazed at her uplifted brows.“But you didn’t want Hilda to do that on Saturday evening! Seems to me you should make up your mind what you do want!” Kathie had the grace to blush. “The truth is, we don’t feel we should share what happened with the whole school, just with the oldest girls - the truth being that Hilda died during the night, Kathie” she said curtly. “I don’t really think the younger element is ready for that, do you?”

Kathie went white. “What do you mean? She’s dead? That can’t be true. You’re not crying!”

“I didn’t say she was dead. I said she died! It happened about half four this morning. She came back to life minutes later, while we were praying, actually, or so I’m told. Simple as that!”

“That’s not possible,” whispered Kathie in disbelief.

“Try telling that to Jack Maynard! He’s the doctor. If he tells me she died, then she died. It’s a miracle as far as he and Helen Graves are concerned. Ian Stuart, too! They were all there. They reckon their own hearts nearly stopped in shock when hers started again.”

Kathie stared at Nancy, shaken to her core. “Then she wasn’t dead, obviously.”

“Are you trying to tell me Jack can’t tell whether a patient of his has died or not?” Nancy countered. “Jack told me her body had shut down, organ by organ. She wasn’t breathing. Her heart wasn’t beating. There was no pulse. I call that dead! And so did he!” Her blue eyes were fierce, daring Kathie to disagree.

Kathie’s own eyes were huge in her white face. “She came close to dying last November,” she whispered, “but she escaped. Same with her head injury twenty odd years ago! Now this? Why would He keep saving her?”

Nancy leaned her head back and closed her eyes. “Good question, Kathie! I’m sure you could answer that for yourself, if you cared anything for Hilda!” She ignored Kathie’s gasp of outrage. “But you don’t, so let me pose you some possible questions as to why He keeps saving her life. Because He still has important plans for her in the future? Because He knows how much the girls and staff still need her special brand of love, given we’ve already lost Nell? Because Ellie would fade away without her? Because the convent, and those who go to visit there, will have need of her particular skills when she enters?” She opened her eyes, fixed them on Kathie. “Or could it be because He knows how much you still have to learn from her? Don’t glare at me like that! After all, you were beside yourself yesterday at the thought that she might not recover and learn about your apologies. I’ve a great deal still to learn from her, myself, before I become a decent person or Headmistress, so there’s no shame in you admitting the same. But you won’t concede your ideas need changing, will you?”

Nancy waited to hear some words of real concern for Hilda, even as she knew they would not be forthcoming. Kathie wasn’t big enough!

“How is she now?” whispered Kathie.

“Very fragile, too weak even to lift her head off the pillow. That’s why I sent for you. Gwynneth rang me earlier, a very distressed Gwynneth. She loves Hilda dearly. I don’t know what she’d do without her now. She asked if I could spare Vivien for the day, to keep Ellie entertained.” Nancy watched Kathie anxiously, waiting for the explosion. “Ellie will want to be with Hilda, obviously, but Hilda’s too weak to do anything but sleep, which means both of them will be unhappy. Vivien seems to be the answer, and I’m more than happy to oblige.”

“Because you’d do anything for Hilda!” muttered Kathie, her eyes narrowed .

“Indeed I would, and so should you, after all she’s done for you.”

“Why Vivien every time?” Kathie pulled a face. “She was there yesterday!”

“Who else could I send? You?” asked Nancy impatiently. “Ellie wouldn’t let you anywhere near her, would she? All your own fault! Vivien has a very good relationship with her, and Ellie desperately needs some company. Gwynneth’s too tired and upset.”

“Why can’t she just come back here?”

“They’re still worried about that finger and want to keep an eye on it. Also, I doubt very much she’d want to set foot in the door without Hilda supporting her. She’s probably terrified at the mere thought of seeing you. She’s still very fragile after the death of her father, and you’ve undone any progress she’d made since becoming Hilda’s ward. Being bullied not once, but twice, and being injured both times, has done a lot of damage. I wouldn’t like to feel the way I imagine she’s feeling right now, which is why I’m prepared to spoil her a little. We’d do the same for you if you were in need.”

Kathie gnawed her lip, glowering at Nancy. “You don’t like me much, do you?”

“Not at the moment, no,” Nancy replied bluntly. “I love you, which is a totally different emotion, but you keep throwing my love back in my face. You came to your senses yesterday and apologised to people you’d hurt. Those same people were very kind to you, kinder than I think you deserve, because you’re now once more showing yourself jealous of Vivien!”

They stared at each other a moment or two, each longing to go back to last year’s summer holiday, when life had seemed so much simpler. Nancy broke off eye contact to stare round Hilda’s domain. With an exclamation, she shot to her feet and walked over to the window, beside which were hanging several picture frames. She took one down from the wall, walked back with it to Kathie and handed it to her.

Kathie looked down and saw it contained, not a picture, but what looked like an illuminated manuscript. “What is it?”

“Read it out loud,” Nancy said curtly, sitting down.

“Whoever destroys a single life is as guilty as though he had destroyed the entire world, and whoever rescues a single life earns as much merit as though he had rescued the entire world.”

Kathie finished and looked up with a frown. “I don’t understand. What does it mean?”

Nancy seemed to go off at a tangent. “It was Nell who told me the story, when I saw that and asked about it. Hilda just said it was a gift, never being one to blow her own trumpet, so I went to Nell. When the school left Austria, Hilda went to study at London University, apparently, until such time as the school could be re-started. While she was there, she befriended a Jewish student from Vienna who was all alone, having been daringly smuggled out of Austria by her parents soon after the Anschluss. No surprise that Hilda should be the one to take the girl under her wing, since she knew at first hand just what the Nazis were capable of, after Nell’s and Joey’s exploits. She also knew Austria and could speak German, so would have been a real Godsend to the girl. She seems to have felt for her, all alone in a strange country, and helped her with her English, even finding somewhere decent for her to live. She kept in touch with her after the school started up again in Guernsey, and met her occasionally in London. That you have in your hand was sent to her at the end of the war. The words are from the Talmud, the ancient book of Jewish Law. The girl painted it herself, to thank Hilda for all her care and support, both during the war and afterwards, when she found out her whole family had perished in the camps.” Kathie shivered. “Hilda brought her to stay at Nell's cottage that Christmas, so she could keep an eye on her. Emilia felt Hilda had saved not just her life, but her sanity, hence those beautiful words, although Hilda herself denied doing any such thing, and always wished she could have done more for her.”

“You mean…” Kathie looked down at the exquisite script. “She thought Hilda had ‘rescued a single life’ and deserved…”

“Yes, she felt Hilda deserved as much merit as if she had befriended and rescued the whole world, not just Emilia herself. It’s a very moving tribute, one Nell certainly thought she deserved.”

“Is she still in touch with her?”

“Emilia joined the new state of Israel as soon as she could get over there, since she had no one left in Europe. But you know the troubles they had becoming an accepted state. Women as well as men were conscripted into their new army, and there was constant fighting. Emilia was killed in the War of Independence in 1948. Hilda didn’t find out until a couple of years later.”

“That’s so sad,” whispered Kathie, gazing down at the words. "I could never have been so brave."

“Yes, it was sad! Hilda was devastated, but she felt it was what Emily would have wanted. She was so very alone and lonely….” Nancy shook herself and her voice grew harsh. “What about you, Kathie? If Hilda rescued Emilia’s life and sanity, what can one make of your treatment of Vi and Gill? Wouldn’t you say you were on the way to destroying their lives, and even their sanity? And might have succeeded if Hilda hadn’t found out?” Kathie’s jaw dropped in shock. “’If you destroy a single life you’re as guilty as if you’d destroyed the world.’ I’m afraid for Gill. She’s lost all her confidence. I rarely see her smile, and she’s very edgy. You did that! No one else! She’s in a very dark place at the moment.” She sighed. “I’m not sure what state poor Vi’s in. The one thing I do know is that she would be in a far worse state, but for Hilda’s intervention and support.”

Kathie’s hands were shaking when she placed the frame on the coffee table. “You can’t think… Nancy, I didn’t destroy them, not really…” A desperate sob escaped her.

“You tried to do exactly that, Kathie,” Nancy whispered. “What about Hilda and that nasty slur about her and Ellie? You very nearly destroyed their relationship. You’ve certainly brought her close to death with your dreadful behaviour recently, or you and Helen between you. Perhaps I’m exaggerating, but I’m trying to get across to you just where your behaviour is leading you, unless you change. You’ve certainly destroyed something in me.”

Kathie’s face was pinched white. She felt like she’d become enmeshed in a nightmare. She thought she’d taken a good look at herself yesterday, but this…

Nancy remained silent for long agonising moments, before adding curtly, “You care for Hilda so little that you couldn’t even be bothered to get up and join the staff and sixth forms in the middle of the night to pray for her. Another black mark against you, where your colleagues are concerned! Your absence did away with any good will you might have garnered by those apologies. They don’t like your attitude, Kathie. It wasn’t too much to ask, surely.”

Kathie shrank back as though struck. Red stained her cheeks and crept over her whole face, then faded again, leaving her even whiter than before.

Nancy watched the brooding face opposite. “Your absence from those prayers opened my eyes even wider to your utter selfishness and self-seeking, your determination to do nothing for Hilda or for anyone. A few apologies aren’t enough to undo all the harm you’ve done these past months. How on earth can the staff have any respect for you now?”

“I was tired.” The whisper was so tiny as to be almost unheard.

“Don’t lie to me!” Nancy’s harsh voice ripped into Kathie. “We were all tired, but we got up anyway, because Hilda deserves every good thing we can do for her. You were the only face missing. The future Head of St Mildred’s and its current deputy, to boot! You were missing because it was Hilda for whom we were praying, God help you! I don’t know you anymore, Kathie,” Nancy added quietly, her eyes filled with sadness and regret. Kathie’s face grew whiter. “You’re not the woman I fell in love with, yet I was suddenly filled with hope only yesterday.”

Kathie stared at her, finding it hard to believe such cutting words could come from her jolly Nancy. A sob escaped her. She leaned her elbows on her knees and buried her face in her hands. Nancy could see she was shaking, but had no sympathy.

“Yesterday, after you demolished Ellie and upset the other two girls, Hilda told you she was giving you one last chance. And only one! But look at you now, seemingly unwilling to redeem yourself in her or my eyes. You’re not even showing any gratitude towards her for that one last chance. Most heads would have dismissed you immediately after the appalling violence you used.” Nancy softened her voice. “Are you going to show more willing today, and help us out? Can you start to build, instead of destroying everything?”

Kathie lifted her face. “What do you mean? How?”

“The reason I asked you here this morning is because I want you to take Vivien’s scripture lesson with Lower IVA, last lesson before Mittagessen. It’s only thirty minutes long.” Kathie sat up straighter, clearly preparing to defend her position, despite all Nancy’s harsh words. “I did intend you should also take Upper IVB’s Scripture, which Hilda normally teaches, but Ian Stuart's offered to do that. He intends to stand in for Hilda and find out just how the girls are doing in there, now Helen’s gone. I think you’ll agree only Hilda or Ian could do that with any degree of compassion and understanding. They build people up, never destroy them.”

Kathie bridled. “I could have done it!” Nancy raised one eyebrow. Kathie flushed again, and added grudgingly. “There must be someone else free to do Lower IVA.”

Nancy’s eyebrows rose in disgust. “Who? We’re all too busy! You’re a deputy head, Kathie,” she added sharply. “Heads and deputies expect to work longer hours than their staff. They fill in when there’s a lack. Hilda teaches quite a few lessons, both literature and scripture, but always steps in to do more when people are sick, so her staff don’t have to work extra hours. She then stays up late to get her other work done. What’s good enough for her should be more than good enough for the likes of you. I’m trying to run two schools here, so haven’t the time myself. Not only will you take that lesson, but you’ll also supervise Ruth’s English lesson with Inter V. As you know, they’re never left unsupervised, unlike the other fifths. Ruth will leave work for them. She herself is too busy trying to sort out Hilda’s Literature lessons, especially her exam forms. We’re hoping Mary Chapman will come over and help, otherwise Ruth will end up doing them all herself. She and Jeanne know extra work is necessary sometimes, as Hilda’s deputies. So should you! A year or two back, you’d have been more than willing.”

Kathie’s face now wore a mutinous expression. “Hilda’s given me two projects…”

“They will have to go by the board! One of Hilda’s conditions when you came over here was that you fill in for staff when necessary and do whatever Jeanne, Julie or Hilda herself asks of you. Well, that means me, now, doesn’t it, since Hilda's absent? Don’t look so astonished! Did you think Hilda wouldn’t let me know the conditions? She and I work as a team, just as you and I should have been doing.” Nancy leaned forward and rapped with her hand on the low table. “Wake up, Kathie. If you want the big job, the important job, then you have to act big. In other words, act generously and wisely, showing the staff an example of proper leadership.” She searched the resentful face with a sinking heart. “So much for feeling sorry for your sins! The only one you’re feeling sorry for is yourself.”

“That’s not true… I already have your Maths lessons and a Geography one of my own.”

“And what else? Nothing! Nothing over at St Mildred’s, either! You’ll do a full load here, just as you were doing there. Were you expecting to sit back and allow everyone to make much of you, just because you apologised to a few people? Believe me, you were fortunate most of them were kind enough to accept those apologies, after your cruel treatment. By the way, are you also thinking of apologising to Hilda at some point?” Kathie stared at her in silence. “I should have known,” Nancy added bitterly. “And yet yesterday you were desperate in case she should die and would never know you’d apologised.” Kathie’s eyes glittered. “Those apologies were all for show, weren’t they?” gasped Nancy. “A weaselly attempt to stave off being sacked!”

“N - no!” stuttered Kathie. “The prayer service did make me think about my behaviour!”

“That feeling doesn’t seem to have lasted long! There’s not really much point in your apologies if you don’t also apologise to Hilda, since she’s the reason you laid into everyone else! No, actually, I’m the real reason. You don’t trust my feelings where she’s concerned, which is a terrible slur on both her and me. All in all, you’re so mixed up I’m not sure you see anything as it really is anymore!” A mulish look crept into Kathie’s face, one Nancy knew well. “No answer for me? Well, you may as well take yourself off, since it seems to me you’re still trying to destroy whatever you can. I’m too busy trying to make up for Hilda’s, Vi’s and Linda’s absences to bother with you. It’s not easy finding cover for three missing staff, so what on earth is wrong with you that you won’t muck in and help?”

She refused to waste any more time pacifying a stubborn, selfish Kathie. Kathie bit her lip, and hugged herself so she wouldn’t let fly at Nancy. She could see frustrated tears glimmering in the blue eyes. They touched her heart, stripping away some of her obstinate blindness. She caught a glimpse of the huge stress Nancy was under, but closed her eyes to Nancy’s very real fears for Hilda. She reached a hand across the low table.

“I’m sorry, Nancy! I’m sorry,” she murmured. “You’re tired out, aren’t you? Why is no one helping you?”

Nancy gaped at her. Was Kathie for real? “They are!” she ground out. “They’re all doing more than usual. You’re the one who’s pulling against me. I need your full-hearted co-operation, Kathie, and have no wish to press-gang you, but if you’re not prepared to volunteer extra help when it’s needed, what use are you as a Head or deputy? Would Hilda or Nell have behaved in such a selfish way?”

Kathie reared back. She had had a deep fondness for Nell Wilson, but knew exactly what Nell’s reaction would have been to her attitude. Nell had no time for moodiness and ill-temper. Kathie was honest enough to admit to herself that she had also had a great fondness and admiration for Hilda – until she saw the support Nancy was giving her in her grief.

“You’ve grown too big for your boots since September,” Nancy added quietly, breaking into Kathie’s thoughts. “What about some of Hilda’s humility and thoughtfulness, or Nell’s common sense and humour? You don’t seem to be following their example in any way whatsoever. It seems to me you’ve shut up your heart and built a barrier round it, letting no one in.” She saw sudden shame flame in the face opposite, and quietened her own voice even further. “We’re all in this together, Kathie. I was relying on you to do your share. So, are you going to do as I ask, and do it willingly, or do I get someone who’s already very busy to take your place in those forms, and you can sit with your feet up, drinking tea? If that’s what you choose, fine! But I’ll have to inform Hilda when she returns. You know that!”

Would she then lose her one chance? Kathie’s defences gave way. “I love you, Nance, so I’ll do as you ask.”

“I said ‘willingly’,” whispered Nancy. “Don’t do it for love of me, or because I’m demanding it, but out of love for the school and your Headmistress, the one who handed you your dream, which you now seem intent on throwing away. Ask yourself what she would have done for you in this same situation.”

Kathie bridled, but a gentle knock at the door prevented her having to give an answer. Nancy struggled wearily to her feet, opened the door, and stared in astonishment when she saw Ian Stuart standing there. She tried to smile, but was horrified to feel tears welling up, instead.

Ian saw the strain and took her hand. “How can I help?” he asked gently.

She eased the door open wider to give him a sighting of Kathie, and grasped his hand tightly. It felt like a lifeline to her! Was this how Hilda felt when she was with him?

He put his other hand over hers. “Go and powder your nose. You’ve got an appointment with the staff shortly. Go on!” her said firmly, when he saw her hesitate. “I’ll be there as soon as I can, once I’ve had a few words with Kathie.”

She fled, making straight for the Annexe, where she knew she could be alone to simmer down and take hold of herself before appearing in front of the staff and the girls. When she walked into the Salon, the butterflies in the corner twisted and twirled in the sudden draught, drawing her in. She sat on the couch nearby and absorbed their mellow beauty, tears rolling unchecked down her face…



*****
Chapter 4 - Harden Not Your Heart by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Well, here I am popping up more quickly than you probably expected - but don't get used to it! *grins* I just happened to have this already written, and only needed to tweak it. The next chapter is not written yet!

I can't believe how many of you caught the first chapter so quickly and wrote so many loving and insightful things about Kathie and her reactions. She rather took me by surprise there, so I can imagine yours. Some of you go very deep, making me raise my own game.

Thanks to Elder, Pauline and Blueskye for appreciating the little vignette of Hilda and Emilia during the war. We know very little of that year and a half before the school re-opened, and the Talmudic quotation made a deep impact on me when I first read it years ago, so I combined the two.
Ian entered the study and closed the door. He took a good hard look at Kathie’s brooding face, winged a prayer to Heaven and sat down in Nancy’s vacated chair.

He smiled, but received nothing in return. “You’re unhappy,” he said softly, his eyes radiating kindness. “Nancy’s also unhappy. I take it the two are connected.”

Her elbows still on her knees, Kathie clenched her trembling hands and pressed them hard against her lips. “How’s Hilda?” she croaked.

“She’s sleeping, still as weak as a kitten, but on the road to recovery, we hope. She’s now very concerned for everyone else, for those who spent the night watching over her and Ellie, for Nancy having to look after both schools, and also for those who were up during the night praying for her.” Kathie’s eyes widened. “Her first thoughts are always of others, Kathie. She’s worrying about Ellie and Gwynneth, about the school, about Meg, who’s shortly returning, and even about you. Above all, though, she’s filled with gratitude for the indescribable miracle God performed for her.”

“She’s too good to be true.”

Ian detected the faint sarcasm, and began to understand Nancy’s distress. “No, she isn’t, my dear! Interestingly, she told me, less than half an hour ago, that she was the most flawed of us all. Does that sound like someone too good to be true? To me, she’s simply what you become when you try to follow God’s will, day in, day out. What is it He commands us to do above all else? In John, He says: ‘By this shall all men know that you are My disciples, if ye love one another’.” He sat back, searching the miserable face. “I think you’ll agree Hilda tries very hard to do as He asks. Do you love others, Kathie?” he asked softly.

She stirred. “Others would tell you I don’t,” she whispered. “I know I love Nancy – which isn’t the kind of love you’re talking about – but she doesn’t seem to love me, anymore.”

“Do you know why?”

“I hurt her. I hurt her horribly, and couldn’t seem to stop myself.”

“Are you sorry?”

She hesitated. “Not as much as I should be, I don’t think.”

“Or as much as others think you should be, perhaps.”

Their voices were so low, they scarcely disturbed the air.

She breathed in, then out again with a sigh. “I hurt a lot of people. I hurt Ellie, and not just physically. I was very nasty to her.”

“Yes, you were! When Hilda recovers her strength, she’ll try her best to soothe Ellie’s very real anger and fear, but I’m not sure she’ll succeed. You scared that poor girl half to death.” He sat silent, twisting his watch round on his wrist. When he looked up, the expression on his face scared her. “I should perhaps warn you that Mireille was so angry when she took Ellie up to Gwynneth that she poured out the whole story. Gwynneth then told us when she drove Ellie to the San. By ‘us', I mean Helen Graves, Jack Maynard and me.”

“You mean, everyone knows?” she asked in horror.

“Not at all! I said Jack, Helen and me. You already know Hilda told her senior staff about it, asking them to look out for Ellie and keep you away from her.” Her eyes fell, and she squirmed at the thought of her behaviour being broadcast loud and long. “Of course, Mireille and Jeanne also know, being there, but have been warned to keep quiet.” She closed her eyes. “You feel humiliated, but Oswald Chambers wrote: ‘It is only possible to be humiliated when we are serving our own pride.’ I think you’ve been doing exactly that, haven’t you?” Ian cleared his throat. “There’s more, I’m afraid.” Her eyes snapped open. “Yesterday evening, Ellie asked me ‘why’. She was still in a great deal of pain, but it had obviously been playing on her mind. She knew she’d done nothing to deserve your harsh reaction to her falling into you, so I told her about your jealousy. It was the only way to calm her down.”

“She’s a child!” she cried angrily, her fists clenched at this betrayal. “You had no right!

“She’ll be seventeen on Sunday, almost a woman, and a very caring woman, just like her guardian.” He paused, searching the distorted face. “I had every right, dear. When we’re as badly hurt as she was, we deserve to know why. What excuse could I possibly have made for your dreadful behaviour?” he asked gently. She stared at him, hurt beyond measure. “She was in such distress about it, as well as about Hilda, that I decided the only way to ease her mind was to be honest with her. It did help, actually, Kathie, because she’s been jealous herself recently, and understands how angry it can make you.”

She stared at him in shock. “How can she possibly understand?”

“Ask her! You might be surprised, and it might help both of you, only… I wouldn’t go anywhere near her just yet, if I were you. Wait until she’s had a good, long talk with Hilda.”

He knew Kathie was also jealous of Vivien, so kept quiet about the latter’s involvement in the explanations to Ellie.

Kathie jumped to her feet and stalked over to the window, trembling with rage and fear and uncertainty. Staring out at the snowy garden, she wondered how she could even turn round and face him, now her faults had been laid bare. But… there had been no condemnation in those clear green eyes, only compassion.

“I apologised to Jeanne and Mireille yesterday,” she whispered. “They said they would forgive me, if… if I also apologised to Ellie.”

“That was very brave of them.”

“Mireille asked me…” She turned round to face him. “Would you believe she asked me why I was jealous of Ellie?” She nodded at his astonishment. “She’d apparently worked it out from the things I said, and… and offered to help me. She said she understood jealousy, that she'd felt it badly at one point in her life. She even told me about it.” Her lips quivered as she forced back the tears. “So it would seem everyone now knows what a jealous creature Miss Ferrars is! Am I so easy to read?”

“Ecclesiastes claims that ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’. You didn’t invent the sin of jealousy, and you aren’t the first person to suffer from it. It’s probably existed from the very beginning of time. We’ve all felt jealous at some point in our lives, so you’re no more of a sinner than the rest of us. We all sin, become jealous, get angry, hate someone, hurt someone, refuse to speak to someone, spurn the very one we love… Shall I go on? We’ve just worked out that two teenage girls know all about jealousy, like you. The difference is that they’ve never acted on it. Instead, they’ve worked hard to subdue it, with help from others. Having these feelings and trying to overcome them teaches us mercy and compassion – as Mireille had mercy on you. Helen Keller, who was both blind and deaf, famously wrote:

‘We could never learn to be brave and patient if there were only joy in the world.’

“All our efforts to overcome our faults make us better people, and we can then help to make the world a better place. Mireille gave you a great gift. She trusted you with her own flaws. Are you big enough to accept that gift? Even to learn from her, child though you think she is? Just as you thought Ellie was a child. To my way of thinking, Ellie’s more mature than you, right now. Both of them are!”

She flinched, and laughed mirthlessly. “I told Hilda on Saturday that the girls didn’t need to know about Helen! How wrong could I be? Teenagers work things out, accept things, think deeply about things, far better than adults do, sometimes. Certainly better than I’ve been doing. I was so wrong about Ellie, wasn’t I?”

He nodded. “From what I saw of them on Saturday, and what I heard about them saving Linda Stone’s life, it seems to me your prefects are very mature and sensible girls. Brave, too. They’ve certainly proved their worth this term. The girls in Ellie’s form are the same. Her friend Jeanne is an amazingly sensible and mature girl, and very sensitive to others. You treat them as simpletons at your peril.”

“Yet that’s what I’ve been doing over at St Mildred’s,” Kathie said drearily. “I’ve treated the girls there like immature seven year olds – and the staff like… like…” Tears coursed down her face. “I’ve been like a dictator and said some really horrible, terrible things – and meant them! I thought I had to show them who was boss!”

“But you’re not the boss, are you?” Ian’s eyes were very keen. “Nancy’s the boss over there, and Hilda’s the boss of both of you.”

“That’s what I meant about being horrible to Nancy.” Ian noticed how she ignored the mention of Hilda. “I went behind her back to do what I did. I also hurt Gill Culver very, very badly… Vi, too!” She buried her face in her hands. “That’s when Hilda found out. Vi went to her early last week.”

“What did you do to Vi?” he asked softly.

“Hilda hasn’t told you?” He shook his head, so she poured out the tale of Vi’s mother.

He was shocked to the core. No wonder Hilda had been so down the week before. On top of everything else that had happened, she must have wondered what had hit her. That was why she had told him the future of St Mildred’s was at stake! How had she kept her patience with this selfish young woman? Was Kathie partly to blame for Hilda’s breakdown the day before? And had the added stress from Kathie's actions been the spark that set off the infection

“That was an extremely hurtful thing you did. I hope, when someone dear to you is ever in extremis, that people are kinder to you than you were to Vi.”

“I wouldn’t deserve it, though, would I?” she whispered.

“Hilda would say you did. She never holds your sins against you, if you apologise. You know that.” Those green eyes seared into her. “Have you apologised to everyone you hurt?”

She couldn’t face those probing eyes, so turned back to look out of the window. “Hilda asked me to apologise to Vi before she left, but… I couldn’t face her. So she demanded I write to her, instead.” She lowered her head, more tears falling. “I decided yesterday that I’d write to her again, a much pleasanter letter. Now… I just have to find the courage.”

“I wouldn’t have pegged you for a coward, Kathie.”

She spun round, tears flying in all directions. “Those were the exact words Hilda used,” she accused him. “Are you sure she hasn’t told you anything?” He kept his eyes steady on her. She licked her lips, abashed. “No, of course she didn’t, and wouldn’t! And you wouldn’t lie to me, would you?” He shook his head. “I’m… sorry.”

“You find it hard to say sorry, don’t you?”

She looked down, her voice shaking when she replied. “Hilda and Nancy tell me I’ve become too big for my boots, that a Head should be humble at all times, ready to serve her girls and staff.”

’Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart’. Those are the Lord’s words, and I think we would both agree that Hilda follows those words to extraordinary lengths. Yes?” She nodded. “Hilda doesn’t find it hard to say sorry, so why do you? Hilda never thinks of herself as the important one, but as the least of all. So why can’t you? Hilda puts everyone else’s needs before her own, to the detriment of her health, so why can’t you?”

She shrugged her shoulders, leaned back against the window. “I think I’ve been spoilt by my aunt and uncle who brought me up. I was never asked to do things for others, to think of them more than myself. They did everything for me.”

“So they spoiled you, in essence! A bit like Helen, then.” She frowned. “Her father spoiled her so completely that her mother isn’t allowed to correct her in any way. He encouraged her to feel she can do whatever she wants, with no thought of others. Hence, Saturday’s little performance.” He eyed her curiously. “One could almost say your behaviour is like hers, but on an adult level. You’ve been having as much of a temper tantrum as Helen, but there’s even less excuse for you than there was for her. Being spoiled by your aunt and uncle doesn’t excuse you.”

She froze. “You can’t be serious,” she whispered in a horrified voice. “I’m not like Helen.”

“So what you did to Ellie was okay? Or what you did to Vi? And all those other people you hurt deliberately, when you knew deep down it was wrong?” His voice was soft, but she cringed, and shrank into herself. It wasn’t possible! “You didn’t burn anything, unlike Helen, but you blistered Vi’s soul. You certainly blistered Ellie’s. She’s still suffering the after-shocks. It’s dreadful to see her so undone, to see all Hilda’s work with her unravelling. She’s afraid, as she was when Hilda first took her under her wing, and I’m not sure I can forgive you that cruelty!”

She stared at him, seeming unable to move. He went over to her and put his arm round her, leading her back to the couch. Once she was settled, he sat back in his own chair and watched her, hoping he hadn’t gone too far.

“You have a good brain, Kathie. Even if you feel your aunt and uncle didn’t teach you to put others first, you’ve heard it all your life in church and here in Prayers. You’ve certainly seen it put into action by Hilda, Nell and others. You must have seen your friends think of others during your growing up years. Why has nothing ever pierced that selfish carapace of yours? I know you’ve cared deeply for your students these last years, so what caused the change? Pride? ” Her eyes stared miserably at him, her shoulders slumped in defeat. He gentled his tone. “You said you apologised to Vi, also Mireille and Jeanne. Who else?”

She sank back into the cushions with a sigh. “I thought only Hilda could skewer one with gentleness, but you’re just as good at it.”

He winked. “Where do you think I learned?” She choked. “Tell me,” he encouraged.

She closed her eyes and told him about apologising to Jeanne de Lachennais, Julie Berné and Gill Culver. “Gill accepted my apology, but has told Hilda she doesn’t want to work with me next year. Nancy says she’s very depressed by what I did to her” He now understood even better the depths of Hilda’s distress, and could have wept for her pain. “Then there’s Vivien, who I’ve treated very badly since she came…”

“Because she and Hilda are friendly.”

Her eyes flashed open. “You’re too quick! She’s also close to Ellie. Hmm, I’m beginning to see why you likened me to Helen. It seems as though I believe the world revolves round me.” She shivered. “Vivien was so gentle with me, whereas Gill and Jeanne de Lachennais may have accepted my apology but will find it hard to trust me from now on, I think.”

“They saw how you treated Hilda on Saturday evening in the Hall, after the dreadful day she had had.” Kathie’s eyes grew opaque. He realised she didn’t want to hear about Hilda’s problems. “They believe it was your fault she passed out. They then found out you were reluctant to help them patrol the school that night – even though you were the very one who accused Hilda of upsetting the girls.” He paused, but she continued to stare at him, her eyes revealing nothing. “I believe you refused to join the staff and girls when they rose around four o’clock this morning to pray for her. That will not have gone unnoticed, dear.”

“How do you know?” she whispered.

“Nancy told me when I phoned earlier. She has a hard time believing you would be so hard-hearted.”

“Because I’m a deputy head?”

“No, Kathie! Because you’re a member of the human race.” She flinched. “Because you’re one of Hilda’s senior mistresses, and she was in dire need. Because you’re a colleague of theirs, but kept yourself apart. W H Auden once wrote: ‘Love each other or perish.’ None of us can survive without love and kindness from other people.”

Her eyes lost their opacity and grew fierce, but the fierceness faded, to be replaced by a haunting melancholy.

“Why was Nancy so upset?”

“She wants me to fill in for Vivien and Hilda today.”

“And you don’t care to help either Hilda or Vivien because you’re jealous, whereas in reality you would be helping Nancy, whom you claim to love.” Those clear green eyes seemed to tear her soul apart. “But, in fact, that jealousy accounts for your resentment and discontent about everything, which then leads to your nasty words and actions.”

Her head shot up. Her eyes were dilated. “Who told you?” she ground out.

“I saw you Saturday night, remember. Your jealousy of Hilda made you behave like a spoilt child. You tried to show her up in front of her staff, but the only one you succeeded in showing up was yourself.”

Tears sprang to her eyes. “They all hate me now.”

“Oh, I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but surely you can see why they’re being rather cold towards you. If you can’t, I’m not sure why I’m here trying to help you.”

“Are you?” she murmured. He nodded, his green eyes very kind. “I’m not worth it. I promise myself I’ll try to be nicer… then it backfires.”

“Have you tried praying, Kathie?” he asked gently. “Chapter thirty of Isaiah tells us: ’He will be gracious unto thee at the voice of thy cry.’

“I don’t have that sort of relationship with Him, I’m afraid.” She stopped, recalling that gentle voice in the corridor. “Although…. He spoke to me yesterday, I think…”

“You think?”

She told him about the voice telling her he would bear the shame with her if she apologised.

He was stunned. “Is that why you went to apologise to everyone?”

“He was very insistent, so I… bit the bullet and did it there and then.”

“So why did you say to me just now you don’t have that sort of relationship with Him, Kathie?” he asked gently, all the while longing to shake her. “It seems to me He’s trying very hard to have a relationship with you – yet all you did was use Him yesterday, then put Him back on the shelf. Why didn’t hearing His voice galvanise you into getting up to ask Him to spare Hilda's life?”

“Can you put Him back on a shelf?” she asked with a frown. “I didn’t get up because… because…”

“Because the prayers were for Hilda! As you’ve just refused to fill in for Hilda and Vivien because you’re jealous of them both, but you can’t come out and say that, so you just found some spurious excuse, and upset Nancy very badly, when she’s tired and stressed and worried.” He hesitated, wondering if he should say what he wanted to, since he wasn’t a member of staff. “Kathie, you’re a deputy head. You’ve been chosen as the next head at St Mildred’s. Think about it and tell me – are you really fit for the job?”

Her eyes flashed indignation at him, but that soon fled, and she slumped in her chair. “Probably not, if I’m honest! Not at the moment, anyway. My jealousy just takes hold and I can feel myself resisting doing what people want.” Tears rolled down her cheeks. “And I’m too proud…”

“Yet the Lord thought enough of you to talk to you, to try and help you. That was a great privilege, Kathie, and yet you’re throwing it back in His face. Getting down on your knees and asking His forgiveness wouldn’t go amiss. I could pray with you now, if you’d like.”

She looked into those honest eyes and wondered how he and Hilda could be so patient. “Hilda keeps telling me it’s the only way to change. She’s even prayed with me, and for me.”

“But that imp of jealousy gets the better of you every time. You’re jealous of losing Nancy to Hilda – which is a nonsense, by the way! On both sides! But you’re also jealous of those who are close to her. Hence your terrifying attack on Ellie.” A scarlet tide swept over her face and was gone. “Then there’s that dreadful insinuation about Hilda and Ellie, which was surely beneath you. Where on earth did it come from?”

Her eyes fell beneath his keen scrutiny. “Nancy told me just now I was trying to destroy people…”

“A good call, I’d say! You’ve certainly tried to destroy Ellie and Hilda, never mind colleagues like Gill and Vi.” He saw her eyes narrow. “In case you’re wondering, it was my sister who told me about your nasty words to Hilda that night.”

Kathie’s jaw dropped. “Hilda told her.”

“Hardly! She doesn’t know you’re jealous, because she doesn’t see herself as anything special. And Nancy loves no one but you!” Kathie’s jaw dropped at this blunt statement. “No, Gwynneth was the one who told my sister everything, since she was the one who’d had to pick up the pieces after you left Hilda with that nasty thought shrivelling her soul and making her doubt her love for Ellie.”

Kathie by now was feeling shell-shocked. Too much was coming at her at once, and from such a quiet, restrained source. “Hilda does know I envy those close to her. She guessed, and tried to put me straight, but…”

“You refused to listen.” He hesitated, studied her white face. “You do know your attack on Ellie yesterday precipitated a breakdown, don’t you?” She frowned. “It’s been a dreadful term and Hilda hasn’t been really well since the shooting, so your cruel attack of her ward added to the blood poisoning coursing through her system, and finished her off. She cried all the way to the San. Jack had to sedate her to relieve her mental torment. She was so worried about Ellie. How do you think Jack would feel if you hurt one of his daughters like that?” She shook her head, aghast at the thought. "Hilda loves Ellie the same way Jack loves his daughters. She would step in front of a speeding train to save her, or indeed would have placed herself between you and Ellie yesterday morning, so she was the one who was hurt. That's how worried and upset she was."

Tears ran down her cheeks once more. Her head shook from side to side. “I never meant..”

“Oh, I think you did, deep down.” Ian’s voice remained neutral. “You felt you’d been unfairly punished by being brought over here, away from your new post, and were angry enough to want to hurt both her and Ellie. You succeeded admirably, I’d say, you and Helen between you.”

She sobbed like a tired child. “I wasn’t even sorry for her. Why aren’t you angry with me for everything I’ve done to her and Ellie?”

“Would there be any point?”

She shook her head, still weeping, then looked at her watch. “I should be with the staff.”

“Nancy doesn’t need you – or me! No doubt she gave you the news she’s giving them.”

She blew her nose, lifted her head. “About Hilda? Yes, she called it a miracle, but such things don’t happen today?”

He sat back, considered the damp face and red eyes. “Who told you that? Jesus never said there would be no more miracles when He returned to His father. The apostles performed many miracles, if you read Acts. The Catholic church insists on two miracles for each person they make a saint. That’s a lot of miracles over the last two thousand years, wouldn’t you say? It was a miracle that He spoke to you in the corridors yesterday,” he added softly. Her eyes widened.

He nodded at her obvious shock, and recalled his feelings when Hilda stopped breathing a few hours ago. He had thought his heart would break in two… “There was a miracle here on Saturday, when two brave girls and a young matron saved the school from burning down, just as there was a miracle when Ellie and the prefects saved Linda’s life. God made sure that every detail was in place for that to happen. We all pray for miracles every day, and then never see them when they occur, because they can seem so small. Prayer can work miracles, Kathie, and there were people all over the world praying for Hilda from midnight onwards last night.” She frowned. “You didn’t know? Not just the staff and older girls in both schools, but also my sister and her community, and all the other communities she contacted, including Boston. Lady Russell and her husband and family were praying, warned by Jack, plus the English branch of the school, and all the people Hilda knows on the Platz and elsewhere. Even Jo’s friend Frieda and her family in Berne. Frieda's always had a soft spot for Hilda.”

“And I refused to join in…” she sobbed.

“Hence missing out on being part of a beautiful miracle! It makes me tremble to think I helped harness God’s power for someone we all love, someone He loves even more deeply than we ever will.” The green eyes focused back on her. “He loves you deeply, too, Kathie, more than anyone else loves you or will ever love you, even Nancy. That’s why you heard Him yesterday.”

He listened to her sobbing out her regrets, her bitterness, her loneliness, her shame, and prayed that some peace, some humility and some kindness would lodge in her proud heart.

Her weeping slowed and she looked up, her face pitiful. “I wish I could hear Him again. I might pay more attention this time.”

“He speaks to you all the time, Kathie, just not quite so loudly and clearly. He must really have wanted to get your attention. And He did! For a while! He’s still speaking to you, but you have to listen with your heart – a heart that's wide open with love! Psalm ninety five begs us: ‘Oh, that you would listen to His voice! Harden not your hearts…’ Most of us would have been in awe at hearing His voice the way you did. We would have fallen on our knees and made sure we went on following His will. But you don’t seem to want to do as He asks, any more than what Hilda and Nancy ask of you. How much pride and wilfulness is there buried deep inside, Kathie?”

More tears rolled down her cheeks. “How do you and Hilda manage to discover all one’s deepest, darkest, most shameful feelings, and be so merciful about them?” she whispered. “What’s your magic?”

“No magic,” he said quietly. “I’m a priest. I’ve had thousands of shameful secrets whispered to me over the years, and so learned an awful lot about human nature. I’ve whispered my own shameful secrets to my superiors, and even to Hilda, who always succeeds in taking away the sting and helping you see you’re not the worst sinner who ever lived”

“I know,” murmured Kathie, drying her eyes.

“So appreciate her, Katie! She’s had her own shameful secrets to whisper to those who care about her, and those secrets taught her that lovely compassion, and that ability to delve into troubled hearts and minds and soothe them with her graciousness. My sister has that same compassion. They’ve both had truly dreadful things happen to them, but it hasn’t hardened them, just opened their hearts more and more to God and to others.”

“Have you?” she whispered. “Had dreadful things happen to you?”

He closed his eyes, searched his soul, and knew he could do this. Hilda had cleansed his spirit of the hurt and shame, and it might just be the help Kathie needed. Slowly, softly, he told her something of what he had seen in the concentration camp and what it had done to him. When he finished, the room fell silent. All of a sudden, he felt a touch on his arm. Opening his eyes, he saw her staring at him, her eyes filled with sympathy and tears.

“How did you bear it?” she whispered.

“I didn’t, as you’ve just heard. I had a breakdown.”

“I never knew people could have such dreadful things happen,” she whispered. Ian thought of his sister’s great sorrow. Perhaps she should tell Kathie, jerk her out of her self-pity! Kathie’s eyes fell on the picture frame holding the Talmudic quotation. “Have you seen this?”

He nodded and picked it up, tracing his fingers over the words. “It’s a very moving tribute, don’t you think, and a beautiful way to thank someone for their loving support? Nell told me the sad story, because Hilda refused! She never blows her own trumpet, and just said it was a gift when I asked about it. Do you know the story?”

“Nancy told me just now.”

“Emilia,” he said softly. “Hilda showed me her photo. She was very beautiful, but had such sad, sad eyes. When I looked at these words that first time and heard the story, it brought back to mind all I’d seen in Bergen-Belson. So many millions murdered, and for what? When I first saw this,I wondered if any of Emilia’s own family had been among the many dead I buried and prayed over.” He looked up, and she saw raw agony in those gentle green eyes. “You wouldn’t believe the state of all those who were still alive when we arrived. So many of them died, too, despite our best efforts. It was the stuff of nightmares - my nightmares, for many years.”

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “It’s no wonder you broke down.”

He smiled gently. “So, you do still have some feeling for others in your heart.” She blushed. “Hilda deserves those words from the Talmud more than most of us, because she really tried so hard to help Emilia find peace here. Nell told me of Hilda's great sorrow when she heard about Emilia’s death. She’s still trying to save the whole world – and pays the price.” He saw her eyes grow opaque again, but less so this time.

Her eyes fell to the frame. “Nancy told me just now that I’m the opposite, that I’m destroying the whole world.”

He nodded. “A good call, I’d have said, after listening to you.” Her head flew up sharply at his soft words. “Think about it, dear. You’ve almost certainly nearly destroyed Ellie, who was beginning to find some joy in life at long last. I’m not quite sure what you’ve been trying to do to Hilda, but whatever it is, it beggars belief after all she’s given you. If you’d tried it while Nell was alive, I’m not sure you’d still be here to tell the tale. Nell didn’t have Hilda’s patience and mercy – or soft-heartedness, as she liked to call it” She flushed, knowing it was true. Nell always had Hilda’s back, and Kathie would have been scorched in the flames. “As for Vi, it could be you’ve destroyed her career here, if she won’t come back to work with you. The same applies to Gill!” He paused, asked softly, “What about Nancy? How much of her have you destroyed?”

She dropped her face into her hands and sobbed bitterly. “Her love for me,” she wept. “Even her friendship, probably! I don’t think there’s anything left…”

Ian’s eyes were filled with compassion, but he refused to sympathise with her. Facing what she had done, what she had become, might just shock her back into her rightful senses. Although, since even God Himself hadn’t been able to do that, nor Hilda, despite her many attempts, how did he expect to succeed?

Oh, Hilda, why hasn’t she learned anything from you during her years here?

He spoke more harshly. “You don’t want to hear about Hilda’s goodness, do you? I can see it in your eyes. And yet her goodness is the result of all those terrible things that have happened to her, including Nell’s death. She could have gone badly wrong earlier in her life, after two other painful deaths, but she put her hand in the Lord’s and walked a lonely path for many years – as she’s now doing once again, with Nell’s death.”

“As you did!”

“My sister’s tragedy was very much worse, although I think the only person she’s ever told is Hilda, because she knew that generous heart of hers would listen and never condemn. Learn from Kate when you go to the convent, open your heart to her, as Hilda has. Most important of all, though, open your heart to Hilda. Her own tragedies have taught her how to help you heal of these unworthy feelings.”

“Isn’t that why I’m being sent to the convent?”

“Your pride and jealousy, your impulse to harm others, are hurting Hilda, not my sister. So admit them to Hilda openly and fearlessly. If you acknowledge them, to yourself and to her, she’ll help you face them honestly, help you learn to live with them and work on subduing them, as she’s had to eradicate her own. Don’t feel you’re the only one. We all have hidden shameful feelings that make us hurt others, but the truest people are those who exercise restraint and refuse to give in to them. Hilda and Kate will show you that asking God to help is the best way of all. He came to you Himself, but the effect of His voice didn’t last long. Can you find the courage to face Him again, and ask?”

“I don’t know,” she whispered, “but anything’s better than feeling so horrible all the time.’”

“Oh, it is, I assure you, though you make it sound as though going to the convent is like being sent to prison. Meg doesn’t feel like that. She’s found herself there and is almost reluctant to leave. So now?” He raised an eyebrow, and she offered him a small smile. “Sending you to the convent is Hilda’s way of saving you, so she doesn’t have to sack you!” Kathie gulped. “So I think she deserves that you open up to her. There should be a willingness on your part to show her some gratitude for her mercy and generosity towards you. She’s paying, after all.”

“She has to pay?” Kathie was astonished.

“Kate and the community have to feed you, keep you warm, spend precious time with you, which all cost money. After all, how much would you charge to give someone outside the school some private tuition?” She blushed. He leaned forward and took her hand. “You’re so focused on yourself that nothing impinges, does it? She’s paying your air fare, too, out of her own pocket, not the school finances.” She gaped. “Can you find some gratitude in your heart for all that largesse, Kathie? Or do you still resent her too much?”

She clung to the hand. “I think I do, you know. Perhaps your sister can work one of her miracles for me. I’m too selfish and too full of pride – and too afraid I’ll lose Nancy.”

“You were never that way inclined before you were promoted, though.” She shook her head, but began to wonder if perhaps that wasn’t quite true, that she’d always been rather a prideful person. “High position shouldn’t do that to you, dear. Saint Francis of Assisi once said:

‘Those who are put in charge of others should be no prouder of their office than if they had been appointed to wash the feet of their comrades.’”

She left her chair and went to sit at his feet, still holding his hand. She wiped away more tears and whispered, “Humility! Hilda insists that’s what a leader needs more than anything.”

“She’s right. Your job is to serve your staff and girls, to encourage them to develop their own gifts, and to put their needs before your own. We lead by example, Kathie, but what has your example been teaching your staff and girls? To be uncharitable towards others? To put themselves first? To blame others for their own faults and failings? To think they’re always right? To have no gratitude for all their many gifts?” She blushed, tears once more falling. “What do they feel about you, I wonder? A vital quality in a leader is the ability to instil not merely respect, but love. Would you say Hilda was loved? Yes, of course you would! And she does that by loving others and considering their feelings.”

“What else?” she whispered.

“How about counting your blessings? You have so many blessings, and most of them you owe to other people or to God, not yourself. So why be proud? Why be resentful? After all, you could have ended up in an orphanage, but your aunt and her husband chose to bring you up as their own. That was probably God’s greatest gift to you, along with your talents.”

Kathie was quiet for long moments, thinking hard. “Hilda counts hers, doesn’t she?” He nodded, frowned a question. “It’s just something she said to me once. I guess… I guess I have to count her as another of my great blessings, and stop resenting her, stop trying to hurt her and Ellie, but I’m still scared I’ll lose Nancy to her.”

He sighed. “Do you know how irrational you’re being? Nancy loves you deeply, but you don't trust her. That’s why she’s so hurt. As for Hilda, she’ll never love Nancy or anyone else, now Nell’s dead. Not that she and Nell felt that sort of love for each other! Think of David and Johnathan, who were more like brothers than friends. Hilda and Nell loved each other in the same fashion, trusting each other absolutely. She’s dedicated her life to God and to Ellie now.

‘God asks no man whether he will accept life. This is not the choice. You must take it. The only question is how.’

Henry Ward Beecher

“Hilda faced her new life without Nell with great courage. It will take even more courage to become a nun at her age. It’s a hard life even for a young woman, and can also be a very lonely life. What about you, dear? Will you face your life with courage?”

Kathie still clung to his hand, her tears drying. She searched his lean face and green eyes, and saw only encouragement. “I’ll try, but I can’t go back to last September and start again, can I?”

“No, dear, you can’t go back and start afresh, but you can make a new start from this very moment, by praying, by vowing to be gentle with others, by smiling rather than frowning, by encouraging rather than carping, by being grateful rather than wanting ever more, by loving others rather than yourself. I’m not saying it will be easy, after such a disastrous few months. It will demand much of you, especially courage. It will demand that you become humble, silent, watchful, gentle, loving, thankful… But, if you try, you could bring about a different ending than the one staring you in the face at this moment – a much happier, more meaningful one for everyone, not just you.”




*****
End Notes:
Don't forget to *favourite* Vol 10, if you haven't already done so and want alerts of new chapters.
Chapter 5 - Out of Difficulties Grow Miracles by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Thank you so much for all the generous, thoughtful responses to that last chapter. I'm growing to love my Ian. *grins* I'm sorry this has taken so long, but it's been a difficult week with SLOC's hospital appointments and so on. Also, I actually hesitated to post it, suspecting some of you may have problems with the ideas involved.
Kathie was stunned by Ian’s generous last words. Could she really start afresh, as though this was the beginning of a new life? It didn’t seem possible, when so many people now seemed to shrink away when she appeared. Deep down, she knew it was her own fault, that she had hurt too many of them. But she had apologised! So why the disdain? She had meant those apologies, for that gentle voice had made her see her actions for what they were. Despicable! But it would appear people were still feeling resentful or angry and contemptuous. How could she bear it, when she had expected them to welcome her back with open arms? But… why had she thought that? Hilda and Nancy, Jeanne de Lachennais and Ian, had all shown her what her behaviour really deserved, what harm she had done. Her eyes closed. No, she couldn’t bear to go on seeing contempt and dislike in their eyes.

“Yes, you can bear it,” Ian said softly. Her eyes flashed open in shock. “You can bear whatever they feel towards you, if you have Jesus on your side. Did He not promise you that yesterday? Think of the anger and contempt you showed Hilda. How do you think she felt each time?” She blushed scarlet, beginning to understand. “But she bore it, because she knows being nailed to the cross with Him in her suffering is part and parcel of being a Christian. She bore it all, and still wondered how to help you.”

Kathie stared at him. “That’s why she didn’t get angry, because of Him,” she whispered.

“Oh, she was angry - on behalf of all those you hurt. Make no mistake, dear! The poet Dryden warns us ‘to beware the fury of a patient man.’ A patient person can restrain their temper most of the time, but when they finally snap, watch out! I think she reached that point when you hurt Ellie. She knew it was really herself you were trying to hurt, which she could have accepted, but not the harm done to Ellie. Hilda had been through too much already by then, and was feeling very ill, hence your one last chance.”

Ian thought back to Saturday. “Jack told me Hilda frightened him when she confronted Helen in the dormitory when Sarah and Gillian were burned. Her anger was white hot, but very, very controlled, and her soft, cold voice made him shiver. If she can put those brakes on her anger and fear, and not tear folk to shreds, then so can you. And must, for you’re a teacher, just like her, and should show care for your girls. You had no reason to get angry with any of those people you hurt. They now bear the scars of your anger and cruelty, as you’ll have to bear the scars of their contempt and dislike. But you can do it, if you turn to the Lord and ask Him to support you through it, as He promised you. Show them your sorrow and regret. Be gentle with their anger. Gentleness is like the drip, drip of water. Just as water can wear away stone, so gentleness can soften the hardest heart.”

She wrapped her arms round herself in fear.

He rose to his feet. “I must go! If you really want to do what I said and make that fresh start, come and join us in the Hall to talk about God’s answer to prayer.”

“I can’t,” she whispered, hugging herself even tighter.

“Then you don’t have the courage Hilda thought you had. She and Nancy have both shown great courage recently. Can’t you follow suit? ‘No matter how deep our darkness, He is deeper still,’ according to Corrie ten Boom. She was incarcerated in a concentration camp with her sister, who died there. I’m not asking you to show the sort of courage they showed, just a little bravery.”

“I’ll need to wash my face.”

He hid his smile at her childish chopping and changing. “Your face is fine. Sit at the back. No one will notice you. They’re all too concerned about Hilda, as well as the other school people in the San. Forget about yourself for once, Kathie, and support Nancy,” he said softly.

That galvanised her, as he had hoped. She walked beside him, lagging behind a little now and then, a reluctant conscript.

I think this miserable girl needs our prayers even more than you do, Hilda. She’s so lost.

“By the way,” he warned, as they neared the Hall. “Please don’t tell anyone what I told you about the concentration camp. Only Hilda knows.”

She gaped at him. “You mean, you forced yourself to face it again, just to help me?” He nodded. “I’m not sure I’m worth all that, Mr Stuart, but thank you for sharing your horror and shame. You’re a very brave man, braver than I could ever have been.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I’ve heard great things about you the past few years. Find that person again, Kathie,” he added urgently. “By the way, please call me Ian. I’ve been telling you a great many home truths this morning, so I think taking all that punishment deserves some reward.” He winked, and she gave him a trembling smile. “Now, why not offer a prayer for Nancy? She’s very upset and nervous.”

He knew Nancy worried when talking about deep or personal matters to the school at large, when the staff were also listening. She felt she had none of Hilda’s self-possession and wisdom, and had sounded very edgy when he phoned earlier, finally admitting her fears and shortcomings. He had agreed to assist, but assured her he would never criticise anything she said, because he understood all too well that feeling of inadequacy, even after his many years as a priest. He often wondered how it all came so naturally to Hilda.

He wasn’t to know it, but Nancy still felt nervous speaking about God in front of him, a vicar, when she was a mere amateur at forging a relationship with Him. Had Hilda ever felt the same? Somehow, Nancy doubted it. Although, if she were honest, Kathie’s revelations of hearing His voice had given her a jolt in the right direction. She had opened her Bible the night before to do some private reading for the first time in months. Then the news that morning had done more than give her a jolt. Her faith in a loving God had taken a mighty leap forward, when Gwynneth told her of Hilda’s return from the dead. How could you hear of an undoubted miracle and not trust in His goodness? Especially when that miracle was for someone you cared deeply about.

She welcomed Ian with a nervous smile when he joined her at the top door to the Hall, then stared when she saw Kathie slipping in the bottom door to find a seat at the back. A very timid-looking, white-faced Kathie!

“Is that your doing?” she murmured. “She didn’t get up at four this morning to pray, so why…?”

His eyes rested on the woebegone figure. “It took some courage to come here after doing that, so don’t disparage her, Nancy. I think you’ll find her a little more amenable now, but she’s scared stiff of the staff’s reactions to all she’s done.”

Nancy winced, thinking of her own anger earlier. She took a good hard look at him and saw how exhausted he was, although there was undoubted joy in those remarkable eyes. He should have been in bed, not helping her here.

“You make me feel guilty for my own anger when you arrived.”

He shook his head. “Don’t be! I think she was determined to get your goat. We’ve had a tussle, she and I, but you should should include her in your own prayers this morning. Life is not going to be easy for her. We’ve all made our bed at some time in our lives, and then had to lie on it, so hopefully should have some understanding of her situation. I know she’s being awkward, but try for some patience when dealing with her. Do a Hilda!”

He winked broadly, and she chuckled. “I wouldn’t know how! I don’t have her inner strength. How good you are, Ian! It wasn’t what you were expecting when I invited you over.”

“Well, I am a so-called man of God, so who else would you turn to for help with Kathie, lacking Hilda?”

He winked again. She smiled her thanks, saw everyone was now seated and led him onto the dais. Immediately, the girls rose to their feet, hymn books in hand.

“Good morning, girls,” she said, giving them her easy smile. “There’s some very good news about Miss Annersley, which is why we’re all here as one for prayers this morning. We’ll start with the hymn, For the Beauty of the Earth, a hymn of praise for all our blessings. We were very blessed during the night, and should be feeling extremely grateful this morning for the gift of Miss Annersley’s life.”

She nodded to Miss Lawrence, who announced the number and began to play. Ian was fine until they reached the third verse, at which point tears filled his eyes, seeing in his mind’s eye Hilda’s dance with death:

'For the joy of human love,
Brother, sister, parent, child,
Friends on earth, and friends above,
Pleasures pure and undefiled,
Lord of all, to thee we raise
This our grateful hymn of praise.'


‘Grateful’ seemed too poor a word to describe the intensity of his feelings when he thought of that ‘friend on earth’ he had so nearly lost. His sister, too, would be feeling the same. She had been in chapel all night. Now she knew the good news, he had no doubt she would also be there all day, offering her own ‘grateful hymn of praise’ for the life of one she regarded as a daughter.

Vivien, meanwhile, during Nancy’s meeting with the staff, had been to the science lab and written three different columns of work for the three forms she would have taught that day. She knew they were all old enough and sensible enough to get on without surveillance. She left notes for Lower IVA’s Scripture lesson on the teacher’s desk, hoping Kathie could cope, and made her way to the Hall. She, too, needed to offer Him her heartfelt thanks.

When she slipped into the Hall by the bottom door she was surprised to see Kathie slumped there, rather than being up on the dais. Taking the chair beside her, she saw the misery and tears, and gently clasped her hand. Kathie clung so hard she hurt Vivien.

“Chin up, dear,” she whispered, under cover of the singing.

The hymn was drawing to a close when she looked at the front, saw tears sparkling on the cheeks of some of the staff, and wondered why. Hilda’s recovery from such a serious illness might be sudden, but it was happening, so why the tears? She herself had been in that room till late the night before and seen how very ill Hilda was, so to hear she was recovering already was good news, surely?

Nancy’s face was illuminated with joy when she leaned forward at the end of the hymn. “As I said, girls, there is reason to rejoice this morning, for Miss Annersley has turned a corner and is now making a remarkable recovery.”

The girls and she looked at each other. Her smile caught on and was passed from one to another. They breathed easier. All was well. Though Vivien noticed the smiles on the staff faces were not as heartfelt as Nancy’s. Was there still, then, reason to worry?

“She did come very close to death in the early hours of this morning, but the tide turned and she drifted back to us. I’m confident that the answer was prayer – your own prayers, and those of all her friends, and ours, here on the Platz and all over the world, including Lady Russell and her husband. At four this morning, when she was sinking, the San phoned to warn us, so the staff in both schools, plus St Mildred’s girls and our own sixth forms, all got out of bed to pray together. It was a very moving moment, made even more moving by the knowledge that it was about the same time that she decided to return to us. She’s weak as a kitten, scarcely able to lift her head, but I imagine she’ll soon be feeling stronger and be back with us. You all know how stubborn she is!”

Everyone laughed. Most of them had good reason to know about that stubbornness!

Vivien was pleased by how confident Nancy sounded, despite being obviously upset. She knew Nancy found it hard to talk about deeper emotions to the school, but she was learning much from listening to Hilda, both in public and in private. Because of the major problems there had been this term, Hilda was teaching Nancy things that wouldn’t normally come her way, including how to wait on the Lord. She saw Nancy open her mouth to say more, then turn to Ian, too overcome to continue. Ian touched her arm in comfort and looked out over the rows of concerned faces.

“I was there all night with Doctor Jack and Matron Graves and your own Matron Lloyd, girls, and was praying constantly. I saw the moment your Headmistress began to swim away from us, despite all they’d done for her and despite all our prayers,” he said softly. “It seemed hopeless, but, as Miss Annersley herself often tells us, He never leaves us alone and helpless. About the time your teachers and older girls were praying, Miss Annersley, who seemed deeply unconscious, suddenly began to whisper words that astonished us:

‘May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be pleasing to You, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.’”

A spellbound hush fell on the Hall. Vivien’s breath caught in her throat. Kathie’s hand squeezed hers. Tears rolled down Kathie’s face. Vivien recalled Kathie’s absence at those prayers. Was she now feeling remorseful?

“Most dying people don’t have the strength left for such things, let me tell you. Later, she told me she’d been dreaming. Had she met her Lord? She didn’t tell me, but, if He was there, I’m quite sure He assured her that her thoughts and words were always pleasing to Him, for she loves Him dearly.” His smile was very tender. “She began to improve from that moment. Her high temperature dropped, the infection in her cheek slowly disappeared and the blood poisoning left her system, so that by seven o'clock she was completely out of the woods. Yet Dr Jack had warned us earlier that it would be many days before the antibiotics worked! So all I can say is that God heard our prayers, and listened to the cry of our hearts. Miracles still take place, girls, for I’ve never seen anyone so close to death heal as quickly as that. Jesus told us faith can move mountains. Well, so it can, when joined to prayer:

‘I know not by what methods rare,
But this I know, God answers prayer.
I know that He has given His Word,
Which tells me prayer is always heard,
And will be answered, soon or late,
And so I pray and calmly wait.

I know not if the blessing sought
Will come in just the way I thought;
But leave my prayers with Him alone
Whose will is wiser than my own,
Assured that He will grant my quest
Or send some answer far more blest.’


He watched them in silence when he had recited the last line. Some were smiling broadly, some wiping away tears, others struck dumb, not quite knowing how to react.

“That poem tells us God always answers prayer, yes, but not necessarily in the way we want. There will always be an answer, but we have to accept that answer might be No!, or Not Yet. No may mean He’ll send something He thinks we need more, or that suits His plan better, and will prove to be that ‘answer far more blest’ in the end. Never think prayer is wasted, girls. It may not change anything, but it will always change you in some way and give you the strength to cope with the situation you’ve prayed about. That applies even to the Abbesses of this world,” he said with a teasing smile. “Miss Annersley was very moved by all your prayers for her, and before I left to come here she said to me: ‘Tell them they did more than save my life. Tell them God has blessed me in very many ways, because of their prayers.’”

He heard murmurs here and there and the girls’ faces seemed to lose their gloom.

“She didn’t tell me what those blessings were, but she had a beautiful smile on her face, so I know she was telling the truth,” he said softly, his eyes glowing. “Your prayers didn’t just make all the difference, girls. They gave her far more than you asked for, so God was most definitely listening, and I am truly thankful to you. If she had died, I would have lost one of my dearest friends. You, too, would all have lost a great friend, one who cares deeply about you all, and Ellie would have lost her guardian angel. So, when you go to bed tonight, don’t forget to thank Him for His abundant gifts.”

He turned to Nancy and saw the tears in her eyes, but she was composed enough to smile at the girls. “Thank you, Mr Stuart, for passing on to us Miss Annersley’s very moving words. They’ve certainly revealed to me the real power of prayer. So, girls, we’ll sing ,‘What A Friend We Have in Jesus,’ with its repeated refrain: ‘Take it to the Lord in Prayer. Which is exactly what we did, yesterday afternoon, and again during the night.’”

Everyone rose to their feet, except Kathie. As the singing started, Vivien sank down beside her. She was shaking badly, and staring at Ian and Nancy on the dais with tears rolling down her cheeks.

“Kathie, what is it?” Vivien whispered.

“He’s a wonderful speaker, isn’t he?” Kathie seemed to be in a dream. “He told me just now I should pay more attention to the voice I heard yesterday, listen closely to Him – Jesus – with an open heart, because He’s always speaking to me.”

“And will you?” Vivien’s eyes were keen. It was clear Kathie had needed help that morning and Ian had stepped into the breach.

When Kathie raised her eyes, Vivien saw the misery. “I think I could do with a dollop of that help you offered yesterday, so may I come?”

Vivien leaned her head closer. “Kathie, you’ve had the best example in the world before you for years, one who’s always willing to help. Give up your resentment towards her and listen to her with an open heart, too. I do, for she's so wise and so loving. You don’t need me, when you have her.”

More tears trickled down Kathie’s cheeks. She knew now how far she had strayed from the person she had been, the person who had had such a great relationship with her Headmistress.

Vivien took her cold hands. “You’ll have another of those excellent teachers and examples when you go to the convent next week, but I’m more than willing to listen till then. I’m going over to the San now, but we could visit the chapel together before school tomorrow and pray and talk there.”

“I’d like that,” Kathie said, in a meek voice Vivien had never heard from her before.

“Are you coming to hear what Nancy and Ian have to say to the Sixths?”

Kathie shook her head. “I might go and ask Jeanne if there’s anything she’d like me to do, besides taking your RE lesson and a couple of others Nancy wanted of me.”

“Good girl. I’ve left my Scripture notes on their desk.”

She squeezed Kathie’s hands in comfort, collected her bags and went along to Upper Sixth’s form room, where the Lower Sixth were also assembling. She moved quickly to the back and found an empty chair next to Ellie’s friend, Jeanne, whose eyes seemed haunted. If ever a girl needed a dose of Hilda, it was Ellie's friend, thought Vivien.

She took Jeanne's hand. “I'm going over to the San after this, chérie, so would you like me to try and persuade Matron Graves to let you see Ellie for a short while?” Jeanne’s eyes widened, and she nodded. “Consider it done.”

She kept hold of the cold hand and turned to listen to Ian and Nancy. Moments later, horror invaded her heart. She gasped out loud, and heard Jeanne and some of the others do the same. She knew now why the staff had been weeping. She had misunderstood Nancy altogether earlier in the day!

Hilda had actually died! It was impossible!

Oh, Hilda, what would Ellie have done without you? Or Ian? Or Mother Abbess?

And poor Gwynneth! What would it have done to her? She must have felt like dying herself as she watched the breath leave her friend's body. Vivien saw the girls’ tears and understood completely. Nancy was also wiping away her tears. A rush of such immense gratitude shook Vivien’s heart that she clenched her hands and bowed her head to contain it. She listened to Ian speaking, simply and eloquently, of the emotions in Hilda’s room during those dreadful, hopeless moments, of their understandable bewilderment when the miracle occurred and Hilda began to breathe again – and quoted Scripture at them! Vivien saw his eyes were damp, but glowing a vivid green with joy.

“I know I’m upsetting you, that Miss Annersley’s death is something you may not want to think about, but Matron Lloyd felt you were mature enough and brave enough to know it all, since Miss Annersley had already talked to you about death, Miss Wilson’s death, in particular, up on the Rosleinalpe.” He paused, struggling to compose himself. “It would have been a very gentle death for her, girls, as it is for many people. She herself told me there was no fear, just a feeling of going out with the tide to be with her Lord. When someone dies, it’s the people left behind who suffer. Miss Annersley still feels lonely and sad after losing Miss Wilson, but, like the psalmist of Psalm 23, she trusts to Him in this dark valley she’s travelling, as she trusted Him when meeting her death this morning. She knew where she was going, you see:

‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me;
Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.
Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.


“It’s a sort of miracle in itself, that kind of trust, for it only comes when you have a close and loving relationship with God.”

Samantha put up her hand. “Just what is a miracle, Mr Stuart?”

Ian ran his hand through his hair, leaving it standing on end, much to Vivien’s amusement, and leaned back against the teacher’s desk. “I suppose some would call it a moment when the normal laws of nature are set aside, but CS Lewis wouldn’t agree, and nor would St Augustine, who famously wrote:

"‘Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.’"

"I’m no theologian, Samantha. I see miracles all around. It’s a miracle I wake up each morning to the new day the Lord has given me, a miracle that I have a job I love. It’s a miracle this school has such thoughtful, brave, compassionate students in it, who have helped Miss Annersley cope with the many difficulties of this term.”

A few smiled at that, while some were still wiping away tears.

He steadied himself for what he had to say. “Miss Annersley died. There’s no question about that. Doctor Jack was there, feeling helpless. We watched her stop breathing, watched him trying desperately to find a non-existent pulse. She was very ill, too ill to survive. But – she came back to life! We saw the moment she started to breathe again. It was impossible! But Matron Lloyd saw it all, and you wouldn’t say she's easily fooled, would you?” he asked with an impish grin.

They returned his grin and the despondency seemed to leave the room, to be replaced by dancing joy and singing in their hearts. “If that’s not all a miracle, girls, then I don’t know what is?”

“Does she know?” asked Gretchen tentatively, feeling perhaps it wasn’t the question to ask.

He nodded. “She’s overwhelmed, Gretchen, but very peaceful and quiet, trying to absorb it all.”

“Was the school being saved from burning down also a miracle?” asked Mireille, out of the blue.

He contemplated her serious face, saw the others nodding. “As I said, I think miracles happen all the time, Mireille, some big, some smaller, although we fail to notice most of them. Was it a true miracle? Not really, I suppose, but the miracle there, for me, was that God made sure three people heard Sarah screaming and were quick off the mark. He made sure fire extinguishers were to hand, and that Jeanne and Matron Henschell were strong enough to use them. He made sure Gillian was one of those present, for her games prowess has made her stronger than most. Some of you may not have been able to stop Helen from escaping, yet… Was it pure luck that Gillian was one of the two chosen to bring the injured girl in from the snow? Not to me, it wasn’t! God had the whole matter in hand. It may not have been a true miracle, but we owe the safe outcome to Him and several people who did their part bravely, with no thought for themselves.”

He remained silent, watching them ponder this, absorbing its meaning. Perhaps they were thinking of other incidents and how everything had dove-tailed.

“Why didn’t He perform a miracle for Miss Wilson?” asked Mary Garth softly in the thoughtful silence.

“I don’t know, Mary, is the simple answer" he sighed. "Who can know the mind of God? In Isaiah 55, He tells us, ’For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways.’ We don’t know what God’s plans are for us, nor do we think like Him. The poem tells us that sometimes the answer is No. God doesn’t step in and save everyone from all the earthquakes and avalanches and floods and other catastrophes that hit the earth. Nature takes over and people die. Accidents happen.” He gentled his voice and spoke almost in a whisper, for they had all loved Nell. “After the earthquake, Miss Wilson was so badly injured that she would never have walked again, and would have been in constant pain for the rest of her life, if she had lived. Would you have wanted all that for her? Of course you wouldn’t, and neither did God, so He took her home. Perhaps there were other reasons He didn’t perform a miracle, but we’ll never know until we ourselves go home. I know how much you all still miss her. I miss her, too. She was a good friend.”

“Dis donc, if He saved everyone, there would be no miracles,” whispered Mireille, wiping away tears.

He nodded, stunned by her words, as was Nancy.

“Also, I guess…” Jeanne began shyly, “if He saved everyone, none of us would ever die, and there would be no space left on earth for us all.”

Someone gurgled, others smiled, then clapped their hands over their mouths in horror.

“Please don’t be ashamed of laughing at such an emotional time, girls. God has a great sense of humour, and Jeanne made a very valid point. It is a very small planet we live on.”

Carmela put up her hand. “But do miracles really happen, Mr Stuart? It seems impossible that Miss Annersley died, yet now she’s alive. I know God must love her very much, because we all do, so perhaps that’s why, but would He do it for just anyone?”

“Miss Annersley would say that she’s just anyone, you know, Carmela. She never thinks of herself as anything special.” They all shook their heads, as though denying those words. “I know how difficult it is to grasp such a miracle. It’s mind-blowing, really, because we don’t have the infinite mind of God to enable us to get our earth-bound minds round it. Our hearts can possibly accept it more easily. Perhaps we sometimes think too much about things and worry them to death.” A few laughed at that. “Is that what you do with your studies?” They all nodded vigorously.

He went to perch on the edge of the desk, indicating a chair to Nancy, who had had reservations about Ian telling the Sixths the whole truth, but now thought it was one of the best decisions she had ever made. He was doing just what Hilda would have done, being gentle and relaxed and accepting any and all queries without any judgement. He was allowing them to open their hearts and be honest, and he, in return, was being just as honest. Some might have said too honest, but these girls were nearly adults, and were responding in a remarkably mature fashion. They, and she, were once more learning a great deal from what might have been a terrible tragedy.

“When Miss Stone fell and you saw all the blood she was losing, how did you feel, Carmela?” Ian asked gently.

“Terrified!” she whispered with a shiver. “We thought she would die. We had no idea what to do, and were too far away from school to get help in time.”

“And did she die?” She shook her head. “So who helped you, Mireille?”

“Ellie knew what to do.”

“But you had to do it, because she couldn’t. Who else helped?”

“You mean… God?”

“Think about it! He orchestrated it so that every little detail was in place to save a woman who was bleeding to death. Ellie had the knowledge, you two were strong and brave enough to follow her orders, tackle the blood loss and try to stop it. Gillian and Meg ran to school on icy roads to get help, having stripped off their coats to try and keep her warm. Such a loving, generous thing to do! Everything was put in place to save her, right down to a pencil in little Emilie’s pocket. He didn’t leave out one thing. Doctor Jack was astounded she was still breathing when he arrived and saw all the blood. She was in such bad shape, he didn’t think she’d make it to the San, or through the night. To me, that was a miracle, one God worked purely through you girls. The doctors would have arrived far too late to save her, if you hadn't acted.”

'Men create real miracles when they use their God-given courage and intelligence,'” quoted Vivien softly from the back. “Jean Anouilh wrote those words, and how true they are, for that’s exactly what you did, girls. You and Ellie used all you had, and all you were, to give Miss Stone a chance of living.”

“We prayed, too” Mireille whispered.

“As did Miss Annersley, when Gillian alerted her. It was most definitely answer to prayer.” Ian saw their eagerness for more enlightenment, and knew he didn’t really have any. Who was he to explain the mind of God? “I’d say you’ve been surrounded by miracles of one sort or another ever since Miss Wilson died. Perhaps she's been nagging God to take care of you all," he added with a grin, and gentle laughter rippled round the room. "It is mind-blowing, hard for our minds to grasp hold of, but Miss Annersley takes these things in her stride, for she trusts Him absolutely. She would say that, in those moments when she feels most helpless and hopeless, she turns to Him and He steps in, puts His arm round her, soothes her worries and points the way forward. She knows all she has to do is ask, and He will be there. If He doesn’t suggest answers, or take the problem away, then He gives her His strength for the journey. And that’s because she has that relationship of trust and love with Him. Another lesson you could learn from her, girls.”

”I saw her faith in action on Saturday,” Gillian said softly. “She stayed so quiet and calm, even in the dorm with Helen. She was as white as a sheet, but all through the afternoon she had that sense of calm, keeping us calm, soothing us, allowing us to cry and then comforting us. She seemed to know what to do at every turn, organising things, thinking things through. She took care of each one of us, even Helen and her father when they were so horrid to her. She never seemed to falter… I so wish I could be like that.”

“You will be one day, dear, if you watch and listen to what she says and how she acts. She did falter, Gillian, when out of your sight, because she was in shock, and had also been very ill the day before, but she held tight to His hand and was given the strength to go on doing what needed doing. God Himself made sure He sent help with those things she couldn’t do, like taking Helen home. She’s a very, very brave lady.”

“She saved your life last term, Mr Stuart, and was horribly hurt,” put in Erica.

He nodded, realising that Erica had probably heard details about the accident from Jack and Joey that no one else knew. “Yes, Erica, she did, and as far as I’m concerned that was also a true miracle, for, to begin with, why weren’t we killed when the car careened down the hillside and crashed head on into that tree? Why didn’t Miss Annersley go flying through the windscreen? God had us in hand from the moment we slipped over the edge, but I admit I thought we’d die when I saw how badly injured Miss Annersley was. I couldn’t move, being trapped by the steering wheel. She was the only one who could save us, but how on earth did she even get out of the car, with that terrible head injury?” His haunted eyes looked over their heads to Vivien, as though she could help him with this. She smiled gently. “It was so bad that she was sick as soon as she rolled out of the car. Before she set off to try and find help, she got a rug from the boot and covered me up. She even wanted to leave me her coat – like Gillian and Meg did - but I persuaded her that was sheer lunacy. That’s the sort of person she is, loving and giving, with no thought for herself. She walked down the coach road in that terrible, raging wind, after a dangerous blow to the head and with shards of glass embedded in her feet.”

Vivien saw how engrossed they all were in this remarkable story of true heroism, even though they'd heard it once already from Mother Abbess. Hilda and Nell, she reflected. Two models of selfless courage, of willingness to give their lives for others. What examples for the girls to follow!

“To this day, none of us know how she got back up to the road, or how she walked so far, having to stop often to be sick, and falling to the floor in all-consuming pain.” Someone moaned in sympathy. He nodded. “She would tell you she only succeeded because He walked beside her, urging her on, getting her up when she fell. We know how very ill she was once they got her to the San. They feared for her life then, too, but she staggered back from the brink. She saved my life," he added simply, "and to me that was a true miracle, for the odds were so stacked against us. I will always be grateful to her, and to God, for her courage and tenacity.”

Vivien smiled, thinking of another little miracle in that story. Hilda’s feet had mended in days, where they should have taken months, because Hilda had had a dream of Nell smoothing cream into them. Mother Abbess believed, so she would believe, too. She grew still. Ian had said Hilda had had a dream during the night! Another dream! Had Nell appeared to her again? Yes, thought Vivien, saving Ian had been a blessed miracle, as was this coming back to life today. And if anyone deserved two miracles, it was Hilda.

“Where there is great love, there are always miracles,” said Mary softly, then saw everyone turn round to look at her in surprise. She blushed. “It was in a book I read by Willa Cather.”

“That was a beautiful quotation, Mary, and how true it is, not just of Miss Annersley, but of many girls in here, too.” He looked at Nancy, then back at the girls and laughed. “We seem to have done a lot of quoting between us this morning, but that’s good. Books, poetry, Scripture all help us through the bad times. Miss Annersley would be proud of us, arch-quoter that she is! I think she has one for every occasion.” Giggles and muffled mirth ran round the room. His eyebrow rose. “Hm, I can see you’ve suffered as much as I have.”

Explosions of laughter followed, and he and Nancy exchanged amused glances. He turned back to them, knowing there was still a warning to pass on.

“I’m returning to Miss Annersley shortly, but there’s one thing Miss Wilmot and I have to ask. We’ve shared a lot with you here, because we know how much you love your Abbess, but I must ask you to keep it to yourselves. No one else must know about her death, not even your little sisters. We don’t want people frightened, or getting carried away and making her into a saint, and nor do we want the story being broadcast to the wider community and getting into the papers and so on. So can we rely on you?” They nodded solemnly, rather overawed.

Ian smiled at Nancy. “I think you have a group of budding philosophers here, Miss Wilmot.” The happy smiles returned. “You should be proud of their clear thinking, intelligent questions and attentive listening.” He turned back to the girls. “Miss Annersley will be proud of you, too, when she hears about it. Would you like me to come back later in the week, and we can talk some more?”

They all nodded eagerly. Nancy came forward. “Mr Stuart’s right, girls. Miss Annersley will be proud of you, as am I. The staff are all very upset about this news, as I know you are, so I hope we’ll all treat each other kindly today.”

Mireille rose to her feet. “We promise, Miss Wilmot. But, may I ask if Ellie’s also improving, Mr Stuart?” Ian told her the latest. “Then would you tell Miss Annersley we’ll go on praying for both of them until they return. Er, has Ellie been told about her guardian dying? Because, if not, we’ll have to be careful what we say in front of her.”

“Not yet, she hasn’t, but I myself will certainly make sure she knows before she returns, if Miss Annersley doesn’t. It will be hard for her to hear, but...”

“Tell her we’ll support her in any way we can,” Mireille added, so earnestly that tears flooded Vivien’s eyes. The Head Girl pointed to a cupboard near the door. “Those are some cards we made for them, Mr Stuart, if you would be so good as to take them with you. Miss Yolland helped us a little.”

Ian swallowed the lump in his throat. “Goodness, girls, that was quick work! Thank you, all of you, for these, and for being little miracles yourselves. Miss Annersley is very lucky to have such wonderful girls leading the school, and I include the lower sixth in that.”

Mireille came forward to give him the cards, while Nancy blew her nose, overcome by all she had heard. Ian really was a wonderful person, she decided. Anyone would be fortunate to have him for a friend. He was as thoughtful as Hilda.

At the back of the room, Jeanne held out an envelope to Vivien. “Since you’re going over to the San, would you give this to Ellie, please? It's something I made for her. Tell her I miss her, but I know she would rather be with Miss Annersley than here with us. She was too badly hurt and upset.”

“Oh, Jeanne, what a lovely girl you are,” whispered Vivien through her tears, and took the girl in her arms. “Thank you for this, and also for your gentleness with Miss Ferrars, yesterday. Yes, she told me about it. You and Ellie are so suited to each other. It was a happy day for her when she met you, for you look after her so well. God bless you, child.”




*****
End Notes:
The title of this chapter comes from Jean de la Bruyère, a philosopher born in 1645.

Folliot S. Pierpoint wrote the words of For the Beauty of the Earth.

Eliza M Hickock wrote the poem on prayer.
Chapter 6 - The God of All Grace by MaryR
Author's Notes:
There are no words that would do justice to the beautiful things you all said about the last chapter, so 'Thank You' will have to do. Jenny, I am in awe at your feelings about this saga and what it's done for you. You relieved my heart a little about my sometimes dubious theology. *winks*
Ian turned to Vivien, catching sight of her tears when she dropped heavily into the front seat of the car with her bags. “You’re upset,” he said with a frown, but then his face cleared. “You didn’t know, did you? You weren’t there when Nancy told the staff.”

“No,” she said, with a quiet sob. “I’m still in shock, I'm afraid. When I saw Nancy earlier, she said she was sending me to the San again, that there had been a miracle overnight, Hilda was now recovering, and Gwynneth would give me the gory details. I just assumed the miracle was that Hilda was doing so well after only twenty four hours. I guess Nancy hadn’t anticipated I’d sneak in to hear what you had to say to the sixths…” Tears rained down her cheeks, stopping up her words. He took her hand gently. “If we’d lost her, whatever would Ellie have done?”

“We would all have had to step in, but I fear it would never have been enough. I’m so glad she was asleep, because seeing Hilda dying in front of her would have…” He shook his head.

“I’m sorry you and Gwynneth had to go through that,” she wept. “It must have been… awful, watching her die! I can’t imagine it! But it would have been too soon for Ellie. She hasn’t had her long enough to allow us to pick up the pieces and move on.” She wiped her eyes. “Oh, Ian, thank God He left her here.”

“Perhaps Ellie’s the reason.”

“Or perhaps Kathie, or... Who knows? Possibly it was for Hilda’s own sake.” Vivien sighed and scrubbed her face again. “Does Ellie know?”

“No, but now her form do...”

“She will also have to know, or someone could let it inadvertently slip.”

“Let’s see how things go today. You okay now?”

“I’m sorry,” she sniffed. “You’d think I’d be over the moon, not weeping all over you.”

“Shock,” he said succinctly.

“How is she, really? You said she was very weak.”

“She couldn’t turn her head or lift her hand from the bed when I left.” He laughed. “Mind, knowing her, she could be on her feet by now. Speedy Gonzales could be her middle names!”

She gaped at him. “What do you know about pop music?”

“We do have young patients now and then!” He gave her a broad wink. “You’d be surprised what you pick up, almost by osmosis.”

“Well, I never!” She looked at him curiously. “Changing the subject completely, you were very good with everyone in the Hall, and absolutely brilliant with the sixth, so gentle and tender, yet unafraid to be blunt and truthful. I’m surprised Nancy let you tell them, though.”

“Gwynneth’s doing! Apparently, Hilda spoke with the sixths up on the Rosleinalpe the day after she received her medal. She was very honest about her own grief, brutally so, according to Gwynneth, and how guilty she felt about not helping them after Nell’s death. But Tessa, brave girl, said the prefects had seen her grief, but it had seemed to them that no had been able to help Hilda, and that they felt guilty. Can you believe it?”

“Goodness!” whispered Vivien in awe. “She’s so honest with them.”

“Yes, she believes they’re old enough to hear things that will toughen them up a little before they go out and face the world. I agree with her, after the way they reacted. Yet Kathie seems to think of them as children, even though Mireille had worked out that Kathie was jealous.”

Her eyes widened. “Gwynneth was right. They were all so serious and thoughtful. You might think you’re no theologian, Ian, but you hit just the right note. Your honesty met their honesty.”

“Mmm, I did stumble when they asked why God hadn’t saved Nell.”

“I thought your answer was spot on. You gave them the truth about Nell’s injuries, then asked for their compassion for her, and for an acceptance of God’s often seeming harshness.” She grew silent, thinking hard. “I wish Kathie could have heard you in there, but Nancy benefited enormously, I should think. She’s drawing so much closer to Him, thanks to her own and Hilda’s troubles. You’re a wonderful man, Ian. I know you worry you’re not big enough, but you tackled a difficult subject with great sensitivity.”

“You don’t think they were too young? Will Hilda grind me into the dust?”

“I’ll make sure she doesn’t, because they rose with courage to the challenge.”

“Thanks for your own contribution.”

“Oh, I can out-quote the arch-quoter, at times. She and I have been known to have quoting matches.” He laughed, but her brown eyes shone with compassion as they turned his way. “I know you’d have been as broken-hearted as Ellie, if there’d been no miracle.”

“Am I that obvious?” He grimaced.

“Not at all! I saw it in the Salon on Saturday evening. I’m sorry.”

He stared through the windscreen. “Don’t be, Vivien. We’ve weathered the storm, and our friendship is now stronger than it ever was. We’ve known each other a long time.”

“Hilda loves you, Ian. I saw that, too, on Saturday. She feels great tenderness for you.”

“I’m just glad she shares Ellie with me.”

“Someone else you love deeply. Hilda did a wise thing there, you know, for Ellie receives different things from each of you. You Stuarts have such big hearts, Ian. You’re very good with her, and she’s so relaxed and natural with you, whereas your sister still scares her a little. She needs a father figure desperately.”

“Oh, I’m not that! I’m more of a pal and co-conspirator,” he grinned. “You’re good with her, too. The way you told her about Kathie’s jealousy was masterful.”

“No, we shared that honour, you and I. You were very candid and gave her some good advice, about she and Hilda helping each other to find forgiveness for Kathie. That little gem gave her something positive to do, rather than just being the victim – again!”

She fell silent, pondering how to bring up the subject of Kathie. While he was waiting for her to speak, he switched on the engine, started the car and drove out onto the road.

“I sat by Kathie in the Hall,” she said slowly. “She was clearly upset, but I got the impression, from what she said, that you’d been trying to help her. I tried yesterday, when she came to apologise, but I’m not sure it worked.”

“It didn’t!” he said abruptly.

“What?” She was startled. “But she asked, just now, could she come for the help I’d offered.”

“Perhaps I did get through, then! A little, at least!” He drove slowly, wondering how much to say. “I gather she refused to get up and join the staff for prayers at four o’clock. That won’t have helped her case with the others, but when I told her just how many people had been praying, and that a miracle had occurred, she wept. She knew then that she’d missed out on being a part of something enormous. It shook her, for some reason.”

“She needs shaking,” Vivien said bitterly.

“Poor Nancy broke down when I arrived this morning. She’d been struggling with Kathie and getting nowhere, so I sent her off to calm down, and stayed behind with Kathie. She admitted she’d been refusing to step in and take lessons for missing staff such as you.”

“Oh, Kathie,” sighed Vivien.

“I’m afraid I was very blunt.”

“Not your style.”

“Oh, it can be! Nancy had shown her a picture in Hilda’s study, and told her the very moving story behind it, so I…” He cleared his throat. “I talked more about it, which seemed to quieten her, and she asked had I had anything bad happen to me, so I revealed my own story…”

Vivien turned to stare at his tense face. “Your story? What picture?”

He drove without speaking for several moments. “When I drive you home tonight, I’ll show you the picture and tell you both stories. Will that do?” Vivien agreed. “Once she was calmer and more approachable, she said she couldn’t go back and scrub away all she’s done, so how could she go on? I told her she could start afresh from now, being humble, gentle and loving, otherwise her position would be untenable.”

“Trouble is, Ian, Hilda’s been telling her the same thing since Thursday. She’s so up and down, there’s no knowing how she’ll react at any given moment. I don’t know!” Vivien sighed. “Why doesn’t Hilda just give up on her?”

“When does she ever give up on anyone? She had no choice with Helen, because everyone else needed protecting from her, but she’s the first in years. And you know, if she sacked Kathie, then St Mildred’s would close. Her hands are tied there, since Madge won’t let anyone new in as Head. Vi might do it, but Hilda can’t ask while Vi’s grieving. You could do it!”

“No, I couldn’t,” she said softly. “I have other fish to fry, which Hilda might let you know about soon. Anyway, I’m too little and too daft to have the necessary gravitas.”

“I don’t agree, and I shouldn’t think Hilda does, either.”

She shrugged. “Kathie’s going to your sister shortly, so there’s still some hope.”

“She seems to have become so selfish and arrogant.”

“And jealous!”

“I told her straight what nonsense it was to think she would lose Nancy to Hilda.” He cleared his throat. “I also told her that Ellie now knows the reason for the attack yesterday, though I kept your name out of it. She was livid.”

“Ouch! She had no right to be angry, when she was the perpetrator. She was very subdued just now, though, and has agreed to step in and do those lessons, so you did make an impact, Ian.”

“I’m glad to hear it. I suppose we could pray for another miracle.”

“Did Hilda really say all that about our prayers and what they’d done for her?” He nodded. “I do hope He also healed her distress, and had some answers for her.” She looked up at the sun sparkling on the high peaks and begged His help with Kathie. “I’ve always loved that poem you used about prayer, although I admit to preferring the Herbert one.”

He grunted. “Most of the younger element wouldn’t have understood that one, though, would they? Calling prayer ‘The Land of Spices?’ or ‘A heart in pilgrimage,’ for example.”

“That’s Hilda’s heart,” Vivien murmured with a smile.

He nodded his agreement. “And what about, ‘The soul in paraphrase?’ ‘Heaven in ordinary?’ ‘The soul’s blood?’ All too complicated for the younger element, surely.”

“But not the lines:

“’Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best…’


“You know,” he said slowly, “I think that first line there sums up what’s going in inside Hilda this morning. Her eyes held such joy.” His voice broke. “It’s a strange poem, really, isn’t it, but beautiful and strong, like you and Hilda – two strong, gentle, prayerful souls.”

“Why, Ian…”

*****

When they entered Hilda’s room a little later, the two beds were pushed close together. Ellie was sitting cross-legged on hers, chatting away to Matey and Hilda. Matey sat on the far side of Hilda’s bed, her eyes brighter than they had been since Hilda was taken ill. She and Vivien exchanged joyful smiles, before Vivien gave Ellie a hug and passed over the card.

“From Jeanne, with love.”

Shedding her coat, she walked round to the other side of Hilda’s bed, thinking to herself how very frail Hilda seemed, as though the slightest breeze would whip her away from them. She was lying almost flat on just two pillows, her face drained of colour, deep purple shadows encircling her eyes. But those eyes held a very quiet light, and the gentle joy of someone who had seen visions beyond mortal ken.

“Oh, Hilda!” Vivien whispered, her hand on Hilda’s. Tears rolled down her cheeks. “How very good He is!”

“Don’t cry,” Hilda murmured with a loving smile. "I’m still here and I'm fine, thanks to His great grace. It’s so good of you to come again. Ellie will love having you.”

“You’re thinking about her lessons,” said Matey, sensing unspoken criticism. “Well, blame me, if you must blame someone. I asked Nancy if we could borrow her. It won’t do the girls any harm to miss the odd lesson.”

“Peace, Gwynneth,” Hilda murmured. “You don’t need to make excuses for Vivien’s presence. Nancy’s the Head while I’m here and I totally approve of her decision. And yours!” Her eyes turned to Ian, standing behind Ellie. “I’m sorry I fell asleep on you.

He shook his head. “Sleep is what you need most. We’ll pray this evening’s Office together instead.”

“Did you tell them?”

“They were very moved that their prayers had done so much for you.”

“He was brilliant with them, Hilda,” Vivien murmured. “As was Nancy.. er, Miss Wilmot.”

Hilda eyed Ellie, who was seemingly engrossed in her card. “My ward will have to accept that you all have Christian names, because I’m afraid my brain’s too tired to keep remembering to say Miss… or Mr.”

Ellie looked up and beamed. “Me, I do not mind, Madame. I will keep quiet about it in the school, although, you know, most of the girls already know all your names.”

“Of course they do, vilaine! All schoolgirls worth their salt know such things! I’m still not about to call my staff by their given names in front of them. That would be a step too far, but I'm afraid this bunch will have to cope and pretend you’re not here.”

Ellie wrinkled up her nose. “But, me, I am here, you know, Madame!” Ian snorted. Ellie waved a hand in his direction, the other hand flourishing her card under Hilda’s nose. “It is from Jeanne, and so very beautiful.”

Vivien was relieved to see that Ellie’s vivacity hadn’t been completely destroyed by Kathie. To Ian’s astonishment, Hilda lifted her arm and took the card. He glanced at Matey, whose eyes shone at this improvement.
Unaware of their joy, Hilda savoured the beauty of the embroidery on it, which portrayed two girls playing with a kitten, the words Les Copines underneath.

“It’s exquisite, chérie, and yet very simple.” Ellie opened the card so Hilda could read the message inside. She looked up with tears in her eyes. “Remember what I said about friendship being a sheltering tree? Well, Jeanne’s loving message shows she will always shelter you, as my friend always sheltered me.”

Ellie took the card, leaned over and kissed the thin, white cheek. Hilda returned the kiss, took hold of Ellie’s hand and turned her gaze on Vivien. “Thank you so much for bringing my butterflies. I said I’d explain about them one day, and I will, very soon. As for the little cats you made for Ellie, they are completely charming. She loves them, don’t you, petite? Although I’m not sure how any teacher of mine finds the necessary spare time!”

”Madame, tu es méchante, tu sais!” Ellie wagged a finger at Hilda, who rolled her eyes, but everyone saw the intense love between them. “She is very naughty, Miss Knowles, but, as always, she is right! I do love them, you know, but tell to me, please, how did you make them quickly enough to give them to me the same day we came here? Me, I did not think of this last night when they appeared, you know.”

Vivien marvelled at the roguish way Ellie had teased Hilda. “They were going to be a present for your birthday on Sunday, but I decided your room here might need cheering up, and indeed your good self, so you got them early, although they were made a week or two ago. “ She also wagged a finger. “Just don’t moan about the lack of presents on Sunday.” Ellie grinned and shook her head. “By the way, I told Jeanne I’d ask if she could come over for a short while later, to spend some time with you. What do you think?”

Ellie looked hopefully at Hilda. “I think it’s a wonderful idea, Vivien, but I’ll leave you and Nancy to arrange times. We seem to have an open door policy here, come one, come all!” Matey gave her an evil grin. Hilda reached for Ellie’s hand again, taking Vivien’s in her other hand. “Chérie, I think we have to do something very special for Miss Knowles soon, to thank her for her generosity and many kindnesses since Christmas.”

Ellie pressed a kiss on Hilda’s hand. “Me, too, I think this. She is the good friend, no?”

“I’d second… no, third that, Ellie,” Ian offered. Matey nodded. Vivien blushed. “Love the bed jacket, by the way,” he added, with a saucy grin at Hilda.

“Blame Gwynneth!”

“I thought it would cheer everyone up, once you were fit enough to wear it.” Matey replied. “I just didn’t expect you to take a leaf out of Jo’s book, and go at it hell for leather.”

“Never was there a truer word spoken in jest,” came Helen’s voice from the door.

“Me, I like this… what did you call it, Mr Stuart? Bed jacket? Did you make it, Madame?”

“No, child, Mademoiselle de Lachennais made it, and also did the embroidery. She made another for Nell, only hers was green. Of all the bed jackets in my drawer, why this one, tell me!” Hilda's eyes twinkled at Matey.

Matey smirked. On the right front of the pale blue bed jacket was embroidered a picture of Hilda riding her uni-cycle. On the left side, was a similar picture of Nell on hers, both of them wearing expressions of pure terror.

“She’s a very clever lady,” said Ian with a broad grin. “What’s on the back, or daren't I ask?”

Hilda closed her eyes. “Have a guess. You were there, after all!”

“And a merry time was had by all,” he intoned.

“Me, I wish I had been there,” moaned Ellie, running her finger over the embroidery.

“Me, too, Ellie-belle!” Hilda’s eyes popped open and homed in on Vivien, who winked.

“Er, Nell climbing the pyramid of acrobats?” hazarded Ian. Matey shook her head. “Not… not you tied to that wheel, having knives thrown at you!”

“Got it in one,” replied Matey. ”Nell's had the acrobat mountain.”

Helen now closed in on the bed, searching Hilda’s face. “You’re looking very weary, my friend. I think we need to calm things down a little.”

Ian jumped into the sudden, guilty silence. “I was wondering if she could have communion, Helen. That wouldn’t tire her too much, would it?” He looked round. “In fact, if you like, you could all partake.”

Hilda’s eyes lit up, so Helen held her peace. Matey and Ellie nodded.

“I think it would be strength for the road, Ian, no matter which road each of us is on,” said Vivien quietly.

“You’re right, Vivien,” he agreed. “It’s the best food for any road we might be travelling. Don’t go away, all. I’ll be back shortly.”

“Before you go, Ian, there’s something I’d like to share with everyone, especially Hilda.” Helen made to separate the two beds a little, and Ian helped her. She settled Ellie, waved to Ian to sit beside the girl, then stood between the two beds and took Hilda’s hand. “All the prayers have done more than just heal you in double quick time, my friend. You already know Ellie’s hand has taken a turn for the better, and is no longer swollen, although still rather sore.” Ian took Ellie’s good hand. Helen looked round at Ian and Vivien. “Did you pray for all the school people over here, not just Hilda? You did? It doesn’t surprise me, then, that Linda Stone is also feeling much better. The headache seems to have loosened its grip and she seems much more relaxed. Would you believe she’s slept since five this morning, without any pain killers? That’s the first time in two weeks.”

Hilda’s heavy eyes sharpened. Ellie gripped Ian’s hand tightly. Vivien grasped Matey’s shoulder, and felt how tense she was.

“As for Marianne...” Helen shook her head in disbelief. “Her bruising has disappeared altogether. Yesterday, her back was still blue-black and quite sore. Now, we’ve got her sitting up,leaning easily against several pillows and not a twinge in sight.”

“Oh, Helen, so much grace!” whispered Hilda, the light in her eyes growing deeper and sweeter. “How good He is! And Sarah?”

“Are you ready for this? All the blisters on her arm have disappeared overnight, and some of them were quite large. The burn itself is still a nasty red colour, but Erik Hartmann held back from any more morphine and let her come round naturally.” Helen took a deep breath. “She appears to be in no pain at all.” Slow tears trickled down Hilda’s cheeks. “Erik’s not convinced it won’t come back, but her parents are delighted, needless to say.” Helen gave each of Hilda’s visitors a long, searching look, adding slowly, “So, for the moment, all three – no, four, if you include Hilda – are recovering, long before they should, from serious or life-threatening injuries and ailments. I don’t pretend to understand the enormity of what’s been happening, but all your prayers, added to those from around the world, seem to have been well and truly answered by the God of all grace.”

In the stunned silence that met her words, tears ran from the corners of Hilda’s eyes and soaked into her pillow. Her hand clung to Helen’s. Vivien and Matey joyfully hugged each other, overcome by His abundant grace. Ian wrapped his arms round Ellie, who turned and buried her face in his jacket, sobbing out loud, “But, how can this be?”

Ian’s answer was immediate. He held her tighter and whispered:

‘God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.’


His own grateful tears overcame him, and Vivien added softly, through her own tears:

‘Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.’


Hilda’s mellow voice quietly picked up the baton:

‘His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.’


By the time the last word of William Cowper’s poem was spoken, Ellie was wiping away her tears and studying them each face in turn. She released herself from Ian’s arms, leaned across to Hilda’s bed, and used a corner of the sheet to gently wipe away Hilda’s tears.

Hilda’s eyes were tender. “He has made it plain, hasn’t He, chérie? He’s worked His sovereign will and shown His love and care for every one of His children here. How very gracious He is, as are all those who prayed for us. There are no words…” Her eyes turned to Helen. “What did Jack say to this overflowing abundance?” she whispered.

“He told me he’s never seen anything like it, and thinks God’s doing it all for you.”

Hilda’s eyes widened. “Why for me?” she gasped. “The prayers were said for all of us, and He loves every one of those prayed for, as much as He loves me, so why would Jack say such a thing?” Helen tapped her on the nose and winked, refusing to elucidate. Hilda turned to Vivien. “Will you tell them? That He’s answered all their prayers.”

Vivien rubbed away her tears. “Nancy’s coming later, so you could ask her.”

Hilda nodded, and looked for Ian, but he was no longer there, having fled the room to hide the tears raining down his face. She looked up at Helen, whose fingers lay on her wrist. “Checking me over yet again?” She examined the nurse’s weary eyes. “You should be in bed, Helen. You’ve been up more than twenty-four hours now, watching over me like a hawk.”

Helen laughed and perched on the bed. “Oh, no, my lady. I’m not having that silver tongue of yours working its magic on my naïve nurses and persuading them to let you do something you shouldn’t!” The others giggled at Helen’s dry voice and Hilda’s disgusted expression. “A hawk is just what’s needed where you’re concerned. We could also do with a touch of Mother Abbess’s bossiness.”

Hilda was still too overcome to argue. “What about Jack?”

“He’s getting his head down for a nap shortly, but, if I do the same, I’ll feel worse, not better, so will hold off till my usual bedtime.”

“Then… using this silver tongue you mentioned, may I have some more pillows, so I can sit up to receive communion?”

Matey exclaimed. Helen’s jaw dropped. “I saw the way you held out your arm just now, when you couldn’t even move it earlier. Squeeze,” she ordered, putting her hand in Hilda’s. Hilda squeezed hard. Helen’s eyes popped. “It’s not possible! Not after… Why, you couldn’t even turn your head a few short hours ago. Now squeeze Ellie’s hand!” Hilda did so, and Ellie nodded at Helen, her eyes grown huge. Helen sprang to her feet. “I’m going to get Jack. He’ll kill me if you have a relapse because I let you do too much, too soon.”

Jack shot in several moments later, followed by Ian. Jack took Hilda’s hand and was stunned by her grip. He checked her pulse. Stronger! He checked her blood pressure. Normal! He frowned down at her. “I take it you’ve been told about all your chicks getting better. I think He’s getting carried away, myself!” She winked at him. He turned to Helen with a look of incomprehension. “Oh, let her have her way. Find me some pillows.”

“But she may borrow mine, yes?” Ellie offered, her eyes much brighter.

Jack and Helen stood one each side of the bed and gently lifted Hilda, while Matey packed the pillows loosely behind her. Vivien was grieved to see how little strength Hilda possessed, but she was soon comfortably cocooned in the nest of pillows, half-sitting, half-lying.

She sighed happily. “That’s much better.”

“No pains or aches?” Jack rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

“All gone, thanks to Him and you.”

He jingled the coins and keys in his pockets, looking uncomfortable. “I’m afraid all the thanks are due to Him.” She stared at him. “You always insist on the truth, so here it is. When your blood finally gave up its secrets in the lab just now, it told us that the antibiotics we were giving you would have had no effect whatsoever on the particular infection you’d developed. If God hadn’t stepped in when He did, it would have been too late for you, I’m afraid.”

Ian caught Ellie as she burst into tears again. Hilda held out a hand to Jack, clasping his in sympathy. She knew how guilty he would have felt if she had died. She turned to look at the sobbing Ellie, and her eyes darkened. She had asked God to take her home, which would have meant leaving Ellie. How could she ever have contemplated such a thing?

Her eyes met Ian’s and he saw the sudden anguish there. “Give Madame a hug, Liebchen,” he murmured. “She’s had a nasty shock.”

He pushed her bed nearer, and she scrambled across, cuddling up to Hilda, who laid her head against Ellie’s. “Gently, chérie. It didn’t happen, so don’t weep. Give thanks, instead.”

Jack stood watching them for a while, and when Ellie had calmed down he nodded to Helen who left the room. He cleared his throat. "Now we've established the antibiotic in that drip is no earthly good, we're going to rid you of all your tubes, Hilda, which should make you considerably more comfortable. It does mean, though, that you'll have to start eating and drinking, or the fluid drip goes back in." There was warning in his voice and she nodded. "Now we can more or less make a judgement as to the right antibiotic, we're going to put you on tablets, instead." He looked round. "While Helen and I are doing this, I'd like the rest of you to leave. It won't take long."

Ellie scrambled off the bed and followed Ian and Vivien out. She looked at Ian. "But why do we need to leave the room, Mr Stuart?" Vivien whispered in her ear. Ellie's eyes grew round and she hit her forehead with the palm of her hand. "Me, I am silly, oui? Idiote! Why did I not think of this? Pauvre Madame, that must be uncomfortable." She giggled, then bit her lip. "This means she is getting better?"

They nodded hopefully. After a while, Helen came out pushing the trolley she had wheeled in a few minutes ago. Jack smiled, but there was a troubled frown creasing his forehead, Ian noticed. "She's feeling more comfortable now, so I'll leave you to it and get my head down for a couple of hours. Try to keep it low-key."

They trooped back in, and saw that Hilda did indeed look easier. Ellie sat back on Hilda's bed and burrowed into her. Helen returned and drew a trolley near the bed. Ian laid a cloth on it, set out candle and crucifix, then the golden pyx containing the hosts. Vivien made to kneel, but he told them all to sit, instead, including Helen. Ian kissed his stole and put it round his neck. His prayers gentled Hilda's spirit, but, when the host was placed on her tongue, the enormity of what God had done exploded inside her, like fire. His abundant grace overwhelmed her. Despite His gentle words in her dream, and Nell’s understanding, her unworthiness of such miraculous grace destroyed her peace. He had told her she was courageous, but all she now saw was her craven cowardice. Tears streamed down her face. Ellie burrowed deeper against her, aware of her guardian's distress even as she received her own host. Ian gave the other three women theirs, but still the tears rained down.

Ian said the final prayer, his anxious eyes on Hilda. Matey leaned over her, stroking her hair. “What is it, love? Are you in pain?”

“Why, Gwynneth?” she wept in anguish, hiding her face in Matey's cardigan. “Why? My sins are so many... and I’ve been such a coward, so why would He do this wonderful thing for me? Why would He love me enough to pour His great power into me and bring me back from the dead? I'm not worthy of such a miracle! So tell me why,” she sobbed weakly. “Why not Nell? She was so much more deserving, and was needed here!”

Her heart breaking for Hilda's anguish, Matey slipped her arm round the thin shoulders, and held her, trying to wipe away the tears. Vivien and Ian silently begged Him to ease Hilda's distress.

The meaning of her words gradually dawned on Ellie. She sat up in shock, her eyes wild with fear. “Madame? Wh… what did you mean, you were brought back from the dead? You mean…” Her eyes sought Ian’s. “Madame died? Non! But this is not possible!”

Hilda’s horror at what she had inadvertently done to Ellie stopped up her tears. With an exclamation of utter dismay, she exerted all her remaining strength to put both arms round her ward, grateful the drips were gone and she had the freedom to do it. Ellie clung to her as though she would never let her go.

“It is possible, sweetheart. With God all things are possible. Sh, sh, everything’s fine… I’m fine… I’m sorry I let it slip like that," she wept. "You were never meant to know… I knew what it would do to you!”

Ian knelt by the bed and took one of Ellie’s hands in his. “Liebchen, what happened was so enormous that Madame feels she doesn't deserve this great love, but you and I know she is entirely worthy, don't we?" Her eyes huge with dread, Ellie nodded. "Will you allow Matron Lloyd, Matron Graves and I to tell you just what happened? I’ve already told the two sixths, so Jeanne already knows.”

Hilda’s tear-filled eyes betrayed her shock at this, and her lips opened to remonstrate with him, but he laid his other hand tenderly on her wet cheek. “I’ve now made Madame very cross, Ellie, so I hope you’re going to protect me.”

Ellie lifted her head, saw how distressed and guilty Hilda looked, and instantly calmed down. She kissed her tenderly. “Tell it to me, please, Mr Stuart,” she whispered.

First he looked at Hilda, his hand still laid against her cheek. “Gwynneth told Nancy and me about the talk you had with the Sixths up on the Rosleinalpe last term, so she knew they were mature enough and wise enough to hear the truth about this extraordinary miracle. Oh, Hilda, they were wonderful!” he added. “You’ve done such a terrific job with them. Never, ever think you're unworthy, or less than Nell! You were equals in every way.”

His eyes turned to Vivien for help. “You would have been proud of them, my dear. Ian talked about miracles, and they asked such intelligent questions, even some unanswerable ones, but Ian coped very well. They don’t know the actual details, only that you died, and came back to life, but will you let Helen, Ian and Matey explain it fully to Ellie? She’s a part of you now, and deserves the truth, no matter how scary it is for her.”

Hilda searched Vivien’s gentle brown eyes, Ian’s loving, hopeful face, and relaxed. She knew she mustn’t hide difficult things from her ward, despite the harshness of the girl’s life till now. She nodded, although her eyes were filled with such anguish that Vivien gripped her arm hard in sympathy. Helen breathed a sigh of relief at this acquiescence and laid her fingers on Hilda’s pulse. All seemed well, although she was looking increasingly fragile.

While Ellie leaned into Hilda, and Ian held her hand comfortingly, he, Matey and Helen told their story. When she heard how Hilda had started to breathe again, quoting Scripture and giving them the shock of their lives, she peered up at her guardian’s anxious face.

“Dis donc, Madame, it really was a miracle!” she whispered.

“So it would seem, little one.”

Ellie snuggled closer and clasped Hilda’s hand. “Me, I think I would have wanted to die if you had died. You said you would never leave me.”

Hilda swallowed, and tried in vain to speak. Ian did it for her. He lifted Ellie’s chin very gently. “She did warn you down in Interlaken that she’d never leave you as long as God left her here, reminding you that both of you know how people can die very suddenly, no matter how young they are, because of accidents, illness, earthquakes, plane crashes…”

A tear found its way down Ellie’s cheek at this reminder of her father’s death. He had been quite young! “And you, Mr Stuart, you told to me there would always be people who would love me and shelter me and look after me, if she went away.”

“There are, Ellie,” said Vivien softly. “There are three of those people in this very room, and so many others out there, like Jeanne and your aunt, and all the friends you will make in the future. But God knew how much you still needed Madame, so He returned her to us and is now healing her completely, although she was very dangerously ill. I think le bon dieu must love both of you a very great deal.”

“Remember those words from Winnie the Pooh I told you to recall, if anything ever happened to me, chérie?” Hilda whispered in Ellie’s ear.

Ellie nodded, and recited in a wobbling voice, “‘If ever there is a tomorrow when we’re not together, there is something you must always remember: you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think, but the most important thing is, even if we are apart, I’ll always be with you,’”

“You are brave, strong and smart, little one,” Hilda said gently. “Just as I’m trying to be, since losing my friend. Do you recall my sudden distress during the Christmas Midnight service?” Ellie's eyes clung to Hilda’s. “I was feeling lonely and lost, missing my friend, for we often spent Christmas together, but then I heard her voice saying those exact same words to me. They’re beautiful, comforting words, aren’t they? She is always with me, dear one. She even speaks to me sometimes, so, if anything ever happens to me, God will hopefully allow me to do just the same for you. I will always be with you, stored away in your heart to keep you going on the worst of days, and perhaps bring you some tiny spark of joy.” Ellie closed her eyes over her tears and buried her face in Hilda, who drew her closer.

Everyone remained silent, knowing how hard this was for Ellie, and also knowing that the only one able to forge a way through this agony would be Hilda, distraught as she was. Eventually, though, Vivien stirred, laid a hand on Ellie’s arm and spoke softly. “Those words are beautiful, Ellie, and very, very true, as your guardian said. She will always be with you, because Madame never forgets a promise. Le bon Dieu will also be with you, and I might be around, too, just to annoy you, you understand,” she added, with a wink, trying to lighten the atmosphere a little.

Ellie looked at Vivien with an inscrutable expression, then heaved a huge sigh, turned to Hilda and offered her a tender smile. “I think… there is not just the one miracle here, Madame. You yourself are a miracle, my very own Christmas angel, and I do know how much you love me, for you show it to me all the time.” She kissed her, and turned to the others. “Miss Knowles and Mr Stuart and Matron Lloyd – even Matron Graves - you are these miracles, too, because I did not know you until I met Madame, and yet you now have a so great love for me, and have cared for me so well this term, cared for this strange and sometimes angry girl who once threw things at the wall.”

Hilda’s arms tightened round her. “Everyone here loves you, Ellie – yes, even Matron Graves, as you said - because you’re gentle and loving and so generous to others, and do everyone so much good with that mischievous spirit of yours. Jeanne also loves you, as does Mireille. Why, even those rascally twins love you.” Ellie chuckled softly. “Think about that beautiful gift their parents gave you in thanks for your cheerful, gentle care of them. You never ask anything for yourself, child, only give of yourself to others. As for me, I couldn’t do without you now. If anything happened to you, I would feel as you do, that I might want to die.” Ellie gazed at her in awe, and Hilda pressed a kiss on the girl’s forehead.

By this time, Ian and the women all had tears in their eyes, even Helen Graves, while Ellie snuggled even closer, as though wanting to become one with her guardian. Hilda closed her eyes tight, and asked Him yet again to forgive her for wanting to go home and leave this beloved child alone and lonely, as she herself had been after Nell’s death.

When she re-opened them, they were all gazing at her anxiously. “Would you be very kind, Ian, and take Gwynneth and Vivien for coffee in your rooms? I think Ellie needs some quiet time to recover from the dreadful shock I just gave her.”

Ian laid one hand on Hilda’s hair and one on Ellie’s and spoke the beautiful words of Zephania over them:

‘The Lord your God is with you, He is mighty to save. He will take great delight in You. He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing.’

Hilda tried to smile at him, laid her head on Ellie’s dark hair and closed her eyes, silently seeking the right words to help her ward. Ian collected his belongings and led Matey and Vivien from the room. Only Helen was left, but the two of them looked so peaceful that she hesitated to disturb them. She knelt by Ellie and took her hand. Ellie’s eyes opened.

“I’m giving you and your guardian thirty minutes on your own, and I’m trusting you to look after her,” she said softly. Ellie looked at her doubtfully. Helen turned to look at Hilda and saw her eyes were open. “If I think you’re still okay when I return, I’ll allow Ellie to remain, but I’ll be staying, too, to keep an eye on you both.”

“Fair enough, Helen,” she whispered. “Your patients are very lucky people.”

Helen grasped her shoulder gently for a long moment, then exited the room. Ellie snuggled as close as she could to this guardian it appeared she had so nearly lost. She shivered at the mere thought, feeling cold dread inside.

“Je t’aime, Madame,” she whispered into Hilda’s bed jacket, “and I think I love le bon dieu so very much for giving you back to me. I never loved Him, you know, because no one, except you, really helped me to know Him, only my grandmère and my lovely pépé. But now… I give to Him my whole heart.”

Tears of weakness welled up in Hilda's eyes and fell, one by one, onto Ellie’s hair. Those poignant words of her ward's had wounded her deeply, even though she knew God was working a miracle in Ellie’s soul.

Thou art the God that doest wonders.

“Oh, Ellie, I love you so much, “she whispered. “Know this: ’He will be very gracious unto thee at the voice of thy cry; when he shall hear it, he will answer thee.’”

“Are you sure, Madame?”

“Yes, sweetheart, I’m very sure. All you have to do is love Him and trust Him, and He will do great things for you, as He has for me: ’He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.’”

Ellie kissed Hilda’s cheek. “But, me, I have already an angel. I have you.”

“Now you have legions of them, child, surrounding and protecting you on all sides, for He loves you even more than I do. He loves and accepts you, totally and completely, just as you are, and wants only that you love Him in return.”

Ellie nestled against Hilda, her ear against her guardian’s gently-beating heart, a heart that always surrounded her with such tender love and graciousness. They closed their eyes with a renewed sense of peace and well-being, rejoicing in this all-too-infrequent time alone together.



*****
End Notes:
In case you're wondering about Ian's reference to the song Speedy Gonzales, it first came out in 1951 (it's 1962 in ND) but the famous Pat Boone version only appeared in 1962, though not sure what month.

Les copines - friends. (copain - masculine; copine - feminine.)
Chapter 7 - A God of Surprises by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Forgive me for the delay, but I'm not sure I can give a reason. My brain just seemed to be in meltdown. But thank you to those who reviewed so lovingly on that chapter about Ellie trying to understand the miracle. Can any of us?
Hilda could feel herself fading, so quickly roused herself and forced open her eyes. “Are you asleep, chérie?”

“Mais non, Madame! All here!”

“I’d like to talk about something completely different. This might sound strange, but have you decided yet whether you’re going to university, and, if so, where you would like to go?”

Ellie lifted her head in surprise, and shuffled round a little so she could look into her guardian’s eyes. “It would depend on many things, tu sais, Madame,” she said slowly. “Perhaps the most important is… when I do go away, will you still be here at the school?”

“Your answer depends on mine?” Ellie nodded, her eyes wary. “I won’t be here, no, dearest. God willing, I’ll be leaving at the same time as you.”

“Dis donc!” Ellie looked stunned. “You no longer wish to be here, Madame?”

Hilda chewed on her lip. “In the normal course of events, I would retire the year after you leave, as I would then be sixty, so I wouldn’t still be around, anyway. But you’re right, in the sense that I haven’t really wanted to be here since my friend died. I see her round every corner, meet her in every room. I even see her in the shadows when night falls.”

Ellie stroked a white cheek, her eyes tender. “It hurts?” Hilda nodded. “I understand this, you know, Madame. But what then will you do? Where will you go to live?”

“The convent, Ellie.”

Ellie straightened up. “But… but why? Me, I do not understand this.”

Hilda drew her close again, her fingers mentally crossed. She had no desire to hurt Ellie. “My decision was made the summer before I met you. I went there just three months after Nell’s death to seek help with my grief. I was so sad and lonely that I was finding it hard to cope with running the school.” She laughed softly. “I got rather more than I expected. God loves surprising people, and certainly surprised me. First of all, He produced Mother Abbess, who you have to admit is a force of nature!" Elie giggled. "The later that summer, He told me I was going to enter the convent, become a nun.” Ellie exclaimed. “When I’d thought about it and prayed about it, I realised it was also what I wanted. It’s where I feel most at home now, for I feel Him calling me more and more urgently.”

Ellie seemed completely at a loss. “Mais.. excuse me for my rudeness, Madame, but do you not have to be young to learn how to be a sister?”

Hilda smiled wryly. “It would certainly be much easier for me if I were younger, but Mère seems to think I can do it, and so does the nun who’s in charge of the order’s convents in Britain. You remember Sister Catherine?” Ellie nodded. “I know it will be hard, and Mère and Sister Pauline have threatened to keep a very close eye on my health.” Ellie giggled. Hilda relaxed a little. “I want to go on helping people when I retire, Ellie, and He seems to be showing me this is the best way of doing it. After all, I’ve been guiding girls all my adult life. Why throw away all that experience? I’d far rather use it to support those who’ve been wounded by life, as you and I have been, than live just for myself alone.”

“You’ve helped me so much since Christmas,” whispered Ellie, “and so many other people in school, even Jeanne. She told me the so beautiful things you told to her on Sunday night. Any person who has you to help them is so lucky, Madame.”

“Don’t make me blush, child. What I do for you is because I love you as though you were truly my daughter.” Ellie’s eyes filled with joy. “It won’t always be as easy to help those who are strangers to me, but I feel I must give my life back to Him now, in thanks for all He’s done for me. Especially for bringing me back from the dead this day, don’t you think?” A desolate look crept into the sapphire eyes. Hilda stroked Ellie’s cheek. “What did I say about God being a God of surprises? Last summer He gave me a new vocation. Less than four months later, He gave me a daughter. You bring such joy into my life, dearest, that I never want to be without you. For a while I was worried, as these two gifts seemed to cancel each other out.” She laughed softly. “But God, in His infinite wisdom, has again surprised me, reminding me I should never hesitate to trust Him in all things.”

Ellie examined Hilda’s face, seeing the peace and tender love in those fine eyes, and wondered what this would mean for her. She had handed her heart over to God just now, but how could she trust His love when it seemed Madame was going away from her?

Hilda smiled at her. “You’re worried I’m going to disappear from your life, aren’t you? But why, sweetheart? Your aunt lives in the convent, too, and you’re always be welcome there. The room set aside for you will always be yours, no one else’s.” The desolate look remained. Hilda’s heart sank. “You were hoping we could live together,” she added softly.

Ellie laid her cheek against Hilda’s. “Mais non! Not that, exactly! But… I was thinking I would go to the Sorbonne, and it would be easy to visit you here some weekends, and for the holidays. Perhaps also I would see Miss Knowles and Mr Stuart. Jeanne is hoping to go the Sorbonne, too.” She shrugged. “But now…”

“You talk about being here with me, little one, but think carefully,” Hilda said gently. “The school’s closed during the three long holidays. Even if we were to keep it open, it would be very lonely, just the two of us, if we stayed more than a few days. You need better company than just your guardian, after all. You'd soon be sick of the sight of me.” She winked. Ellie wrinkled up her nose. “Even if I could afford to buy a flat or little house in England, or over here, what would I do with myself while you’re away studying? I wouldn’t have a job, so it would be very lonely, except the few times you’d visit. Do you see, dear?”

Ellie looked thunderstruck. “But me, I have never thought of how you would be feeling when I am away, you know. I am very selfish, Madame, because I want to be with you always when I am free. But you are right. Someone like you would not like to sit at home all day just reading and cleaning the house. Oh, and doing all your so beautiful crochet!”

Hilda laughed. “Oh, I don’t know! Reading all day sounds rather wonderful, considering how little time I get here to do just that. It’s not enough, though, dearest,” she added very gently.

Ellie stared ahead of her, thinking hard. At least the desolate look had gone, Hilda saw with relief. Ellie smiled to herself. “You told to me you went to the Somerville College at Oxford, non?”

Hilda nodded. “But there are more colleges, and more opportunities, now, for women.”

“Me, I have this thought, you know, that if I do not go to the Sorbonne, I could do as you did. I could follow in… how you say, in your footsteps? I could study the French there, non, and Mireille is going to Oxford this year, so I would not be alone…”

“Yes, some of her friends are hoping to go, so she’s chosen to stay in England with them. Her parents have enough money to fly her home frequently, but she won’t be lonely with her friends there. She and Tessa were looking forward to going up together, but that, alas, has gone for Tessa. She will hopefully be able to go next year, with you, so that would be someone else you would know, although she plans to study English, not French.”

Ellie nodded. “So, even without Jeanne, I would still have the company when I go? I will miss Jeanne, though,” she added sadly. “It is hard to lose a friend when you have only just found her, you know.”

Hilda kissed her. “You don’t need to lose her at all, petite. There are letters, after all, and you and she can visit each other now and then, don’t you think? I would make sure you had enough money for such delights.”

Ellie searched the loving eyes. “You are so very generous to me, Madame. You are also very wise and make it all sound so simple.” She smiled. “The convent would not be too bad, with you there and my aunt. I was so much happier at Christmas when you came, you know.”

Hilda hugged her, but felt her meagre strength waning. She held Ellie’s eyes. “Oh, I think I can do much better than a choice between the convent and nothing, child. Remember I said I should have trusted Him about you and me? Well, here’s that other surprise of His! Are you ready?” She paused. “How would you like to live in London, with Miss Knowles?”

Ellie froze, astounded eyes staring into Hilda’s. “Comment?” she gasped. “Tu dis… quoi?”

Hilda laughed gently, and dropped a kiss on the pert nose. “Miss Knowles loves you, chérie, and vice versa, I know.” Ellie nodded, all ears. “She came to me last Friday night with a request. She knew about my retirement next year, and how worried I’ve been about you.” Ellie kissed her, grateful for the generous understanding. “Well, in great fear and trembling, she asked if you would like to make a home with her, instead of the convent. Then you’d have a proper home for weekends away from university, and during the long holidays.” Hilda smiled. “She and I both knew you wouldn’t really find it interesting to stay at the convent for long stretches of time, although Mother Abbess would always welcome any friends you care to bring with you.”

“Me, I do not believe this!” Ellie gasped, her eyes blazing with joy. “Me, I love Miss Knowles’ house, and I love her. C’est merveilleux, because, you know, Madame, although I thought to go to France to do the studying, I have no one there who belongs to me now, only their graves.” Hilda drew her close, knowing the constant ache lurking in Ellie’s heart. “But, if this is really possible, it would mean that in England there would be you and my aunt and the convent, there would be Mireille and other friends, and now… Miss Knowles!” She shook her head in disbelief at the enormity of the gift she was being offered. “Did she really, really mean this kindness, Madame? Vraiment? It was not you who suggested it to her?”

“No, chérie, it wasn’t I who suggested it, and yes, she means it. She truly wants you. She was very worried about asking, thinking I might feel she was interfering, but, to me, it was another of God’s loving surprises. It’s the perfect solution. See how right we are to trust Him, little one?”

Ellie’s nose pressed against Hilda’s and her eyes looked deep into hers. “I see now why you love Him so much,” she whispered. “Does He always give to you the answers?”

“He might say ‘Wait a while’, or even ‘No’, but there will always be something that helps and points the way.” She kissed the nose pressed against her. “This is the perfect answer, isn’t it? You and Miss Knowles are very alike in many ways, and enjoy making people happy, but I certainly never thought of this wonderful solution. How could I possibly have asked her to do such a thing?” They looked at each other and Ellie shook her head. “She’s only been here since September, not much longer than you, and I thought she was happy and settled here. The truth is, ma mie, she loves you more than she loves the Chalet School, but don’t tell anyone!” Ellie giggled. “She said she would feel very lonely once you and I had left the school. Now that’s what I call a compliment, chérie!” Hilda whispered conspiratorially. Ellie poked her in the ribs. “She wants a family around her as much as you do, for she's quite lonely in London, so all three of us will now have two homes and two families, for she’s as happy at the convent as I am, and as I hope you will learn to be. Also, she's planning to take you to Scotland to visit her parents, so you might even find some new grandparents in your life. She’ll leave school at the same time as us, and get a teaching job back in London.”

Ellie lay back against her, totally overcome. The future suddenly seemed as bright and beautiful as a shining rainbow, so very, very exciting and filled to the brim with possibilities. Perhaps the loneliness in her soul would now go away.

As though reading her thoughts, Hilda added gently, “It will be your home, Ellie, so you may take your friends there, too, even invite Jeanne over to stay. Miss Knowles enjoys being with young girls, and is very fond of Jeanne. Oxford is near to London, so you can get there and back in no time.” She hesitated. “If you wanted to be nearer to your aunt and me, you could always try for Cambridge, instead. You’d still be near London, but it’s a smaller town, and you might feel more comfortable there. We’ll have to see. So, dearest, do you feel happier about the future now?”

Ellie’s glowing eyes turned up to Hilda. “All this, I owe only to you, ma bien-aimeée. When you met me at Christmas, you loved me and planted new ideas in me, to make me see life a little differently. Then, out of your so great love, you gave to me a place here. I then met all these other so beautiful people who gave me more love to add to your love – and now, one beautiful person has given me a home, such a beautiful home.” She reached up and kissed Hilda. “But without you, I would still have nothing, you know. You were my first miracle.”

Tears welled up in Hilda’s eyes. “You've been a miracle for me, child, calling me away from my grief and loving me, when I thought all love had left my life.” She kissed Ellie in return. “A countryman of yours, Marcel Proust, expressed it well: ‘Life is strewn with miracles, for which people who love can always hope.’ So keep on loving, little one, open your heart and there will always be miracles in your life, both large and small:

“‘Nothing that comes from God, even the greatest miracle, can be proven like two times two equals four. It is only seen and grasped when the heart is open and the spirit purged of self… What comes from God touches gently, comes quietly; does not disturb freedom; leads to quiet, profound, peaceful resolve within the heart.’”

(Romano Guardini)

“That is beautiful, Madame. You must write it down for me.” Ellie’s smile was radiant. “I will always try now to love le bon Dieu, you know, to thank Him for all my miracles, but my love for you is so great I think I will burst. You do promise you will still love me, because, without it, I would not be me, you know.” The sapphire eyes were very wistful, all of a sudden.

“Yes, you would, petite. You’re too strong not to be who you are, but I promise always to love you. However, I haven’t told you everything yet.” Hilda drew Ellie even closer. “Knowing how much it means to you to be with me, I did think of giving up my vocation and making a home for you in England, because that would have made me very happy. We don’t get enough time together, do we?” Ellie shook her head, then gasped when Hilda added, “Your aunt was willing to do the same when you first came to England. I thought it was very brave, for it would have been far harder for her to do that, but Mère told her that God would provide. And He did, because a month later I came to the convent, saw you and loved you almost on the spot. Mère then said the same to me, that God would provide. Well, He did, again in vast abundance. He put it into my head to offer you a place here, and a home with me, and now He’s put it into Miss Knowles’ head to offer you a real and permanent home, which you haven’t had for a long time, have you, ma pauvre?”

Ellie slipped her arm through Hilda’s and squeezed her tight in glee. “But now I have so much love and several homes, so who could be happier, Madame? As for you, you are right, you do like to help people - and that is why this convent is so good for you. Me, I would have been so happy to live with you, more than anyone else, you know, but things have arranged themselves so beautifully for both of us, non?”

“Yes, chérie, God has chosen just the right home for you, and exactly the future that suits me, though it was not something I’d ever envisaged before my friend died. After hearing what you’ve just said, I’ll add this to your happiness. Sister Catherine told me that, as part of my vocation, I may stay with you and Miss Knowles from time to time.” Ellie gasped. “She feels that becoming your guardian, and loving you as I do, is part and parcel of my particular vocation, strange as it may seem, so I’ll have a special dispensation. I’m not sure how the other nuns will view such a thing, though, so don’t build your hopes too high.”

Ellie laid her head on Hilda’s shoulder and sighed with bliss. “This, it is yet another miracle, you know. Several miracles all in one day! Oh, Madame, you were right! He is so good, and I was right to give Him my heart.” She flung an arm round Hilda and held her tight. Tears gathered in her eyes. “Oh, it is too beautiful. Is it just a dream? Will He really allow it?”

“Don’t be afraid, sweetheart. Did he not show you today how much He wants us to be happy? And if you ever doubt Him, just bring to mind the way He gave me back my life early this morning. God has provided and will go on providing, if you trust in Him. Had you been very worried about the future?”

Ellie nodded. “Me, I did not want to go away from you, now I have found you.”

“I felt the same, which is why I wanted to build a life with you,” Hilda said softly. Ellie rubbed her cheek against Hilda’s arm. Hilda dropped a kiss on the black hair. “I love you so much, child, and wanted more of you than I’ve already had. After all, as you say, we found each other only recently and instantly loved each other, so why would He want us to part?” Ellie nodded. “But, you see, He had His own plans all ready and waiting. He held you and me in the palm of His loving hand and produced this miracle for us, one that takes into accounts all our own feelings and wishes, and those of Miss Knowles. So fret no more about your future. I am so, so happy for you and delighted that you’re delighted.”

Ellie nestled back into Hilda’s arms with a blissful sigh.

Thank You, Father, for yet another miracle, the gift of a future for Ellie, a gift which you had in Your plan from the moment she lost her father and I lost Nell and chose Vivien to teach here. Every little step was put in place, each one leading to the next, and we both found more love than we ever anticipated. Forgive me for weeping during communion and thinking I was unworthy of a miracle. No one is unworthy who loves You. You had already told me my healing was for those who would need my help and love in the future, not for me alone, and that I must accept it in all humility. But I know, now, You also brought me back for Ellie. I’m not unworthy while she loves me so much, am I? Just very humbled, and so grateful for your great gifts to us. Thank You for being such a merciful and loving Father.

Ellie nudged her. “What are you thinking, Madame? You are truly not here with me.”

“I was thanking our Heavenly Father for His grace in both our lives, little one.”

Ellie examined the heavy eyes and was afraid again. “I hope He heard my thanks, too, Madame, for I fear you are very tired and feeling unwell again.”

“She’s exhausted, by the looks of her, Ellie,” came Helen’s voice from the door. She walked across to the bed, leaning over them anxiously. “She can barely keep her eyes open. Any aches or pains?” Hilda shook her head. “Well, Ellie looks as though you’ve given her a very special present, but I’m going to take her away now and let you sleep.”

Hilda held up her hand. “Before you do that, Helen, Ellie’s present needs a little addition. Would you ask the others to come back for a short while? I promise to be good after that.”

Helen saw the urgency in Hilda’s face, and knew it would be better for her well-being if they gave in to her. “I’ll go and ring from my room, but they’re only getting that short while!”

Hilda gave her a knowing look. “There is one thing, though, Helen. Whatever you hear in the next few minutes, may I ask you to keep it from everyone for the moment, even Jack? He’ll know soon enough.”

Helen had heard about Hilda’s vocation during Hilda's stay in the San after the accident the November before, when she saw the close bond between Hilda and Mother Abbess. Hilda had felt she owed the nurse too much to keep it from her. Now, Helen nodded, tapped her on the nose and left the room

“Ellie, before the others come,” murmured Hilda, “I want you to promise to keep this news to yourself for the moment, especially that I’m leaving next year. Only talk about it with Miss Knowles, or Matron Lloyd and Mr Stuart. I’m sending a letter out at half term about my retirement, and I’ll tell the girls a day or so before the holiday, since some of them are not going home, so you may talk about it then. But I think you should keep the fact that you’re going to live with Miss Knowles under wraps for now, although you may tell Jeanne. I think you might burst, otherwise. Do you understand?” Ellie nodded and kissed her once more

Helen returned, and checked Hilda over while they waited. “Want to lie down?”

Hilda assured her she was fine, and the others soon arrived. Matey walked round to take her usual spot on the far side of Hilda. Ellie made ready to fly across to Vivien, but Helen Graves intervened. “I hope you’re going to entertain this livewire, Miss Knowles, because she seems to have been handed some very good news and is as high as a kite.” Vivien looked at Ellie and wondered. “Before you leave us, Ellie, how’s the hand? The truth, please!” she warned.

Ellie’s radiance vanished. Fear clutched at her heart. “It is still very sore, but the bad pain has gone. It only hurts more when I forget and try to use it.” She swung round to Hilda, who saw the sudden terror. “Does this mean I must return to school without you, Madame?”

Hilda put her arm back round her. “Pas du tout, mignonne. You go when I go, no matter how long my recovery takes.” Helen was shocked at the sudden frost in the gentle voice. “I know you’re frightened of Miss Ferrars, but you won’t have to face her without me, and she won’t come near you without my permission.” Ellie buried her face in Hilda.

“Actually, Hilda, she wants to apologise to both of you,” said Vivien softly.

“But me, I do not even want to see her,” Ellie sobbed with a shake of her head. She sat up in Hilda’s arms and spoke in a trembling voice. “You told to me last night, Mr Stuart, that Madame and I should help each other to find forgiveness for her, but…”

Hilda’s eyes narrowed on Ian, then Vivien. They shifted uncomfortably. “What is Ellie saying?” she asked, so harshly that Ellie turned to stare at her with raised eyebrows.

The others recognised a lioness, claws unsheathed, protecting her vulnerable cub.

Vivien’s feet felt glued to the floor, her heart thumping wildly, but Ian walked round Ellie’s bed, sat on it and laid a gentling hand on Hilda’s arm. “Take it easy, love, or Helen will throw us out. When Vivien came over yesterday evening, you were very, very ill, so ill that Jack feared for your life even then. Ellie caught on and was absolutely distraught, so we wheeled her along to play with Isobel and Marianne. We thought it might calm her down, but she was very angry and rather desperate on the way, and begged us to tell her why.” Hilda started. “She wanted to know why Miss Ferrars had been so cruel. What could we do, love, but stop right there in the corridor and try to help her?”

The frost retreated from Hilda’s eyes. She drew the shivering girl close against her. “Were you so very worried about me, little one?”

Ellie nodded, lips quivering, tears trickling down her cheeks. “Scared about losing you, and angry that Miss Ferrars hurt me so much when I had done nothing to her… and, and… oh so many things, you know. I told to them you said you would explain it to me… but you were unconscious and me, I could not understand any of it…” She buried her face in Hilda’s neck and sobbed, recalling her terror that Madame might die.

Hilda was appalled and laid her cheek against Ellie. “Sh, child. I’m so, so sorry you had to go through all that yesterday on your own. But I’m here now. Everything will be fine. Try not to think about it anymore, and cling on to the good news I’ve just given you.” She held out her free hand to Ian, looking thoroughly ashamed of herself. He breathed a sigh of relief and took it gently. “I should have known better, Ian. Please forgive me, if you can. I wasn’t available when she needed me, so you stepped up to the mark. You are such a good man, and I’m often far too sharp for my own good – or anyone else’s good, for that matter.” She bit her lip.

“No, love, you’re just worried for Ellie and fighting her corner,” he assured her softly. “I understand, and there’s nothing to forgive. We didn’t want to usurp your place as Ellie’s go-to person, but she was literally beside herself…”

Vivien took a deep breath, nerving herself to walk over and kneel beside Hilda’s bed. She cleared her throat. “I’m as much to blame as Ian. We both just felt…” She shrugged.

Tears of shame and self-recrimination sparkled on Hilda’s eye-lashes. “There’s no blame, Vivien,” she whispered, her lips quivering. “I’m sorry I was so harsh with you both. You and Ian were very brave and loving to take on a task that should have been mine. Ellie and I are fortunate to have you.”

“It was probably best that we did it,” Vivien said shakily. “We could view Miss Ferrar’s actions a little more objectively. We weren’t there!”

“Only a little more,” Ian muttered. “I was very, very angry, and completely got Ellie’s bitter anger and distress. She deserved to know why.”

Ellie lifted her head. “You all care this much for me?” she whispered. “Tiens, Madame, they did a good thing for me, you know, because deep down inside I did not understand at all what I had done to Miss Ferrars, and needed to know, but you…”

“But I wasn’t here, was I, chérie? Or not awake!” Hilda kissed the damp cheek. “They probably told you the truth, which I may not have done, not wanting to upset you even more. Perhaps God arranged it all very cleverly, so that it happened the way it did.”

Ellie nestled close again. “They explained it to me so well. I understand about jealousy, but Miss Knowles and Mr Stuart made me to see I am no longer that so jealous girl I used to be.”

“Oh, don’t dismiss yourself out of hand, child. You’re still the girl you were in most ways, thank goodness, but you listened closely to all I said about jealousy, struggled mightily with yours, and began to accept that hearts can grow big enough to hold many people there, and that loving others doesn’t mean I love you less. I think you’re wiser and far more sensible than Miss Ferrars, so perhaps your own struggle will show her that all is not lost, when she sees how far you’ve come.”

Ellie nodded. “That is what they told to me, that I could help her – though how, when I am scared to be near her?” She shivered.

“Only when you’re ready, child,” whispered Hilda.

“Mireille has also offered to help Miss Ferrars,” Vivien said quietly.

“You’re kidding me!” Vivien explained Kathie’s interactions with Jeanne and Mireille. Hilda smiled. “How very brave of them, to tell her she has to apologise to you first, chérie. You and I know how brave Jeanne has been, but this shows just how mature Mireille is, being able to admit her own struggles to someone who hurt her.” She hugged Ellie. “We have to be just as courageous and honest, sweetheart, and help each other to find that forgiveness in our hearts Mr Stuart mentioned.”

Ellie kissed her. “If you will help me with this, Madame, I will try.”

Hilda kissed her again and closed her eyes. Helen and Ellie watched the white face anxiously, but Ellie laughed when her guardian said softly, “Do you not have something to say to Miss Knowles, imp?”

Anxiety and Miss Ferrars fled. The radiant smile returned. Ellie launched herself on Vivien, who was still kneeling between the beds, and threw her good arm round her. Vivien struggled to her feet, Ellie still clinging to her, and collapsed on Ellie’s bed beside Ian with a great laugh. “She’s told you, hasn’t she? And you agree?”

“Mais oui! Oui! Oui!” squealed Ellie. “Me, I was so worried to be alone when I leave the school, you know, and thought I would have to return here to see Madame, but now, she has told to me everything.” Tears ran in a great flood down her face. “I cannot believe you love me so much and would do this incredible thing for me.”

Vivien clasped her in loving arms, and breathed a silent thank you to Him for fulfilling her own desires.

Ian laughed out loud. “Well, if Madame has told you everything, Liebchen, perhaps one of you will tell me. All this excitement can’t be doing Madame’s head any good!”

Still enclosed in Vivien’s arms, Ellie turned to him with a huge smile, and she and Vivien explained all that was to happen. Ian saw Hilda smiling mistily, her eyes damp.

“So you see, Mr Stuart,” Ellie wound up, “we can be even more the family now, because Madame is to be allowed to visit.”

Hilda looked at Ian, who raised an eyebrow at her, his eyes gleaming a vivid green with mischief. “You already knew!” she accused him softly.

“'Fraid so! Kate told me when Vivien wrote to her, and I had a hard job keeping quiet. God is obviously having a wonderful time planning yours and Ellie’s lives, not to mention Vivien’s! I wonder what else He has in store for you all.” He took Hilda’s hand and one of Ellie’s. “You talked about this family you’re building around you, Liebchen. Well, I hope you’re including me in it.”

“Of course, but you will still be here in Switzerland, non.”

A gleeful laugh rang out. “No, actually, I won’t! I’ve been offered the chance to work in a parish, starting at the same time as you and Madame start your new lives.” He felt Hilda’s hand turn in his and clasp it, for she knew about the fear entangled in his joy. He looked at her quizzically. “Guess where this parish is!”

Hilda’s eyes widened. “Norfolk?” she whispered.

“Even closer than that,” he said gently. “It’s the parish in which the convent resides. Mr Hambury’s retiring, so, God willing, I’ll be your very own parish pastor.” Ellie and Vivien clapped their hands.

Tears ran down Hilda’s face. It would be so good not to lose him, for he meant more to her with every passing day. Never was there a brother more deserving of love! “Oh, Ian,” she sighed softly. “You’ve made me as happy as Vivien’s made Ellie. You were right to quote Cowper’s poem: ‘God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform’. He is truly a God of mysterious and astonishing grace and love. What a day this has been!”

“I don’t believe all this,” Vivien said shakily. “God’s moving too fast for me.”

“Mais non!” said Ellie, flinging her arms round Ian. “C’est merveilleux, Mr Stuart, but why?”

He held her in gentle arms. “Why leave, you mean? Well, you and Madame will be gone, and Miss Knowles, too, so I would be very lonesome, don’t you think? I’ve known Madame and her friend Nell since the school came here, so how could I live without her gentle wisdom to keep me on the straight and narrow?" Elie gurgled. "Like the rest of you, God seems to want to transplant me – if the parish accept me, of course.” And if I can cope! Hilda read his mind and squeezed his hand. “I’m spending Easter there, to see if the parishioners and I like each other.”

Ellie hugged him again. Hilda examined their glowing faces, then looked at Vivien and raised an eyebrow. Vivien nodded, crossing her fingers behind her back. Hilda turned her head in the other direction to look at Matey, who had been silently taking in all the excitement. Hilda saw the shadow of sadness in the faded blue eyes, and it decided her.

She laid a hand on Matey’s arm. “You remember I said on Saturday night that I had something to ask Ellie, and would then be coming to ask you the same question? Well, here it is. You told me last term, after I explained about my vocation, that you planned to stay at school and die in harness.” Her voice was very gentle. She didn’t want to scare Gwynneth off. “You know what I've asked Ellie, so now I'm asking you. Wouldn’t you rather be part of this family we’re constructing, than stay at school for what remains of your life?” Matey’s eyes widened. “Vivien would like it very much if you also went to live with them, and I’m sure Ellie would agree. It would certainly make me happy. You wouldn’t have to work hard any longer, just relax and feel you're home!”

Matey had listened with tears in her eyes. She searched Hilda’s face, then did the same with Vivien, who nodded vigorously. Ellie flew round the bed and encircled Matey’s neck with her good hand, almost sobbing in her excitement.

“Me, I would like it so much if you were there, too. It would be incredible. You will be my new grandmother, for I love you, you know.” Matey’s tears overflowed. Ellie kissed her. “You are always as kind to me as my own lovely grandmère was. I have an incredibly beautiful new mother, as you know, but now I will also have the aunt and the uncle, as well as my aunt in the convent, and finally the grandmother.” Ellie looked round at them all in wondering disbelief. “Tiens, how can le bon dieu be this good to me? If my father had not died, I would still be that lonely, sad girl in Nice, instead of having this so great happiness. It is sad that he died, but I had nothing, and now I have everything…” She burst into tears once more, and Matey held her close.

Hilda’s own eyes were damp, but she smiled at Matey. “How could you refuse after that, Gwynneth?” she asked softly. “I know how lonely you'd be, once I’d gone, with Nell already departed, for we three were part of the old guard, weren’t we? But now, there need be no more loneliness. Do it for Ellie, if not for yourself. She’s been lost and lonely for too long, as she just told you, and is desperate to be part of a happy family.”

“Bribery, Miss Annersley?” Matey choked through her tears.

“I’m a Headmistress! I’m allowed to bribe and corrupt my staff.” Ian snorted. “Between you all, it will be a house simply bursting with love and laughter. What else with Vivien and Ellie?” Ellie poked out her tongue. “Ian and I will join you when we can, to add to the chaos, you understand. I feel almost jealous I won’t be a permanent member of the household. You’d be closer to your own family, as well, and I’d pay for you to fly across to see Joey occasionally, so say yes, Gwynneth,” Hilda said urgently, her blue eyes glowing.

Matey saw the truth in those honest, loving eyes, and marvelled at Hilda’s generosity. She looked at Vivien, whose smile was wide and inviting. “You really want me?” she whispered.

“We really want you, Gwynneth,” Vivien smiled across Hilda’s bed at her. “After all, someone has to keep Ellie and me in order! We do tend to get carried away! Emerson wrote that ‘The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.’ You and Ellie will make beautiful ornaments, and Hilda and Ian will add the necessary frills.”

Ian and Ellie laughed merrily. Matey hid her face in Ellie’s shoulder and wept. Vivien ran round and knelt beside them. “Gwynneth, my dear, you have to give Ellie her grandmère, her mémée. Listen to her! Come and be part of this wonderful family we’re creating between us. I never thought I’d get to live with such beautiful, honourable people.”

Matey lifted her head, tried to smile at Vivien. “Yes, please,” she whispered. Ellie and Vivien put their arms round her and held her close.

Tears ran down Hilda’s face. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” she whispered. How very good He had been to them that day!

‘Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’


Was that Him, reminding her of His great promise? She thanked Him for His surprises. Ian cradled her hand gently between his own and smiled down at her. She tried to return his smile, to speak to him, but felt her senses slipping. Her eye-lids closed and she slept. Ian could feel his heart melting with tenderness as he watched the still face. She so loved making people happy!




*****
End Notes:
‘A God of Surprises’ is one of Pope Francis’s favourite sayings about God, and seemed to fit so well with this chapter, so I stole it!
Chapter 8 - Fear Not For Your Fragility by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Thank you so much for the kind and encouraging reviews about the last chapter. I's sorry for the delay in updating, but recent computer problems and far too many hospital appointments have held me up. I did try last night but half the chapter disappeared when I hit submit - so fingers crossed for better luck this time. I'm afraid it will all seem rather flat and boring after the last chapters, but am trying to show everyone's reactions to the events of the last few days.
11.30am

Matey stroked Hilda’s pale cheek. “I’m surprised she could fall asleep sitting up like that, and with all that excitement going on,” she whispered.

“She was way beyond exhaustion, and I let her continue against my better judgement,” said Helen with a grimace, but when her fingers settled on Hilda’s pulse she was astonished to find it not only steady, but stronger than when Hilda had woken up. It was impossible! Helen gave a rueful smile when she recalled Hilda telling Ellie that, with God, nothing is impossible. “I just hope Jack never finds out how long I gave her free rein.”

“We’ll all lie through our teeth for you.” Ian gave her broad wink, unaware of Ellie looking at him with a puzzled frown, trying to work out the meaning of that expression. “There were things she needed to say, and it will have done her far more good to get them out into the open, especially laying into Miss Knowles and me!”

He rolled his eyes, making Ellie giggle. All at once, he knew why Hilda had chosen to give Ellie the news of Vivien’s offer now, rather than months ahead. She was hoping to counteract the sting of Kathie’s cruel attack and drive it from Ellie’s mind. It seemed to have worked, he thought, for Ellie was almost her old self, a loving, effervescent sprite of a girl. He hoped the effect would linger once she returned to school.

Helen gestured to Matey, and they soon had Hilda lying flat again. As they tucked the blankets round her, her eyes opened briefly and closed again, a smile lingering on her lips.

Ian looked at his watch. “I must fly! I’m taking her Scripture lesson with Tonia’s form and don’t want to be late.” He looked round at the happy faces, and draped an arm round Ellie. “’God bless us, every one,’ especially Hilda.”

Ellie leaned against him. “She is the heart of our new family, you know, Mr Stuart,” she said softly. “She brought us together, oui?”

He smiled down at her. “She did, Liebchen. Love is a great magnet, isn’t it? Not one of us could resist its pull.” He dropped a kiss on the black hair, and flew through the door.

Vivien had pulled herself together after that very emotional scene, and now leaned over Hilda to stroke the silvered brown hair spread across the pillow. She hugged Matey and looked at Ellie. “Right, young lady! We’re off to see Marianne! Do you still need the wheelchair?”

Five minutes later, Helen Graves had Ellie wrapped in her dressing gown and settled in the chair. She wrapped Ian’s animal blanket round her. “Enjoy yourself, but don’t get too tired. Come back if you’ve had too much. Promise?”

Ellie smiled, Vivien nodded and they left the room. Helen returned to the bed, heaving a great sigh. Having straightened the creases from Hilda’s covers, she looked across the bed, where Matey was still sitting in a stunned silence, traces of tears evident on her cheeks.

“Are you happy?” she whispered. “Of course you are! It’s the most wonderful thing that could have happened, and I’m absolutely delighted for you.” She laughed. “You can be sure I’ll make a beeline for that house when I’m in England, to see how you’re all getting on. I reckon it’ll be one of the happiest homes in London.” Matey remained silent, her eyes glued to Hilda’s still face. There was a look almost of shyness there, thought Helen. “Were you really planning on dying in harness, so to speak?” Matey nodded. “Then Hilda’s dead right. There will, indeed, be no more loneliness. You deserve a proper home, Gwynneth, and couldn’t have found a happier one. But you’re exhausted, and it’s knocked you for six, so why don’t you lie down for a while on Ellie’s bed and rest? I’ll bring you some coffee and a hot water bottle.”

Matey shocked her by agreeing, which showed Helen just how shaken she was by all the events of the last twenty-four hours. She settled her on the bed, covered her with several blankets and went off to find some coffee and the hot water bottle, but was saddened to see more tears when she returned. She set the coffee on the bedside table, tucked the hot water bottle near Matey’s feet and perched on the bed.

“Want to tell me?” she whispered, her hand covering Matey’s.

Matey shook her head. “There’s nothing to tell, really, Helen. It’s just… Hilda’s recovery has been so miraculous, far too much for me to take in, somehow, and now… I’m totally overcome that they would want me…”

“But why be overcome by such an offer?” Helen asked softly. “Ellie shows so much love for you, yet she’s only known you what? Five or six weeks? I think she must be the only girl in the school who sees you as a real person and isn’t frightened of you.” Matey grimaced. “Vivien’s also very fond of you. You don’t offer someone a home if you don’t get along with them.” She stroked the lined cheek. “Be happy, Gwynneth! It’s not every day one's invited to spend the last years of one’s life with such loving, caring people. I could see how delighted Hilda was. She’s always had a great affection for you, and it sounded like she’s been worrying about your future. Now, you’ll all be company for each other, and give that poor girl a proper home, after all her years of loneliness and parental neglect. And Hilda’s now free to pursue her own calling, without fretting about her ward.”

Matey’s eyebrows shot up. “She’s told you about entering?” Helen nodded. “You’re closer than I thought. I’ve seen your affection for each other these past twenty-four hours, but hadn’t realised...”

Helen chewed her lip. “When she was in the San after Nell’s death, you all thought she was recovering, because she let you visit and talk about Nell.”

“She didn’t do much talking, and we all saw the anguish.”

Keeping hold of Matey’s hand, Helen moved to sit in the chair. “I’m betraying secrets here, but I know they won’t go any further. She was hiding from you all mentally. The day Jack brought her over, she was in such a state that he knocked her out.” Matey nodded. “From the moment she woke up the next day, she wept, Gwynneth. It was like an unstoppable fountain, an eerily silent one. She’s a quiet creature, even when she weeps.” Matey nodded, having seen Hilda weep more times than she cared to recall since September. “All I could do was hold her, and pray – for her, for Nell, for the school. Jack wanted to knock her out again, but she needed to let out all the shock and sorrow or she’d have had a breakdown. I know that was what you feared for her in those first weeks of grief, before the letter arrived.”

“You knew about that, too?”

“She told me it had shaken her out of her frightful numbness. Nell’s own words got through, where yours didn’t. Nell was the only one she wanted to hear at that point. If you recall, we wouldn’t let any of you in to see her those first five days. Mainly because the tears just came and came, but gave her no ease at all. She didn’t want to talk, not even to Ian. I don’t think she could, to be honest. Jack released me to stay with her, for she surely needed someone to hold and soothe her. I’ve never seen anyone weep like that before. It was heart-breaking, coming from someone who so rarely reveals her emotions.”

“It was bound to happen sooner or later, Helen, because not one tear had fallen before that letter arrived. She couldn’t cry. It was all locked up tight inside. She wouldn’t even talk, only when she had to, in assembly and the like. The shock was just too terrible. It was for all of us, but she and Nell were so close…” Helen clasped Matey’s hand, seeing how it upset her to recall those awful, tragic days. “It wasn’t just Nell’s death she was mourning, though. I know that now.” Helen frowned. “Her death brought back the grief from other deaths - her mother’s and her fiancé’s. She hadn’t been able to weep for them, either, at the time, and they all just got mixed up together and hit her like an avalanche one night.” She described what had happened the night Hilda threw teacups at the wall and prowled the Salon for hours, angrily berating her loved ones for leaving her without saying goodbye. “There was nothing silent about her that night. The sheer violence of her emotions shocked her, as it shocked Madge and me. I would never have suspected it of such a quiet, self-controlled person. Madge was very gentle with her and finally persuaded her to talk a little about her dead. That’s the why of those non-stop tears, I think. I’m so glad you were there for her, Helen, and that you grew so close.”

Helen was horrified. She’d known about Hilda’s mother’s death, but had had no idea she had been engaged. “The poor, poor woman,” she sighed. “No wonder she’s so good with those who are hurt by life. I wish I’d known. I might have been able to help more, because, after those first days, she kept it all inside. She didn’t want to cry in front of you all, when you were grieving so badly yourselves, though how she found the courage to talk about Nell, I have no idea. When you’d gone, she would fall silent. Oh, she let me stay, and held my hand for hours, but there were few tears after that and even fewer words.”

“No,” sighed Matey. “There weren’t many more tears at all until she went to the convent. What a blessing that was! Mother Abbess taught her to grieve properly, to walk through the pain and give in to it, instead of burying it six feet deep. She still tries to hide it, on occasions.” She laughed tiredly. “I’m not sure why I think weeping is such a good idea, when I wouldn’t let go myself, after my sister’s death. Hilda was the one who understood and sent me over to Jo.” She thought about those dark, dark days after Nell’s death and shivered. “Such a dreadful, dreadful time! We were all distraught ourselves, and couldn’t have helped her in any meaningful way. We were too close. Revealing herself would have been too hard. The only one she’d ever opened up to was Nell, so, lacking Nell, it all went underground – until she went to the convent and found Mother Abbess.”

Helen nodded. “I was so glad when I saw the close affection between them last November. Hilda was totally silent after she came round, which worried Jack immensely, but she broke down about her fears for Ian the instant Mother Abbess appeared. Mother knew exactly what to do, loving and bullying her in equal measures. Who else would she listen to and obey like that?” She gripped the hand she was holding. “I am so, so glad she’s going to enter, and be free of all the sad memories here. Now Ellie’s settled, she can go with a glad heart. I’ll miss her - and you – when you’re gone!”

Matey thought about Ian also leaving. Poor Helen! But she had her brother and Hilary and their children close by. Matey closed her eyes, praying for Hilda’s ever-present grief, and thanking Him for ensuring there had been new people to succour Hilda at a time when she was so lost and lonely. Her life had changed dramatically since then. How would she have survived intact without Mother Abbess and Ellie, a mother and a daughter to love her as Nell had? Not to mention the developing closeness with Ian and Vivien, who were also loved by Ellie. God had put them all into a bowl, stirred vigorously, added untold grace, and produced this strangely wonderful family. How was it, wondered Matey, that they thought her worthy to be a member?

She smiled and slept. Helen sighed with relief. It wasn’t often one saw Matey quite so shaken. She checked on Hilda and left the room, hoping peace would reign there for several hours.

*****

Nancy leapt to her feet when Ian walked through the study door. “How is she?”

Ian saw how harried she looked and sat her down on the couch. “Sitting up, talking nineteen to the dozen, trying to make everyone feel better, discussing the future... Need I say more?” Nancy’s jaw dropped, and Ian gave a rueful laugh. “No, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but she is on the mend, so please stop fretting. I know how dreadfully ill she was yesterday, but today really is a new day. A new life, too, I suppose, after that wondrous miracle! I think God’s in a tearing hurry to get her out of there, because she’s regaining her strength far more rapidly than is normal. Helen keeps trying to sit on her, but Hilda’s half-ignoring her, as though she knows something the rest of us don’t!” Nancy gaped. “She’s asleep now and hopefully will re-coup the energy she’s burned off in the last couple of hours.”

A little light crept into the blue eyes. “You really mean all that, don’t you?”

“I do, and she’s not the only one who’s being mended.” He told her the good news about Linda Stone, Marianne and Sarah. Nancy was stunned. “Ellie hand’s improving, too, and she’s in a much better place mentally.” He touched Nancy gently on the shoulder. “Believe in Him, Nancy. Trust Him for everything, as Hilda does. Miracles still happen. Try and remember all I said about prayer this morning. Earlier, Hilda called Him a God of surprises. I’d say he’s living up to that title, wouldn’t you?”

“Oh, Ian,” she sighed, tears sliding slowly down her cheeks. “Not that she doesn’t deserve it all!”

“Talking of Ellie, is there any chance Jeanne could visit later on? I could come and fetch her. Vivien did promise, when she saw her in the sixth form room.”

Nancy wiped away the tears. “She could if she were well, Ian, and I’m sure was looking forward to it, but she developed a very bad headache after break. It came on all of a sudden, and she was sick with it, so I tucked her up in Ellie’s bed. It’s quieter along there.”

Ian shook his head sadly. “Probably the after-effects of getting caught up in two very nasty incidents, one after the other. Perhaps she’d like to go home sooner, after all.”

“Tell Ellie we’ll look after her friend, and send her over when she feels better. As for going home, I thought she and Ellie were preparing to give Meg a helping hand when she got back.”

“They were, but I’m afraid Ellie won’t be here if Hilda isn’t.” He caught Nancy’s frown. “She’s downright terrified of running into Kathie, so Hilda promised her they’ll come back to school together.” He looked thoughtful. “Tell you what! Let me know if Jeanne recovers during the day, and I’ll dash across and get her. Meanwhile, how’s Kathie been? She told Vivien she was off to see what help she could offer the adult Jeanne.”

She took a deep breath to steady herself. “She’s been helping all morning! I don’t know how to thank you, Ian. Whatever you said, it seemed to galvanise her, and she’s offered her services willingly, filling in where necessary, and it has been necessary with two staff and Hilda missing. Such a change from the rejection I got when I asked her first thing.”

“Don’t ascribe all that to me, Nancy. Many prayers have been said for her latterly, and Vivien was very gentle with her yesterday and this morning, as were Mireille and Jeanne. I’m afraid I was rather harsh myself, and told her a few home truths. I did talk about Emilia, which you’d also done, and somehow ended up telling her my own war-time experience. It shook her, and made her think more about being content with what she has, because it can be so easily ripped away.” She raised her eyebrows. “I’ll tell you one day, Vivien, too, but it’s only thanks to Hilda I can now talk about it. She gave me back my self-respect and sense of self, refusing to let me call myself a coward.”

His eyes turned to the hearts with the gifts of the Holy Spirit inscribed on them, acknowledging to himself where Hilda found her own sense of self. Nancy searched his lean, sensitive face.

“You’re not a coward, Ian,” she said stoutly, “but you can always count on Hilda to raise you up when you’re down. I think you’re coming out of your shell more, though. You’ve always been an excellent giver of sermons, but Sunday’s was a corker.” She clapped her hand over her mouth. “Oops! Slang! Don’t tell Hilda!” Ian snorted. “Your talks this morning with the girls were incredible, especially the one with the sixths. It was such an adult conversation. I’m listening hard to you and Hilda, and learning more than I ever thought I could or would. Thank God He left her here, for I’m not ready for the big job yet.”

Smiling gently at her, he knew he had to make sure that the new chaplain who arrived in his place was good with youngsters, and also had an understanding of people who weren’t confident in their roles. That, of course, was if he was taken on as the new pastor in Norfolk.

He glanced at the clock. “Hm, I’d better get myself over to Upper IVB, but is there anything else I can do for you, before I go, Nancy?”

She shook her head. “You’ve got a few moments leeway. I hope you can shake them up and get them to smile again. Joan Bertram and Carmela have tried, but Tonia’s so upset it’s affecting the whole form. She still blames herself for Helen’s actions, despite all Hilda’s words, and Sarah’s burns are making everything worse.”

“I might have a word with her separately, but do you mind if I give them the good news about Sarah and the others?”

“Not at all! I’ll tell the rest at Mittagessen, but do whatever you think best to help her and the form.” She looked at her desk. “I’ll try and get across later to see Hilda and Linda, I can. But, as you can see, it’s just… there’s been so much to…”

He laid a hand on hers. “Nancy, you can only do what you can do. You’re running two schools and lacking several members of staff. Don’t wear yourself out. Delegate!”

Nancy rolled her eyes. “Like she does, you mean?”

He laughed. “She doesn’t, does she? Not since Nell died! It changed her.”

“Actually, Ian, that’s not really true about delegating, because she had to let some things go when she was first helping me run St Mildred’s. After all, she teaches, as well. She roped in Jeanne and Ruth to do some of the locking up at night, and Ruth’s helped with the admin for a good while now, though Hilda’s careful there, for Ruth has a very full time-table. Jeanne’s a good second-in-command where the girls’ personal problems are concerned, although Hilda handed Meg over to Joan Bertram once she’d settled down some, because she herself simply had too much to do. She’s a Head, after all, and there are certain things only a Head can do. Certainly only she could have coped with the fall-out after Saturday’s affair. As Head, it was her job to phone all the parents, for example. And her tender care of Tonia, Gillian, Barbara Henschell and even Helen that afternoon and evening was an example to everyone, especially to me. Mind, it was a shock to hear how much Jack had muscled in to help, but it did relieve my mind.”

“Matey did more than her fair share, too." He laughed. "As for you, telling Hilda to keep her nose out of patrolling the corridors that night. Brilliant stuff! She’s been told recently to ask for even more help, so it seems we’re all getting through.” They smiled at each other.

“I’m not sure there’s much more help she can ask for, though – except personal stuff,” mused Nancy. “She gives her heads of department free rein with their own subjects. She meets with them on a regular basis, but rarely intervenes. She trusts them, and is the sort of Head who makes her staff’s life easier, by not trying to manage everyone else’s job. Vivien had a Head of the other sort, and was glad to escape. She told me that when Hilda sent her over to keep me company the night we learned the full truth about Kathie’s shenanigans. How many Heads would have had such consideration and compassion for a member of staff, Ian?”

He shook his head. He knew all about Hilda’s consideration for others. “Would it help if I did all her Scripture lessons while she’s recovering? I draw the line at her literature classes.”

“No,” she laughed. “I think that would be a step too far. But she’s only got four Scripture lessons now, since Vivien, Jeanne and Ruth stole the others.”

He raised an eyebrow. “And she agreed?”

“I think they caught her at a bad moment!” Ian’s eyes danced. “She would only allow Ruth to steal one lesson, mind, since she’s head of English and was already making sure Linda’s lessons were covered. You could do that one, though, Ian. She and Mary Chapman are now trying to cover Hilda’s senior lit lessons. It would help Jeanne considerably, too, if you did her Scripture lessons, since she’s got far more to do in both schools while Hilda’s missing. I’ll set Kathie on some of them. Hang on, though. What about your patients?”

“It’s only till half term next week, isn’t it? With God’s grace, Hilda might well be back in harness after that. I have a feeling God’s on track to have her up and running long before she should be, or before Jack thinks she’s ready.”

“You’re kidding?”

He shook his head, wondering why he felt so strongly about this. It was as though he’d been given a promise. “God’s time is different from ours, and I think she’s living in His time right now. Sorry, I sound fey, don’t I?” He smiled shyly.

“No more than Hilda sometimes does!” Nancy’s lips twitched. “If you’re right, though, I wonder what Jack will make of it?”

He jumped to his feet with a laugh. “Since when did he stand a chance against Hilda? With God added into the mix…”

He grasped her hand for a moment in comfort, and was gone, leaving her staring after him and smiling. Was that angel dust she could see swirling in the air in his wake? With a shake of her head, she went next door to give Rosalie the good news about the patients. She would tell the school as a whole at Mittagesen. She reminded herself to ring Vi later, and also to tell Hilda about that morning’s phone call from Tessa’s father.

Ian, meanwhile, saw Nancy had been correct about Upper IVB. He laid his Bible on the desk, told them to be seated and looked round.

“My goodness! What gloomy faces! Cheer up, for goodness sake!” A few giggles erupted. “No one’s died, so far as I know. What did I tell you all this morning about Miss Annersley? I’m her, by the way, since she’s not available.” He looked down at himself. “Perhaps I should have worn her gown and red hood, so I look more like the real thing!” More giggles followed. “She’s come along in leaps and bounds since this morning, I might tell you, but please keep up the prayers.” He smiled happily. “I have even more good news for you now. Miss Stone has taken a turn for the better and is in less pain, and Sarah’s arm is improving sooner than expected, so they’ve allowed her to wake up, and she’s actually talking to her parents. So now?” he asked, arms spread wide.

He was rewarded by a visible lightening of the atmosphere. Some girls smiled with relief. He saw Tonia surreptitiously wiping away tears. She was very pale, with dark shadows under her eyes that would have horrified Hilda. He thought of the hour or so Hilda had spent comforting Tonia on Saturday evening, and arranging for her to sleep with the sixths. How he wished she were here to give her own special brand of comfort to the girl.

“Tonia, look at me,” he said softly. “I’ve had a word with Mrs Avison and she’d like you to visit Sarah once she’s roused more. She and her husband are ready to welcome you with open arms for being so generous and understanding with their daughter.” Astonishment filtered across the wan face. His lips twisted in a wry grin. “So would you now give me a smile, because I’m feeling rather unwelcome here with all these miserable faces before me.”

It was like the sun coming out. Through her tears, she gave him that smile, one that almost blinded him. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“Good girl! So, no more weeping and gnashing of teeth from any of you, right?” More smiles and giggles ran round the room. “That’s better. I can’t have my trainee shepherds going around looking so hangdog, now can I? You wouldn’t cheer any sheep up! What do you think Miss Annersley would say if she were here and saw your gloomy faces?” A few hands shot up. “Bella?”

“She’d tell us the end of the world hasn’t come yet, and to look for the silver lining.”

“Would she now?” he said thoughtfully. This was more than he had expected. “And is there one? A silver lining, I mean.”

Bella beamed. “They’re all now getting better, you said, Mr Stuart. So, yes!”

“Well, sort of! We usually look for a silver lining in the middle of disasters, not afterwards. You’re right about them all getting better, though, when they were all so very ill last night. Why have things changed, do you think? Especially for Marianne and Miss Stone who’ve been in the San a while now.” There was a flurry of hands this time. “Yes, Isobel.”

“The doctors have helped them.”

“They have, but who helped their doctors, and who quickened the pace of their recovery?”

“God,” whispered Tonia.

“Well done, dear,” Ian murmured. “It might sound strange, but I’ve sensed Him both here and in the San in the last twelve hours. Any ideas as to why? Yes, Julia?”

“Because of our prayers?” she said shyly.

“Indeed! The silver lining isn’t really that they’re getting better. It’s that, all through the worst of their injuries and illnesses, God held them firmly in His loving arms. He was listening to your prayers and those of others all around the globe. The result? He hastened their recovery.”

“But how do you know that, Mr Stuart?” asked Yvette.

“In Chapter 18 of St Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says:

‘For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

"You all gathered yesterday with me to pray. The staff and older girls got up at four this morning to pray together. My sister’s community of nuns were praying all night in chapel. Lady Russell and her husband were praying, as were the school in England, and so many, many people on the Platz. For Miss Annersley, yes, for she was very close to death, but for all the other sick, too. The Lord was there, in the midst of all those praying groups, holding you close, and holding even closer to Him all those you prayed for.”

All misery disappeared, even from Tonia’s face. He held up his Bible.

“In here, Jesus reminds us, time and time again, that He loves us, that He gave His life for us. He tells us to ask for anything we want, and to keep asking, to keep knocking, to be persistent, until we receive an answer. I said earlier that the answer may not always be Yes, but last night and today it was Yes! In glorious technicolour! I know! I was there, and I was dazzled!”

His eyes sparkled like polished emeralds, and they looked at him in awe, silenced by something far beyond themselves and their own knowledge.

“You like to help people you love, don’t you? Well, how much more does your Heavenly Father like to help those He loves! Each of your names is written on the palm of His hand, including Miss Annersley’s and Sarah’s. That’s so He always remembers you. He tells us, ‘I am with you always till the end of time’. Not just somewhere out there and far way, but here, all around us, even in your hearts and minds. He will never leave you nor forsake you. His hand is always held out to you, waiting for you to take it and walk with Him. So next time you have a worry or a trouble, or feel scared for yourself or a friend, remember that loving hand and reach out to take it. That’s your silver lining, whatever the circumstances in which you find yourselves.”

The sun shone more brightly through the windows. The faces before him looked much happier. Tonia thought about Miss Annersley's hand holding hers on Saturday night. It had been so comforting, and now gave her the courage to put up her hand.

“You said He loves us always, Mr Stuart,” she said hesitantly. “What about Helen? Does God love her, too? Even after what she’s done?”

He leaned against the desk and studied the miserable face. “Yes, God does love everyone, Tonia,” he replied gently. “He can’t help Himself. He is Love itself. He made us and we belong to Him, in the same way you belong to your parents. Do they go on loving you when you do something hurtful or downright wrong? Of course they do! Then how much more will He go on loving you! The trouble is that when we’ve done something wrong, we feel ashamed and turn away, wobbling and fragile, from that hand of His stretched out to us. We think He’ll be angry and stop loving us. Judas felt like that after he betrayed Jesus. What he did afterwards shows us that. What did he do?” Hands shot up. “Alison?”

“He hanged himself from a tree.”

“Yes, he gave in to despair, because he thought God would never forgive Him for his shameful betrayal of Jesus. Whereas Peter, who denied three times that he even knew Jesus, was immediately sorry for that betrayal of their friendship. He did what we should all do in our sorrow and shame - take that loving hand held out to us, and press closer to Him, begging His pardon and promising to do better. Your Heavenly Father will never, ever reject you.” He watched Tonia’s troubled face. “Miss Annersley always forgives you when you say sorry, doesn't she? She does that because she tries always to follow her Heavenly Father’s example. He blots out our transgressions, forgets all about them, and so does she, putting them from her mind.”

Tonia’s face fell. “But Helen wasn’t sorry, was she?” she whispered miserably. “She wouldn’t even say sorry to Miss Annersley. So how can God forgive her?”

“How do you know, Tonia?” he asked softly. Surprise filled her eyes. “If there is even just one tiny, tiny crumb of regret or sorrow in her heart, it’s enough. He will accept it and use it for her good. He wants only the best for her – but she has to want that best for herself, as you wanted it when you went wrong. Look how Miss Annersley encouraged you, Julia and Bella, once she saw you regretted your silliness and began to change. She made you Form Prefect and deputies, forgiving you and showing her trust in you, even though what she offered you was terrifying to you. You felt too fragile to cope, at first.” They grinned. “God is the same. He takes the least little fragile spark of shame and uses it, forgiving us and holding out His hand. All Helen has to do is take that loving hand, and cling to it.” He paused, added gently, “And you can all make it easier for her to do that.”

“How?” asked Yvette blankly, then blushed and covered her mouth. “Sorry, Mr Stuart, I didn’t mean to be rude.”

“What a lovely example of instant regret and sorrow, Yvette!” He grinned. “See what I mean? It’s not that hard! Don’t worry, Yvette. We’re just having a friendly chat, so feel free to chip in at any time.” She sighed with relief. “You asked how you can help her be sorry. You all know how.”

“By praying for her,” said Alison, the former Form Captain.

“Did any of you actually do that, after Miss Annersley’s words last Saturday evening? She suggested you pray for Helen and her parents, but have you been too angry and upset to do so?”

They shifted in the chairs, looked away, cleared their throats, fiddled with their bibles, but he noticed Tonia and her deputies remained very still, their eyes steady on him. He nodded. “You three girls have been praying, haven’t you? I can see by their faces that Christine and Marie-Luce have, too. They were feeling very fragile after what happened to Miss Stone and the way some of you then treated them, but they’ve listened to Miss Annersley, and been helped by Tonia and co, and are now turning a corner.” The others began to look rather ashamed. “No, don’t think badly of yourselves. We’re all human. We all get angry and refuse to pray for those who’ve hurt us. God knows it, and doesn’t expect warm, fuzzy feelings to flood our hearts for them. But you can will those prayers, girls. Even if you don’t feel forgiving, you can still ask God to help Helen.”

They looked puzzled. A few even seemed horrified. Did they think he was asking them to lie to God?

“Let me give you an example. Tonia, tell me, when you held out your hand to Helen on Saturday morning in Miss Annersley’s study, did you feel loving and forgiving?”

Her eyes grew round with shock at being put on the spot. She chewed her lip, staring at him, but she saw the encouragement in his eyes and shook her head. “No way! She’d hurt Sarah, forcing her to get me into trouble. Helen tripped me up several times, and tried to push me off the climbing frame. I didn’t love her at all,” she whispered, fiddling with her plait.

“Yet you forgave Sarah, your friend who betrayed you. You were afraid and feeling fragile after all that happened, and yet you told her you’d be brave for her.”

“Because she was bullied into hurting me by Helen! But Helen chose to hurt us both. She loved hurting people.”

“You still held out your hand to her,” he said very softly.

Tonia kept her eyes on him. “She’d been my friend… and she looked angry and miserable… and was in a lot of trouble… so how could I not? I wanted her to know I didn’t hate her… and I ho… I hoped she still wanted to be friends…”

“But she didn’t, did she? She was doing the same as Judas, ignoring the hand of friendship held out to her.”

She shook her head, tears trickling down her cheeks. She tried to speak, licked her lips, tried again. “But it was also because it was my fault she was in trouble. Miss Annersley said I should have… told her about Helen.. but I hadn’t want to get her into more trouble… so I was trying to…” Her tears overcome her.

“You were trying to ask forgiveness for that – even though she’d hurt you and Sarah?”

Tonia nodded. Bella put an arm round her, and she buried her face in Bella’s shoulder. Silence fell. Ian’s heart contracted.

“Tonia, you are one of the bravest, most generous, forgiving people I've ever known, dear,” he said softly. “Added to that, you’re loving and faithful to your friends. I’m sorry I put you on the spot, but you’ve already been putting into action what I was trying to get across to the others.”

His voice faded as a smattering of gentle applause took its place, led by Yvette. Applause that took its courage in both hands and grew stronger, then gradually faded away.

“Tonia deserved that, girls, so thank you,” he smiled round. “Do you now see what I meant about not needing to have warm, fuzzy feelings to forgive someone? Tonia felt anything but lovey-dovey towards Helen, yet made herself hold out her hand.” He looked at the others, some of whom were wiping away tears. “You have a very strong, upright Form Captain, girls, but you can see how miserable all this has made her, so perhaps you’d be extra nice to her today. I’ll certainly be praying for her, as I am for Sarah and Helen.”

Tonia lifted her head and peered through her fingers at him. He smiled and winked. She responded with a tiny smile of her own, took the handkerchief Julia was offering and wiped her face, feeling thoroughly embarrassed, but also warm inside that he understood her feelings, when she didn’t understand them herself.

“Try to follow Tonia’s brave example and will yourself to pray for Helen, even if you’re still upset, in the same way she willed herself to hold out that hand. You’ll find that the more you ask Him to help Helen, the more your own feelings will soften towards her. I know that’s true, because it’s happened to me. You’ll also find that God has drawn nearer to you: a reward for your generosity. So, will you try?”

Some nodded. Some held back. Some looked as though he’d asked them to fly to the moon!

“What will Helen do about school?” asked a voice suddenly from the back.

“Miss Wilmot or Miss Annersley will be informing the education authority in her area that she’s left our school and is now in their charge. They’ll try to find her a new school.”

“She hates school,” whispered a girl at the front.

“So it would seem, Greta, but your prayers could change even that.”

“But…” Tonia began, then hesitated. He nodded for her to continue. “If she started fires in our school… and deliberately burned two girls… mightn’t she do the same again somewhere else?” she asked slowly. “Would any school be willing to let her in?”

He could see how much this was bothering her. After all, she had been Helen’s friend, and got up to enough mischief of her own until recently. He saw some of the others nodding.

He jingled the coins in his pocket. Where are you, Hilda? You’re so much better at these frank and open conversations with your girls than I am.

“The honest answer is that I don’t know, dear.” His eyes dwelt kindly on her face as it fell. “It will take a great amount of trust on someone’s part to accept her, so do you now see why she’s in desperate need of all our prayers? Why not ask Miss Bertram to pray with you in here every morning for Helen, just before the bell for school Prayers? It only need be for two minutes, just a turning of your heart and mind to God for her. I would imagine she’s one very unhappy girl.”

“I’ll ask her, Mr Stuart,” said Tonia, her chin determined. She was looking more cheerful now there was something she could do for her erstwhile friend.

He could see them maturing before his eyes. “Good girl, Tonia. You know, girls, facing new challenges, as you all are, or having to find some courage deep down to cope with severe pain, like poor Sarah’s doing, makes us stronger, not weaker. Each hard thing you face down strengthens you for the next. And when you’re broken, as Helen is, the cracks allow God to creep in and build you up and renew you. So don’t despair when life seems hard. Reach for that loving hand held out to you and watch what He will do in you.”



*****
End Notes:
The chapter title is taken from the poems of Dom Hélder Câmara, a Brazilian Roman Catholic Archbishop. He Inspired Latin America’s liberation theology, and was a fierce champion of the poor – later to be black-listed by Brazilian military dictatorship, and dying in 1999. A quote from him:

'When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.'
Chapter 9 - Two Young Warrior Souls by MaryR
Author's Notes:
What an interesting and thoughtful mix of review! Thank you, one and all, as it was hardly riveting stuff. Not too sure about this one, either, but it's shorter than usual, so you can relax. *winks*
12.30pm

Ian watched the girls assimilate his last words, and was relieved to see smiles popping up here and there. He glanced at the clock. “Goodness, your next lesson’s due to start any moment now. Who’s coming along?”

“Miss Bertram,” said Bella, noticing that Tonia was beyond words.

He nodded. “Let me just add before I leave you, girls, that what I’ve asked of you is not easy. Following Jesus is not for sissies!” Some of the girls burst out laughing. “It’s true, you know. It requires constant effort to remember to turn to God when we meet problems, rather than weeping and wailing about them. Whether the need is great or small, the more we turn to Him, the easier it becomes. But what would also please Him is that you first say thank you to Him, for being such a loving and giving Lord. Prayer and praise should always go hand in hand.” He smiled. “Enough said, I think! I’ll leave you to mull it over till your next Scripture lesson, which may be with me again, as Miss Annersley will probably need to rest when she returns.” He saw more eager smiles and was astonished, having never regarded himself as being of much importance. “Tonia, while the others get their books ready for the next lesson, may I see you outside?”

He picked up his Bible and left the room, a song in his heart. They were over the worst, by the looks of it, as was Hilda, Deo gratias, but he feared Tonia herself still had a way to go. Hopefully, Hilda would be there to support her before too long.

He leaned against the wall, studying Tonia’s face as she came out and turned his way. “You still blame yourself for Helen’s actions,” he stated gently. She nodded, her face a picture of misery. “But why, dear? Miss Annersley cleared it all up for you the other night. It seemed to me she was very insistent that none of it was your fault.”

She shoved her hands in her blazer pocket, looked down at the floor. “She was angry...”

He frowned. “Miss Annersley?”

“No, Helen! She was angry with me, and with Julia and Bella. With Sarah, too, for being so frightened by Miss Annersley that she admitted what she’d done, that Helen had blackmailed her into it… That’s why Helen burned her, I’m sure. I’d kept quiet about Helen shoving me and tripping me up, but then Bella and Julia told Miss Annersley. Only it was me Helen’d been trying to hurt, because she blamed me, even though I’d said nothing.” She looked up. “That’s why she wouldn’t shake my hand. She hated me. I saw it in her eyes.”

“Tonia, she was jealous of you, because, to her mind, you’d become the Abbess’s blue-eyed girl. That’s why she was trying to hurt you, and why she wouldn’t shake your hand. You’d turned your back on all your silly ways, so she felt you’d also turned your back on her, as the instigator of all that silliness. She was, wasn’t she? We all know you hadn’t turned your back on her. You still tried to include her, but she wouldn’t have it, didn’t want to be what she called ‘a goody-goody’. Why, you even took the fall for her over that silly marble episode, so she thought she had you where she wanted you. But she didn’t, not after Miss Stone’s accident, when you started to think for yourself. She was then angry and jealous that you’d suddenly become flavour of the month and made Form Prefect. You can’t take the blame for everyone else’s faults and mistakes, dear, only your own. Just as you can only change your own ways, not anyone else’s. They have to want it for themselves, and Helen didn’t. The only one responsible for Helen’s downfall is Helen herself. You tried to help her. There was nothing more you could have done.”

Tears filled her eyes again, and Ian felt saddened for her unhealed misery. “Mind, you’re in good company! Miss Annersley also blamed herself, thinking she should have noticed Helen’s anger and resentment before they blew up to such an alarming degree that it sent her on the rampage. But she doesn’t blame herself anymore!” Tonia’s jaw dropped. “How could she lay the blame on her own head, when you refused to tell her the truth?” He winked. “She’s the Head, so she shoulders the burden and the blame, as all good Heads do, even when it’s not their fault. Helen’s father blames her for everything, even his daughter’s behaviour, just as Helen blames you. Such people never blame themselves, I’m afraid. However, your dad and Sarah’s blame Helen’s father. Your dad was very clear on that point. He’s upset you were Helen’s target, but very proud of the way you’ve changed.” More tears fell, but a smile also peeped out.

Ian wondered whether he ought to be revealing so much, but this girl had been very badly hurt by Helen. “Miss Annersley, you, Bella, Julia, Carmela and Miss Bertram all tried to help Helen see the error of her ways, but she wouldn’t listen, because her father’s always spoiled her and allowed her to do as she wants. We can see the results, can’t we? We now know that your father and Sarah’s refused to go on having her as a guest. That upset her, too, and made her angrier still. Helen was an unstoppable force, Tonia, and she was trying to crush you, in revenge for you giving up your old ways, for her being denied visits to your house, and for all sorts of other things we probably don’t want to know. She very nearly did crush you with her silly antics, when you ended up with a bang on the head. You were lucky to escape worse, so please don’t go on blaming yourself,” he finished with some urgency

By the end, she was staring at him open-mouthed. A little light finally erased the misery in her eyes. He grinned. “Now you’re listening! I shouldn’t really have said all that, so please don’t repeat it, but I think you’re mature enough to hear the truth. Your proud dad did send a big hug via Doctor Jack. You’d have got it before now, but for Miss Annersley’s collapse yesterday. Consider it passed on, and know that he and your mum are very, very proud of you.”

Tears decorated her cheeks. “Dad told me when Miss Annersley let me speak to them on Saturday night. Why was she so good to me, Mr Stuart? I didn’t deserve it, not after all my mischief.”

She recalled the feel of that warm, comforting hand holding hers securely in the long, dark corridors, as though she was a small child needing reassurance. And she had received reassurance, by being allowed to sleep with the prefects and Matron Henschell.

“For Miss Annersley, it doesn’t matter whether you deserve it or not, Tonia. She’s always ready to support anyone who hurts as much as you hurt that night.” He saw she was looking more relaxed, so added firmly, “You’re now going to use the memory of that love and support she gave you. For her sake, you’re going back in there to lead your form as it needs leading, because there are still a few who might be tempted to copy Helen. Show them a different way, a happier way, but do it light-heartedly. Leave the glums behind.” She giggled. “You, Bella and Julia, with Carmela and Miss Bertram behind you, can do it between you. Then, when your form moves up to the fifth, it will have a different, shinier reputation, and be a fantastic example to the lower forms.”

He mouth dropped open in shock. Ian heard footsteps behind him and swung round. “Speak of the devil,” he muttered with a smile.

Joan Bertram gasped and stared at him, wondering whether to be angry. Tonia giggled again. Ian took Joan’s hand.

“I’m sorry! All I meant was that you came pat upon your cue, Miss Bertram,” he said, giving her a broad wink. “I’m glad you’re taking them now, because I think you’ll find them a little more cheerful. Tonia has something to ask of you, though. Something I suggested the form do as a whole for Helen, so I hope you’ll help.” Joan smiled at them both. Ian straightened up and prepared to leave. “Miss Wilmot has yet more good news to give you at Mittagessen, about all our patients over in the San. Oh, and Tonia, you may tell Carmela all I said out here as well as in there. I’m sure she’ll be willing to help. Tell Miss Bertram, as well.”

Tonia nodded, her eyes now shining. He had issued a challenge and she was prepared to take it up, and make her father even prouder. “Thank you, Mr Stuart. Please tell Miss Annersley I’ll try not to feel guilty anymore, and she mustn’t, either. Tell her I’ve learned my lesson about keeping things from her. You’ve really helped me.”

“God bless you, Tonia. You’ll go far! You’ve a warrior’s soul lurking in there somewhere!”

She giggled again. Joan took her arm and winked at Ian. He raised his hand in farewell and left the corridor, feeling perhaps he had said too much. He hoped Hilda would understand.

He was soon back in the study, where he found Nancy also looking brighter. “I’ve got through more work in the last half hour or so, than I’d managed all morning before you appeared. So thank you, Ian. You’re so like Hilda, with your coaxing ways.”

He shook his head. “Not in a month of Sundays, Nancy! I can see you’re looking much shinier, though, as are Tonia and her form. I had a few private words with her after the lesson, and hope I’ve scotched her self-blame for good. Yes, I’m afraid it was still churning away inside and making her really miserable. I had also hoped to talk to Carmela and Mireille this morning, but I’ve told Tonia she may give Carmela and Joan Bertram the gist of my words, which just leaves Mireille, if it’s possible. I did want to have a chat with Jeanne, as well, but…”

“How did you know?” He frowned. “It’s just… Mireille’s been looking a bit ragged round the edges as the morning’s gone on, and I’m wondering if Kathie’s outburst has caught up with her.” Nancy went across to peruse the large timetable. “She’s free now, so she could be anywhere. Why not pop up to her little study, or try the library?”

He shook his head and described Hilda’s reactions to Jack spending Saturday night sleeping outside Helen’s dorm. “Okay, the library’s not too bad, but I shouldn’t be lurking upstairs on my own. It’s different if I’m taken there by you or Hilda to see someone who’s sick.”

Nancy metaphorically picked herself up from the floor. “Trust Hilda to be so on the ball!” she gasped. “And she’s right! Some girls would indeed make a big thing of it, and then it would be further embroidered and we’d have the parents after us. Hmm, what did I say about learning all I can from her?” He gave her a gentle smile. “Come on! We’ll go and find her together. I need the exercise.”

They ran Mireille to earth in the library. Nancy was shocked by the girl’s increasingly white, anxious face, and succeeded in enticing her out of the library. She surely needed a dose of something stronger than her books! Ian drew her over to a quiet corner of the corridor, and Nancy left them to it. He was such a godly man, she thought, just like his sister, to whom she owed a great deal. Where did they and Hilda come by their wisdom? Even as she asked herself the question, she knew the answer.

“How is Miss Annersley now, Mr Stuart?” Mireille asked eagerly. “And Ellie?”

“Your Headmistress is making such great strides that they’re having a hard time tying her down.” He winked and she gurgled, which had been his intention. “Seriously, she’s doing remarkably well, Mireille, but please keep up the prayers that her recovery continues. She’s not completely out of the woods yet. Ellie was very upset again this morning about Miss Ferrars’s attack, but we’ve managed to side-track her with good news of a different sort, and Miss Knowles is now over there trying to keep up her spirits. It would appear Jeanne’s also still very upset, since she’s gone to bed with a bad head, so how about your own good self? I think Miss Annersley would like to know. She’s been very worried about you both, since she couldn’t be here for you after it happened.”

The smile left her face and she sighed. “She did spend a little time with me, assuring me I hadn't been rude to Miss Ferrars, just done what I could to protect Ellie. But I’m sorry about Jeanne. She didn’t deserve to get caught up in that episode, when she’d already been caught up in Helen’s actions, which reminded her of the fire at home when she was younger, and which she only escaped by the skin of her teeth. She told me about it last night, you know. It must have been terrifying for them all.” He nodded, letting her talk and watching the distress blooming in her white face. There were dark shadows beneath her eyes. Had she slept at all? “Getting caught up in Miss Ferrars’ dangerous attack, on top of all that, was probably just too much for her. I’m not at all surprised Ellie’s still upset, though. It was horrible… nasty… and she was in so much pain.” She broke off, anger flickering in those gentle brown eyes.

“Surprisingly, her hand’s much better, Mireille, so please don’t worry about it. You did your very best for her yesterday morning. I gather you asked Miss Ferrars later why she was so jealous, and offered to help her with it.”

“I didn’t want to help her,” she whispered, “but Miss Annersley talks so often about forgiveness, and about not hating the sinner, and I do know how jealousy can make you feel, so I made my offer. I mentioned a few things Tessa taught me when I was jealous of Gillian. I hoped it would help, and she and I had quite a long chat about it, but I did say I’d only forgive her if she said sorry to Ellie.” She grimaced. “It wasn’t a very pretty thing to say, was it?”

“I think it showed great courage, dear, and I can tell you now that you made her think. Yes, she told me what you'd said, and admitted you had the right, after the way she treated you.” He touched her shoulder gently. “But you’re still angry, aren’t you?”

She nodded, chewing her lip. “I feel even angrier today than I did yesterday, probably because I lay thinking about it all night, or at least until we got up to pray for Miss Annersely. There was no reason for that horrid scene, you know, Mr Stuart. She just… exploded, like a bomb! Ellie had done nothing but to trip up and fall into her, so why? She and Jeanne are such beautiful girls, and to watch them being attacked so horribly was…” She shrugged her shoulders.

“I gather she also attacked you verbally, but I think you felt, as Head Girl, that you had to control your own anger and shock and help everyone else, even Miss Ferrars, didn’t you? That’s why all this anger is erupting now. I know you kept between her and Ellie as much as you could, to stop her inflicting even more pain and cruel words on Ellie.”

She sighed miserably, looking at the floor as she spoke. “Miss Ferrars was beyond reason, so it was mad even to try to tell her Ellie couldn’t get up on her own, which is what she was shouting at her to do. She wouldn’t listen, so all I could do was get between them, because Ellie was in absolute agony. Jeanne tried, too, even though she was terrified, and also had to be a little more careful about disobeying a mistress.” She looked up at him, her eyes grim. “If Miss Annersley hadn’t intervened, I really think Miss Ferrars might have killed Ellie, because she was so… so… without mercy, you know.”

Ian was truly shocked, but realised that Mireille could only speak as she had found, and Hilda herself had said much the same about Kathie’s complete lack of self-control. Kathie really had been completely off her rocker during those pitiless, ruthless moments. To see such savagery coming from a mistress, and one they used to admire, was what had made it so terrifying for the girls.

The wonder of it was that Hilda hadn’t sacked Kathie on the spot, but, instead, had given her one last chance. Was that utter foolishness, or did she feel that she could do no less than God would have done, offering everyone another chance? The fact that it involved her own ward had complicated the whole affair, of course, and possibly tied her hands. For, if she had sacked her there and then, Kathie could have accused her of favouritism, even though everyone knew Hilda would have behaved in exactly the same way, no matter who the girl was. You didn’t hurt one of Hilda’s girls and get away with it!

“God saw to it there was help at hand, dear, before more harm was done,” he said softly. “He’s helping Ellie, now, in all sorts of magnificent ways, thanks to everyone’s prayers, so could you try putting it out of your mind for short periods, by reading a book or playing the piano or talking to a friend, and giving yourself time to calm down?” Her face showed her distrust of this advice. “Is it interfering with your studying?”

She nodded. “It gets between the words and my eyes, yes. And thinking about it, and about Miss Annersley, kept me awake most of the night. I was almost glad to get up at four o’clock and do something. Prayer seemed to calm me down, you know. ”

“Have you tried talking about it with Gillian and Carmela?”

“Yes, but... Gillian’s temper gets the better of her when her friends are hurting, and she’s worried about Miss Annersley, too. She’s very fond of her.” She took a deep, quivering breath. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be moaning about my friends.”

“But she’s not helping, is she?”

She shook her head. Ian thought about the quietness of the girl who had asked Hilda, on Saturday evening, if she and her friends could write to her when they left, so they could learn how to grow more like their Headmistress. It had been a genuine request on Gillian’s part, for she had been trying so hard to learn patience this term, but she was one of those involved in Helen’s rampage, so to hear about Kathie’s rampage on top of that must really have stirred her anger. She, Mireille and Carmela, at the very least, probably assumed that Kathie’s actions had precipitated Hilda’s collapse – and they loved their Headmistress.

“You know, Mireille, Jesus says to us in our troubles: ‘In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.’ If we trust Him, our troubles will never overcome us, for He will always be there with us.” Her anxious brown eyes pleaded with him for more. He considered her ravaged face and made a decision. “How would you like to take a break, and come over to the San with me?”

Her eyes widened. She gaped at him. “But… I need to be here. I’m the Head Girl.”

He leaned toward her and whispered, “Your Head Teacher is over there, so why not her Head Girl, tell me?” Her eyes brightened. “You could have lunch with Matron Lloyd and me, or go and play with Miss Knowles, Ellie and Marianne doing origami and whatnot. Would either of those options help your current state of mind?”

“I think so, but I’ll have to tell the others.”

“Well, you go and warn your second-in-command, while I consult with Miss Wilmot.”

He watched her return to the library to rescue her books, then walked away and back to the study, wondering whether he was doing any good at all. He found Nancy was in complete agreement with his scheme for Mireille, however.

“It’s a brilliant idea, and just what Hilda would have done, so thank you, Ian.” He blushed. “Mireille’s been white and very quiet since your chat with the sixths earlier, so I think perhaps there’s a lot going in inside and she feels responsible for everything, being Head Girl.”

“That’s why she dove in to protect Ellie yesterday, and tried to make Kathie see sense. I’d say Hilda chose her Head Girl well this term, even though she had to fight Kathie to make it happen.”

Nancy stilled. Her eyes widened in horror. “That’s why Kathie made those baseless accusations yesterday! About Mireille being too big for her boots!” she whispered. “I know she still feels resentful that she didn’t get her own way about it, though Heaven knows why, seeing as it’s in Hilda’s remit alone. Asking us all was only a courtesy on her part. Did the fact that Mireille was there in that corridor - and not only there, but protesting at her dreadful treatment of Ellie - pour hot coals on her anger and make it worse? I know she has no time for the girl, and probably blames her for Hilda’s hatchet job at that staff meeting. Which is absolute nonsense, of course! Oh, Ian…”

He ran his hands through his hair, ruffling it. “Don’t upset yourself even more, Nancy. I never thought of that being a flashpoint for Kathie’s fury, but you’re probably right. Poor Mireille!”

Nancy shook herself. “Take her away, Ian, and keep her there for the day, if necessary. She’s a lovely girl, and it’s not right she should suffer for Kathie’s prejudices. If Jeanne feels better later, I’ll send her over, too, or bring her myself when I make time to visit.” She laughed somewhat harshly. “There’ll soon be more of our school over there than here.”

“Hope not, or we’ll run out of beds!" She laughed and shook her head at him. "Er, talking of Kathie, is she available?”

“No, she’s teaching, thanks to your persuasion.”

He pulled an envelope from his pocket. “Then would you give her this for me? It doesn’t need an answer.”

She took it and placed it on her desk. “I’ll make sure she gets it. Will it help her or us?”

“I hope both,” he said with a sigh. “Everything’s out of kilter because of her, isn’t it? Let’s see if our prayers and support can help bring a little sanity into the situation. After what I heard from Mireille just now, and from talking to Kathie earlier, the sooner my sister can get hold of her, the better!”

Nancy’s face fell. “Do you think your sister can help her? You’ve done your own part, though, Ian, and brought a great deal more than a little sanity all round. She’s been very quiet since you spoke to her, and amenable enough to agree to taking several lessons. For that mercy I can’t thank you enough.” A few tears escaped and ran down her cheeks, but she wiped them away irritably. “I refuse to let her upset me more than she already has. She’s done enough of that with Hilda.”

He nodded, his face grave. He took her hands in his and spoke a quiet blessing, then traced a cross on her forehead. A little peace settled in her heart.

Mireille, meanwhile, shot upstairs to return her books to her little study, then went back down and along to the form room, where she knew Carmela and Gillian were working. They looked up when she entered and she gestured for them to join her in the corridor. She had no wish for anyone else to know where she was going. Quickly she explained.

Gillian’s face showed regret. “You were hiding it all, weren’t you?” Mireille nodded. “It’s my fault. I just blow up and say things I don’t really mean, and then you either put me straight, or go inside yourself. That’s what you’ve been doing, I guess. I’m sorry, love. I didn’t mean any of it.”

Mireille put an arm round her. “Ça va, chérie,” she whispered. “I know it’s out of love for me, but, sometimes, I just want you to listen quietly, not get angry for me, you know. Anger never helps, just confuses me, and I can’t afford to be confused just now. There are so many hurt and troubled girls in the school and they all need calm, especially those attacked by Miss Ferrars. It would seem Jeanne is ill now and has been put to bed. Is it any wonder, when she was caught up in Helen’s fires, and then yesterday in Miss Ferrars’s attack? I think Mr Stuart is right. Going away for a few hours will help my brain sort itself out, so I can help these girls, you know. I wish Jeanne could come, as well.”

She laid her forehead against Gillian’s shoulder and closed her eyes. Gillian’s arms went round her, and held her tight. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered, tears welling up in her eyes. “I’m useless as a friend, aren’t I?”

Mireille shook her head. “You’re a good, good friend, but I just wish Tessa were here. She would have been so much better at calming people down and making things better .”

Carmela had been listening in silence, but now closed her arms round both of them. “Don’t cry, you two! Mireille, go with Mr Stuart and have a breather. You’ve needed it! It’s hard when so many things have happened on your watch, but, dearest, you must know that you’ve helped and supported everyone just as much as ever Tessa would have done. Please don’t think any the worse of yourself for falling apart now. It happens to all of us when the disasters are over. Just tell yourself you’re doing great and we’re all proud of you.”

Mireille sobbed. “I just can’t stop thinking of Miss Ferrars’ angry face… and the awful pain Ellie was in… She was helpless, and yet Miss Ferrars just went on and on at her…”

Gillian’s arms tightened round her. “I know, love, I know. I keep thinking of Helen’s angry face when I caught her, and poor Sarah sobbing her heart out. I see them both when I close my eyes at night.” She sighed. “As for the Abbess, I saw how shocked she was when she walked in. I’m not sure how she dealt with Helen, when she must have longed to sit down and have a good weep herself. And yet, she still cared about the pain of my burn and made sure I was taken care of, and then comforted Jeanne… She’s just wonderful. When I think how we nearly lost her…”

“Hey, hey, come on, you two,” Carmela said softly. “I know you’ve both had a huge shock, and I know you’re the Head Girl, Mireille, and have had to deal with some of it, but the one we should really feel sorry for is the Abbess. She’s had Helen and Miss Ferrars to sort out. There’s been Miss Stone’s accident, and then Marianne’s, as well as her own last November. She lost Miss Wilson last year. She got shot in the summer holidays. Yet, as Gillian says, she puts all that to one side and takes care of us, puts us first. Can we do any less? She hasn’t fallen on her sword, so neither must we.”

Mireille straightened up, stepped out of Gillian’s arms and blew her nose. She tried to smile at Carmela. “The voice of reason! You’re right, mon amie, we can’t do any less, nor let her down. I’m sorry for being such a cry-baby.”

Gillian shook her gently. “You’re never a cry-baby, my friend. I’m proud of you for all you’ve done this term. Same with you, Carmela!” She pushed Mireille gently. “Go on! Mr Stuart will be wondering where you’ve got to. Have fun! If you do see the Abbess, give her all our love.”

Ian and Mireille spoke very little, at first, on the way to the San, but he was relieved when he saw her face relax, and a little colour creep into her cheeks. Her eyes grew brighter as they absorbed the still beauty of the day, and the snow sparkling on the higher peaks. Getting away had done the trick, giving her mind something else on which to focus.

“Feeling a little better now?”

She turned and smiled. “Thank you, Mr Stuart. I do feel better, you know. I had a little weep over Gillian and Carmela, which also helped. But it was silly of me to be angry and upset.”

He laid a gentle hand briefly on hers. “It wasn’t silly at all, but perfectly normal. You and Miss Annersley – and the prefects – have had a tremendous number of problems to tackle this term, and you yourself have done a magnificent job trying to make life easier for her and the school, so please don’t run yourself down. I’m not sure even Tessa would have had the temerity to protect Ellie, as you did, in the face of Miss Ferrars’ anger, nor indeed the courage to suggest to her that she was jealous and would she like some help. You have a warrior’s soul, child.”

She shook her head and giggled. “It just seemed natural to offer, you know.” She stared out at the snow. “I think… I think it’s because of all the talks I’ve had with the Abbess this term, once I’d got over my shyness. She lets me say what I think and feel about matters in school, encourages me to be honest about things, and makes me examine my own motives and behaviour. You know, if anyone has a warrior’s soul, it’s the Abbess.”

“I wouldn’t argue with you there! She will always go where no one else will, and delve deeper than most people would dare.” He smiled to himself as he spoke. Hilda would blush to hear such words. “She trusts you, Mireille,” he added softly.

Her smile was sweet to see, and he was satisfied.

When they got to the San, he peeped round Hilda’s door and was astonished to see Matey lying down. But her eyes were open, fastened on Hilda across the room. She looked his way, and nodded when he raised his eyebrows and beckoned to her. They had to wait a few minutes for her to come out, and he surmised she was leaning over the sleeping Hilda, making sure all was well. When she did appear, she looked with complete astonishment at the Head Girl, then smiled her understanding when Ian explained.

“What a good idea! We’d love to have Mittagessen with him, wouldn’t we, dear? Then we can throw him out and you can tell me all about it.”

Mireille choked. Ian roared with laughter. Trust Gwynneth to put the girl at ease!

“Unless you’d rather go and play with Ellie and the others,” he offered.

Mireille looked at him thoughtfully. “Not at the moment, I don’t think. I just want to talk, but to an adult who can help me find the balance, you know.”

Her brown eyes turned and sought Matey’s, who at once took her arm with one hand and accepted Ian’s door key with the other. “I think we need to put some colour in those white cheeks first, dear, and then we can talk and find that balance!”

“I’ll go along and see what I can scrounge. Make yourselves comfortable, and I’ll be as quick as I can. You’re looking more yourself, by the way, Matron Lloyd. Did Matron Graves force you into having a kip? She’s jolly good at that!” he joked. Matey blushed and nodded.

Looking at his watch as they walked away, he saw with astonishment that it was nearly thirteen thirty, and hoped there would be some food left that would tempt a young girl’s appetite. First of all, however, he sneaked silently into the room and stood looking down at Hilda, noting with joy the utter peace in her still face.

Don’t stop now, loving Father. You’ve brought her this far in double quick time, having mercifully decided to leave her here, for which there are not enough thanks in all the world. But the girls and staff are in desperate need of her great wisdom and peaceful spirit, and they need them now, not next week or next month! So please keep up this quick improvement and go on confounding Jack. It’s great fun watching his bewilderment and wonder.



*****
Chapter 10 - Some Precious Essence by MaryR
Author's Notes:
It's by pure chance that I'm posting this on St Hilda's feast day - or at least it's her feast in the Catholic church, so being at Mass this morning was an added touch to the unfolding of this tale. Thank you for the insights on the last chapter. I enjoyed the fact that so many of you lapped up Jack being confounded and bemused. I'm afraid I got carried away with this chapter, though. I wanted to show Ellie and Vivien taking their relationship further, after Ellie was told the news, but it didn't go quite the way I wanted... and may flummox some people.
Turning the clock back to 11.30am again

Leaving Hilda’s room and pushing the wheelchair through the long, twisting corridors, Vivien found Ellie unusually quiet and pensive. Was she still fretting about losing Hilda? Would she rather have stayed and watched her guardian sleep? Drawing to a halt, she put the brake on the chair, knelt by the girl and took her hands comfortingly, smiling the while.

“Thank you, dearest,” she said softly in French. “Thank you so much for accepting my offer of a home when school is over for you.” Ellie’s face lit up briefly. “I know you would have preferred to live with Madame, so to see you excited about it made me very happy. I’ve lived alone for too long and you’ll be the perfect companion. I think we get along well.”

Ellie leaned her head against Vivien’s. “If I can’t live with Madame, then you are the person I would choose to live with, you know. After Madame and my aunt, you and Mr Stuart are my favourite people in all the world now, and Matron Lloyd is also very good to me. Madame, she explained to me about God calling her to the convent before I met her, and she says she can use there all she has learned in her life.” Her blue eyes were very sad when her head turned Vivien’s way. “It will be a perfect finish to her life, I think, for she has the desire always to help and comfort people. Also, she likes to spend time just with le bon Dieu, you know. She loves Him so very much, and is comfortable with Him.”

“You’re right, chérie, and it shows how much you understand her, but, despite all that, you still want to live with her.”

“She was the first person to love me since my grandparents died. I was so very lonely, so when she gave to me the bambino, I gave to her my heart.”

“And she gave you hers, Ellie,” Vivien replied gently.

“This I know, and I feel so comfortable there in her heart, you know, and want to stay there always, but she asked to me what she would do with herself, if she made a home for me while I am at the university.” Ellie’s face grew forlorn. “While I was away, she would be alone, with no work to do anymore. It would not be enough for Madame, who has always been busy, very busy. She said even reading would not keep her happy, if that was all there was to do.”

How very clever of Hilda to point out what life would be like for her, if she allowed her love for Ellie to overrule God’s plan for them both, thought Vivien. It was a true forecast, but there was also the fact that Hilda could never live for herself alone. Her whole raison d’être was to give to others, nothing held back.

“No, chérie, it wouldn’t be enough for her. She will make a wonderful nun, though it will be very hard and lonely for her at times, given her age. Worst of all, she will be missing you, hoping you're okay and praying for you.” Ellie nodded. “But you will have a new life as a student, busy with studying, and meeting new people, so the missing her in your heart will be easier at those times. You’ll still see her often, sweetheart, for I gather the convent has decided that…”

Ellie’s lips curved. “I can still visit her there, bien sûr, but they told to her that I am part of her calling, and she would be allowed to visit me at your home. That is beautiful, you know, but is it Mère just being kind?”

Vivien hugged her. “No, dearest, it wasn’t her decision, but Sister Catherine’s, and she’s a tough nut to crack…

“Tough nut?”

“Oh, let me see… A tough nut’s a person who’s not easy-going or accommodating. Sister Catherine has to weigh many things in the balance for every convent, and for all the sisters there, so has to harden her heart sometimes and not give in on something, when perhaps she might like to do just that. So, if she said your guardian could visit, she jolly well means it. She has a great respect for Madame, and always has the final say on matters. Well, for all the convents of the Grey Ladies, anyway.”

“Grey Ladies?”

“That’s their nickname. Can you guess why?”

“Because of their clothes?”

Vivien nodded. “You see, Madame’s own calling and then her love for you developed just three months apart, so Sister Catherine sees you as twinned. God was working hard for both of you, drawing you closer and closer until you finally met, and then discovered how much you loved and suited each other – and how alike you are in many ways.” She kissed the wrinkled brow. “I know you’ll miss her, chérie, having only just found her, and I can’t make that better. But the two of you have made me the happiest woman in England. You’ve also made my parents very happy.” Ellie frowned. “They always wanted grandchildren, and Mum is ecstatic at having a French grand-daughter to talk to in her own language. They will love you very much, dearest, and listen to tales of your own grandparents with great tenderness. So, as I said to Matron Lloyd, there will be no more loneliness.”

Ellie’s face had lit up at this talk of grandparents, and she leaned against Vivien with a sigh. They stayed awhile in silence in that corridor, head against head, considering yet another new life for Ellie, but this one having many more loving people to populate it.

“It will be funny living with Matron Lloyd, you know,” Ellie said softly. “Will my drawers still have to be always tidy?”

Vivien lifted her head, saw the amused tilt of Ellie’s lips and laughed out loud. “Yes, I think we’ll all have to have tidy drawers from now on, even Madame when she visits.”

Ellie giggled. “But hers, they are always comme il fault, you know.”

Vivien smiled at this unexpected insight into Hilda’s private life. “Come on! They’ll think we’ve got lost! Feeling a little happier now?” Ellie nodded.

When Isobel let them in, Vivien’s eyes went straight to Marianne, who was leaning back against several pillows. “Well, look at you! Upright, at last! And you’ve finally got some colour in your cheeks.” She went across to give the grinning Marianne a hug.

Isobel helped Ellie out of her chair, and put her arms round her, being mindful of the sling. “You look so much happier, dear. Your guardian is recovering and all is well with your soul.”

Ellie’s grave eyes met Isobel’s. “She came back to me, you know, and I will always, but always, thank le bon Dieu for his goodness.” Isobel wondered what on earth she meant. “I haven’t had her long enough to lose her so soon.” She blushed. “But I wish to apologise for leaving you in the way I did last night, you know. It was impolite, but I truly was too upset and frightened to stay here.”

“It’s alright, dear,” Isobel replied softly. “You weren’t impolite at all. I understood, because I would have done exactly the same had it been my daughter who was so very ill.”

Ellie kissed her cheek. “Thank you, chère Madame. I am so very glad I went back to her, for she knew me even in her sleep, you know.”

“Mr Stuart told me, dear, and made me cry.” Ellie looked startled. “It showed me even more clearly the very special bond there is between the two of you. I saw it last Thursday, when I met you both and you decorated this very room.”

Vivien broke ruthlessly into this gentle tête à tête. “Are you two going to whisper sweet nothings all day, tell me?”

They both nodded, though Isobel dared to retaliate. “You also look better than you did yesterday, Miss Knowles. I see how good the news has been for you, too, but I think, with you, it’s more that you enjoy playing the tartar.”

It would be a long time before Vivien forgot her frantic tears in Isobel’s arms the night before, or that good lady’s gentle compassion, but she now glared at her, hands on hips. “Well, quite obviously you don’t want to play, Isobel, else why insult me?”

“Oh, get on with you, woman! I’ve never known anyone so eager to organise folk!” Ellie and Marianne looked at each and giggled.

Vivien held up a hand. “I have bad news for you, girls. Before we start the origami, we’re going to play a little learning game.” The girls groaned. Vivien winked at Isobel. “Behave, mes enfants! We’re going to look at sayings and proverbs – in French and English!”

“Quoi?” said Ellie in disgust, as she drew near to Marianne to give her a hug.

“Yes, petite espiègle, you might well look like that!”

“What did you call her, Miss Knowles? Petite espi… I can’t remember it!”

“It can mean many things, Marianne.” The brown eyes danced. “Ellie?”

“Ouf, she is calling me a little mischief or a … a skimp.”

Vivien hooted. “A scamp, dear, or a rascal – all of which you are, I might add!”

Comment?” gasped Ellie in high dudgeon. “Alors, vous étes une friponne et une coquine!”

Struggling to control her laughter, Vivien glared. “Fine things to call your science mistress, Mademoiselle Eléanor, are they not?”

Isobel collapsed into a chair, giggling helplessly. “Is this how the prestigious Chalet School teaches my one and only daughter?”

Mais non, Madame,” Ellie said seriously. “It is only that she is une taquine, a tease.”

“I must say, you’ve right on your side there, dear. And the other two words you used?”

“Oh, I called her more words for a minx or a mischief – une coquine et une friponne!” Ellie and Vivien laughed at each other.

“Isn’t that what your guardian calls you? Une petite friponne?” asked Vivien, tongue in cheek. Ellie nodded cheerily. “Well, you must really have got her goat at some time, then!”

“Dis donc! Got her goat? What is this, please?”

“To irritate or upset her,” Vivien laughed.

“But me, I do not do these things,” Ellie said with some hauteur.

“I should be writing all these down,” Marianne said excitedly. “They’d really help my French!”

“It’s okay, Marianne, I’ll give you a list to take home so you can learn them while you’re recuperating.”

Marianne stared at Vivien, then took a chance and stuck out her tongue.

“Marianne!” said her shocked mother.

“It’s fine, Isobel. I think we’ve become friends here, and friends insult each other. I know she wouldn’t do it in school!” Marianne shook her head vigorously. “But you’ve got the hang of the game, which is for you and Ellie to learn more than the bare bones of each other’s language, and begin to speak as the natives do, slang and bizarre sayings and all. You might have more trouble, Marianne, since you haven’t been studying French as long as Ellie’s been studying English – but it will help both of you in your reading, essays and exams, especially your orals. But, Isobel! My goodness, it will bore you to tears,” Vivien added, looking conscience-stricken.

“Oh, I’m not a complete ignoramus when it comes to French. Even if I were, I still suspect it’s going to be as much fun as everything else is with you.” She winked.

Vivien rolled her eyes. “What a commendation!”

“But you are right, Madame Westwood.” Eyes alight, Ellie leaned close to whisper in Isobel’s ear. “She is a very clever and amusing person, no? She even surprised Madame in Lausanne, pretending to be a gypsy and stealing the money off our poor prefects when reading their palms!”

Isobel and Marianne gaped at Vivien.

“You mean she told you? Is nothing sacred? I did give the coins back, meine Freundin.” Ellie grinned. Vivien flapped her hands. “Oh, ask Miss Annersley, Isobel. I should imagine she’ll make a very lurid tale out of it. Um, thinking of the Abbess, let’s start with words that fit her very well. Who can give me the French version of: ‘She wasn’t born yesterday?’”

“But naturally she was not!” Ellie said blankly.

“It’s an amusing way of saying she’s all there with her cough drops.” Isobel gurgled. “There’s another one for you, Ellie. What does that mean, Marianne?”

“That she’s not daft!”

“Oh,” Ellie squeaked. “Me, I have him: ‘Pas folle, la guêpe.’”

Marianne straightened up. “But what’s a wasp got to do with the Abbess being daft? Er, not!” she added hurriedly.

“Translate it carefully, dear,” ordered Vivien, stifling the laughter caused by Marianne’s horrified face when she realised the trap into which she had so nearly fallen.

“’Not stupid, the wasp.’” Marianne scratched her head. “Now I’ll think of that blinking wasp every time I see the Abbess.” Vivien choked at the thought.

“And I must to remember this not being born yesterday!” Ellie eyes rolled.

“How am I going to remember any of them?” wailed Marianne.

“That list, remember,” Vivien reassured her. “Now, can either of you think of any others we could apply to the Abbess, or ones that say the complete opposite of what she is?”

Silence fell, a long, protracted silence. “Er, may I?” asked Isobel.

“Allez-y! Feel free!”

“She has the patience of a saint.”

“Elle a une patience d’ange,” Ellie came back instantly.

“She has an angel’s patience?” asked Marianne. “Well, that should be easy to remember.”

“Not to do with Madame, you know, but we also say: Etre aux anges,’” Ellie added.

“Gosh, I know that one – ‘To be over the moon.’ Mademoiselle told us.”

Très bien, Marianne. Now, Ellie, how about, ‘She’s a queer fish’?”

“Madame is this queer fish?” asked Ellie, making Isobel giggle. “Me, I have no idea.”

“Elle est un drôle d’oiseau.”

“She’s a funny bird?” asked Ellie, with raised eyebrows. “Well, I suppose in some ways she is,” she added seriously. The others laughed, and she gave them a wicked smile. It would be fun to tell this to Madame, she thought to herself. “Here is another one: ’Elle connaît la musique.’”

“She knows the music?” frowned a puzzled Marianne. “What music?”

“It is a saying, mon amie. What do you use to read the music?”

“The.. the score,” burst out Marianne. “So it translates as, ‘She knows the score.’ Well that’s true enough of the Abbess,” she added with a wry twist of her lips, as she recalled being hauled over the coals about Miss Knowles the September before.

Vivien guessed her thoughts and took her hand. “It’s all forgotten, dear. You’ve more than made up for it, I promise.” Marianne smiled waveringly. “I don’t think you’ll forget that one, will you?” Vivien added softly. “Now, let’s look at the opposite of that. This is slang, mind, so make sure not to use it in school. ‘To have a screw loose.’”

“Comment?” asked Ellie. “A screw is what? Bah, I hate those three letters at the front in the English words! It is like the word worm, with that r in the middle.” She exaggerated her difficulties, and Isobel laughed in sympathy.

“A screw is un vis - but that isn’t actually going to help you much!” Vivien winked at their outrage. “I should add that some of these sayings, both French and English, are very old and they do change over time, so some of them could be out of date. So, no vis!

“Moi, j’y renounce.
I give up!”

“Alors, mes petites, c’est ‘d’avoir un petit vélo dans la tête.’“

“To have a small bicycle in the head?” giggled Marianne. “That’s worse than a loose screw!”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said her mother. “I’ve seen you with several bikes whirling around in that head of yours at times.”

Ellie and Vivien spluttered. Marianne grimaced at her mother, while Isobel considered Vivien, thinking what a compelling, magical teacher she must be. These two girls were learning without even realising it, and having fun into the bargain.

“Please don’t listen to Mum, Miss Knowles,” pleaded Marianne. “She has enough bikes and screws tumbling round in her own head, and she also loses her marbles, at times!”

Her mother yelped. Marianne gave her a blinding smile.

A light dawned in Ellie’s eyes. “In French we say ‘Avoir perdue la boule.’”

“To lose the ball?” asked Marianne. “Like marbles, only bigger?”

“Oh, but much bigger!” giggled Ellie. “La boule is an old French word for head. So it would mean to lose the head – much more dangerous than losing the marbles, non? But I think in English you also say to lose the head?” They all agreed.

“Well done, Ellie. Now, still thinking of the Abbess: ‘She’s all sweetness and light’.”

“But not all the time, you know, Miss Knowles. She can be a little vinegary or even peppery at times, oui?” Ellie’s eyes gleamed, and they both recalled those short moments when Hilda was so cold with Ian and Vivien, out of worry for her ward. “But, for most of the time, ‘Elle est tout sucre, tout miel’.”

“All sugar and all honey?” said Marianne. “That’s enough sweetness to make you feel sick.”

“I can’t take you anywhere, can I?,” sighed Isobel. “But since you seem to think the Abbess has her moments, I’d say she’s very good at ‘taking the wind out of your sails.’

Dis donc! That is so the boat won’t sail? Does it mean to stop someone from doing something,” Ellie mused. “So the French version could be ‘Couper l’herbe sous pied.” Vivien nodded.

“To cut the grass under one’s feet? It’s not as efficient as taking the wind out of one’s sails, I don’t think.” Marianne suddenly giggled. “The Abbess is also very good at ‘smelling a rat’, but I have no idea how the French say that.”

“’Il y a une anguille sous roche,’” Vivien stated solemnly, and waited.

Vraiment?” demanded Ellie. “There’s an eel under the rock? And this means the same as smelling a rat? Mais, c’est idiot!” she muttered. “Madame smells a rat, or spies an eel. Under a rock?” She looked round. “I know her eyes are sharp, but not that sharp." Everyone collapsed at the look of disgust on her face.

Marianne shivered. “I hate eels.”

“Well, at least she doesn’t smell them, only the rats,” put in Isobel. “Do rats smell?”

“Whose side are you on?” asked Vivien acidly, as the two girls clutched their sides. “I’m trying to teach them something here!”

“And we’re all having the time of our lives,” chuckled Isobel.

Vivien gulped. “Do you know, I have no idea how that translates, so it will have to remain as clear as mud! I defy either of you girls to know that one!” They looked at each other and shook their heads. “You give up? ‘Clair comme de l’encre de chine.’

“Mais, ça, c’est ridicule!” grumbled Ellie. “’As clear as Chinese ink?’ Is their ink different from ours, perhaps? Why not French or English ink? Ink is ink is ink, yes?”

“I have no idea, scamp, but I’m ‘laughing up my sleeve’ at you both.”

“Though how on earth we’re supposed to laugh up our sleeves in the summer is beyond me,” said Isobel, her eyes sparkling.

“Well, it’s better than the French manage. They’re quite likely to ‘rire dans la barbe’.”

“Now you really are laughing up your sleeve, Miss Knowles,” giggled Marianne, “because how can French girls and women laugh through their beards?” Vivien waggled her eyebrows at her.

Ellie frowned. “Do we really laugh through our beards? Miséricorde!” she exclaimed.

“What does that mean?” asked Marianne eagerly. “Miseri… Is it a swear word?”

“Miséricorde? Mais non!” Ellie eyed Vivien. “It really means mercy or mercifulness, but it can also be used for expressions like ‘goodness gracious.'”

“And is probably slang,” muttered Vivien, “so don’t either of you use it till I find out. It’s rather a good expression, though,” she sighed.

“You’re just like a child yourself,” laughed Isobel.

Vivien’s face creased. “But of course! How else can you get through to children? Here’s one for you, Ellie, because at times you really are… a chatterbox.”

Ellie’s eyes widened. “A box is chattering? Non, non, non! Impossible! C’est quoi?”

"‘Un moulin à paroles.’"

“A word windmill? So…” Ellie mused. “A windmill’s sails go round all the time, therefore a word windmill produces words all the time. A chatterbox, then, is someone who talks without stopping? ” Her eyes sparkled dangerously. “Me, I am not this chatterbox, you know!” she growled.

Vivien raised her eyebrows in disbelief. Ellie poked out her tongue.

“Pistols at dawn, I fear,” Isobel muttered behind her hand to her daughter.

Ellie turned. “Pistols? You mean les pistolets?” Marianne nodded. “But what are we doing with them at dawn? Me, I do not understand this.”

Vivien was laughing so hard, she stumbled over her words. “Une affaire d’honneur! Se battre en duel! Understand now? “

“Me, I have to save my honour by fighting you in a duel? Would Madame’s crochet hooks suffice, instead of ces pistolets?” Ellie giggled.

Vivien flung her arms round the slight figure. “Oh, chérie, I do love you!” Elie kissed her on the cheek. “Right, we’ve had a word windmill. Let’s think of someone who’s so tricky with words they tell lies, or…”

She looked at Marianne, who yelled, “Tell porkies, or pork pies.”

“And what do the French tell, Ellie?”

“Les salades!”

“What? Salads?” gawped Marianne.

“We tell the salads and you tell these pies? Me, I do not understand either of them.”

“You don’t have to understand them, dear, just learn them,” Vivien said sardonically. “The Hungarians tell greens – not porky pies – while the Brazilians tell stories that send the oxen to sleep.” Marianne let out a peal of laughter.

“You’re pulling all the legs, Miss Knowles.” Vivien shook her head at Ellie’s comment. “Me, I never understand this pulling of the legs, but Madame tells to me it is to ‘se payer la tête à quelq’un,’ to make fun of someone - but that does not truly translate the French.” A thought seemed to strike her. “Going back to the salads, Marianne, where you English ‘jumble everything up’, we French ‘mettre tout en salade’. We put everything in the salad.”

“Actually, that one paints a better picture than ours, Ellie.” Marianne was all eyes by now. “But I’m completely lost! So many of them make no sense at all…”

“And this one’s even worse. “’And pigs might fly!’” Both girls stared hard at Vivien. “Can you explain it for poor Ellie, Marianne?”

“Er… when you say something that could never happen, like you tell someone the Queen’s coming to tea, or you’ll get top marks in all your O levels, then the other person would laugh and tell you, ‘And pigs might fly’, because that, too, is impossible.”

“No reason why you shouldn’t get top marks in some of them, dear,” smiled Vivien. “Don’t despair just yet! Any idea of the French equivalent, Ellie? ”

“Quand les poules auront les dents?”

“You're making that up!” cried Marianne. “When hens will have teeth? But they can’t!”

“Well, neither can pigs fly, might I remind you, daughter dear,” Isobel said acidly.

“True for you!” said a deflated daughter.

“Cheer up, Marianne,” said Vivien. “In Spain they say ‘And frogs might grow hair.’” The girl yelled with glee. “The Germans say that fish will fly, while the Italians are as bonkers as us and say that donkeys will fly.” By now everyone was giggling madly. “Actually, I think I could become rather fond of frogs with hair,” Vivien added, bringing the house down.

“What about buying a pig in a poke?” asked Marianne. Ellie frowned. “It sort of warns you not to buy something until you know what it is, I think.”

Ellie nodded. “’Acheter chat dans poche.’"

"To buy a cat in a pocket?” Marianne shook her head. “Poor cat!”

“Well, what about your poor pig?” demanded Ellie. “Dis donc, what is a poke? To poke is to do that to someone,” and she pushed her finger gently into Marianne.

“A poke is an old English word for a bonnet,” said Isobel. “It was called a poke-bonnet – but please don’t ask me why, I beg you. Do you know, I think you could write wonderfully funny stories using all these weird things we say.”

Vivien succeeded in controlling herself enough to add, “Let’s have a few short and serious ones, or we’ll be useless for the rest of the day. What’s an April fool, Ellie?”

“Un poisson d’avril.”

Marianne exploded. “An April fish? Wow! I must remember that one. April’s not far away!”

“And twilight?”

Ellie shook her head. “What is this twilight? The light of twi?”

Vivien shook with laughter. “You haven’t met it in English poems?” Ellie shook her head.

“It’s the time when day is fading into night,” put in Isobel.

“Oh, oui, je m’en souviens! ‘Le temps entre chien et loup.’”

“Now I really do give up,” moaned Marianne. “The time between dog and wolf? How come?”

“I think it’s rather poetic,” said Isobel. “I suppose twilight is the time when the dog begins to curl up and sleep, and the wolf gets ready to venture out to hunt.”

Vivien gazed at her in delight. “What a fantastic explanation! Well done, you! What about ‘to have bags under your eyes’ when you haven’t had enough sleep – though that only really applies to we oldies, Isobel. The young can get away with it.”

“Speak for yourself, dear!” drawled Isobel.

“’Avoir des valises sous les yeux,’” smiled Ellie.

"Oh, that one’s fab, Ellie,” giggled Marianne, turning to her mother. “It translates as ‘to have suitcases under your eyes.’”

Isobel sighed. “They do feel like suitcases sometimes! In fact, I think I might refer to my suitcases from now on, and give my friends a shock.” Isobel was longing for this lesson to go on and on, but had a suspicion Vivien was drawing it to a close, so added quickly, “’It’s raining cats and dogs?’”

“Me, I like this English expression,” said Ellie. “It is very funny. We just say, ‘Il pleut des cordes,’ which means, ’It rains pieces of rope.’”

“I agree, Ellie, the English is much more imaginative,” said Vivien. “In Germany, I’m afraid it only rains pieces of string, while, in Spain, they go even further than us, and say that it’s raining toads and snakes.”

“Yuck,” grimaced Marianne. “I’ll stick to our own, thank you very much.”

“I’m surprised the snakes don’t eat the toads on the way down,” Isobel murmured.

Ellie gurgled quietly. Marianne glared. “They’re not real, Mum!”

Isobel pointed her index finger at her and made the noise of a pistol shot.

“Now, now, ladies, no fighting!” laughed Vivien. “Okay, last few. ‘She can’t sing for toffee.’ Hm, that might be considered slang, so be careful where you use it!”

“I don’t even know the word for toffee,” moaned Marianne.

’C’est caramel, which you say in English also,” Ellie told her. Marianne hit her head hard. “But that will not help, as we French say, ‘Elle chante comme une casserole.’

“You sing like a saucepan? But why?” asked Marianne blankly.

“Perhaps because pans make a noise when they start to boil – and it’s most definitely not singing!” put in Isobel. “So they can’t sing for toffee, either.”

“What does ‘It’s a breeze’ translate as, Ellie?” Ellie shrugged, having no idea.

“Well, it means something is easy to do,” Marianne said helpfully.

“Oh, oui! ‘C’est un gâteau!’"

“Even I understood that one!” Isobel patted herself on the back. “We English say it’s a piece of cake, as well as a breeze, though I prefer your whole gâteau, Ellie, dear.” She looked at Vivien. “So, do the French build castles in the air?

“We build ours in Spain, Madame,” Ellie replied with a distinct twinkle in her eyes.

“Typical,” muttered Isobel. “Your own country not good enough for you?”

“No more than England is for you, Madame, since you build yours in the air.” Ellie winked.

“The Polish build their castles on ice,” Vivien intervened.

“Well, they’re not going to last long!” crowed Marianne.

“Perhaps, perhaps not, but it’s better than building them in the air!,” announced Vivien. “At least the French castles in Spain won’t disappear in the wink of an eye.”

“Are you sure?” chuckled Ellie, her eyes dancing. “It seems to me they’re even less real than the toads and snakes!” Isobel shook a fist at her.

Vivien considered the faces of the two girls, saw their eyes were growing heavy, and clapped her hands. “I must say, girls, I’m very impressed – especially with you, Isobel.” The latter stood up and bowed, while Ellie and Marianne booed. “Seriously, girls, you’ve been working hard for over an hour, and you may have laughed a lot, but you’ve also learned a lot. I’m very proud of you, considering neither of you is feeling one hundred per cent. I know you’ll remember some of them, and Miss Dene has typed out a long list, which you can learn or not, as you please, but they’ll certainly improve your writing in both languages. Perhaps we should try it in German, Ellie, though I know it’s new to you and you’re not as advanced.”

“But Madame has been teaching it to me, and also Mr Stuart.”

“He’s such a good man," said Isobel. "He talks to Marianne in German when he visits.”

“Oh, ‘Life is too short to learn German.’”

Three pairs of eyes turned Vivien’s way. “But, but, you…” began Ellie, incensed.

Vivien shrugged. “In my defence, it’s what Oscar Wilde thought, not little ole me!”

Ellie bared her teeth at her. Isobel groaned. “You’re so sharp, you’ll cut yourself one day!”

Vivien grinned tantalisingly, rose to her feet and opened the two bags she had pushed under the bed when they first arrived, but, as she did so, the door opened and in walked Helen Graves. She looked around, as though missing something, and raised her eyebrows.

“I thought you’d come along to do some origami and such-like with them. What happened?”

“That was going to be their reward for some work I had in mind. We’ve been having French and English lessons.”

“Wh-a-t? Their eyes are sparkling, so don’t tell me porkies about lessons.” That finished Ellie and Marianne off, and they collapsed in a heap of giggles. Helen frowned at Isobel. “I obviously touched a nerve there. What did I say?”

Isobel took pity on her and explained Vivien’s lesson. “I tell you, I wish I’d had such amusing and interesting lessons when I was at school, Matron. Did you know, for example, that in Spain it rains toads and snakes, instead of cats and dogs? And where we tell porkies, as you’ve just demonstrated, Ellie and her countrymen tell salads.” Helen began to laugh, more at the two girls’ helpless giggles than at Isobel’s deadpan explanation. “And as for the likes of you and me, we don’t have bags under our eyes after sleepless nights, we have suitcases, according to the French. I’m going to use that phrase from now on,” she added, her voice and face still expressionless.

Helen fell into a chair with a shriek. “Don’t tell me anymore, or I’ll never be able to look anyone in the face when I leave here.”

“Oh, and Miss Annersley knows the music,” added Marianne meekly.

“Of that I have no shadow of doubt, though I suspect you mean she knows the score!” Marianne pulled a face. “I can see you’ve all been having great fun, but, before you start all this folding and wasting of paper, would you like some lunch? You can have it altogether in here, if you like. Just don’t choke to death on my watch, please!”

Ellie rose to her feet. “But me, I should return to Madame.”

Helen caught her hand, saying gently, “She’s asleep, dear, and looking very peaceful. Sleep is what she needs most of all, so I would prefer you didn’t disturb her.” Ellie searched her face and saw she wasn’t trying to hide anything. “Matron Lloyd is also fast asleep – on your bed! – so why don’t we leave them there for the moment?”

Ellie’s face relaxed and she sat down again. “D’accord, Matron Graves, I will of course do as you ask and stay here. Thank you for everything,” she whispered.

“You don’t need to thank me, dear. It’s my job to look after my patients.”

“But you do it in a so tender way, and make me feel better inside, you know.”

“Ellie, it’s been an absolute privilege to look after you and Madame.” Ellie blushed, and Helen considered her heavy eyes. “After you’ve had Mittagessen, you may have one hour, perhaps two, for origami, but after that I think you’d both better have a nap. So make the most of your freedom and Miss Knowles’ company.” She winked at Ellie, who winked back. Helen rose to her feet. “I’ll send Nurse Cecilia in with the food. Isobel and Miss Knowles, I’m relying on you to make sure they eat enough to keep body and soul alive.”

They promised her, and Matron was gone before she let herself down and had a fit of the giggles. Vivien could always do that to her, and Isobel was the same way inclined. Five minutes later, a trolley appeared and they all tucked in, even Ellie finding her appetite, much to Vivien’s relief. When they reached their coffee – or apple juice in Marianne’s case - Vivien opened two large books and laid them out on the bed.

“I thought we’d create an underwater scene, to take Isobel’s mind off all those spiders she hates so much.” Marianne promptly grabbed Humphrey and hugged him hard.

“Oh, I’ve got used to them,” Isobel said blithely. “But I must admit I prefer these star fish and long-legged crabs. They’re adorable!”

“And the octopus,” squeaked Marianne. “Although those tentacles look a bit tricky! Have you got patterned paper to make these pretty fish or do we have to colour them after making them?”

“Yes, we have paper – and also coloured pencils, if you wish.”

“Me, I like these sea horses,” said Ellie, “but they look rather complicated, using only one hand.”

“And sharks and turtles,” added Marianne. “May we really do all these?”

“Well, only some of them today, since Matron has restricted you to two hours. Hopefully, there’ll be another chance. I’ll lend you one of my smaller books and give you some of the patterned paper to take with you when you go home.”

Marianne blushed at this largesse, and Isobel thanked Vivien profusely. “Though you must let me pay you for the paper, or tell me where I can get some.”

“Nonsense! All part of Marianne’s cure!” smiled Vivien.

“Oh, look,” whispered Ellie in awe, as she turned a page. “Dolphins! My favourites! They would look so pretty beside Madame’s butterflies, non?” She raised her eyes wistfully to Vivien, who nodded in sympathy.

“We’ll give it a go, chérie,” she said softly. “Perhaps we should make some of these for Sarah’s room, too. It must seem rather bleak and bare at the moment.”

“She could have the spiders,” Isobel piped up.

“They’re not cheery sorts of animals, though, are they?” asked Vivien severely. Isobel hid hr face. “Right, you’re going to work on that table that’s pulled across your bed, Marianne. I might ask Matron if there’s a bigger one she could loan us when she returns. Ellie, why don’t you work on that small table by the window and I’ll give you a hand, once I’ve got this young lady started.”

“I’ve got a better idea, Miss Knowles.” Isobel rose to her feet. “You’re a genius with this origami and have obviously taught Ellie a lot already, so why don’t I work with her, since she knows enough to tell me where she needs the paper creasing or folding, which she can’t do with one hand, but she can hold corners and so on with that one hand. That would leave you to work with Marianne, since she, like me, knows very little.”

Vivien let out a bark of laughter. “You’re not just a pretty face, are you?”

“I’m not even a pretty face, my dear!”

Ellie looked up. “But that is not true, Madame Westwood,” she murmured. “You have a so beautiful smile and your eyes say always the kind things, like Madame’s.”

Isobel was stunned. “Why, Ellie, dear! What a loving child you are! Thank you.” She leaned down to kiss Ellie’s cheek and give her a hug.

Half an hour later, they were all hard at work, having chosen their creatures and coloured papers. Helen had produced a larger trolley table for Marianne, and Isobel set the smaller one behind Ellie, using it for her own ventures when Ellie had no need of her. The beauty of Vivien’s large books was that the pages were all loose, so they could each have their own chosen design in front of them. Marianne fell on some very pretty striped papers in various colours and patterns, and was soon producing fish at a great rate, while Isobel helped Ellie choose some bluey-grey paper for the dolphins’ bodies and blue for their flippers and fins. Ellie was able to tell Isobel exactly where she needed them folding, and they succeeded admirably in their aims. The dolphins’ heads created a bit more of a problem, and Isobel had to use her own two hands, plus Ellie’s one, to create reasonable facsimiles.

“You’re doing all the work for me,” whispered Ellie mournfully.

“Not a chance, dear! You’re the designer, and the one who’s working out where the creases and shaping goes. All I am is the labourer, and my pay is the beautiful compliment you gave me.” She tapped the good hand gently. “So no more talk of my doing all the work, please.”

Eventually, Marianne had had enough of her fish, so Vivien helped her make a simple mobile with them and hung it over her bed. Marianne crowed with delight. “May I do some starfish and turtles now?”

She created the starfish from a very pretty pink paper, but, when she finally completed her first turtle and held it up proudly, Isobel giggled at its lurid green body and the vivid yellow trellis crawling over its shell. “Ye gods and little fishes, that will glow merrily in the dark!” Marianne glared. “It’s wonderful, darling. Are you making them all the same colour or trying different ones?”

“Different, I think! Even brighter!”

Isobel sighed. “I should have stuck to spiders, or borrowed a blindfold! They’ll gleam down at me all night. Talk about fitful sleep!” All chuckled at her plight, and carried on folding.

“Why don’t we do a swap for a while, Isobel, so I can make a mobile of these very elegant dolphins. I need to do it soon, as our two hours are nearly up. Matron will be back to read the riot act.” Isobel moved to the bed and Vivien leaned over Ellie. “You’re looking very weary, child, so I think you’ll need that nap Matron mentioned. But first, how many dolphins have we got?”

“Five all done, and one just started.”

“They’re rather fine and Madame will love them, as will the butterflies. Well, let me just finish this last one for you, while you find the right silks and needles.”

As they set to assembling the mobile, Isobel crept over and laid two turquoise sea horses on the table by Ellie, who stared at them in delight, then kissed the loving face bent over her. “Thank you, Madame Westwood. They are such pretty creatures, no? You are very clever, and not such an amateur, you know!”

Isobel dropped a kiss on Ellie’s cheek. She was such a loving, appealing child with a heart-breaking smile. Isobel felt almost ashamed of her daughter’s life-long happiness, when she compared it to Ellie’s unhappy lot in life, as revealed to her by Hilda. Yet the girl never sought to play on her misfortunes or on the fact that she was the Head’s ward. You wanted to heap on her all the love and attention she had lacked in her life. But Isobel knew Ellie's faithful minions – Hilda and Vivien and Mr Stuart - did that for her.

“Perhaps, Miss Knowles, we could hang the sea horses with the dolphins, for they are almost the same colour. It would add the interest, you know.” Vivien nodded. Ellie looked at Isobel again, and said softly, “Marianne is a so lucky girl to have you as her mother. You love each other very much, and do things together and have the fun, and you are willing to stay with her while she is here, so she still has your love around her.”

Ellie had no idea how poignant her words sounded, and Vivien couldn’t stop a tear falling as she laboured over the dolphins. Isobel knelt beside Ellie and took her hand.

“You’re right, Ellie,” Marianne said from across the room. “I am very lucky! Mum and Dad are lovely people, though I’m sure they often feel I don’t appreciate them.” Isobel shook her head. “Thank you for pointing things out about Mum that I didn’t even know were there, like describing her eyes as saying kind things. That’s almost like poetry.” She paused, cleared her throat, and added softly, “You can share her, if you like. I know she’s very fond of you.”

More tears rolled down Vivien’s face. Isobel’s own eyes had tears in them, but Ellie’s eyes were puzzled as they dwelt on Marianne. “And you would not feel the jealousy, to share her?”

Marianne laughed gaily. “Of course not! I know Mum and Dad love me, just as I know they always wanted more children.”

A tear rolled unnoticed down Ellie’s face, and Isobel mourned the losses this adorable orphan had suffered.

Ellie clasped the hand holding hers, then stood up and went over to kiss Marianne. “Merci bien, chère Marianne, for this so generous gift. I would delight to share your mother, but only, you know, if we can be like the sisters.”

Marianne gaped. “You mean it?” Ellie nodded. “I’d love a sister!” She held out her hand and Ellie took it firmly in her good one.

“And I would love to share Miss Annersley’s care of you, Ellie,” whispered Isobel. “I know how much she loves you, but one can never have too much mother’s love.”

“This I know, but Madame did not have much motherly love, non plus. Her mother died when she was but thirteen.” Isobel nodded. “Then, losing her friend last year tells to us that she needs us to love her, in the way she loves everyone else. She has changed my life completely, you know.” Marianne squeezed Ellie’s hand. “But, also, I have Miss Knowles, and we too love each other very much, and have the great fun together, non?”

“Yes, petite friponne, you are very dear to me,” murmured Vivien, feeling as though some precious essence had been released into the room.

Ellie winked at her. “Miss Knowles and I are going to be even more to each other when I leave the school – but it is the secret for now. And Mr Stuart, you know, he shows to me how a real father should love his daughter.” Her smile was so tender that Isobel’s tears flowed. “Sometimes, I think he is still a little boy in his heart, because we laugh so much together. So you see, Madame Westwood, like Marianne, I am a so lucky girl, non?”





*****
Chapter 11 - The Tender Whisper of Thy Call by MaryR
Author's Notes:
I'm not quite sure how to thank those people who responded so kindly to that French lesson in the last chapter, the idea being to relieve some of the gloom that seemed to have taken hold. You seemed to enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it, and I do hope you all found my responses to your reviews.
Slowly, Hilda rose to the surface of sleep, and lay awhile absorbed in thoughts of last night’s rather strange and wonderful dream. Had she really met her Lord and felt His hand on her cheek, shocking her back to life? And did she truly merit the grace of such a miracle? Somehow, she thought not, but who was she to tell Him what He should and shouldn’t do? The added grace of a visit with Nell was proof positive that she must trust to Him for everything and do all He asked. As she lay there, wrapped in thoughts of Nell, the intense silence of the room gradually impinged on her senses and disturbed her. She opened her eyes. No one! The room was resolutely empty, for the first time since she entered it the day before to be with Ellie. Did that mean their worries about her condition had eased? What had they done with Ellie? And Gwynneth?

The sun beamed through the windows and lay gently on the bed. She stretched out her arm, so it lie in the warmth, and was filled with gratitude for her renewed strength, and the disappearance of that huge nugget of ice which had settled in her core on Sunday. The dreadful darkness that had inhabited her spirit for days had likewise been erased. How beholden she was to His grace and mercy! He had been a true fountain of healing for herself and others that day, answering everyone’s prayers from early morning.

Something tickled her cheek and she tried to brush it away with her other hand. What was this? Her cheek was wet! Tears lay there, reminding her of… of her mother! She gasped, as she now recalled she had been dreaming of her as she awoke, pleading with her to care for Ellie, if her own condition worsened again and all seemed lost. She closed her eyes and saw again her mother’s vivid blue eyes smiling lovingly into her daughter’s, her gentle voice reminding Hilda that God had Ellie well in hand and had ensured that there were more than enough people to succour the girl, people who loved her deeply and would treasure her forever.

“But does Ellie’s mother trust me with her only child, such a precious child?” she asked.

“My darling girl, she knows there is no one she could trust more. You care for her, as you do for everyone, with no thought for yourself. Ellie couldn’t be in better hands.”

“Will she come to Ellie, as Nell comes to me, if I’m gone and she’s lonely?”

She had felt her mother’s kiss on her forehead. “Dearest, that surely lies in God’s hands. She must learn to trust Him for everything, as you do, and then, who knows? It's not vouchsafed to many to see and hear their lost loved ones, as you see Nell.” She laughed softly, her voice a lilting lullaby as she added softly, “How many others have such experiences as you had beside Nell’s grave, or found their dreams granted quite so magnificently?”

“The dolphins?”

The deep blue eyes were radiant with love. “How He treasures you, my daughter, as I always did, and still do. In the same way is Ellie loved by Marie-Claire, her mother. She had an even shorter time with her daughter than I had with you, so she and I meet on common ground and watch with pride the little that God allows us to see and to know. We rejoiced over His grace when He brought you and Ellie together, for she needed someone just like you so badly. As for the miracle He performed today, there aren’t enough words to thank Him, for how could she have borne to lose you so soon?”

“And I needed someone just like her, Mother, dearest,” Hilda whispered now to the empty room. Or perhaps it wasn’t empty! She smiled tenderly, for it was rarely she dreamed of her mother. She stretched languidly, basking in the warmth of the sun and the dream, feeling new strength coursing through her weakened body.

Sit up, Daughter!

She blinked in shock and looked round. No one! Yet the voice had been soft and tender and very musical – and insistent! And not her mother’s!

A smile curved her lips. “You want me to risk Jack’s wrath?”

Sit up, Daughter! We have no time to waste.

On the instant she leaned up on one elbow, twisted round and pushed her two pillows up against the head of the bed. She struggled upright, leaned back against them with a sense of accomplishment, and drew the covers back over her lower body.

Thank You for this new and sudden strength, Heavenly Father. Thank You, also, for that little visit with my mother.

You are very welcome, Beloved.


She breathed deeply of His and her mother’s love, wondering what to expect next. He was keeping her on the hop, bringing her back to life early that morning, allowing her just enough energy to give the good news to Ellie, and now pushing her on from extreme weakness to sudden strength. Her smile was wry at the thought of Jack’s reactions, even as she recalled something CS Lewis had written in Mere Christianity:

'There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God.'


Well, those words certainly applied to her in this sunny room! God was taking charge of every second of her time and every inch of her body and its surroundings, it would seem.

She glanced at the clock over the door. Why, it was past fourteen hundred hours! She had slept for nearly three hours since that long talk with Ellie. Such healing sleep! She stared round, feeling somewhat puzzled. Gwynneth had not left her side since she was brought here twenty-four hours or so ago, so what could have enticed her away? Wherever she’d gone, though, she surely needed the break from this room and its occupants. Feeling the need to pray, she reached for her Divine Office. As she did so, the door opened to reveal Helen Graves.

She stopped dead in her tracks, staring in wonder at Hilda. “You’re sitting up!” she said blankly. She looked round. “Who helped you?”

“I helped myself, Helen, on the orders of my Heavenly Father.” Hilda gave a gentle laugh.

“But… you’re not strong enough! Or you shouldn’t be!” Helen took in Hilda’s brighter eyes and reached for her wrist. Her own eyes widened. She shook her head and sank into the chair by the bed. “It’s impossible! Less than twelve hours ago you were dying. No, you did die! I watched and I wept! Less than four hours ago, we had to lift you up, because you were so weak. Yet, now, after suddenly hoisting yourself upright, your pulse is as steady as can be, as normal as can be! It’s becoming scary, Hilda!” she whispered, awe and not a little fear reflected in her eyes.

Hilda took her friend’s hand. “With God, all things are possible, Helen. You believe that, I know. It is a little disconcerting to be the recipient of such intense largesse, so by all means be in awe and wonder, but don’t ever be afraid. He loves to give, loves to answer prayer, and there were so many prayers, weren’t there?”

Hilda’s voice was never more beautiful, as she praised the Lord she loved so deeply.

“You’re mighty calm about it all,” Helen whispered.

“Well, just sitting up isn’t much to get excited about, after all I heard about my being brought back from the dead,” Hilda mused, giving her a broad wink. Helen burst out laughing. “I have to confess to being totally unworthy of all He’s done, but I was in such a state yesterday, and in so much pain when I was brought here, that I’ll take anything that makes me feel better than I did. Remember those tears? I have no idea whence they came, but I didn’t think they’d ever stop.” Helen took her hand in comfort. “I can’t find the right words to express my thanks to Him, but He knows it all.”

“You deserve every blessed grace and miracle He’s willing to bestow on you, love,” Helen said feelingly. “I certainly didn’t want to lose such a good friend, and I’m absolutely certain Ellie didn’t want to lose her new mother. So, yes, you’re right! I, too, will take all He’s done for you, and be eternally glad about it!”

They sat on in silence, content just to be together, absorbing His peace, rejoicing in His great mercy. The sun lent its own benediction to their quiet thoughts.

Helen finally disturbed the peace, and wrinkled her nose at Hilda. “You’re going to hate me, but it’s more than time you ate something. Yes, I know you’re not hungry. No surprise there, when you’ve been extremely ill and had a very high temp, but you haven’t eaten for over thirty-six hours now, and I gather from Gwynneth that was only a yoghurt. You barely touched the ice cream earlier, just fell asleep on me. So, I think, my feisty friend, you’re going to have to force yourself a little, because it’s the only way to re-gain all your lost strength. Added to which, eating something, no matter how little, may actually stimulate your appetite. So what’s it to be? Scrambled eggs? Or some chicken bouillon? That would probably lie lighter on your poor, empty stomach. Plus, you can drink it, rather than making the effort to chew.”

Hilda knew there was no choice. “The latter, I think, Helen.”

When it arrived, the smell almost made her retch, but she subdued the feeling, with an effort, and took one small, hesitant sip, then another. To take her mind off the taste and smell, she decided conversation might help. “So tell me where everyone is. The room looks far too tidy, considering one could have likened it to a railway station earlier.”

Helen choked. “Hmm, you weren’t getting much peace, were you? Good job Jack was asleep! Now let me see… Well, Ian went off to school as soon as you fell asleep. I believe he was taking one of your lessons.” Hilda raised an eyebrow and wondered. “When he returned an hour later, he borrowed Gwynneth.” She shrugged at Hilda’s raised eyebrow. “That’s all I'll say for now. As for Vivien and Ellie, they went off to visit Marianne at the same time as Ian left. Both girls are now flat out, following Vivien’s very exciting French lesson.” She laughed. “I’m not too sure about calling it a lesson. It sounded more like riotous fun to me, learning about English and French sayings. All I know is what Isobel told me, that in Spain it rains toads and snakes, instead of cats and dogs, and, where we tell porkies, Ellie and her countrymen tell salads. Bizarre, or what?” Hilda chuckled at Vivien’s ingenuity. “Oh, and we don’t have bags under our eyes, we have suitcases, according to the French.”

“Yes, I can see your suitcases very clearly after your sleepless night,” Hilda said quietly. “Trust Vivien to do something so outrageous, as well as useful, to take Ellie’s mind off things.”

“They’ve also done some origami, as a way of calming them down, I think. Poor Ellie, she looked so much brighter, what with your news and then Vivien’s unique brand of magic.” Helen studied Hilda. “Was it your idea, or Vivien’s, to have Ellie living with her when you enter?”

“Vivien’s! She brought it up last week, scared stiff I’d accuse her of overstepping the mark. She got quite a shock when I fell on her neck with joy. At Christmas, Mother told me not to worry about Ellie, that God would provide, and He has provided, in abundance. The two of them get on like a house on fire, and to have Ian back in England at the same time puts the finishing touch to it all.” She took another sip, and stared ahead of her. “It scares me, sometimes, the way God brought us all slowly together, while having this grand plan in mind for the future. Every little gap was plugged, and Ellie will now have those she loves and trusts around her when she leaves, even Ian. How could I ever have anticipated, when I took on Vivien, how dear she would become to a girl I didn’t even know existed at that point? How could I even suspect that a miserable, lonely girl I helped at Christmas would become closer to me than life itself? And for all this to happen,” she whispered, closing her eyes, “Nell had to die.”

Helen gasped in shock. “Hilda, please don’t upse…”

Hilda opened her eyes. “No, let me put that another way. Nell died a heroine, and God took the ruins of several people’s lives, added them to the ruins of my own, and made one family out of all these disparate, lonely people.” She smiled. “It all depends on your viewpoint, doesn’t it?”

“He must have wanted all that closeness to continue, or He wouldn’t have brought you back from the dead, because you’re the lynchpin,” said Helen. Hilda shook her head. “Oh, both Ellie and Ian are agreed on that point. According to them, you’re the star round which all their planets revolve.” Tears gathered in Hilda’s eyes. Helen sat on the bed beside her, put an arm round her and drew her close, being mindful of the mug. “I know how much you still miss Nell, but you never let that stop you from sustaining others, no matter how much it costs. I’m so often in awe of all you do, even when I get cross with you for wearing yourself out. I’m here if you still need a shoulder, you know.”

“I know, Helen, and ask God daily to bless you. I won’t ever forget all you did for me after Nell died,” Hilda whispered, and buried her face in Helen’s shoulder as she pictured Nell’s face in her dream. After a while, she swallowed the tears and shook herself. “Tell me, how are Linda and Sarah?”

“Drink up, and I’ll tell you!” Helen let her off the last few sips, since it was clearly becoming a struggle. “Good girl! For a moment or two there, you actually had some colour in those white cheeks. We’ll try again in a couple of hours!”

She set the mug down and offered Hilda a glass of water, which she accepted readily enough, wanting to wash away the lingering taste in her mouth. “Right! Linda’s sleeping herself back to health, at long last, just as you finally did. As for Sarah, Erik let her surface from her induced sleep, and she was in much less pain than everyone expected, thank God. She’s even able to whisper to her parents, and they’re over the moon. I think Inspector Avison’s rather pleased, now, that his flight home yesterday was cancelled. God really did excel Himself early this morning for all of you!”

Hilda’s eyes grew radiant, and she settled back against her pillows. “It was those who prayed for us who excelled themselves, Helen, and they had their reward. Or the patients did!” She chewed her lip and studied Helen. “Do you think I might see Mark later? He’s going home tomorrow, isn’t he, and we didn’t really finish our conversation on Sunday evening? I’d quite like to meet his wife, Becky, too, so I can apologise to her.”

Helen moved back to her chair, but kept hold of Hilda’s hand. “You have no need to do that! She knows all you’ve done for Sarah and Tonia, and even for Helen, and can’t wait to thank you.” Hilda looked shocked. “Mark was very taken with you on Sunday evening, and Jack and Gwynneth had told him on the way home all you’d done for everyone on Saturday. He has a very high opinion of anyone who can get the better of Helen’s father, as you did! Isobel’s also been singing your praises loud and long when she and Becky get together, so Becky very much wants to meet you and thank you. It’s true, Hilda, so please don’t fret. I’ll ask Jack if they may visit you for a short while. Now that you’re feeling stronger, we don’t want you to have a relapse by doing too much.”

“I promise to be good,” Hilda said slowly, “but, in the meantime, would a short visit from Isobel do me any harm?”

“I shouldn’t think so. I know she won’t tire you out, and now is a good time, while the girls are sleeping. Vivien can stay and keep an eye on them. I’ll go and get her.”

“Tell me, first, though, what’s happening about Marianne, now her back’s so much better?”

“She’s very weak after lying flat for the last week. She just couldn’t bear to move at all for the pain. The physiotherapists have started some very gentle exercises, especially on her arms, to strengthen her muscles so she'll be able to wield crutches and get about with that heavy plaster. Her good leg is very weak, too, so will also need to be strengthened before she can stand on it. Trouble is, the muscles in her back still hurt when she’s doing the exercises, because of the residual bruising, so she’s moving very gingerly and it won’t all happen at once. Why do you ask?”

“Oh, I have a few ideas I want to put to Isobel. Would Marianne be allowed a wheelchair, or are you determined she can’t leave until she’s walking with crutches?”

“Both, probably, otherwise we’d take forever to get her upright.” She frowned. “Just what are you up to, my conniving friend?”

“Why don’t you haul Isobel along here, then stay to listen to what I have to say. You can chip in with your own opinion. I know you won’t hold back in that department! You can also then keep an eye on me, and make sure I’m behaving!” She rolled her eyes.

Helen snorted. “You have no idea what hard work that is!” She rose to her feet. “Okay, I’ll bring her along and make coffee for us all.”

“You look worn out, Helen,” Hilda said with feeling. “Those suitcases you mentioned are getting larger. All my fault!”

“It’ll soon be bedtime, and it’s hardly your fault you developed blood-poisoning, is it?”

While she was gone, Hilda ran over all she wanted to suggest to Isobel. Would she agree?

Isobel’s eyes opened wide with delight when she saw Hilda was sitting up. She bent over to give her a kiss, which Hilda returned with interest. “I can’t believe it! They all said how gravely ill you were late last night, yet look at you now! Oh, you’re white as a sheet, and have huge dark shadows under your eyes, and seem very fragile, but you’re sitting up and your eyes are shining. How is it possible?”

“God’s taking beautiful care of me, Isobel,” Hilda replied gently, urging Isobel to sit. “Just as He’s taking beautiful care of Marianne, Sarah and Ellie. I believe Vivien’s also been taking beautiful care of you all.”

Isobel laughed loud and long, and proceeded to give her chapter and verse on the fun they had had with Vivien’s lesson. “She’s a wonderful woman and a brilliant teacher, Hilda!”

“She’s a devious minx!” smiled Hilda. “She’s very clever at wrapping up learning in good, old-fashioned fun, and I suspect that particular lesson took Ellie’s mind off all her fears.” She smiled at Isobel. “Now you have first-hand evidence that your daughter’s in good hands, with Vivien as her form mistress and science mistress!”

Isobel’s jaw clenched. “When I think of the hard time Marianne gave her…”

“I wish Marianne had never told you about it!” Hilda laid a hand on Isobel’s. “Vivien’s long forgiven and forgotten, and Marianne has more than made up for her sins, so let it go, dear,” she pleaded urgently. “Last September we were still grieving for Miss Wilson, and that’s all it was with Marianne. She’s very young and was finding it hard to cope. Miss Wilson wasn’t someone you forgot easily.”

Isobel shook her head. “You’re all too good! Every time Miss Knowles has visited this week, I’ve been riddled with guilt.”

“Does she seem to hold it against Marianne?”

“Not at all! Even today, when Marianne looked suddenly sheepish, Miss Knowles took her hand and told her it was over and done with.”

“If that’s the case, why are you still holding it against the poor girl?” Hilda asked softly.

Isobel’s jaw dropped. She gazed aghast at Hilda. “You haven’t lost your marbles, have you, for all you’ve been at death’s door! I didn’t think I was holding it against her, but I am, aren’t I?” Hilda nodded. “I’ll have to apologise and ask her to forgive me.”

“And how many other mums do you think would do likewise?” Isobel frowned, not understanding. “Most would simply sweep their attitude under the carpet, finding it hard to admit to themselves or their daughter, but you have a very open, honest relationship with Marianne, and she told me how much she appreciates it, so I think you’ll find her very forgiving. She loves you dearly.”

“You give such gentle lessons, Hilda, yet get your point across perfectly. Thank you for making me stop and think.” Tears sparkled on Isobel’s lashes. “Marianne asked Ellie just now if she'd like to share me with her.”

Hilda’s eyes opened wide. “Why on earth...?”

Isobel took the thin hand in hers. “When we were doing origami, I made Ellie two little sea horses, because she’d fallen in love with them in the book. When I gave them to her, she told me Marianne was lucky to have me for a mother.”

“She is! Very lucky! But, oh, poor Ellie…” whispered Hilda, tears in her own eyes.

“She’s a very taking child, isn’t she? I wanted to pick her up and hug her when she told me my eyes said kind things, just like yours do.” Tears rained down Hilda’s cheeks. “I don’t think I’ve ever been given quite so beautiful a compliment! Marianne immediately offered to share me with her, and Ellie said only if they could be like sisters.”

More tears ran down Hilda’s cheeks. Even Helen was having trouble, and got up to hand Hilda some tissues. “I’ll get that coffee. I think you need it! Ellie’s so like you, it’s unbelievable, Hilda. The good Lord matched you perfectly.” She nodded and left the room.

Isobel still held Hilda’s hand as she wept. “Matron Graves has the right of it! You are alike! Does Ellie have any family? She and Miss Knowles told me a little, when they visited Marianne, but not very much.”

“Only an aunt in the convent, a really loving, beautiful person. Patricia’s a very talented artist, and Ellie has some of those same gifts. Well, you've seen her art work in Marianne's room, haven't you? Ask Marianne to tell you about Ellie’s part in the talent concert. Patricia was the reason Ellie ended up at the convent before Christmas.”

Hilda gave Isobel a potted history of Ellie’s life and many tragedies. Isobel was horrified by her father’s refusal to spend any time with his daughter or show her any love. She was even more horrified to hear that, thanks to his brutal selfishness, Ellie was left with nothing after his death, even her own belongings having been sold to pay his debts.

“I loved her as soon as I met her, and we had a very gentle Christmas together, one I had truly been dreading. Sharing it with her brought both of us untold happiness, for she, too, felt alone and hopeless. It was the Abbess and Patricia who suggested I become her guardian, when I offered her a place here. It was truly an honour that Ellie was so willing to have me,” Hilda whispered.

“You love her very much!”

Hilda nodded. “The love I felt for her at Christmas has taken on a life of its own, but she's given me so much more than I’ve given her. She literally jerked me out of my grief, and blesses me with such a gentle, intuitive love. More than most people, she seems to know when I hurt. Without her, I’m not sure I wouldn’t still be mired in my sorrow and loneliness. She has so much love for everyone, not just me… yet was bullied almost from the moment she set foot in the door.” Her voice broke.

The coffee arrived, preventing both of them from breaking down completely.

“Why was she bullied?”

Hilda told that story, too, without mentioning any names, and explained how Ellie’s hand was injured. “She’s forgiven the girl, and she and Jeanne, her friend, are determined to help her when she returns. I sent her to the convent, for she had sorrows of her own that I’d known nothing about, but hopefully those might soon be coming to an end. Would you pray for her?” she asked gently. “She needs so many prayers, at the moment!”

“My God, Hilda, what a beautiful girl Ellie is! Of course I’ll pray for this other girl, if only for Ellie’s sake!.”

Time to change the subject, thought Helen. “Didn’t you have a proposition to put to Isobel?”

Hilda studied Isobel over the rim of her cup. “I gather Marianne’s doing so well now that they’ve begun physiotherapy to strengthen her muscles, with the aim of getting her home soon.” Isobel nodded. “Have you been given the green light to go ahead and book flights? You haven’t? Well, then,” she smiled slyly, “how would you like to fulfil your yearning to be a Chalet School girl for a few days and sleep in a dormitory?” Isobel gaped. Helen laughed at her friend’s antics. “Helen here says Marianne will find it too hard at first to use crutches the whole time, so will need a wheelchair. Well, we have a lift at school, so, when she’s ready, I was thinking she could return to school for a few days, with you as a sort of maid-of-all-work, wheeling her about, to enable her to catch up on some of the work she’s missed. You could then take her home next week for half term.”

Eyes wide with anticipation, Isobel searched Hilda’s face, then looked over at Helen, who nodded slowly. “It seems sensible enough to me. It might not happen till Thursday or Friday, but it would do her good to get out of here and, this way, we'll still keep an eye on her.”

Isobel looked back at Hilda. “Can you cope? Will you even be back there by then?”

“Doesn’t matter! If I’m not, I’ll brief Miss Wilmot, and she’ll make sure it all works. Vivien will also give a hand, as her form mistress. I was thinking Marianne could have a bed in the dorm used by Ellie and her friend Jeanne. The Games Captain and another prefect also sleep there, and the four of them would be only too eager to help Marianne, although you’d be there to wash and dress her and so on. We could provide a small bedroom nearby for you – or you could have one of the remaining beds in the dorm,” she added with a knowing wink.

“Oh, yes please,” Isobel squeaked, making the other two giggle. “It’s got to be the dorm!”

“You may change your mind after a couple of nights in there, of course,” Hilda added wryly. Isobel shook her head firmly. “It would mean you pushing her round in her wheelchair from lesson to lesson, helping her with things in the labs, the art rooms and so on, and being a general dogsbody, which may not to be to your taste, of course. Would you be bored hanging around in lessons, waiting hand and foot on your daughter?”

“Just for a few days? Are you kidding?” Isobel grinned. “But what about the staff? Won’t they find me an encumbrance, and worry about whether I’m being critical of their lessons or their care of my daughter? Which I wouldn’t be, by the way! But you're giving me total access to the whole school, more or less.”

“I think we - or they! - can control you! Most of them will be pleased she isn’t missing more lessons, and will probably try to catch her for a few extra ones to bring her up to scratch with what she’s missed, rather than waiting till after half term. Not that we want to tire her out, and I imagine the medical staff here will also be checking on her. As for my staff, if any of them do feel constrained by your presence, they’ll have to put up with it, I’m afraid. It’s good for all of us to have our routine disturbed now and then.”

Isobel gulped at this sudden emergence of the iron fist in the velvet glove. “Ellie was right,” she gasped. “She contradicted Miss Knowles, saying you weren’t all sweetness and light, when that saying came up!”

Helen hooted with glee. Hilda’s eyes twinkled. “Good to know my ward appreciates me so much! No Head worth her salt is all sweetness and light, Isobel – nor, indeed, is she ‘tout sucre, tout miel’.” She nodded. “Yes, I know the French expression, and I most certainly do not consist purely of sugar and honey! They’d all run rings round me if I were, staff as well as girls.”

“True for you,” said Isobel, appearing rather stunned. Helen laughed out loud, and Isobel looked her way. “True for you, too, Matron?”

“What do you think?”

“Well, I’m blowed! And here was I putting it all down to your benevolent characters, both.” Hilda gaped at her. “I’ll behave, Miss,” Isobel added meekly.

“Oh, go on with you,” growled Hilda. “This will all depend on Doctor Jack agreeing to my mad scheme, of course, especially the extra tuition,” she warned. “I don’t want to put her health back. What about your husband? Won’t he object to you being gone for longer than he anticipated?”

“He won’t be asked!”

Hilda chuckled. “Now who’s all sweetness and light?”

Isobel grinned sheepishly. “Oh, he’s used to looking after himself, and can always eat at the hospital.” She gazed at Hilda with sparkling eyes. “Hilda, you’re a star!”

“And you’re worse than a small child,” Hilda teased. “I see someone will have to keep you on a short leash, or you’ll take over the place.” Isobel stuck out her tongue. “I’ll ignore that! If you’re really sure about this, it may just give Marianne the encouragement she needs to co-operate with the physio, painful though the exercises will be. Although,” she added slowly, with a roguish look in her eye, “you do have to accept that she might not want her mother around her in school all the time. Girls can be very particular.”

“You are a dreadful, dreadful woman!” quoth Isobel, laughing merrily.

“It’s all down to that fertile imagination of hers, Isobel!” said Helen with a wicked grin, and drew Isobel to her feet. “Come on! Let’s strike while the iron’s hot. I’ll go along with you to explain to Marianne and see how she feels about it all. It’s a wonderful idea, Hilda, and just the sort of thing your devious mind is so good at plotting. You’re a very clever girl!”

“’I’m so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I’m saying!’”

She watched impassively as Helen and Isobel rolled their eyes at Oscar Wilde’s words, and groaned loudly in unison. Helen glared fiercely at her. “We’ll both get our own back for that, my lady! When you’re not looking! Or I suppose I could blackmail Jack to sit on you, when you have your next flight of fancy!”

Hilda’s laughing eyes watched them leave the room in giggling harmony, then she relaxed against her pillows with a satisfied sigh. She hadn’t expected Isobel to be quite so receptive to her idea, but it could work wonders for Marianne, ensuring she didn’t fall too far behind. It would also mean the staff would only have Katy to bring up to scratch after half term, which could prove a far more difficult proposition after a two month absence. But if Marianne had caught up, she could prove a great support to her best friend, for Katy would be fighting hard, not only to make up half a term’s work, but also fighting her guilt and grief at leaving her sister behind. The poor girl would be in need of a great deal of sympathy and understanding in the next few months.

Stop it, she chided herself, and handed both Katy and Marianne over to her Heavenly Father, who was far more capable than Hilda Annersley. The next moment, the hairs on the back of her neck were standing on end.

Hand yourself over to Me, as well, Beloved! Get out of bed and try walking around.





*****
End Notes:
The title is taken from a hymn by Whittier.
Chapter 12 - My Strength, My Song by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Thank you so much for the kind comments on the chapter with Isobel and Helen. Blueskye wants to start a Helen Graves society! *grins*

But I do apologise for the long silence. I never intended to stay away this long, but Christmas and sundry other things simply got in the way, leaving me no long stretches of time to concentrate. And Hilda demands concentration!
Hand yourself over to Me, as well, Beloved! I’d like you to get out of bed and try walking around.

Hilda closed her eyes, her brain scrambling for words.

But… why are You in such a hurry, Father? Is it Meg? If so, are you prepared to take on Jack? He will be even more disapproving than usual.

Oh, you can handle Jack, daughter. I’m not sure there’s anyone you can’t handle. Why am I in a hurry? It isn’t only Meg and her father who have need of you. So does Kathie. She’s stumbling and struggling, veering one way and then the other.

Surely it’s You she needs, Father. I come a very poor second.

She’s not listening to Me, child.

And that saddens You. But there are others helping her – Ian, Vivien, Nancy, and even Mireille, I gather.

And the only one she’s taking any notice of is Ian. Mireille did give her pause with her forthrightness, but I fear she has shrugged it off already. Mireille herself also has need of you. That incident with Ellie hit her very hard, almost as hard as it hit Ellie.

I’ll ask Helen if I may speak to her. Will that help?

Not enough, daughter. Tonia also needs you. Ian has spent time with her today, raising her spirits a little, but she needs what only you can give her.

She still blames herself.

Rather like you, isn’t she, Beloved?


His tender teasing brought tears to her eyes. This vast love of His seemed overwhelming to her in her weakened state.

Don’t weep, Beloved! Just try to accept that, more often than not, problems that occur aren’t your fault. You’re already brave and bold. Now be even braver and bolder, and trust yourself. Ellie trusts you wholeheartedly, but she's another reason for my speed. She should return to school soon. Her fear of Kathie is gathering momentum and needs to be faced. Come, child. Do you not trust Me? You trusted Me earlier, just as you trusted My Son beside Nell’s grave.

‘You are the God who works miracles.’ You know I trust You, Heavenly Father. For everything! Did You not bring me back from the dead? Without You, I am nothing.

Fear not! I won’t ever let you fall – unless I think it might teach you something.


The very ordinariness of the conversation soothed her, even as her heart quailed at the news of so many still suffering from Kathie’s and Helen’s actions. Without more ado, she tossed back the bedclothes, swung her feet to the floor, and hesitated. Would her legs hold her, when she still felt so weak?

Go in the strength you have. Am I not with you?

The words from Gideon galvanized her. She had no need to be strong. He would be her strength, as He always was. She pushed herself up from the bed and stood tall, then caught the bed head in sudden panic.

Hold me, Father. I feel like Bambi learning to walk, legs wobbling every which way.

No answer! She forced herself to slide one foot forward, dragging the other after it, her weak thigh muscles screaming. Again, she slid a foot forward, praying it wouldn’t slip. The other followed more easily this time on the polished wooden floor. Staggering, breathing heavily, she reached the end of the bed. Leaning against it, she stripped off her bed jacket and slipped on her crimson dressing gown, tying it tightly. Instantly, its warmth infused her with yet more strength.

Holding on to the bed, she walked round it, faced the window and gulped. A vast expanse of shining floor seemed to lie between bed and window, and there were no supports on the way! Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath and stepped away from the bed. It was like launching herself into deep water. Wobbling wildly, she took one step, then another, and another. With every step, her legs grew firmer, her breathing easier. When she finally reached the window, she sighed with relief and hugged herself. Her eyes blurred as she stared out at the thick blanket of snow glittering in the late afternoon sun.

We did it, Father! Is there anything I can’t do when You’re with me?

No, Beloved. If you truly can’t do something, I will carry you.

You’ve carried me every day since Nell died.

Because you trust Me, most of the time, and rest in My arms when things grew too hard. Just as you rested in Me when walking across the room. Now, walk to Ellie’s bed and back again.


She swallowed and turned slowly, expecting her legs to tremble beneath her. Not so! They were rock solid, but the distance to Ellie’s bed seemed immeasurable, for it had been returned to its original place beside the far wall while she was sleeping. His timing was impeccable, thought Hilda with a wry smile. She took a deep breath and set off somewhat nervously, but her legs remained strong, the passage was smooth, and she was back at the window in no time at all. She leaned her forehead against the glass and stared up at the snowy peaks across the valley. It was a sight she knew by heart but, after her efforts, it seemed fresh and new.

“I will lift up mine eyes to the hills,” she whispered.

And you know your strength comes from Me, and not from them, daughter.

“Will You stay and help me to face Jack?”

Jack will be hard to please, for he worries about you, but I’ve already done some work there. Just be your usual quiet, gentle self and you will disarm him.

Without warning, tears streamed down her cheeks, brought on by all He had done for her that day since early morning, and by the gentle compassion in His voice. She sobbed out words from Job:

“’What is man, that Thou shouldest magnify him, and settest Thine heart upon him?’”

I set My heart on each of My children, for did I not create them> Weep not, Beloved. You are more than worthy of a miracle or two. Who knows if there are not more to come? Just keep My Son’s words in your heart and be at peace. You are needed, both now and in the years ahead of you. I will always be with you, and when the way becomes too hard I will hear your call and answer you.

For a long, long moment, she felt herself wrapped in such beautiful tenderness that the tears became a flood, and she feared the empty coldness when it was taken away. But no! The warmth of His love lingered. Her spirit was renewed. She whispered her thanks and took another turn to Ellie’s bed. Back at the window, she stared out once more and absorbed the shining beauty she might never have enjoyed again, but for His great mercy and love.

So deep in thought was she that she never heard the door open and someone enter; never heard a quiet gasp of wonder. She nearly jumped out of her skin when an arm was placed gently round her shoulders.

She turned her head. “Ian,” she whispered with quivering lips.

He saw the radiance in her eyes. “He’s been here again,” he whispered joyfully.

She leaned her head against him. “What do you mean by ‘again’?”

“Helen told me about you sitting up on your own earlier this afternoon. Now look at you!” he added, his face crinkling in amusement.

“He’s in an almighty hurry, Ian! He had me out of bed on wobbly legs and walking across the room in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.” Ian laughed out loud, but the eyes that looked up at him were sombre. “One of His reasons for it all is Tonia. I gather you took my lesson with her form today. How are they?”

“We had a great time, and they seem much more relaxed about Helen and what she did. I might just pinch your lesson again! I enjoyed it!” She dug her elbow in his ribs. “Jealous, eh? Pax, pax!” He drew her closer. “I spoke to Tonia afterwards. She’s still very upset and full of guilt. He’s right. She does need you - needs you now, not next week.”

“And Mireille? She’s also struggling, apparently, which surprised me.”

Ian smothered another gasp. “How He treasures you, my friend, and how natural it seems to you to be talking to be Him, in the same way that we’re talking now!”

Hilda frowned. “I talk to Him all the time, so, yes, it seems natural. I assumed you did, too.”

He leaned his head against hers. “Oh, I talk to Him. Sometimes I even hear Him, but not as you do. I told you once before you’d have made a much better priest than I.”

Her eyes were very tender on him. “Not true, Ian. I’m nothing special. It’s just that… prayer, to me, is simply sitting in His presence and talking to Him like a child with her father. It’s not like the formal prayers I say in school with the girls. Without that relationship, I could never have survived this past year without Nell, despite all the help I’ve received. He even forgave me for those two weeks I turned my back on Him, like any other loving father would.”

He gazed down into those tender eyes. “You are special, very special. Just listen to Kate or Ellie when they tell you so! Will you help me walk more closely with Him in the days to come?”

“Any time, Ian, if you really think you need it,” she said softly. “I know you’re wrong. You show me that more clearly every day, and your talk to the girls about being trainee shepherds convinced me utterly. ”

He shook his head. “Let’s change the subject, eh? Yes, Mireille’s struggling! I've brought her back with me, actually. She admitted she feels even angrier and more distressed than she did yesterday, and I decided she needed a break from school. She’s had lunch with Gwynneth, but it’s really you she needs. I know you two have a very open and honest relationship.”

“That was thoughtful of you, Ian!” she murmured. “You did exactly the right thing. Will you bring her along here? Isobel’s just visited, so why not my Head Girl? Although I must confess that Helen stayed to monitor me!”

He winked. “Let’s see what Jack says first, shall we?” He debated within himself. “You won’t like this, but Nancy told me Jeanne broke down this morning and is now in bed with a bad headache. They’ve actually put her in Ellie’s bed to give her some peace.”

“How very kind of Nancy! Poor Jeanne, she’s had two nasty shocks in a very short space of time, what with Helen and then Kathie,” Hilda sighed. “It’s hitting them all harder now, isn’t it? No wonder He wants me back. I know Nancy and Vivien, among others, are more than capable of looking after them, but I was there and involved on both ocasions.”

“They need you, Hilda. Even Nancy! She’s coming over later, and says she’ll bring Jeanne if she feels better”

“Oh – my – goodness!” whispered a voice from the door. They spun round. Helen Graves was gaping at them, her face white. “He was here again! Giving you more orders.”

Hilda smiled. “He told me to get up and walk! So I did!” Helen shivered, goose bumps breaking out all over. “Ian got as much of a shock as you when he came in, Helen, but nothing compared to the shock the Lord gave me, I assure you!” Her voice was dry.

“I can imagine!” An unholy grin crossed Helen’s features. “I’d better go and beard the dragon in his den. Yikes! Prepare for ructions, both!”

She disappeared. They grinned at each other, although Ian’s eyes grew haunted when he recalled how they had lost her a mere twelve hours ago. Was all this actually happening? Or had he been dreaming all day and her peaceful face was just a figment of his imagination?

“Believe it, dear man,” she whispered. “And use what you’ve heard and seen, passing on to others everything this miracle has done for you. Does Kate know?”

“About you dying? Yes, and will be spending the next twenty-four hours on her knees thanking Him for your life. I’m afraid she had a jolly good cry, especially at the thought of what it would have done to Ellie.” He shook away his own grief. “Er, shouldn’t you be resting after those hikes around the room?”

“My legs feel stronger with every passing moment, Ian, so tell me more of Tonia and Mire...”

The door burst open, scattering her words. Jack irrupted into the room, his face filled with fury, and something else which Hilda recognised as fear. She frowned.

“What the dickens are you playing at, woman?” he fumed. “You’re not well enough to be out of bed like this! You were so weak you could barely move this morning, so how could you possibly be…? Ian’s keeping you upright, isn’t he?” he added accusingly.

Ian’s arm fell away from Hilda and he stepped to one side. “I’ve only just come in. She was already here by the window, so refrain from making baseless accusations, Jack.” His voice was cold. “When has Hilda ever pretended to be something she’s not?”

“But it’s impossible! There’s no way she could have got out of bed on her own!”

“Didn’t Helen tell you what happened to me earlier?” asked Hilda gently.

“He didn’t stop to listen,” Helen said with a wry shrug.

Jack swung round. “You were supposed to be keeping an eye on her.”

Helen rolled her eyes, closed the door, restraining the urge to slam it, and dropped into a nearby chair. “She doesn’t need me for that. God’s been keeping an eye on her since four o’clock this morning.”

His face tightened. “There’s no way God hauled from their bed someone who could barely move a muscle a few hours ago.”

“Jack, look at me,” Hilda said softly. He glared at her. “Why do you accept that He brought me back from the dead in the wee, small hours, but can’t accept these smaller miracles that Helen and Ian accept with no problem at all?”

His hand waved, seeming to sweep away the whole idea of miracles as so much rubbish. “God doesn’t appear just to help people out of bed! He’s got better things to do!”

Ian muttered something unprintable under his breath. Jack ignored him. “You were given orders to sleep and eat, and do nothing to make yourself ill again.”

“Do I look ill?” Her voice was gentle, but His lips thinned and he refused to answer. “You’re a good doctor, Jack, dear, and did your very best to save me. But I take my orders from a higher authority, an authority who stepped in and did save my life this morning.” His jaw dropped. “When I woke up to an empty room early this afternoon, He told me to sit up, so I did! Simple as that, although I certainly didn’t do it in my own strength! I then spent time with Ellie, Gwynneth, Ian, Vivien and Helen before falling asleep on them, because I was still tired and weak.” The fury in Jack’s blue eyes was fading. Her voice remained soft. “When I woke up again, everyone had disappeared, so Helen forced some soup down me, then allowed me a visit from Isobel which did me the world of good.”

“Would you like to sit down?” he whispered. She shook her head. “But, after all that, you should be knocked out cold with exhaustion.”

Her lips twitched. “I wasn’t given time! Scarcely had Isobel and Helen left the room when He told me to get up and walk. He even told me precisely from where to where! Thank goodness He didn’t also tell me to pick up my bed before walking! That might have presented extra problems neither He or I could have handled,” she added wryly.

Helen and Ian snickered at this sly reference to one of Jesus’s miracles.

Jack ignored them, focusing on the transparent honesty in her quiet eyes. “But it’s impossible!” he repeated. “You were weak as a kitten”

“I can’t deny it, and I wobbled all over the place at first, but He assured me that all I had to do was rely on His strength, not my own. So I did!”

Silence fell. Jack stared at her, as though trying to bore right through to her brain. Her calm gaze held his. “But why would He?” he whispered.

Again, Hilda caught that glimpse of fear. Without warning his face changed. “This is some stupid ploy to make me release you tomorrow for Meg, isn’t it?” he snarled.

“Jack!” Helen remonstrated in a shocked voice. She rose to her feet and went to stand by Hilda. “That was a cruel and nasty thing to say. Hilda’s been totally amenable here, and done exactly as you’ve told her. I explained to you her plan for Marianne, and how she told Isobel it would still happen, even if she herself wasn’t back at school. She had no expectation of being released. She knew how ill she still was, and knew not to do anything stupid. So why on earth would you insult a good friend in this way?” Jack stared at her, and ran his hand through his air in a distracted way.

“Because he feels God has usurped his territory,” Ian put in quietly. Jack winced. Ian put an arm back round Hilda, and she leaned into him. “Jack, you’re not God! Can never be God! You can only heal people in conjunction with Him. If He wants Hilda well in double-quick time, why are you arguing with Him? I know your faith is as strong as hers, so you should be cheering from the rafters that He’s healing her so quickly, not moaning about it in such an ugly manner.”

His voice remained quiet, but Jack was staring at him hard, clearly ready to do battle. His eyes glanced Hilda’s way. Without warning, he visibly deflated, shame rippling across his face when he saw how gently her eyes rested on him.

“No, Ian, my faith is nowhere near as strong as Hilda’s,” he replied humbly. He scrutinised her face, still white and shadowed. “Did He say why?”

She nodded, but remained silent. A single tear trickled down her face. With a smothered exclamation, he moved closer and took her hand. “I’m sorry I was angry,” he whispered. “I scared you, didn’t I? I’m a rotten doctor!”

“No, you’re not, and no, you didn’t scare me,” she murmured. “But if I tell you why He wants me up and doing, it will only re-ignite your anger.”

“He wants you back at school,” he stated.

“For Kathie and Meg, and for Ellie, who He says needs to return soon, because her fear is building and getting worse, not better.” He nodded his understanding. “He knows she wouldn’t go without me.” She bit her lip to stop it trembling. “Jack, His demands were just as much of a shock to me as they are to you, but how can one refuse Him? He’s gracious and loving, but not to be gainsaid. I was terrified I’d fall and do myself more damage, but He overcame my fear and gave me His strength. There was no way He was going to undo all the care you’ve given me. He’d brought me back from the dead this morning, so I had to trust Him for this, too.”

She looked at the other two, her eyes considering Helen as she wondered whether to add more. She took a deep breath. “You know, He didn’t just heal me of my blood poisoning this morning. You were right, Helen. I was close to a breakdown when I visited on Sunday, because I’d allowed all my problems to crowd in on top of me. It seemed to me yesterday morning that Kathie’s behaviour was the final nail in the coffin, but what really broke me was Ian’s sister ringing up scarcely an hour later to hand me yet another problem. I don’t really remember much after that…” She frowned. “Was it really only yesterday? It seems days ago.”

“You said it,” growled Jack, but there was the suspicion of a twinkle in his eyes.

Ian squeezed her shoulder. “I’m sorry Kate put you through that. She's sorry, too.”

“As Headmistress, I needed to be told, Ian. Kate wasn’t to know I was feeling ill when she rang. She just knew she couldn’t act without my say so. Oh, it was a good problem, and will hopefully mean one girl’s unexpected happiness, but it finished me off. You all saw the results.”

“But you were very ill,” said Jack gently. “That infection had probably been developing from the moment Linda scratched you, probably because you still hadn’t recovered from the accident. What Helen and Kathie did simply added to that and clobbered you! No wonder you were at the end of your tether and upset. I saw what happened on Saturday, remember, and also saw how much it took out of you.”

She smiled. “No, Jack. All you say might be true, but I know now I’ve immersed myself too hard in my work since Nell died, trying to hide from my grief. I had no resources left to cope with Helen or Kathie, nor all the other problems this term brought. I know the symptoms now, and will make sure I get more rest from now on.”

“Hurrah!” cried Helen, giving her a gentle hug.

“You’re a good friend, Helen, but you know I can’t hand any more work over. My senior staff already work too hard, and there are some things only I can deal with, things like Saturday’s event. Just now, though, God insisted I rest more in Him, hand over my burdens and let Him carry them. So you see, He healed not only my body, but my spirit, too. No more of those awful tears! That’s something you couldn’t have done, Jack,” she added softly. "I would have resister you!"

“I’ll try not to get on your case so much,” Jack promised quietly.

“Thank you, dear.” She pressed the hand holding hers. “I saw the fear in your eyes when you came in. Something’s happened to you this afternoon, as well. That’s why you’re fighting Him, and why you were so angry with me.”

A bark of laughter escaped Jack. “You never cease to amaze me, love. How do you read us all so well? You’ve just cut the legs out from under me with your soft voice and beguiling ways, much as you did with John Cassidy.”

“Tell me,” she insisted gently.

Ian and Helen glanced at each other in wonder. Hilda had tamed the dragon and extinguished his flames!

He sighed. “I’m sorry, people. I was very rude and I apologise.” He eyed each of them in turn. “Shall we sit down and I’ll try to explain? Hilda, why don’t you take the easy chair? Isn’t there a footstool somewhere, Helen?”

Ian gently guided Hilda to the chair. Hiding a smile, Helen opened a door set in the wall opposite the beds and produced the aforementioned footstool. She gently lifted Hilda’s legs onto it, spread a blanket round her, tucking the ends in gently, then settled herself on her friend’s bed, while Ian sat beside Hilda, ready to defend her from another attack. Jack checked Hilda’s pulse and looked at the notes made by Helen during the day. He frowned down at the chart, as though willing it to say something different.

He lifted his head, saw them all watching him and had the grace to blush. “I just can’t accept you're out of bed and walking around when you quite literally died twelve hours ago, and were unable to move a muscle all morning. Yet Helen’s notes tell me otherwise, as does your pulse.”

He sighed, dragged a chair across and sat down facing Hilda. He scrutinised her face, seeing no signs of the alarming weariness and weakness all too evident earlier, and which had made him believe she might stop breathing again. He had feared it would take her weeks to recover enough to return to school – yet here she was, almost back to normal! In les than a day! It was impossible!

“Tell me, Jack,” she repeated softly. A quiet light shone in her eyes.

“The truth? I find it hard to accept miracles for ordinary people like you and me,” he stated baldly.

Hilda was stunned. “Yet this morning you believed He had brought me back to life.” She reached for Jack’s hand. “Jesus never said there would be no more miracles after He and His apostles disappeared from this earth,” she assured him softly. “They’re still happening, Jack. We all hear of people being suddenly cured of dread diseases, when no earthly medicine could have made any difference. Babies born alive who shouldn’t be, and people who survive when all hope is gone. Did any of you think I’d survive the bus crash all those years ago?”

“Jem was convinced there was no way you’d live through the operation, or, if you did, there was no way you could ever return to your post.”

“Yet here I am,” she smiled. “Not much difference between that miracle and this one, to my mind. Miracles can happen to ordinary people, because all of us are ordinary, and yet not ordinary at all, for we’re all His children and He loves us, and is ready to pour His precious Grace on us, no matter who we are. Never think you’re too ordinary to be granted a miracle.”

Jack’s mouth dropped open. “You really believe that, don’t you?”

“Miracles don’t have to be earth-shattering. Some steal in very quietly, hardly recognised. It was truly a miracle when Ian sent me to his sister. I was in such a state that I don’t think I’d be here now without her. Death seemed very a tempting prospect at that point in time.” Her eyes were haunted. Ian took her free hand and held it gently. Jack and Helen gasped, shocked to their core. “Yes, I’m not proud of it, but I’d reached rock bottom and saw no future for myself. Only God and Mother could have rescued me, so, if that’s not a miracle, then I don’t know what is,” she added in a tiny whisper. "Then, as though rescuing me from myself wasn't enough of a miracle, Ellie crept into my heart."

“Hilda, I…” Misery filled Jack’s face. “Why didn’t I see it?”

“Oh, I think you did, in part, Jack, but I’m too good at hiding my problems, so please don’t blame yourself. Just never, ever, think of me as better or stronger than others. Only miracles have sustained me, miracles like Ellie. Who could have ever imagined such a thing for Hilda Annersley? But He imagined it!”

Utter silence prevailed in the room, Helen and Jack absorbing with difficulty all she was revealing. Even Helen, friend that she was, realised she hadn’t known it all. That Hilda should have considered... She gulped, sudden tears in her eyes.

“Then there’s Vivien, who’s been such a gift to Ellie and me, as have Ian and Gwynneth.” Hilda leaned forward urgently. “Let’s move nearer to home, Jack. Wouldn’t you say God prevailed when Helen was caught before the school went up in flames on Saturday?” He nodded. “Would you agree to that being a small miracle?” He nodded again, and she laughed gently. “To me, it was a mighty big miracle, as was the fact that you decided on a whim to take her home yourself, and knew exactly who to ask to find seats on a plane the very next day. I would say God was working extremely hard for us all, even down to Mark Avison and Geoff Slater proving willing to help, instead of hauling me over the coals for not protecting their daughters.”

“You protect them to the very best of your ability and Mark appreciated that. Actually, I think he fell a little in love with you on Sunday evening,” Jack teased. Hilda choked on a startled laugh. “I suppose it was also a miracle that you turned up when Ellie was being attacked, and not just any old coincidence.”

Her face was suddenly grim. “There are no coincidences, as far as I’m concerned, Jack. Just God wishing to remain anonymous.”

“But he does all that for you because you’re not ordinary,” he murmured. “He must find you a most astonishing woman! He wouldn’t do it for the likes of me.”

She reared back in her seat. “Of course I’m ordinary, Jack,” she said blankly. “I’ve just shown you how ordinary and weak I am, unable to withstand the pain of Nell’s death.” She went on the attack. “As to not performing miracles for the likes of you, wouldn’t you say saving your life and bringing you back home during the war was a miracle? It seemed so to Jo and the rest of us. We all thought you were dead.” He gaped, clearly never having thought that way before. “I’d say that was a mighty fine miracle.” His lips twitched. “God doesn’t only save people who live saintly lives, you know. None of us would ever be saved, if that were so. Think of Peter and John, simple fishermen, yet chosen by Jesus to be his closest friends.”

“But they were special,” he gasped.

“No, they weren’t,” she insisted, “Even after living with Jesus for three years, Peter proved himself a coward. Nothing special about that, was there? Yet Jesus chose Him and loved him. Or take Mary and Joseph, so poor they had their baby in a stable, then had to flee to Egypt as refugees. What was special about them, except their absolute trust in a loving God? Miracles were heaped on them because they listened with their hearts and were obedient unto Him.”

A sudden change came over Jack’s face. He shifted uncomfortably, looking nervous. “Um, I had a dream, too, like Joseph,” he whispered.

Hilda’s eyes widened. “This afternoon, while you were napping? It frightened you,” she added with a nod.

He looked at the others and shrugged. “See what I have to put up with? How did she know?”

“She listens with her heart to everyone, Jack, not just to God,” whispered Helen, who was feeling rather overcome by all she was hearing.

Jack licked his lips. “It was just a dream, or so I thought. Then I came in and saw you standing there, when you should still have been weak as a kitten - and I fought what my own eyes were telling me. The clear evidence of what He’d done for you collided with what I’d been told in my dream. Dreams are just dreams, aren't they?”

Hilda’s eyes shone. “No, Jack, dreams can mean all sorts of things, as Joseph and the Magi knew. They took their dreams as God’s truth and followed them to the letter, no doubts, no questioning.” She glanced at Helen. “Remember when Mother was here and you checked my feet after the accident?”

“They were better in two days!” Helen recalled her shock. “I recall saying it wasn’t possible.”

“Nell came to me in a dream in that first long sleep I had after Mother arrived.” Hilda curled up inside, wanting to rub out her words. Revealing herself like this still didn’t come naturally, despite all Mother’s insistence. “She said she’d come to take me out, but not with those ugly bandages on my feet, so she unwrapped them and anointed my feet with a sweet-smelling cream. Lo and behold, that same day my feet started to recover. Helen was stunned when she saw them.”

Jack dropped her hand in shock. Helen’s eyes widened. “And you truly believe…?”

“Mother believed it, too.” She turned to a shocked Ian. “Ask her, tell her I gave you permission. I’ve had several dreams since Nell died, all of them God-given and healing. I’ve also had the odd horrific nightmare, but let’s not dwell on those!” She shuddered.” I met Jesus in a dream last night while I was unconscious. He passed on a few home truths, and showed me things not given to many human beings to see. His love surrounded me all through that dream, and I’m sure it was then He healed me. So tell us about yours, Jack,” she added softly, “No one will laugh at you. I most certainly won’t.”

Jack tried to speak but failed. His astonished eyes swung to Ian. He cleared his throat. “No, Ian, my faith is nothing like hers. How I wish it were!”

“It can be, dear,” Hilda murmured.

He took her hand again. “I’m not the good Catholic I thought I was, am I?”

“No, Jack, you’re a better Catholic than you think you are. It’s never easy following Christ, for it always leads to the cross, which is a very painful place. But there, on that cross, Jesus opens wide His arms to welcome us and draw us to His loving heart, no matter how greatly we’ve sinned. All we have to do is walk into those arms willingly, open our own heart's suffering and let Him in. At the end of the day, it’s very simple.”

He gazed deeply into the gentle blue eyes. “It’s not simple when you’re told He doesn’t need your expertise,” he muttered gruffly. “That He’s going to heal your friend all on His own.”

She slipped her hand under his and held it on her lap.

Her gentleness disarmed him, and he opened his own heart, his eyes focused on their joined hands. “Helen sent me off to get my head down for a while, but, as I lay there, I couldn’t get your coming back to life out of my head. I began to think it wasn’t possible. In the end, I convinced myself that you hadn’t stopped breathing at all, that we were all too tired to take things in, and mistook death for simple unconsciousness, despite my words this morning about God. Medicine had saved you,
I’d
saved you, not some miracle.”

He looked up miserably, but her gentle eyes held no condemnation. She held his hand more tightly, those shining eyes encouraging him.

“I must have fallen asleep at that point, because I suddenly found myself in an operating theatre much like we had when I was a young houseman, and there was old Dougie leaning comfortably against the operating table, giving me the once-over.” He laughed softly. “Dougie was one of my professors – Professor Douglas Robertson, to be precise - a gentle, caring man, in stark contrast to most of his colleagues who barked and bullied. He was like you, Hilda. He never met anger with anger, just spoke his piece softly and calmly, but no one ever crossed a line with him. One look was enough! No bombast for either of you, unlike me! He had something of your soft, musical accent, Ian, but today, in my dream, it cut me to the quick.”

He closed his eyes, not wanting to meet Hilda’s, although she, Ian and Helen were absolutely fascinated at seeing a whole new dimension to this friend they thought they knew so well.

“His keen eyes were weighing me up. ‘You don’t change, Maynard,’ he said. His voice was very soft, but held a menace that made me jump. ‘Still as proud and stubborn as you always were.’”

A mischievous smile lit up Hilda’s face. “You might well, laugh, my girl. I felt about two inches high and twenty-six years old again. He asked why I was trying to outdo God. That brought me up short! It’s many a long year since I was last hauled over the coals. He then took me apart!"

"‘You have to accept it was He who saved your friend’s life and not your own good self, nor your new-fangled drugs. He’s healing her frailty and weakness this very minute, and infusing her with his own strength, because He wants her at school doing what she does best. Don’t get in His way, Maynard, for He will not be pleased. Stand aside and let Him do His work in peace. Who are you to limit what He can do for her? I know you’ll find all this hard to accept, ma wee laddie, but you’re not God. You can’t save everyone. Only God can do that, so let Him be about His work!’”

Hilda gave him a sympathetic smile. “And that went against all your training, and hurt your pride.” He nodded. “But my dear man, you kept me alive when I arrived here at death’s door yesterday. I know that now. I was very, very ill and you did your utmost.”

“But my utmost wasn’t enough,” he whispered.

“Does it have to be, when we have Him working beside us?” He looked puzzled. “I've tried so very hard with Kathie, but, in the end, I told my senior staff I was going to stand aside and leave room for God to do His work with her. After all, He knows what she needs better than I do. He has His own plans for her, and will bring them about without my assistance.”

“It’s true, Jack,” Ian said quietly. “There’s no pride in Hilda.”

“Oh, there’s always pride, Ian,” she said softly.

“Not so, love,” Jack said. “You’re the least prideful person I know. You’ve assimilated what I find hard, that we medics – and teachers! - don’t know everything, and should always leave room for Him to manoeuvre. Dougie nailed it when He told me I’d find it hard.” He reddened with shame, nodding when she raised an eyebrow. “My pride couldn’t accept it, which is why finding you so much stronger when I woke up and came here just fuelled my anger. Despite my dream, I still felt I could do more than Him, so it seemed as though He was running ahead of me much too fast, and was likely to kill you.”

“But He hasn’t, has he?” Her eyes were very gentle, knowing how much he hurt. “And He’s left the rest to you. I know I’m not mended yet, that my health is still precarious and must take things slowly and easily for a while. I’ll listen to you every step of the way – but, if He intervenes again at any point, I will do exactly as He says, even if it goes against your wishes, for He is all-seeing, all-knowing. Medicine hasn’t reached that far yet.”

“Nor ever will!” he stated, and reddened again. He shook his head angrily. “I can’t even believe I thought that way about such a miracle now. I wasn’t making sense, even to myself, was I?”

She tapped his hand. “At that stage, you were too tired to be making any sense at all. You and Helen were up all last night trying to save my life. So why castigate yourself? Weariness muddles us all."

“I don’t know,” he mused, “but I’m still left wondering what the point was of training all those years to be a doctor, if He's going to take over and cure my patients.”

“But He wasn’t saying that, was He?” she asked gently. “He was simply asking you to accept that sometimes He feels the need to step in. There’s no failure in that. Let Him in, accept that He and you are partners - should be partners - when you’re dealing with sick and vulnerable people. He never asks more of us than we’re able to give. If we’re struggling, as you were last night with my health, He’ll always rush to help. I was struggling desperately on Saturday, so He made sure you were there to take some of the burden. Believe me, I was truly grateful to Him and you, and would never have spurned such help. You were struggling to keep me alive this morning, but He knew it was hopeless, so He Himself came for both of us.”

“For you,” he said with a puzzled frown.

“For both of you, Jack,” put in Ian gently. “Listen to what He and she have been saying, and learn, as I’ve learned from her grief and pain.”

“I’ll try.” Jack sighed. “Did I really meet Dougie, do you think?”

“Oh, yes, Jack, I think you have to accept that little miracle, and even try to espouse some of Dougie’s quieter ways with patients and colleagues,” Hilda winked. “Are God and I forgiven now, for making you doubt your many gifts?”

“Oh, you!” he choked, clasping both her hands in his.

“Always remember this verse from Exodus: ‘The Lord is my strength and my song.’ In the dark times it will sustain you, my friend, as it does me.”




*****
End Notes:
The verse quoted from Exodus is from chapter 15.

The quotation from Job is from chapter 7

‘You are the God who works miracles,’ comes from Psalm 77
Chapter 13 - A Soothing Tongue Is A Tree of Life by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Thank you for all your interesting and thoughtful comments, especially about Jack's reactions to Hilda's astonishing recovery. I do apologise for this new chapter being so dreadfully long, though!
Hilda closed her eyes, and Ian wondered was she praying for Jack. She prayed for so many people. Helen and Jack waited patiently.

Eventually, she opened them again and looked at Jack, a twinkle in her eyes. “I know you’re still worried about me, but I’ve had Isobel here for a goodly while, and feel fine. I even drank a little soup before she came.” He nodded, a quizzical look on his face. “Ian brought my Head Girl over here earlier and left her with Gwynneth. Apparently she’s still very angry and upset about that attack by Kathie. It was a shocking experience for her and Jeanne, but I need my Head Girl calm and rational, so would it do me any harm to have a short chat with her?”

He grinned wickedly. “I don’t see why not, since you’re up and doing, and capable of bringing me back to my senses. You don’t take prisoners, do you?”

Ian clapped him on the back. Helen whistled soundlessly.

Hilda merely smiled at him. “Thank you, dear, if you really mean it. May I be even cheekier and ask if I may also see Sarah and her parents for a few minutes? I never got the chance yesterday,” she mourned.

“I’ll wheel you there myself!” He chuckled and clasped her hand. “I know! I know! I’ve completely changed my tune. Count this massive caving in by yours truly as my apology. I’m surprised you didn’t clock me one, actually. It would have been well-deserved.”

“Not my style, Jack, although I think Helen came close, judging by the way she closed the door after you.” Hilda’s laughing eyes met Helen’s, which laughed back at her knowingly.

“Women!” stated Jack with disgust. “It’s a good job you hold exalted rank here, Matron, or I might have had to discipline you.”

She pulled a face at him. “I think Hilda should discipline you!

He raised his eyebrows. “Isn’t that what she just did, in her own quiet way?” He looked round. “I can only apologise to you all once more.”

“You were tired and upset,” Ian said. “I need to apologise for my own coldness.”

“Shall we dispense with the apologies and bring Mireille along, before Jack decides it’s time to shut me away in my box?” Hilda asked with no little irony.

“You hate people warring, don’t you?” said Jack. “Just like Dougie. Okay, go and find the girl, Ian, and we’ll leave the two of them in peace.” Jack gave Hilda a stern look. “After you’ve seen Sarah, you return to bed, and eat something.” She nodded. “In fact, I’d like it if you had a drink right now.”

He looked at Helen, but Hilda said quietly, “Just water for the moment, thanks, Helen.”

“I’ll be back in half an hour, so that’s all the time you’re getting with Mireille,” Jack warned, and left the room.

Ian found the Sixth form cards he had brought over and placed them on Hilda’s lap. “Read these while I’m gone. I’ll walk slowly.”

As he disappeared through the door, Helen appeared with the glass of water. “Pity you didn’t have this when Jack was ranting. You could have thrown it over him to calm him down. I’ve never seen him quite so angry before.” She hugged Hilda. “We should give you a job here as arbitrator and general soother of spirits.”

“There are always two sides to any argument, Helen, but getting people to see both is sometimes very difficult.” Hilda winked, took the glass and gazed at nothing as she sipped. “Jack’s problem is that he’s a very matter-of-fact sort of person, which means he takes great care of his patients – if you do as you’re told!” Helen chuckled. “But you can’t put God in a box and label it, can you? That’s what Jack wants to do. He finds it hard to take the extraordinary - things like miracles - on board, despite being a Catholic, but I’m hoping he listened enough to change his attitude a little. All I will say is that, after all did for me on Saturday and Sunday, I’ve nothing but good to say about the man.”

Helen hugged her and left her to it, seeing how quiet and thoughtful her friend had become. Hilda watched her butterflies twirling gently as she contemplated all that had been said, and suspected that all of those present, herself included, had learned something from Jack’s fear and anger. She shrugged and gave it up, opening the two large cards the Sixth forms had made and embellished. She was still reading their beautiful expressions of affection when the door opened and Ian ushered Mireille inside. Hilda saw at once why everyone was so concerned about her Head Girl. Her eyes were haunted, deep violet shadows surrounding them, and she had lost all her pretty colour.

Hilda smiled a welcome. “Thank you, Mr Stuart. Have you time to return when Doctor Jack does? I have a favour to ask.” He nodded, ushered the hesitant Mireille nearer to Hilda and left the room, to visit two patients who had asked for him. “Don’t look so worried, chérie. I’m doing very well now,” Hilda said gently. “Why don’t you see if there’s another footstool in that cupboard.” Mireille turned, opened the cupboard, groped inside and held up a replica of the one under Hilda’s legs. “Bring it here and set it close to me? Now, get comfortable and we’ll have a good chat.”

Feeling shy and awkward, Mireille set the stool beside Hilda and sat down. Hilda took her hand and Mireille relaxed a little. This was still the Abbess they all knew and loved, even though she did look ill and very fragile.

“Are you really feeling a bit better?” she whispered.

“Oh, I’m very much better, child,” Hilda replied, carrying on the conversation in French. “I gather you’ve been told what happened during the night. Well, I owe my life to everyone’s prayers. Getting up at four this morning to pray for me was a great sacrifice and I appreciate it more than I can say.” Mireille shook her head. She would do much more than that for this kind and generous woman. “I must also thank you for your own very complimentary words in this card, chérie. I’m not sure I deserve them, but they mean a lot.”

Mireille smiled faintly. “I meant every word. You’ve been so good to me this term. I’m not sure I could have coped if you’d di…” She stopped, fearful she had said too much.

Hilda pressed reassuringly the hand she was holding. “But I didn’t die, did I? Thanks to all the prayers. You’ll find as you grow older, Mireille, that you can bear most things in life, once the first dreadful pain is over.” She searched the white face. “Mr Stuart told me how upset and angry you’ve been feeling, and I hear Jeanne’s now in bed with a bad head. It’s only to be expected, of course. It was a very nasty incident for all three of you, and you and Jeanne tried very hard to protect Ellie, at great cost to yourselves.” Mireille’s bruised eyes appealed for more reassurance. “But Jeanne was also involved in Helen’s fiasco, so it’s no wonder she’s ill, poor girl, with two upsetting incidents so close together. I should imagine Gillian’s also still upset, deliberately burned by Helen as she was.”

“She told me before I came that she couldn’t get poor Sarah’s sobs or Helen’s angry face out of her mind,” Mireille whispered. “I don’t think she’s bothered about the burns so much.”

“And Carmela? Still distressed by Miss Stone’s accident?” Mireille nodded. “You both are, aren’t you? As is Ellie! She still has nightmares about it.” Hilda’s eyes darkened. “It seems to me you three and Ellie have been involved in all the emergencies and accidents that have occurred this term, and now deserve some peace – but I can’t promise that, dear. Life is as it is, and all we can do is our very best, which you’ve been doing,” She smiled into those weary, haunted eyes. “I heard you were even brave enough to confront Miss Ferrars yesterday and offer to help her. You’re a very unusual and loving girl, Mireille, and I am so proud to be your Headmistress,” she added tenderly.”

That tenderness was Mireille’s undoing. She laid her head against Hilda’s knee and burst into frantic tears, feeling thoroughly ashamed of herself. Hilda held her close, murmuring words of comfort. For a very new Head Girl, Mireille had had such a lot with which to contend in her six short weeks in office!

Please let them enjoy life a little now, Father. They’re still only very young to have to cope with all this unexpected strife.

Once the worst was over, Hilda set herself to soothing Mireille’s troubled spirits. She knew her three best prefects might be struggling at the moment, but they would all be stronger and even more caring once recovered from the effects of all the nightmarish events, for those events had also brought them much closer together, Carmela filling so beautifully the hole that had appeared in the triumvirate when Tessa was injured.

When Jack and Ian returned half an hour later, with Gwynneth in tow, Mireille was almost her old self, her heart filled with even more affection and admiration for the Abbess. She felt she would do anything for her, climb the highest mountain, take on the very worst offenders...

Hilda gave her a loving smile. “Feeling better now? Still willing to help keep Ellie away from Miss Ferrars? Good girl.” She looked at Ian. “I think my Head Girl could do with a little more cheering up, Mr Stuart, so why don’t you take her along to join Ellie and Miss Knowles in Marianne’s room?”

Mireille’s eyes widened. “You mean I may stay?”

“If you don’t think you’re needed at school, then yes, you may stay. They’ve been having a riotous time in there, from what I can gather.”

Mireille rose to her feet, returned the footstool to its home, and came back to Hilda, who took her hand again.

“Thank you so much, Miss Annersley,” she whispered. “I’m glad Mr Stuart brought me over. Talking to both of you, and Matron Lloyd, was just what I needed. You did the same for me yesterday when Ellie was attacked. I’m sorry I wept all over you just now, but I think I needed that, too.” Hilda nodded in agreement. “Merci mille fois.”

Hilda drew her down and kissed the blushing face. “Oh, I think you went one better than all my ministrations, when you prayed me back to life in the early hours of this morning, chérie, so no thanks are needed. I hope you sleep better tonight and have pleasant dreams.”

Mireille was reluctant to leave, but truly grateful for the opportunity to visit. How good the Abbess was! So was Matey! She went across to the stalwart little figure and thanked her, too, receiving another kiss in the process. Finally, she and Mr Stuart left the room.

Ian cast her a keen look. “Glad you agreed to come?”

“Oh, yes!” she breathed, some light back in her eyes, and he was satisfied.

He was even more satisfied when they walked into Marianne’s room. Ellie caught sight of Mireille, leapt to her feet and flung her good arm round her.

“Merci, merci, merci, Mireille!” she whispered in French. “Thank you so much for helping me yesterday. You and Jeanne were very brave, because I could not do anything she asked, you know. The hand it hurt me too much. Me, I could never, never be so brave…”

Mireille hugged her. “You were brave, chérie. She hurt you badly and then made it even worse by her harsh words, but you didn’t scream or shout. Jeanne and I saw your tears, and were glad to help such a good friend. Count it as a thank you for thinking up the talent concert for the prefects, to help us sort our problems!”

Ellie giggled at that, and Mireille sought Vivien’s eyes, wanting the attention taken off her own doings. Vivien wiped away the tears that had been evoked by Ellie’s words, and welcomed her warmly, immediately setting her to work folding some paper for Ellie. Ian saw Isobel was trying to work out what had really happened to Ellie, and hoped and prayed she never discovered the truth about Kathie. At least they had been talking in French, which he definitely didn't understand and Isobel hadn't seemed to have much of a clue.

He left them to it,knowing Mireille would be fine now. Hilda had once more worked her magic, but at what cost?
He looked at his watch, and thought he might add to his phone call to Kate that morning and ring again, to tell her what God had done for Hilda that afternoon - and Jack’s reaction to it! Yes, it was expensive, but she loved Hilda and deserved to know how very astute she was at making clear what seemed mysterious and unknowable.

Hilda, meanwhile, had been wheeled along to Sarah’s room. Jack pushed her straight into the room after a short knock at the door.

“Miss Annersley,” cried Mark Avison, jumping to his feet. “It’s good to see you up and about. How are you now?”

He was glad to see the cheek had been healed of that nasty wound he had seen on Sunday evening, but was horrified by her frail demeanour.

“She’s doing much better than we anticipated, Mark, and insisted on coming,” Jack said with a grin. “But she’s still weak, so we’re going to keep this visit short, I’m afraid. Someone will be back for her soonish!”

He left them to it. Mark wheeled Hilda to Sarah’s bed and introduced her to his wife, who took Hilda’s hand in a firm grip.

“I can never thank you enough for all you’ve done for Sarah, Hil… Miss Annersley,” she corrected herself, with an eye to the listening Sarah.

“But I didn’t do anything,” whispered Hilda.

“My dear, you forgave her everything, and looked after her like your own child on Saturday.” Becky smiled tenderly. “Mr Stuart said you would have been to see her yesterday but for your terrible illness. He thinks very highly of you. Gemma does, too, and wishes she could shake your hand. You tried to help everyone caught up in this awful situation. We’re all truly grateful, and Geoff and Rita can’t believe how you’ve transformed Tonia…. Oh, my dear, I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“Tonia transformed herself, Becky,” whispered Hilda, wiping away tears of weakness. “I took a chance, gave her a little responsibility, and she rose mightily to the occasion, changing almost beyond recognition. She was the one who really helped Sarah. They’re very fond of each other.”

She turned to take Sarah’s good hand. She was lying very still in her bed, the injured arm lying in a protective cage. Hilda examined the white face, and read the memory of terror in the heavy eyes watching her. Sarah would take a long while to recover from Helen’s attack, Hilda realised, cursing herself for not having discovered just what Helen was capable of. Why had no girl or mistress ever picked up any hint of all her anger and resentment, or her delight in setting fire to things?

“How are you, child?” she asked very gently. “Doctor Jack’s told me how very brave you’ve been. I’m so glad your parents were able to come and be with you.”

“You’ve been ill, too,” Sarah whispered.

“Yes, child, I have, but I’m much better today, which is why I’m able to come and see you.” Hilda stroked Sarah’s cheek lightly. “I think half the school is over here at the moment, what with Ellie, Marianne, Miss Stone, and you and me.” A smile flickered over Sarah’s face and was gone. “I gather they’ve said you can go home soon, so that will be even better, won’t it?” Sarah nodded, her cold hand lying very still in Hilda’s warm one. “Doctor Jack says I mustn’t stay long and tire you out, but I was wondering if you’d like Tonia to visit this evening.”

“She said… she said she’d…” Tears trickled down the white face. Becky mopped them up with a gentle hand.

“She said she’d be brave for both of you, didn’t she?” Hilda’s voice grew softer still. “But she doesn’t need to be, does she, because you’ve been brave all on your own. Brave enough to tell me all about the bullying and what Helen made you do, and brave enough to accept your punishment.” She stroked Sarah’s hair back from her forehead. “I’m sorry you were hurt so badly, dear, far worse than any punishment I could have given you. Will you find it in your heart to forgive me some time?”

Sarah stared at her and frowned. “But, you didn’t do anything to me…”

“It was my job, as Head, to take care of you, of all my girls, but I let you down, allowed you to be burned, so I hope you’ll give me another chance.”

Sarah searched her Headmistress’s face and saw she meant every word. “May I give you a kiss?” she whispered. “You were so kind on Saturday when you found out what I’d done, and you’re being even kinder now. So may I? To thank you…”

Hilda leaned close and kissed a white cheek. Sarah’s good arm crept round Hilda’s neck and she returned the kiss, whispering ‘Thank you.’

Hilda ran a tender finger down the damp cheek. “Are we friends again?” she asked. Sarah smiled, the first real smile her parents had seen, and wriggled closer to Hilda. “Thank you, dearest. So may Tonia come? She’s desperate to see you.”

“Yes, please,” Sarah whispered.

“You’ll make a miserable girl very happy, I promise. Why don’t you snuggle down now and have a nap, so you’re not too tired when she comes? I think Miss Wilmot might be bringing her a little later on this evening.”

Sarah obediently closed her eyes with a quiet sigh, but the small smile was still on her lips. Hilda stroked the pale cheek, then kissed it once more and turned her head to Mark, who at once wheeled her away from the bed.

“May we talk before you return to your room?” he asked.

She nodded, and he wheeled her through the door into the corridor. Becky leaned over Sarah and saw she had fallen asleep, so followed them out. Once in the corridor, she wiped away her tears and knelt beside Hilda’s chair.

“How on earth do we thank you? That was a beautiful thing you just did for her.”

“But necessary, very necessary,” Hilda replied, her eyes sombre. “I’ll never forgive myself for her dreadful hurt. It should never have happened.”

Mark knelt on the other side and took her hand. “Hilda, you watch out for them as best you can. Indeed, much more than most Heads, according to Jack, Ian and Matron Lloyd. I saw on Sunday evening how much you care, but there’s no way on earth you can know what’s in every child’s head, just as I can’t know what’s in every villain’s head. As I said to you on Sunday, we should have told you what we’d realised about Helen and her father.” He smiled. “Becky’s right. You did do a beautiful thing for her in there, when you’ve been at death’s door yourself and still look far from well. That’s the first smile we’ve had from her, and it’s down to you.”

“Perhaps Tonia will get another one out of her. When are you taking her home?”

“I’m going tomorrow. I’m told there will definitely be a plane this time. We were hoping we could take Sarah home, too, when she seemed so much better this morning, but Doctor Hartmann thinks it might be better to wait another couple of days.”

“Then I’ll come again tomorrow morning, when hopefully she’ll be feeling a little stronger.”

Becky and Mark glanced at each other. Mark cleared his throat nervously. “The thing is, Hilda, we…”

“You’re not sending her back to us,” Hilda stated quietly.

He raised his eyebrows. “How on earth did you know that?”

“She’s absolutely terrified, even with you beside her. I could see it in her eyes.” Hilda’s own eyes were very bleak.

“Yes, you’re right, she is. She told us she couldn’t ever bear to sleep in a dormitory again,” Becky said slowly. “She keeps begging us to let her go to school in London, so she can come home every night and sleep in her own bed and feel safe.”

Hilda looked from one to the other, and laid a hand on Becky’s. “Please don’t feel guilty. I don’t blame her at all. I’m sure I would have felt the same in her place. What happened to her was appalling, and my only wish is that I could magic away the memory of it for her.” Her voice broke. “But is it possible for the two of you? I know you both work.”

“I’ll simply ask to go on days,” said Becky. “Although, to be quite honest, I may take some leave. She’s going to be too frightened to sleep for a while, and may even be too scared to go to school, so will need me close at hand.” She saw Hilda’s utter despair. “Hilda, don’t! Mark knows fine well that people do the unexpected, even good people. Please don’t blame yourself. Helen is a very devious girl, just like her father.”

Hilda shook her head. She didn’t think there would ever come a time when she didn’t blame herself.

Why, Loving Father? You lifted me up earlier today, only to hurl me back into the depths. Nothing can make up to this girl for what happened to her.

Am I nothing, then, Daughter? Do you not trust Me to carry her, as I carried you?

Forgive me, Father. I fall into despair too often, I know, but my job is to protect my girls.

You rarely fall into despair, Daughter. Of course you feel responsible. You’re her Headmistress. You were so gentle with Jack today. Will you not try to be as gentle with yourself? Just rest in My love and I will erase both yours and Sarah’s pain.


Mark took her hand again. “Please listen to her, Hilda. We don’t blame you at all, will never blame you, and we wish Sarah didn’t feel like this, because you and your staff are so caring. Isobel’s told us how good you’ve been to Marianne and herself, and Helen’s also told us a few interesting tales. We specifically chose this school because of that caring atmosphere we had heard about from other parents. Your actions this afternoon bear out everything we’d heard and we’d love Sarah to stay, but we have to give in to her, for the moment, at least.”

She tried to smile at him. “There’ll always be a place for her, should she change her mind. Although, I should add that if you chose the school because of my reputation, then perhaps it’s a good thing she’s not returning.”

Mark frowned. “Why do you say that? Have you somehow blackened your reputation!”

“I hope not, although the way things are going this term, it could well be the case.” She looked from one concerned face to the other. “No, the reason I said that is because I’m retiring next year, so Sarah would only have had one more year with me. I wouldn’t have been here when she entered the sixth form. I’m free to tell you this now, as a letter is going out to all parents at half term, though I’d prefer you keep it to yourselves until you get your letter.”

“But why?” asked Becky in surprise. “You’re surely not old enough.”

Hilda chuckled. “Flattery will get you everywhere, Becky. I had planned to retire in 1964, when I would have been sixty, but Miss Wilson’s death changed things. I’m finding it very hard without her.” Her eyes grew remote. “She became my deputy in 1937, my co-Head a few years later, and we’ve worked together closely ever since, supporting each other in our respective roles and becoming close friends in the doing…”

“And now everywhere feels empty without her.” Mark’s gravelly voice expressed his understanding. “I guess that clinches it where Sarah’s concerned.”

“Miss Wilmot will be an excellent Head, I assure you. She was one of our pupils when we were in Austria and has worked here for over ten years now. Don’t discount her, I beg you.” They both nodded.

“But what will you do with yourself, Hilda?” asked Becky. “You’re too good with people to just sit and twiddle your thumbs for the rest of your life.”

Hilda choked. “No, I could never do that. I’m entering a convent, something I never expected, but I’ve felt the call this past year. It’s an order where people who are grieving, or suffering in some way, come to be supported and helped. We offer them a listening ear, somewhere to be away from their normal life, and try to walk alongside them in their pain. The good sisters helped me with my own grief last summer, when it got too much to bear. The Abbess is Mr Stuart’s twin sister, with his very own green eyes, and has been a true friend to me since then.”

“Wow!” Mark whistled his appreciation. “I can see you doing that with great flair and compassion. I wish you joy, but won’t you find it hard, learning how to be a nun at your age – if you’ll forgive my cheek!” He winked.

“I’m sure it will be hard, and sometimes very lonely, but it seems to be what God is asking of me – and what else would I do with myself? After such a busy life, doing nothing was never an option.”

“I wish you well, Hilda,” whispered Becky, finding herself in awe of Hilda’s courage. “Where is this convent? May we come and visit?”

“It’s in Norfolk, and I would love you to visit. I just wish I could get Gemma there. After speaking with her, I feel it would help her enormously. She has a struggle ahead of her, I fear,” Hilda added sadly.

“You’re a good woman, Hilda. Becky and I will see what we can do for her, as will Geoff and Rita. It sounds a good place for her to be helped to come to terms with all that’s happened.”

“May I visit you and Sarah during the Easter holidays?” asked Hilda tentatively. “I’ll be staying at the convent then, and I’d like to see how she’s getting on.”

“Of course,” said Mark, squeezing gently the hand he was holding. “We’ll make you very welcome and show you there are no hard feelings over her injury.” He could see how much mental strain she was under.

“I’ll drop round tomorrow morning, if Jack will let me.”

“Mark’s not going till the afternoon and we’d all be delighted to see you,” said Becky. “Sarah’s already much better for seeing you, even if it didn’t seem like it. That smile…”

“I hope she’ll be better still for seeing Tonia,” Hilda said quietly. “Thank you both for your forgiveness.” She heard footsteps and looked round. “Ah, Ian, come to collect me?”

He leaned over the back of the chair. “You okay, love? You seem upset.”

Mark rose to his feet. “We’ve had to tell her Sarah won’t be returning to the school.”

“And she feels very guilty about Sarah’s suffering, even though we don’t hold her responsible,” added Becky. Ian nodded. “Oh, and we’ve been invited to the convent and heard all about your sister, the Abbess,” she added on a teasing note.

Ian laughed. “Ah, yes, the bossy one!”

“And how!” muttered Hilda, rolling her eyes.

Ian laughed again, but saw how white she was. “Come on, love, you’re worn out and need to lie down for a while. Jack’ll have ten thousand fits!”

Hilda held out a hand to Mark and one to Becky. “Thank you, for everything. You’re sure about Tonia visiting?”

“Of course! You got a smile out of her, the first we’ve had, and I suspect Tonia will get one, too. She’s the only friend Sarah would want to see, I suspect.” Mark pressed the hand in his. “Take care of yourself, Hilda. You mean an awful lot to people up here and they don’t want to lose you. So rest well and don’t go back too soon.”

They watched as Ian wheeled her away. “She’s been very close to death today,” whispered Becky. “I can see it in her face. I wonder what really happened. Her eyes hold deep mysteries…”

Mark bowed to her nurse’s intuition and led her back into the room, thinking to himself that Hilda was a woman you wouldn’t easily forget.

Jack and Helen were both in Hilda’s room when Ian wheeled her in. Matey was also there, having returned when Ian told her Mireille had gone to Marianne’s room. All three now jumped to their feet when they saw Hilda’s face.

“Bed! Now!” ordered Jack quietly.

He whipped off the blanket, and Ian picked her up, set her on the bed, then turned away as Helen and Matey quickly removed the dressing gown, replaced it with her bed jacket, and set her comfortably in a nest of pillows. She let her head fall back and closed her eyes.

“I think she’s feeling upset and anxious about Sarah, rather than weary or ill, Jack,” murmured Ian, and repeated what the Avisons had said.

Helen clicked her tongue in sympathy. “I’ll go and fetch her a hot drink and something to tempt her appetite.” She hurried away.

Fingers on her pulse, Jack watched her anxiously. Her eyes opened and she tried to smile. “I didn’t mean to frighten you, dear. I’m fine, really.”

“So your pulse tells me, but I’m not sure you’re fine mentally.” He sat on the bed and took her hand. “They’re right, love! You can’t blame yourself for Helen’s actions. Helen and her father are to blame. I was there and saw what Helen did, remember! I also met the man!”

Hilda closed her eyes again. “Sarah’s terrified, Jack. No pupil of mine should be too frightened to stay at the school, just because I didn’t stop a bully hurting her so cruelly.”

“And what would God say to that?” he asked softly.

Her eyes opened and she frowned. “Turning the tables on me? How did you know?” He frowned in his turn. “He asked me back there did I not trust Him to carry Sarah, as He’s carried me. Then… He told me to be gentle with myself… but I can’t!” she whispered.

He tapped her hand lightly. “Listen to Him! As you told me to do! Be as gentle with yourself as you were with me an hour ago. You – are – not – to – blame!”

“I was there, too, remember, in that dorm!” put in Matey quietly beside her. “I also met the man, and agree with Jack and the Avisons on every count. Just for once, love, lay the blame where it really belongs. Helen’s and her father’s devious, nasty natures are the culprits.”

“Well said, Gwynneth!” murmured Jack, laying Hilda’s hand down. “Relax, love. Don’t undo all the good He’s done you this day.” She opened her eyes, looking ashamed.

Forgive me, Father. He’s right and I’m wrong. I trust you with Sarah, and know you’ll heal her better than I ever could.

You’re forgiven, Beloved. In Sarah’s case, there is no blame laid on you. You did your very best.


Helen walked in at that point with a laden tray, which she deposited on the bedside cupboard. “I’ve brought coffee and ginger cake, very light.”

“Where on earth did you get that?” asked Ian. “My mouth’s watering already.”

“Home! I’m very partial to it myself, so friends send me a food parcel now and then, to be shared only with special friends.”

She watched the men’s faces fall, and smiled wickedly at Hilda. She opened the tin very ostentatiously, cut the cake and placed a piece on a plate which she then handed to Hilda. “Eat up, love! Ginger’s good for you!”

She then did the same for Matey. Hilda saw the two men avidly watching her plate and Matey’s, then laughing at themselves like embarrassed little boys when Helen offered each of them the tin and a plate.

“Men!” Helen gurgled. “A bit of home-cooking and they’re anybody’s!”

Even Hilda smiled at that, and tried to eat the cake, but after a few small bites just mashed it up on her plate, even as the men swallowed theirs in double-quick time.

Helen sighed at Hilda and handed her a cup. “At least drink this and put some colour in your cheeks.” Hilda swallowed, then frowned at Helen, who murmured, “Whisky! What else?”

Hilda drank it, relishing the warmth, and wondered was it the whisky that suddenly made the cake seem more palatable. She ate it all!

“Good girl!” said Helen. “Let me pour you some more coffee.”

Hilda glanced at the wall clock. “Ian, may I ask yet another favour? It’s gone eighteen, and I’m wondering if Nancy is able to come across this evening. Would you phone her for me?”

He rose to his feet at once, asking Helen if he could use her phone and disappeared.

Jack assessed Hilda’s face. “You look marginally better, so here’s a few things I want to say. Helen and I will both be off duty later. I’m going home and Helen needs her bed." Hilda nodded. “Phil Graves will be keeping an eye on you and Ellie, and nurses will be bobbing in and out during the night. I don’t think you’ll need them, as you’ve come on in whole-sale fashion.” He winked. “However, I'm going to put a drip back in. You’ve had very little fluid today and I’d rather you slept than keep being woken up to have a drink. You do still need fluids after that illness, so how does it all sound?”

“That’s fine, Jack. You both need your sleep, I know. You were very kind to stay with me last night, trying to keep me in the land of the living.” She smiled gently, and he knew they were friends again after their stand-off that afternoon.

Ian came in quietly and sat down. “She said she’s snowed under at the moment, but will try after Abendessen, if Jack will allow.” Jack nodded. Nancy wouldn’t cause Hilda any harm. “Jeanne’s head’s still bad, and she’s very weepy, which apparently is not like her.” Hilda shook her head. “Oh, and John Lewis rang with the latest on Tessa – basically no change – and said to tell you he sends all their love for your recovery.”

Hilda examined his face, laid her head back and thought rapidly while the others chatted.

She finally turned to Matey beside her. “Gwynneth, I want you to return to school tonight.” She held up her hand. “I know you’d like to stay, but we’re both much better and would rather you got a good night’s sleep at school than lie on that hard cot again and get no sleep at all.” She laid her hand on Matey’s and spoke warmly. “You’ve been wonderful, tending us both so beautifully. I know you care, but we also care and want you to catch up on your sleep. After all, who’ll be the one making sure I behave when I return?” she asked wickedly. Jack snorted. “Quite so, Jack! There are also matters I need you to see to for me, Gwyneth. First of all, would you take Mireille back with you? She and Gillian are both still very shaken and upset, much as Ellie is, and could do with a sounding board tonight. Barbara Henschell came back yesterday rather than staying over at Millies, and may also need a listening ear. I know she’ll talk to you. As will Nancy, who’s had to take over everything at very short notice. Would you do all that for me?” she asked in a gentle voice. “I take it my car’s still here?”

Matey took Hilda’s hand. “You’re a flatterer, but you’re right about everyone you’ve mentioned. They do need help. Yes, your car’s still here. Yes, I’ll take Mireille back and spend time with them all.”

“As for Jeanne, why not leave her in Ellie’s bed, and you sleep in mine to keep her company? You’d get some proper rest then. If she’s still not well tomorrow, perhaps Jack could have a look at her.” He agreed.

“What about Vivien?”

“I think I’ll leave her for a while, since she’s keeping Ellie out of mischief.” Hilda turned to Ian. “I feel as though I’m using – or, indeed, mis-using - all my friends tonight, and I do apologise. Ian, have you any patients you need to visit? Then may I ask you a favour, too? Would you go and pick up Tonia. Sarah said she’d like her to visit, and her parents thought it a good idea.”

“I agree,” said Jack.

“I was hoping you could then take Vivien back to school at the same time as you take Tonia.”

He was about to agree to all this when Matey intervened. “Wouldn’t it be better if Ian takes Mireille and me back now, and brings Tonia back with him? Vivien could then drive both Tonia and herself back to school later in your car, since I’ll be leaving it here?”

Hilda stared at her, struck by her words. “You’re not just a pretty face, are you?” Everyone laughed out loud. Matey glared at her. “That sounds much better than my half-baked ideas. Your way means Ian will only have to go out once.”

“Oh, I thought your planning was meticulous, considering how weary that brain of yours must be with all the junketing you’ve done this afternoon!” muttered Jack. Helen poked him.

Matey rose to her feet. “I’ll be over early in the morning.”

Hilda reached out and hugged her, “You’d better be, or else! Ellie needs you, and so do I!” Her heart warmed by the unexpected words, Matey leaned over and kissed her. She was reluctant to leave, which Hilda knew all too well. “When you drag Mireille out of Marianne’s room, perhaps you should tell Ellie and Vivien to return here, before they completely outstay their welcome with Marianne and Isobel. Bonne nuit, mon amie,” she added softly.

Ian and Matey left the room, and Hilda lay back to watch the blue butterflies, thinking of Nell in her dream. Did she know it all now, what their Lord had done for Hilda? She did hope so. She smiled to herself, a heart-breaking smile that made Helen, watching her, want to weep.

Jack rose to his feet. “I’m going to get the drip. No, you stay and talk, Helen. I’ll do it.”

Helen left Hilda to her thoughts for a while, then sat on the bed and laid a gentle hand on Hilda’s. “Dreaming while awake, love? Or ready to sleep?”

Hilda shook her head. “Just thinking, Helen, and feeling the utmost gratitude for so many people, too many to enumerate, but you, Ian and Jack are most definitely among them. I’m wondering, though, if I gave Mireille enough time with Vivien and co.”

“She spent a goodly while with you, a much longer time with Gwynneth, and Ian had a long chat with her at school, and again in the car. I think you’ve all done her proud, and she was very, very grateful, I can tell you that now.”

“Even so,” sighed Hilda. “I wish I could be back at school to support them all.”

Helen was about to speak when they were disturbed by a knock on the door. Helen opened it, to find Ellie and Vivien there.

“I gather we’ve been summoned,” smiled Vivien, wheeling in Ellie. “It’s probably a good thing. Ellie’s hand’s beginning to hurt and I think she needs to rest. She and Marianne did nap for two hours earlier, but…” She shrugged her shoulders, looking guilty.

“You and Ellie, cut from the same cloth!” Helen said to Hilda. “Neither of you gives in until the pain gets too bad.” Hilda grimaced. “Don’t feel guilty, Vivien. I’d say there’s a light in her eyes that wasn’t there before you went, so the break’s definitely done her good. We only really called you back because Hilda felt Marianne and Isobel had probably had enough of you!”

Vivien glared at Hilda, who choked and complained. “Helen Graves, talk about getting folk into trouble!” She looked at Ellie. “Am I forgiven, child?”

Ellie gave her a weary smile, and Helen at once insisted Vivien help her push Ellie’s bed back close to Hilda’s. She and Vivien removed Ellie’s dressing gown and slippers and helped her into bed, placing Ian’s animal blanket over the other covers. Hilda reached out and took her hand.

“I’ll go and get you some tablets, Ellie. Don’t go away!” Helen disappeared.

“Hilda, I’m sorry,” began Vivien. “I hadn’t realised how tired…”

Hilda shook her head. “Don’t be sorry, Vivien. She’s had a ball, according to all I've heard from Isobel and Helen, and has no doubt done some wonderful origami with your help.” She squeezed Ellie’s hand. “I gather Mrs Westwood’s adopted you as another daughter.”

“She is a so beautiful person, Madame, and I like Marianne. Do you mind?”

“Not at all, chérie. I want you to have lots of friends. They’re lovely people and I think Marianne is quite often lonely at home on her own. I hope you’ll write to Mrs Westwood.” Ellie nodded.

Jack and Helen returned at that moment. Helen administered Ellie’s painkilling tablets while Jack set up the new drip in Hilda’s arm.

“Just overnight, while you're sleeping. I do I want to keep you hydrated. I'd also like you to eat a bit more,” he added ominously.

“I had some ginger cake!” she exclaimed. Jack eyed her in disbelief.

“Don’t worry, Jack. I’ll bring them something in a little while.”

“Am I in the way?” asked Vivien nervously.

“Definitely not, Vivien! You’re family now, remember.” Hilda said immediately. Vivien’s face glowed as Hilda explained what was happening with the other visitors. “Did Mireille seem brighter when she was with you?” Vivien nodded. “Thank goodness! I’m truly thankful to you for giving up your whole day to us, dear. I think Ellie might have been bored otherwise.

Vivien winked at Ellie. “Did Gwynneth remember to leave the key to your car?” Helen put her hand in her pocket and held up said key. Vivien nodded and stood up to remove from one of her bags a small box, which she gave to Ellie.

“Madame, I made this for you, with the help of Marianne’s mother and Miss Knowles. I thought it would look pretty hanging with the butterflies.”

Ellie passed the box to Hilda, who opened the lid and peered in. What she saw made her gasp out loud, her heart leaping around in her chest with shock. Putting in a trembling hand, she slowly drew out the dolphin mobile, holding it up so the dolphins and seahorses could revolve in the currents of air. Helen and Jack exclaimed at its beauty, but they and Vivien looked on in horror as tears trickled down Hilda face. The shaking grew worse and Jack quickly rescued the mobile.

“Hilda, what…?”

Ellie scrambled across to Hilda, despite her pain, and put an arm round her. “Ne pleure pas, Madame, je t’en prie. I made them to make you smile, you know, not to make you sad.”

Vivien handed Jack a pin and he hung the mobile up beside the blue butterflies. Hilda watched it hungrily, the tears now a veritable flood. She laid her head against Ellie’s and tried to control herself.

“You couldn’t know this, little one?” she whispered, “but last night, while I was unconscious, I had a very vivid dream… and near the end of my dream I was swimming in the sea with three dolphins exactly like these. It was magical, just like you, chérie.”

Unaware of the tears rolling down everyone cheeks, including Jack’s, unaware of Ellie kissing her, Hilda’s whole being was focused solely on the paper sculptures, as she re-lived the dream of Nell and herself walking along the sea shore deep in conversation, the blue butterflies fluttering around them, and the silver-grey dolphins waiting out in the waves for her to come and play….



*****
End Notes:
The title is taken from Proverbs 15 v4 and says in full: 'The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.'

Hmm, sounds as though it could apply to Kathie extremely well at the present moment!
Chapter 14 - The Lone Ranger and A Poem by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Thank you so much to those who responded on the last chapter, though I suspect some of you found it a tad tedious. Perhaps you will find the same with this one, as I try to tie up loose ends, but there is a secret in there somewhere.

Lynne, you wanted more of Meg and MA. Well, fret ye not! Meg will be arriving very soon! Very, very soon! Watch this space!
It had grown dark by the time Ian brought the car to a halt outside school. Matey smiled at Mireille as they walked to the front door. “I suppose you ought to report to Miss Wilmot that we’ve returned you safe and sound.”

Mireille giggled and walked through the front door. Ian sighed with relief. Mireille was more or less back to her sunny self, thanks to Hilda, Gwynneth and others. Hopefully, she could now offer on that support to Gillian and Jeanne, to name but two. Matey knocked on the study door, and opened it when they heard a voice call to them to enter.

Nancy looked up with wearily from the mountain of papers on the desk, and saw Mireille’s bright eyes. “You look much better, dear. Talking to Miss Annersley did the trick, eh?”

“Me, I wept all over her,” Mireille admitted ruefully. “She didn’t make the anger and hurt to go away, you know, but showed me how to cope with them, and how to pass that on to the others who are still upset or angry.” She glanced at Ian. “It wasn’t just Miss Annersley who helped me, though. Mr Stuart and Matron Lloyd spent time with me, giving me wise advice and letting me talk, which was very kind of them. Then Miss Annersley sent me to do the origami with Miss Knowles and Ellie and Marianne, so, you know, I am a very lucky girl to have so many people to care about me. Thank you for allowing me to go, Miss Wilmot.”

Behind her, Ian and Matey winked at each other. Mireille had been even more uplifted by her visit than either of them had realised. She was a different girl.

“I’m proud of you, Mireille,” said Ian warmly, “and so is Miss Annersley. It takes a brave person to admit their anger and weakness.”

“I’m proud of you, too, Mireille,” Nancy said in German.

“Tiens!” exclaimed Mireille in horror. “It is the German day! I must pay the fine!”

“No need, Mireille,” Nancy laughed. “It’s been a stressful day and you’re forgiven! You’ve done sterling work this term and I’m sure there’s more to come from you.” She checked her watch. “It’s nearly time for Abendessen, so why not go and change now, ready for the gong?”

Mireille shook hands with Ian and Matey. “Thank you so much for inviting me, Mr Stuart, and for all your wise words. Matron Lloyd, thank you for listening to my woes. May I come to you again if I’m having trouble?”

“I’d be delighted, Mireille.”

Mireille curtsied and left the room. At once, Matey’s face changed and she marched up to the desk. “Nancy, you’re exhausted! You should leave this right now and get some rest. You’re as bad as Hilda! She never knows where to draw the line, either.”

Nancy sighed. “Hilda was ill on Friday with a migraine, busy on Saturday and Sunday with those hurt by Helen and also having meetings about Kathie, then she was taken gravely ill yesterday. You’d be surprised how much paperwork can accumulate in three days. It seems never-ending. I sent Rosalie to change a while ago. She’s the one who’s worn out. How on earth does Hilda keep up with it and also teach and deal with villains and so on?”

“By doing what you’re doing, working till she drops – or she has since Nell died,” mused Matey. “Before that, Nell helped her keep a sense of balance, and dragged her away from her desk when necessary, which is what I’m about to do with you, my girl!” Nancy dropped her pen and buried her face in her hands. Matey sighed, glanced at Ian and marched round the desk. “This is why you haven’t been to see Hilda, isn’t it?” she asked softly. The blonde head nodded. “Well, instead of having Abendessen here and getting involved in more problems, I think you should go with Ian to the San now – and take Tonia with you.” Nancy lifted her head, looking puzzled. “Hilda’s arranged for her to visit Sarah. Go and eat with Hilda, or with Ian here and visit her afterwards.”

“You can take pot luck with me in our four star canteen,” he teased.

Nancy choked. “How is Hilda?” Ian described what had happened that afternoon in the silence of Hilda’s room. Nancy stared at him. “You mean… she’s recovering faster than expected?”

“Oh, faster even than that!” put in Matey. “This morning she couldn’t lift her head off the pillow, and shouldn’t have been able to leave her bed for days, even perhaps a week or more. Now, she’s walking around freely and already back to sorting us all out!”

Ian hooted. “Even Jack!”

While Mireille was with Hilda, he had given Matey chapter and verse on Jack’s reactions to Hilda being out of bed.

“Why's Tonia visiting Sarah?” Nancy asked. Matey told her. “Oh, poor Sarah! What about Tonia’s meal, though?”

“Our four star canteen even feeds children!” said Ian with a straight face. “Come on, Nancy! It will do you good and I know Hilda wants to see you.”

Nancy sighed, but had to smile at the twinkle in Ian’s eyes.

“I’ll go and rout out Tonia,” put in Matey, seeing Nancy weakening. “You go and freshen up and find your coat, then get off with them. I’ll ask Jeanne de Lachennais to take charge in Abendessen.”

“How’s Kathie been today?” asked Ian.

“Quiet... keeping a low profile - but at least she’s now helping, thanks to you.”

Ian shook his head and sat down. “You two go and do what you have to do. I’ll wait here.” Matey left the room smartly. Nancy rose to her feet and groaned. Her knees were stiff and her back ached. “Too many hours at that desk, my friend! Didn’t you have any lessons to take you away from it?”

“Kathie’s doing my sixth form lessons at the moment, thank the Lord,” she sighed and stretched.

“Oh, I think there’s a great deal to thank Him for, dear, so don’t despair.”

She felt strengthened by the warmth in Ian’s voice and eyes. Was that what he did for Hilda? She clasped his hand in gratitude. “I’ll just go and freshen up. Won’t be long!”

She left the room and Ian gave a hefty sigh. What a mess this past week had been for them all! He could only be grateful Hilda had been spared to guide everyone out of the doldrums and return the school to some sort of normality. It was amazing how Nell’s death had been a sort of catalyst for such a series of dangerous accidents and incidents, reducing Hilda’s strength and allowing her no time to come to terms with her grief. The advent of Kate and Ellie had been the only light in her darkness. Would the miracle – or miracles - that God had so generously performed encourage her to turn a corner and find new belief in herself?

He rose to his feet and wandered over to read again the beautiful words from the Talmud painted by Emilia. Here was a gentle reminder of the generous support offered by Hilda to all those who were suffering, ignoring any cost to herself in the doing.

Had You the convent in mind for her all her years, Father? Has her whole life been a training ground for the valuable and loving service she’ll do there? She feels truly blessed that You’ve gifted her a new life, a new mother and a delightful daughter. They’ve lifted the heavy weight of her grieving, not just for the loss of Nell but for the life they’d planned together after retirement. Now, you’ve added to her joy by ensuring the perfect home for Ellie, and then slotted me into this new life of theirs, like fitting in the last piece of a jigsaw. How Great Thou Art!

The door opened, disturbing his reflections, and Nancy walked back in, muffled in coat, boots, hat, scarf and gloves. “I’ve been thinking, Ian. If I take my car, you won’t have to come out again. Didn’t you say Vivien was bringing Tonia home? I suppose I could return with them, but I’m not sure how long I’ll be and Tonia will soon need her bed.”

He searched her face, and said softly, “You’d rather go on your own.” She nodded. “Then why not set off now, and I’ll winkle you out to forage for food when I’ve got Tonia across.” She opened her mouth to agree, but the words wouldn’t come, and her eyes betrayed her inner brittleness. “I think I should take you, Nancy,” he said even more softly. “You’re too tired and upset to fight a cold car in the dark, and it’s freezing hard out there. Don’t you think there’ve been enough accidents the last few months? Look what happened when I was upset about something last November,” he added, his face sombre

“You’re right, Ian,” she sighed, her shoulders slumping. Ian cursed Kathie for not giving Nancy the sort of support Nell always gave Hilda. No one could do this job without it. He knew Jeanne and Ruth were desperately filling in for all the missing staff, so had no spare time or energy to be strength for Nancy, as well.

“You’ll feel better after you’ve got some food inside you, then you and Hilda can shore each other up for a while.” Matey returned at that point with a very shy Tonia. Ian held out his hand to the girl. “Sarah’s really looking forward to seeing you, and her parents want to thank you, so don’t feel you’re in the way, dear.”

“Why would they want to thank me?” whispered Tonia. “It was because of me that Sarah got into trouble.”

“No, it wasn’t!” Ian replied, taking her hand firmly in his as they left the study. “That was all Helen’s fault. I told you earlier! Sarah’s parents want to thank you for forgiving Sarah for trying to hurt you, and then for being so kind to her in spite of it. You told her you’d be brave for both of you, since she’s such a timid child. They love you for that!”

Listening to those words, Matey nodded to herself. Ian had done almost as much for Tonia as Hilda, Joan and Carmela. Between them, they had worked wonders with her, and she was now repaying them handsomely for their pains.

Once the heavy outer door closed behind them, she shot through the corridors to the Annexe and then up the stairs there to knock on Rosalie’s door.

Rosalie peeped out. “Gwyneth! How are they all?”

Matey looked at her in disgust. “You’re as worn out as Nancy! What on earth have you been doing to yourselves?”

Rosalie shrugged and counted on her fingers. “Trying to catch up with all the stuff Hilda hadn’t had time to see to! Getting up at four this morning to pray, and lying awake afterwards, wondering would she live - then hoping against hope all day that Kathie wouldn’t come near me because I might end up screaming at her…”

Her face crumpled. Matey led her back in to her room and sat her on the bed, producing a handkerchief to mop her tears.

At that moment, Jeanne rushed in. “What’s happening, Gwynneth?” she whispered.

Matey waved her to a chair, sat on the bed and put her arms round Rosalie. “This isn’t like you, love. I think you and Nancy need to take a break tomorrow – either get up later or take some free time after Mittagessen.” Rosalie sobbed on her shoulder. “Hey, hey, everything’s fine with our patients, better than fine, in fact. Let me tell you about Hilda’s day!” By the time she had finished describing what had happened to Hilda, both Jeanne and Rosalie were staring at her with no little shock . “As I said to Nancy, she’s back with a vengeance, and is already sorting us all out. I took Mireille to see her this afternoon and she’s now a much happier girl. Oh, Hilda’s still weak, and will need time to convalesce, but just think what happened to her early this morning and rejoice for this utter turnaround.”

Jeanne had tears rolling down her own cheeks. “C’est impossible!” she whispered.

Matey bridled. “He brought her back to life. Was that impossible for Him?” They shook their heads. “Then how on earth can you call it impossible that he’s enabled her to go from being too weak to move to walking around her room and ministering to her pupils? Are they not both miracles performed by a loving God?” She paused, watched them wipe their tears away, and added thoughtfully, “I heard Hilda quote from GK Chesterton once, something like, ‘The most astonishing thing about miracles is that they happen.’ These happened!”

“You really mean that, don’t you?” asked Rosalie. “That more than one miracle has taken place.”

“Hilda died!” Matey said bleakly, and they knew she would never forget the pain of that moment. “I saw it happen, and it broke my heart. But she was alive and speaking to us several hours later, even though weak as a kitten. She should have been stuck in that bed for several days, perhaps longer, trying to gain enough strength to leave it. Instead, she’s already walking around and visiting her pupils.” She shook her head. “I think He’s on a mission to get her back here very quickly – but, if He does, I’m not letting her anywhere near the study or any form room for at least a week,” she warned grimly, a martial light in her eyes.

They gazed at her in awe, unable to take it all in. “Oh, gosh, Gwynneth, how we’ll miss her when she leaves,” whispered Rosalie.

“As she keeps saying, Rosalie, no one is indispensible – even if we think she is! As Nell was! Don’t we all still miss her?” They nodded. “Trust me, Hilda will make sure Nancy’s up to scratch before she leaves, even if she’s not quite there yet.” Jeanne nodded, but Rosalie’s eyes were sad. “The trouble is, Rosalie, you work with her more closely than most of us, so the shock of her not being here will hit you hard, but I suspect she’ll have you and Nancy working together more next year so it will soon seem natural to turn to her rather than Hilda. I have a suspicion Hilda will gradually withdraw and leave Nancy mostly in charge, so her own absence won’t be such a shock for everyone. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me, come September,” she added slowly, “if she began to spend more time on a one-to-one basis with pupils who are struggling in some way, and leave Nancy to take the over-all lead.”

They stared at her in silence, overcome by everything that was happening. Matey’s ideas were novel and took some understanding.

“Has she said any of that?” Matey shook her head at Jeanne. “But you’re right, tiens! She’s just the person to act like John the Baptist and say: ‘He – or she – must increase and I must decrease.’ There’s no pride in Hilda, no clinging to the status of her position.” She paused, thinking things over. “All the years, they have passed so very quickly, Gwynneth. And me, soon it will be my turn to retire.”

“And mine,” said Matey softly, her eyes misting over at the treasure of Vivien’s offer.

Rosalie’s eyes grew haunted. She was losing all her old friends. Life was changing and she wasn’t ready! She wanted things to stay the same, but life was a river and never stood still.

Matey touched her cheek. “You have a year and a half with her yet, Rosalie. Make the most of it. And you can always visit her, you know. She would be very hurt if no one ever darkened the convent door.” Rosalie laid her head on Matey’s shoulder and wept softly.

Jeanne put her arms round them. “Be happy for the dear Hilda, mes amies, and for us. She’s still in the land of the living. We could have lost her forever last night, as suddenly as we lost Nell – but we didn’t! So no more tears, just smiles all round for the next eighteen months.

Crossing her fingers for those smiles, Matey asked Jeanne to take charge at Abendessen, and left them to console each other. She understood completely their pain at losing Hilda, coming, as it would, so soon after the loss of Nell. But they would have lost them both in the coming years, anyway, once they'd reached their sixties. Perhaps if they hadn’t been part of the fabric of the school for so long, their loss wouldn’t seem so bad, although Hilda had frequently been heard to say latterly that the school needed someone younger, someone with fresh ideas, that it had grown staid under her long reign. Who was to say, thought Matey.

Reaching the Annexe, she went along to the Salon, switched on the lights and passed through Hilda’s bedroom to the spare room. She leaned over Jeanne and saw movement, so switched on the bedside light, and was shocked by the girl’s red, swollen eyes.

She knelt by the bed. “Been having nightmares?” Jeanne nodded. “How’s the head now?”

Tears spurted from Jeanne’s eyes, so Matey slipped an arm under her and held her close. “I can’t seem to stop crying,” Jeanne sobbed in her native tongue. “I go to sleep and see flames everywhere… and my parents and Ellie caught in them… Someone is screaming that they’re no good and deserve to die… I see Papa falling out of a window… Maman burning…”

Sobs overtook her and she buried her face in Matey’s shoulder. Matey held her more closely, trying to soothe the distraught girl. If ever Hilda were needed, she thought, it was here in this darkened room. Helen and Kathie had so much to answer for! This poor girl, usually so tranquil and restrained, had been caught in both horrific incidents and knocked completely off-balance.

She waited till the sobs had died away and dried the damp face. “Jeanne, would you like us to send you home, as Miss Annersley suggested?”

“Mais non, I don’t think so,” she whispered. “Ellie and I… we planned how to help Meg when she returns, and that is tomorrow, but Ellie isn’t here so I must do it, non?”

Matey sat back on her heels. “Look at me, child. Ellie and Miss Annersley may come home tomorrow – I just don’t know – but, whether they do or they don’t, it’s more important that you find some relief from the feelings bottled up inside you, so if you want to go home….”

“But I am going home next Thursday, you know.”

Matey gazed at the unhappy face. “I’m not sure that’s soon enough, dear, so think about it overnight. Miss Annersley sends you her love and suggests you sleep here tonight, so you could have a weep in peace, if you wanted. I’ll sleep in her bed next door, so you have some company. Would that help?” Jeanne’s face relaxed a little. “I was wondering… besides having me through there, would you also like Mireille to sleep with you, here in Ellie’s bed? Two of us nearby might help you sleep better. She’ll understand how you feel about Miss Ferrar’s attack, having been there herself, so can comfort you if you have more nightmares. You and she could talk through your feelings and get them out of your systems a little. She, too, has been very upset.”

“I would like that, I think,” Jeanne said slowly, “but she may want to be with Carmela and Gillian. Gillian was burned on Saturday by Helen.”

“But not one of them was involved in both attacks, like you, were they? Those two can support each other, and Mireille can support you. So, what do you say?” Jeanne was now looking more relaxed, and nodded slowly. Matey got to her feet, and sat on the bed. “I’ll go and see her, then go to the kitchen and fetch you some dinner. In the meantime, why don’t you go and wash your face? Or... No! I have a better idea. I’ll run you a hot bath and you can have a soak while I’m gone.”

A small smile skittered across the white face. “It would be good, but Miss Annersley might not like that I am using her bathroom.”

“Why wouldn’t she?” Matey winked. “A bath is only a bath, no matter where or whose it is.” Jeanne giggled. “That’s better! She’s worried about you, and told me to do whatever I could to make you feel better. She thinks you’re a very brave girl and a great friend to Ellie, so would do a lot for you.”

Jeanne blushed scarlet. Matey tapped her on the nose, left the room and ran the hot bath, adding a few drops of lavender to help relax the distressed girl. She left a large towel ready, filled a hot water bottle and returned to the bedroom.

“Right, dear, the bath’s ready and I’ve left a towel beside it. Take your time, and have a good soak, let some of those nightmares float away. I’ll be back shortly with some food.”

She put the bottle in the bed and left Jeanne to it, knowing the poor girl would feel less shy and embarrassed about the bath if no one else was there. She went up the front stairs, along several corridors, and knocked at Mireille’s little bedroom, then recalled the Head Girl had been sleeping in the dorm with her friends, plus Tonia, Ellie and Jeanne, since Saturday. It would be quieter in there tonight! She went in and listened to the three voices, then moved over to the cubicle where Mireille’s voice could be heard.

“Mireille, it’s Matron Lloyd here. May I join you?”

Mireille’s head popped through the curtains. “Please to come in. Does someone need help?”

Matey entered, thanked Mireille, and raised her voice slightly. “Carmela and Gillian, would you join us, please?”

Two heads appeared through the curtains! Two faces gaped at her! “Come and sit down. Yes, on the bed! Pretend I’m not here.” That made them giggle, and they did as they were told. “I know you’re happier for seeing Miss Annersley, Mireille.”

“But you helped me, too, you know, and so did Mr Stuart. I just couldn’t handle all my anger.”

Matey nodded, her face grave. “Imagine how I felt this morning watching one of my closest friends die, and you’ll know I understand, dear.” Mireille reached out a hand to Matey, who clasped it gently. “But we’re not the only ones suffering, are we? I wonder would you be kind enough to do for Jeanne what the Abbess did for you?”

Mireille’s brown eyes softened. “She is not well, I know.”

“Her head’s a lot better, but she’s very weepy and having horrid nightmares.” She turned to Carmela and Gillian. “If I stole Mireille, could you support each other and Tonia tonight? I know you're all upset by the dreadful things you’ve witnessed and suffered this term.”

“We’ll manage fine, Matron,” said Gillian. “You want Mireille to sleep with Jeanne tonight.”

Mireille gave a gasp. Matey kept her gaze fixed on Gillian. “Has anyone looked at that hand today? Well, after Abendessen, you come and find me, either in my room or down in the Annexe. Carmela may come with you.”

“Do you really wish me to sleep with Jeanne?” Mireille asked tentatively.

Matey nodded. “You’ve received a lot of help today, and could now help her. She was caught up in Helen’s attack and then in yesterday’s attack by Miss Ferrar’s. That’s a double whammy for anyone, added to which there’s the memory of her own home catching fire when she was younger. It’s no wonder she’s broken down and having nightmares about fires. Her friend Ellie’s not here, nor is Miss Annersley, so it’s up to us. As well as sleeping with her, would you be willing to have your meal with her? I think she’d be more relaxed with you than with this old fogey.”

Mireille grinned. “But you are not this old fogey! You have been magnifique today, trying to make up for Miss Annersley’s absence.” She turned to her friends. “It would be even better if Carmela and Gillian came to eat with us, but will they be needed in school?”

Matey bit her lip to hold back her tears at this generosity. “You know, it says in Ecclesiastes: ’A cord of three cannot be easily broken.’ You three have proved the truth of that this term, the way you’ve worked so well together and backed each other up. You’re doing it again now, bless you” They blushed at such a compliment from Matey. “I’m sure you can all be spared for one evening. I’ll catch Jean and warn her she’ll need to get some of the other prefects on side. She is your deputy, after all, Mireille. I think the three of you will be very good for poor Jeanne, so yes, you may all go.”

Matey could only marvel at what Hilda had done for these three since the beginning of term. Rosalie was right! Hilda would truly be a hard act to follow, with that sensitivity of hers, and her gentle, encouraging way with the older girls.

“Mireille, get your night things and wash bag and go down with these two now – to the door after the Salon door – and I’ll be along shortly with the food. Although, Gillian, I think I’ll have a look at that hand now, so come with me and the other can hop along.”

When Gillian and Matey finally arrived with the trolley, laughter could be heard coming through the closed door, which was a real relief to Matey. She hadn’t been sure this would work. When she pushed the trolley in, Jeanne was already looking much brighter. She left them to dole out the food, saying she would be along later, then winked at Jeanne and was gone.

She was finishing her own sweet at Abendessen when Jeanne de Lachennais leaned over and suggested she should be the one to tell the girls about Hilda. Matey screwed up her face but made no objection, rising to her feet when Jeanne rang Hilda’s little bell. All heads turned her way.

“A quick update on Miss Annersley, girls. You were told your prayers brought her safely through the night, but they’ve gone on working for her throughout the day, which is nothing short of miraculous, so God bless each and every one of you. She couldn’t do anything for herself when she woke this morning, not even lift her head off the pillow, but by fifteen hundred this afternoon she got herself out of bed and began walking round her room, and then took to giving us her orders!” She winked. “You can’t keep a good woman down, girls. But then, you know she’s as stubborn as a mule and twice as determined.” There was laughter all round at this sally. “She’s still very frail and I don’t think she’ll be doing any teaching before half term, but I’m sure she’ll soon be back here to recuperate, so keep up the prayers, please.”

Jean Abbott rose to her feet and called for three cheers for Miss Annersley. After that, Mary Garth held up her hand and Jeanne nodded. “How’s Ellie, Matron Lloyd?”

“Thank you for asking, Mary. She’s still in a great deal of pain, but feels much brighter in herself, and will return when Miss Annerlsey does.”

As she sat down, she glanced at Kathie and saw how downcast she was. Beside her, Barbara Henschell seemed lost in a world of her own, so Matey knew what her next task would be.

*****

Arriving back at the San, Ian sought Helen Graves, who sat Tonia down in her office, telling her she would be back shortly, and went along with Ian and Nancy to Hilda’s room.

“I’ve brought you a present, Miss Annersley,” Ian said, popping his head round the door, and pushing Nancy into the room. Hilda greeted her with delight and indicated the chair near her bed. “Helen’s going to send dinner along for you and Miss Wilmot, while I take Miss Knowles, Ellie and Tonia to forage in the canteen. After that, Tonia will visit Sarah, and Miss Knowles, Ellie and I will get up to some sort of mischief for a wee while.”

Hilda chuckled at his insouciance, while Helen and Vivien were already helping Ellie into the wheelchair, wrapping her in Ian’s blanket. She seemed excited at the thought of going out again, but still sought Hilda’s eyes for reassurance. Her guardian winked at her as Vivien pushed the chair towards the door.

“I want Ellie back before eighteen hundred, Mr Stuart,” said Helen. “Those painkillers are helping, but she’s very weary now.” Ian agreed.

“How’s Jeanne, Mr Stuart,” asked Hilda. Ian told her what Matey was going to arrange for the weary girl.

“Pauvre Jeanne!” whispered Ellie. “I should be helping her, you know.”

“You can’t be everywhere, chérie, and Jeanne will be fine with Mireille,” Hilda assured her. Ellie seemed satisfied, and Ian followed Vivien out of the door.

“Think he can cope with three women?” asked Helen with a grin. Nancy chuckled.

“He had to cope with his sister while growing up, so I don’t think those three will phase him at all,” laughed Hilda softly. “She was something of a tartar, by all accounts. Don’t forget he also had to put up with Nell and I arguing theology with him on a regular basis over the years. He treats women as his equals, unlike some I could mention.” Helen choked. “And that gentleness of his makes for an easy relationship with the opposite sex. That’s why Ellie loves him so much.”

Helen smiled to herself, thinking of the easy relationship Hilda herself had with Ian, a relationship that went very deep, she suspected. She laid her fingers on Hilda’s wrist for a few moments, but felt nothing to worry her, so squeezed her friend’s hand. “I’ll get Nurse Saunders to bring you both some dinner shortly. I’m leaving you to make sure she eats something, Nancy!”

Nancy rolled her eyes. Helen patted her shoulder and left them to it.

Hilda scrutinised Nancy’s face and was not happy. “You’re exhausted. You’ve been working too hard, trying to catch up with all I didn’t get round to doing!” She reached out a hand. “I’m sorry all my work's fallen in your lap.”

Nancy took the hand, feeling as if she were plugging herself into a power source. “It’s hardly your fault you were ill and had so many dreadful events to sort out, all in the space of a few days.” She sighed. “It’s been a…”

“A difficult, debilitating term, were you going to say?”

“Oh, much worse than that, but, seriously, Hilda, you look so thin! How can you have lost so much weight since yesterday morning?”

“I think the high temperature must have burned it away, and I’ve not really eaten much since Friday.” She touched her smooth cheek. “I can’t tell you how glad I was to get rid of that pink pancake. By the time they brought me here, it was absolute agony. Jack reckons this had been building up since the migraine, the day after Linda scratched me.”

“You mean the day after you taxed Kathie with what you’d discovered! That pulled you right down and made you vulnerable.” Nancy looked down at the thin hand she was holding, and pulled a face. “I wasn’t going to come across tonight, but Ian practically dragged me here.”

“Good for him! He’s been running here, there and everywhere on my account, poor man.”

“Even helping with Kathie,” Nancy whispered. Hilda raised an eyebrow and Nancy told her how he had taken over that very morning, when she herself couldn’t get Kathie to help. Hilda’s lips tightened. “I don’t know what he said to her, but he certainly had her moving, and she’s done everything we’ve asked of her since.” Nancy frowned. “I don’t really know what got into her this morning, because yesterday afternoon something strange happened that changed her.” She described the voice Kathie had heard and her apologies to several people.

Hilda’s eyes glowed. Getting in on the act there, too, Father? Thank You. “Will you tell her I’m very happy about it? I wasn’t pleasant to her before I was brought over here,” she added bleakly.

“Hilda, you were well within your rights to give her that ultimatum! Plus, you were too ill to accept her behaviour with equanimity. We just didn’t realise. I still feel guilty I never noticed what she was up to.”

“I never really twigged either, and I should have done,” sighed Hilda. “She was very rude to me a couple of times, but most of what she did she kept well hidden from us.”

“How’s Ellie now?”

“Terrified!”

“Of Kathie?” gasped Nancy.

Hilda nodded. “There’s no way on earth she would return to school without me, in case she met Kathie while she was all alone.”

“Hilda, I’m so sorry!” whispered Nancy.

“Why, Nancy?” asked Hilda softly. “It was hardly your fault. You’re not Kathie’s keeper. You’ve tried your very best with her, as I have. She chose her attitudes and behaviour all on her own.” She squeezed Nancy’s hand. “Let’s talk about something else.”

At that moment, their food appeared. There was a proper meal for Nancy, but Hilda was thankful for her own minimal portion of scrambled eggs, and some fruit fool.

Nancy saw her reluctance. “Not hungry? But I thought He’d had you out of bed and walking round, and that you were feeling stronger? That’s a massive turnaround for someone who was pronounced dead early this morning,” she added in an awed voice.

“He’s certainly moving fast,” Hilda said, a distant look in her eyes.

“But you still look very white and frail.”

“I’m not a rubber ball, bouncing straight back up, I’m afraid,” Hilda said quietly. “But I’ve been blessed more than most, Nancy, and I’ll mend now, which is more than could be said earlier. He’s also been generous to our other patients, even Linda. Are you going to see her while you’re here? I think you may leave out Marianne, since Vivien and Ellie have been there most of the day, and I visited Sarah a little while ago. We’re losing her, you know,” she added with a sigh, and told Nancy of her conversation with Sarah’s parents.

“It doesn’t surprise me, love. I wouldn’t want to sleep in a wide-open dorm again if it had happened to me, I’ll tell you. You feel responsible.” Hilda nodded. “But, as you’ve just told me about Kathie, Sarah’s injury was not your fault, love. No one knew what Helen was like. No one could have predicted such a dreadful scene.”

“There must have been some signs, surely, Nancy,” Hilda whispered. “When you think we now know she set fire to a form room bin and to the curtain in St Luke’s, it makes you wonder. How was it that not one person noticed? The girls are so eagle-eyed, it makes me think she must have been very adept at hiding things.”

“She’s a devious little madam, and more than capable of hiding even her worst sins,” Nancy said tersely, putting a hand on Hilda’s. “Come on, love, you’ve enough to worry about without her. Her father caused the problem, so let him worry.” She saw she was getting nowhere. “I’ll see Linda as soon as I’ve had this. Everyone’s been too busy and too upset to visit her this week, too scared of giving things away and upsetting her, and she’s too ill for that!”

“I just hope she never finds out what her scratches did to me,” murmured Hilda. “That would be a disaster for her. Do I blackmail everyone to keep quiet about it?”

“Just say something at the next full staff meeting, and I’ll mention it to my staff.”

Hilda laid aside the eggs she was unable to finish and picked up the fruit fool. “By the way, Nancy, I’ve got a proposition for you.”

Nancy saw the twinkle in her eyes and groaned. Hilda smiled grimly and explained what she wanted arranged for Marianne and her mother.

Nancy’s eyes widened, and she laughed out loud. “Only you!

“I can’t think what you mean, Nancy! “ Hilda said haughtily. “Marianne needs to catch up, and Isobel’s been looking forward to sleeping in a dorm ever since she saw some on Sunday. I suspect, however, that first wild enthusiasm will soon fade, so give her one of those little rooms up there, so she can escape at times.”

Nancy shook her head, her face wearing a broad grin. “You think of everything! I learn from you every day, and yet will never be all you are.”

“As I’ve said before, I don’t want you to be me. I want you to be all you yourself are, my girl! As for me, I certainly have plenty of time here to think of things,” sighed Hilda. “Will you be there to welcome Meg back tomorrow afternoon?” Nancy nodded. “If you’re busy, you could hand her over to Vivien or Joan. They’ve both given her some support. Get young Jeanne involved, too. She and Ellie had all sorts of plans to make her feel more one of the form, but that’s all gone by the board now. Ellie’s very disappointed.”

“As are you, my friend!”

Hilda nodded, reminding herself to catch Ian and find out if Meg’s father had tried again to see his daughter, since she was still stuck at the convent. She laid down her spoon, and picked up her coffee.

“Not hungry? I can’t say I am, really, either.”

“Nancy, you need the energy, trying to keep up with both schools, as you are!” Nancy scowled and pointed her knife at her. “I know, pots and kettles, but lying here doesn’t give you much of an appetite.” Hilda realised Nancy was now looking even wearier. Her eyes were heavy, and shadowed with purple smudges. “I think you should visit Linda soon, and go home. You need your bed. Try and do only what’s really urgent tomorrow and rest more, or you’ll collapse. I feel so useless lying here,” she whispered fiercely.

Nancy clasped Hilda’s arm. “You’re not useless, love, never that! You’re just frail, what with this blood poisoning, and the bad accident, and being shot before that.” She grinned. “We’ll have to start calling you Hopalong Cassidy, or… no, the Lone Ranger.”

“Nancy Wilmot!” Hilda exclaimed. “You’re a horror! As was Nell! She loved westerns, for some reason that evaded me, but I had to put up with them when I visited. Perry Mason was another!” She rolled her eyes. “Who did you have in mind for Tonto? Gwynneth?”

“No, Ian, actually!” Nancy winked.

“Just wait till I tell him,” laughed Hilda. “I wonder how quick he is on the draw. He was certainly quick to pull AMAS out of the hat when he met Ellie! She loved him from that moment on, and it certainly gave her something new to think about.” She saw Nancy’s face was brighter. “Will you come again tomorrow? Getting away from school has done you good.”

Nancy nodded and rose to her feet to replace the dishes on the trolley. “At least you’ve eaten something. Do I get Brownie points for that?” Hilda giggled. “Oh, I almost forgot. John Lewis rang. Not much change with Tessa, I’m afraid, but he was very concerned about you, and worried you wouldn’t be fit to go over next week.” Hilda was worried about the same thing. “The twins’ father also rang.”

“Gilles? Why? Are those two in trouble again?”

Nancy knocked on wood. “Not so far! He wanted to know if you and Ellie had time to go out for a meal with them the day they came to pick up the girls. He sounded horrified when I told him how ill you were.”

“He’s a doctor, Nancy, so he’ll know the score. I’d like to see them again, because they’ve done something rather wonderful for Ellie, which I’ve managed to keep a secret so far. I’m saving it for her birthday on Sunday. But I think we’ll have to give the meal a miss for now. I’ll ring him when I return. What a sweetheart!”

“Do all the men fall in love with you?” whispered Nancy, giving her a quick hug and escaping from the room before Hilda had chance to retaliate. Jaw dropping, Hilda stared at the door. After a few seconds, her sense of humour kicked in and she grinned to herself, but being stuck in that room was beginning to haunt her.

Will You give me more strength for tomorrow, Father? Nancy needs help, and Meg is arriving. And what about Tessa? And all those other things I should be doing?

Just do as I tell you, and all will be well, daughter.

‘I trust in Your merciful love. Let my heart rejoice in Your saving help.’
(Psalm 13)

Helen returned soon after with Ellie, and helped her into bed. “It’s okay, you don’t have to sleep, but you need to rest.” She turned to Hilda. “Ian’s left Vivien in his room and gone to find Tonia. They can wait there for Nancy.” She examined the trolley. “Not hungry? Well if you want to leave here, you have to show willing, or so Jack says.” Hilda wrinkled her nose at her. “Be good! I’ll take this away and return shortly to say goodnight.”

Hilda’s hand reached out for Ellie’s as Helen and trolley disappeared through the door. Ellie smiled at her. “It is nice to be just the two of us, Madame.”

“It is, child, but have you had a good day? I can’t thank you enough for my dolphins.”

“Will you tell me about this dream, Madame?”

“Some time, Ellie,” Hilda murmured, watching the dolphins moving gently above her bed.

Ellie smiled, examined her guardian’s pale, weary face, then released her hand and leaned towards the books and papers littering the end of her bed. She drew a notebook toward her and recovered a loose sheet of paper, which she frowned over for a moment or two, before holding it out to Hilda.

“I wrote this yesterday, a so small bit at a time. It is nothing special, because I am not this good at writing the poetry. It is too much harder than the stories, you know.” Hilda gave her a loving smile. “But, you were very, very ill, and I wanted to remind to me all you have done for me, you know. I love you, Madame, but so much,” she whispered.

“The feeling is entirely mutual, my wee flipperling." Hilda said warmly.

Hilda took the sheet of paper and slowly read the untidy writing, its mistakes still uncorrected. Ellie was right that poetry was not her forte, but oh, the love in the words redeemed it all!

Madame, you are the balm to my agitation,
the comfort to my fear,
the patience to my quick temper,
the surety to my uncertainty,
the generosity to my selfishness,
the quiet to my giddiness.
But you love me!

I am the disorder to your orderliness,
the ruffle to your composure,
the chattiness to your sweet silence,
the liveliness to your calm,
the disturbance to your precious peace,
the quicksilver to your shining gold,
And I love you!

When I am afraid, you give me your loving reassurance,
When you are anxious, I give you my cheerfulness,
When I am unhappy, you give me your joy,
When you are sad and lonely, I give you my tenderness,
Because we love each other.


“And God loves both of us,” added Hilda in a whisper, the tears streaming down her face. She held out her arm, and Ellie scrambled over to tuck herself under it. “It’s beautiful, chérie, and I shall treasure it always. You do do all that for me, and so much more, and have made me so happy since Christmas. You are exactly like quicksilver, and have brightened my life in so many ways - but have I really helped you this much? ”

“And more, you know.” Ellie snuggled closer. “Without you, I would not be as I am now. I would be a very angry, unhappy girl who would still be hurting everyone at the convent. Yes, I am upset by Miss Ferrars at this moment, but still so happy to be here with you. You gave to me a new life, one which has offered to me so much to enjoy, and many new friends to love.”

Hilda laid her head against Ellie, holding her tightly and trying to read the words again through her tears.

How do I thank You, Father? I lost my mother, but you left me Father, then you gave me James. When he died, you gave me Nell for so many years. Now… how on earth do I deserve to have Mother and Ian and this beautiful girl in my life?

Did I not tell you all would be well, child?






*****
Chapter 15 - A Rose By Any Other Name by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Thank you for the thoughtful comments on that last chapter. I'm sorry to be so dilatory with this next one, but I fell ill with a nasty bug last Wed and it took till this week to feel well enough to write and then type up this offering.

I've actually written a much shorter chapter this time, as I've had the nagging feeling that I've been getting rather uninteresting and boring recently. If that's true, please forgive me, but I needed to follow where Hilda was leading me. *winks*
Wednesday 6am

Hilda woke with a start. She looked round, but nothing untoward seemed to have woken her. Ellie lay sleeping sweetly in the bed beside hers. She gazed on the peaceful face and wondered, all over again, at the vast and tender love in her heart for this stranger child. God had softened her long months of grief and loneliness with this most beautiful of gifts, ensuring that she knew her love was still needed here on earth, despite the loss of Nell.

Reaching for her watch with her unfettered left hand, she saw how early it still was, so lay back and relaxed. Plenty more time to snooze and repair her body! She closed her eyes and thought back to the evening before, when the room was finally empty but for the two of them, and she had read Ellie’s beautiful poem. The strength of the love revealed in it had moved her to tears, as had the beauty and sheer coincidence of Ellie’s dolphins. The Lord had been hard at work that day in all sorts of different ways, and every one of them a miracle in some large or small way.

After Jack’s departure later on that evening, Phil Graves had popped in to make sure all was well and to introduce himself to Ellie. Ian then returned from school, and suggested they say the Divine Office together, since she had insisted on falling asleep over their attempts that morning. Smiling sheepishly, she opened her book, holding it out so Ellie could join in with them.

“Don’t forget there are two more of these books coming your way soon to complete the set,” added Ian, “and both with dedications in them, just like that one.”

She turned to the front page and showed Ellie Ian’s dedication to his sister, and then the one his sister had added to Hilda, the one which had made her weep at the
time.

“Too many people getting carried away over who I really am,” she muttered darkly.

Ellie kissed her. Hilda returned the kiss, then handed Ellie’s poem to Ian. He read it and was lost for words.

His eyes were damp when he finally looked Ellie’s way. “It’s beautiful, dear, and reveals so clearly the great love between you, and what you do for each other. May it always be so, Liebchen.”

Ellie’s smile for him was very tender. “Madame and I both love you very much, too, Mr Stuart, and I will write a poem just for you very soon, although, me, I am not really the poet.” She paused, adding thoughtfully, “I have not been happy like this in all my life. Even when I had my grandparents, I always wanted Maman, oh, so much, just as I wanted Papa to stay with me and love me. Maman loved me, but she could not stay, and Papa, perhaps he loved me, I do not know, but he never chose to stay. But now, like my grandparents, you and Madame, you choose to stay and love me, and I will always love you both for that, you know.”

Hilda hugged her close, while Ian tried to maintain his composure. “And we will always love you, Liebchen,” he replied softly. “Remember what we said when we took you down to Interlaken, and then again in here yesterday, when you discovered Madame died and was brought back to life during the night?” She nodded, her sapphire eyes beaming at him. He looked back at Hilda. “As for you, we never get carried away over you who really are. We just state the obvious! You’re more than any of us, except God, can know. Kate told me years ago that she would pass on my Divine Office books to someone who would cherish them, since she had her own Abbess’s books, but I never dreamed that person would be one of my two argumentative friends.” She winked at him. “You and Nell gave me a great deal over the years after I came here, and helped me re-discover some of my faith in my vocation. So call these books a very special thank you gift from two people who love you dearly.”

She smiled gently to herself now, recalling those earnest words of the night before, and slept once more.

*****

7am

Kathie jumped in her sleep and groaned as the rising bell reverberated through the building. She buried her face in her pillow, reluctant to face the day and the many unfriendly looks turned her way since that Saturday evening in the Hall when she had incautiously challenged Hilda. Worse were the blank faces of those who used to be her friends, people like Rosalie, Ruth and Jeanne. Rosalie’s cold eyes haunted her, but she knew she deserved that coldness after her dreadful treatment of Hilda and Ellie, and the nasty way she had treated others such as Gill, Vivien and Vi Norton. She shuddered. Her words of apology on Monday had been met with hesitance, on the whole, although Jeanne and Vivien had been encouraging, if rather outspoken.

She rolled on to her back and stared up at the ceiling. Was there any point to anything anymore? She rubbed away the few tears that had fallen, and thought of the words left for her by Ian with Nancy the day before, after his gentle talk that had made her re-think her attitude and do as she was asked by Nancy and others. She sat up, switched on the bedside lamp, picked up Ian’s sheet of paper and read, once more, the words by W Heartsill Wilson:

‘This is the beginning of a new day. God has given me this day to use as I will. I can waste it or use it for good. What I do today is important, because I’m exchanging a day of my life for it. When tomorrow comes, this day will be gone forever, leaving in its place something that I have traded for it. I want it to be gain, not loss; good, not evil; success, not failure, in order that I shall not regret the price I paid for it.’

She stared at the words, tears running down her face. What had been good or successful about her days recently? What terrible price had she paid for her jealousy and hurtfulness? She had traded success for failure - failure to love others, failure to do her job in the best way possible, failure to nurture the girls and staff and not harm them. She had traded good for evil – the evil of her malevolent actions and words towards Ellie, and her vengeful attitude towards Hilda. She had traded gain for loss - loss of friendship, loss of people’s respect, loss of Hilda’s trust, loss of Nancy’s love. How that hurt! Did she regret it all? She didn’t know anymore, because her emotions were so at loggerheads with her thoughts.

She wiped her eyes and re-read what Ian had written under those words:

“Kathie, Longfellow asks us to remember that: ‘A torn jacket is soon mended, but hard words bruise the heart of a child.’”

She closed her eyes as though in pain. How badly she must have bruised Ellie’s heart on Monday, and also the hearts of Jeanne and Mireille!

“But, St John Vianney assures us, no matter our many mistakes and unkindnesses: ‘Our sins are nothing but a grain of sand alongside the great mountain of God’s mercy.’

Yield to His great heart, Kathie, and let Him wipe away your tears of regret, your jealousy and pride. Open yourself up to His mighty love and mercy, and He will heal your hurt and your heart “


She read and re-read the words on the sheet, then crumpled up and buried her face in the bedcovers, begging God’s mercy for what she had done to poor Ellie; asking Him for courage to face people’s coldness; pleading with Him for some of the humble, gracious and generous love that Hilda had in her heart.

“Let me listen to all Hilda and Ian say, and help me to act on their words of wisdom,” she whispered tearfully. “Let me speak softly when dealing with people, and not with the harshness I’ve been dishing out recently. Keep me from more pride and selfishness, and give me the courage to stamp hard on my jealousy. Put a seal on my lips and a smile on my face and gentleness in my eyes, so I become more like Hilda and You. Not just because I want to keep my job, nor even because I don’t want to lose Nancy’s love, but simply because this is what You ask of me, as Hilda and Ian keep telling me.”

Go in peace, dear child, and have courage. Always remember that I love you.

8am

The murmurings of soft voices gradually intruded into Hilda’s dreams, bringing her awake once more. She turned her head. The curtain between the two beds was now drawn across, and it sounded as though Ellie’s bed had been pushed back to the other half of the room, for the voices were not close. Was it Helen with Ellie? Was her ward feeling better this morning? Not wishing to disturb them, she stretched lazily, listening to her body, feeling more strength flowing through it even than yesterday. The remnants of yesterday’s headaches had finally taken themselves off, it would seem, and the ache that had persisted in her limbs and lower back the day before had now more or less dispersed. Would all now really be well, as He had told her yesterday?

Thank You for this new day, Heavenly Father, and for added strength. Thank You for every great and small thing You’ve done in this little room for Ellie and me, and for others elsewhere in the San. Thank You for Gwynneth and Vivien and for all those who helped and nurtured us, and a special thanks for Helen and Jack. They haven’t spared themselves for our sakes. Ellie and I are very blessed in our friends. Thank You for the miracle of bringing me back to life and for my dream of Nell and Your Son. Mere thanks seem paltry in comparison to Your great power and love, but they are all I have to offer.

The murmurings once more intruded, and she realised it was Ian talking softly with Ellie, not Helen at all. How good he was to spend all this time with the girl, when he had so many patients to visit! He loved her so much, as much as her father should have done.

Thank You for giving Him this great gift late in his life. He surely deserves all the love Ellie has for him.

He had you and Nell, daughter, and he cherished every moment, for you helped fill his essential loneliness. Now, you and I have given him more, in the deeper friendship and love you have for him, and in Ellie’s companionship. All will be well with him, as it will be with you and Ellie.


Hilda smiled gently to herself and listened harder to the voices on the other side of the curtain, then had to stifle her laughter with her sheet at the way the conversation was going. They had been talking about Marianne and Isobel, and how much fun Ellie had with them the day before, when the subject changed rather abruptly.

“You know, Ellie, it’s about time you started calling me something other than the very formal Mr Stuart. It’s not very friendly, is it, when we spend half our time together in tucks of laughter?” Ellie giggled, then clapped her hand over her mouth to silence the giggles, and Hilda could just imagine those dancing blue eyes. “You don’t call your guardian Miss Annersley, do you? Except in school, of course! You call her by a much friendlier name.”

“But, ‘Madame’, it is a very formal name in France, you know. I said it to her when I first met her, as I did not know her name, and that is what we say to ladies we do not know. Then, she suggested I keep it for when we are alone together.”

“Because she likes being something other than Miss Annersley, and so that name brings you even closer together. You say it always with such love in your voice.”

“I tell to you a secret, Mr Stuart,” Ellie whispered. “In my heart, I call her Maman, you know, not Madame, but shhh, she must not know this.”

Hilda blinked away tears at the love revealed and at the loneliness still lurking in Ellie’s heart.

“If you call her that in your heart,” Ian said slowly, “you could always call me – what do you say in France? Papa?”

Hilda heard the tension in his voice. He was terrified of hurting Ellie.

“But, you know,” Ellie said slowly, “I had the Papa, only he did not love me, so I do not want to have the memory of that every time I say the name. Maman loved me, I am told, but I do not remember her, so it is different to say that in my heart, because I sometimes feel I never had the Maman until now.”

“Granddad?” Ian said hopefully, trying to banish the sadness one could hear in her voice.

“Mais non, I had the grandparents, and they loved me very much, so I do not wish to put someone else in their place, but…” She paused. Hilda listened harder, knowing she should really be stuffing her fingers in her ears. “I have an aunt who lives in the convent, who I call Marraine, my godmother, but I never had an uncle, you know,” she added thoughtfully, and Hilda could imagine those beautiful eyes making mush of Ian’s heart.

“You would like me to be an uncle?” There was a smile in Ian’s voice.

“Oui, perhaps, but me, I could never say this Uncle Ian,” and Ellie stumbled over the name, making it sound more like Yon. “It is ugly, do you not think? But I could call you what we call the uncles in France. If we love them very much we say to them, Tonton!”

Ian’s laugh exploded from him, and he had to clamp his own hand very hard over his mouth to contain his mirth. Hilda stuffed the sheet back in her mouth to stifle her own laughter.

“You’re laughing at me,” Ian choked, his hand still over his mouth.

“Mais non!” she said earnestly. “Me, I am but very serious. Ask to Madame when she is awake. She will tell to you that Tonton is the friendly way of saying uncle.”

“She’s right, Ian,” Hilda finally joined in with a chuckle. “I’m sorry for listening in, but she’s not laughing at you at all. Tonton is indeed the familiar name for uncle in France, as is Tata for aunt.” He chortled at that. “So Tonton it is, or the formal Mr Stuart!”

“It makes me sound like a jungle drum,” he moaned, but there was laughter in his voice.

“But a very loving jungle drum, dear man! You’d better make the most of it, for I suspect that will be Ellie’s final offer.”

Ellie came round the curtain and nestled up to Hilda with a kiss. “Bonjour, Madame. Is it okay that I call him this, and not Mr Stuart?”

“But of course, chérie. It has a much friendlier sound than Mr Stuart, don’t you think, though I suspect you will have to allow him to get accustomed to it, for it sounds a little strange to people who have no French. His sister, for example, might find it a trifle odd.” She tapped Ellie on the nose. “However, the word ‘okay’ is verboten, as you very well know, young lady!” Ellie grimaced at her. “Now why don’t you find my bed jacket and make me presentable, then Mr Stuart, or Tonton, might see that I meant what I said and so take your word for it, too.”

Ellie scrambled off the bed, picked up the embroidered bed jacket and helped Hilda slot her left arm in. She draped the rest loosely over her guardian’s other shoulder and arm, since the drip prevented that arm going in its sleeve. A few moments later, after gently brushing Hilda’s hair, Ellie drew back the curtain and Ian found two smiling faces inspecting him.

“You’re both laughing at me now!” he exclaimed, his eyes twinkling.

They shook their heads in unison. “Not so, Ian! She was right in all her reasoning. Why not agree to be something she’s never had, knowing it won’t hurt her when she addresses you? I think it’s a brilliant idea. She loves you very much, so you’re both right to want something friendlier between you,” Hilda added tenderly.

Ellie went across to him. “Deal, Tonton?”

He shook the hand. “Deal, Liebchen! Thank you.”

“And will you go on calling me all those beautiful German names? They make me to feel you like me, you know.”

“I do like you, Liebchen, and love you, too.”

He took her hand and kissed it, at which point she pretended to swoon on her bed. Hilda stifled more laughter at this female ploy. Ian pulled the girl off her bed with a chuckle and sauntered with her to Hilda’s bed.

“I think that all got rather out of hand,” he laughed. Hilda shook her head. “You look brighter. There’s a little colour in your cheeks, at long last.”

“All the aches and pains seem to have taken themselves off this morning. How about you, child? Did you sleep?”

“Er, no, in a word,” said Ian with a grimace. “Peter found her weeping about two o’clock this morning, so gave her an injection rather than tablets. She slept the night through after that.”

“Oh, child, I’m so sorry. And yet you dressed me and brushed my hair! You should have said something!” Hilda held out her hand and Ellie joined her again on the bed. “How is it now?”

Ellie wrinkled up her nose. “It is oka… um, better, if I do not move the hand by mistake, you know. It aches quite badly.”

“That’s why they’ve tightened the sling. Now the hand is up against your chest, you won’t use it without thinking, as you have been doing,” said Ian.

“I suspect you’ll have to keep it like that for a day or two, mignonne,” murmured Hilda, giving her a hug. “I’ll have to take care and do very little for a few days, so you can keep me company.”

“Too right, my friend!” came a sardonic voice from the door. “You will take care and do very little until I say otherwise, and for more than just a few days, I should think.”

Jack and Helen had sidled in while the joking had been going on. Hilda now straightened up against her pillows, bracing herself for bad news. Jack saw it and moved quickly to a chair beside her bed and took her hand.

“Relax, love, I didn’t mean to scare you.” She watched him with a still face. “I’m going to take out that drip and check you over thoroughly in a minute or two, but the good news is that I see no reason why you can’t go home after lunch.”

Ellie gasped, Ian exclaimed, but Hilda’s face remained impassive.

“Your vital signs remained good overnight, according to Phil and the nurses. Your pulse is steady and feels normal under my fingers. Frankly, I’m at a loss, because it usually takes a good while to recover from blood poisoning, and yours was bad. According to all the standard text books, you should need at least another week here, doing nothing but sleep, followed by a lengthy convalescence. But yesterday proved to me just how quickly you’re recovering, or rather how quickly God is healing you, so what would be the point of keeping you?”

“Do you really mean it, Jack?” Hilda whispered. He nodded. “Ellie, as well?”

He nodded again. She looked at Helen for confirmation, and recieved a huge smile and a thumbs-up.

“As I said, I’ll check you over thoroughly, and if all seems well, you may get up after breakfast – which you will eat, or all bets are off!” Jack added sternly. “If you and Ellie still seem fine after lunch, which you will also eat, you may leave there and then. You may not, however, return to work until I say so, and I know for a fact that you’ll be well and truly sat on, if you go against my orders!” he said firmly, with a distinct glint in his eye that made her wonder what he was up to.

“You don’t need to worry, Jack,” she said gently. “I know how ill I was, and how frail it’s left me. God might have brought me back to life and given me strength when I shouldn’t have had any, but He hasn’t healed me completely yet. I meant what I said to Ellie about resting and not doing much. I certainly won’t be going anywhere near study or form room until after half term.”

“Do you mean that?” gasped Jack, who was visibly shocked.

“I know I push the boundaries at times, dear, but I can’t destroy all you, Helen and God have done for me here, by going back to work too soon. I owe it to everyone to be fit for the next half term – and I do want to be well enough to go to Boston in a week’s time – so yes, I mean every word. I may sign some forms after a few days, or read letters and dictate answers, but that can be done in the Annexe in peace. It would be a big help to Nancy, I know.” Hilda was never more serious, her voice rich and deep. She turned the hand he was holding and squeezed his, then smiled at Helen. “I can’t let you two or God down. You’ve all worked very hard to keep me in the land of the living, so now I’ll work hard to stay in that land by resting.”

They all crowded round, talking at once, but she looked at Jack. “People may visit me, I presume?” He nodded. “And it’s Ellie’s birthday on Sunday, so we’ll have visitors. Will the fun be too much for me?” she asked dryly.

He laughed out loud. “I’ve never seen you so keen to do as I say.” He winked at Ellie. “Yes, I’m sure you’ll be fit enough to celebrate Ellie’s birthday in style. I just hope Ellie takes care of that hand from now on, though,” he added gently. Ellie buried her face in Hilda’s shoulder, but he took her hand gently. “I’m not cross with you, child. None of it was your fault, and hopefully by Sunday the pain will have lessened a little, so you may enjoy your day.” She peeped out at him, saw his eyes watching her kindly, and relaxed. “It does mean you’ll need help with the wrapping paper, though, because that hand must not be used till I say so. However, I’m sure there’ll be plenty of willing helpers.” She beamed. “But you have to take things easy, too, Ellie, because shock and pain have weakened you, and you need to rest.”

Ellie nodded and he looked back at Hilda. “You, my dear, will have breakfast in bed every morning till I say otherwise, no argument. You will have a nap after lunch, and will be in bed by twenty-one hundred the first few days.” She raised an eyebrow. “As I said, you’ll be heavily sat on. I’ve warned my minions.”

Her glowing eyes smiled at him. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” He grinned evilly. “You’ve got me just where you want me, and there’s not a thing I can do about it – or indeed want to do about it,” she added gently. “I’ll be good.”

“Catch me, someone,” he joked. “By the way, I know you said yesterday you’d like to see Mark Avison again before he flies home. Well, he’s leaving us later on today, so if you want to visit for a short while after you’re up and dressed, feel free. Helen will go with you.” Helen nodded happily. “You see no one else, though! You may walk around in here, but no tiring yourself out. I’ll be over tomorrow morning to see how you are, unless there’s a problem before that. I’ll then pop in each evening on my way home from work, so play nice, as you said you would. Oh, you’ll go home with strong antibiotics for a while, and I'm going to keep a strict check on your iron levels. I do not want that blood poisoning coming back to haunt us all.” Jack patted the hand he was holding and rose to his feet. “Right, Ian, I’m going to throw you out now so Helen and I can take a look at the pair of them.”

Ian nodded, and made to turn away, but Hilda stayed him. “Ian, I take it Meg actually is coming today? Her flight hasn’t been cancelled again?”

He shook his head and knocked on the wooden cupboard, making them laugh. “I’ll be on my way to collect her as soon as I’ve had lunch, and taking Mark with me. I should be back with Meg by fifteen thirty, so have the kettle on! Do you want me to take you home before I go.”

“No, thank you, dear! Gwynneth is coming shortly and she’ll do the honours. I’m sure she’ll be glad of some peace and quiet after this, even some return to normality - or to what equates to normality at the Chalet School,” she added, with a roll of her eyes.

More laughter rang round the little room, and she herself couldn’t stop smiling and hugging Ellie. Her heart was singing for joy. Meg was finally returning, and they would be there to welcome her back, as planned.

Thank You, thank You, thank You, dear Father, for everything you’ve done and for the sheer perfection of Your timing.





*****
Chapter 16 - The Fragrance of Forgiveness and Grace by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Thank you so much for the delightful responses to that last chapter.

I apologise profusely for another long delay, but this year doesn’t seem to be going any better than last. However, I hope this will make up for the delay. If Ellie’s words and actions here seem beyond the scope of a teenager, just remember the way she so thoughtfully worked out what to call Ian Stuart, and also how very honest and thoughtful she was with Meg in the school san after the robbery. I never planned out the character of this young girl - she just grew and expanded, like Topsy - just as I never planned what she would do in this episode. It just poured off my pencil, straight from Ellie herself
Hilda, Ellie and Matey slipped in the front door of the school while the girls and staff were in the Speisesaal for Mittagessen. Hilda preferred there be no fanfare or fuss at her re-appearance. Indeed, she visibly shied away from it. Let the school proceed as normal, had been her edict.

She had assumed she would be glad to be home, but, alas, standing in the entrance hall, waiting for Matey to close the door, a feeling of depression and dreadful foreboding fell on her like a thunderbolt, the same feelings that had overwhelmed her the day she was taken ill. She glanced at the closed study door with a sense of failure, a sense of not being up to the job, and of an unwillingness to face the problems her illness had forced her to leave unsolved. She yearned to be back with Ellie in that peaceful room at the San, where she had met God, and where there lingered the remnants of that happy dream of Nell. She felt totally unready to face up to life. Her real life! She and Ellie had been living in Cloud Cuckoo Land since Monday.

Her eyes falling on Ellie, she met that same reluctance and fear in the sweet face. She reached out and drew her close. “I know, child, I know,” she whispered. “I feel exactly the same. Shall we run away, back to the San?” Ellie pressed her face into Hilda, her slim body trembling.

Matey turned from the door, saw Hilda’s face and was shocked. After the miracles and smiles and relaxed atmosphere of the last two days, since Hilda's return from death, this was not what she had expected. But they were both still very under the weather, and had returned to all their problems and worries, so it was inevitable, she supposed. But she had never known Hilda reluctant to face life head-on. On the other hand, she had never really been party to any of Hilda’s inner feelings about things until last autumn. Nell was the only one who had been party to those. Who knew how many other times in her life Hilda had been equally afraid?

Help us all, Lord, for she has good reason to be reluctant and anxious. Remind her of her courage and compassion, and take away this surprising depression. The school needs her working behind the scenes, even if she isn’t allowed to tackle things in person. A few more miracles wouldn’t come amiss, either, where some of the problems lie – like Kathie’s attitude.

She touched Hilda’s arm. “Come on, love. Never say die! I sympathise with those feelings I can see in both your faces, but a cup of tea might help.”

Hilda looked down at her and sighed. “Thank you, Gwynneth. I never expected to feel quite so cowardly, and you do well to remind me of my responsibilities.” She dropped a kiss on Ellie’s head pressed against her. “En avant, enfant! Let’s face the music and dance.”

Ellie lifted her face and smiled tentatively into Hilda’s resolute face. “D’accord, Madame! With you behind me, I can do anything, you know.”

And with You behind me, Heavenly Father, I can do no less. But please be with us both!

Carrying their small case, Matey followed on behind them, fervent prayers in her worried heart. She had turned up the radiators in the Annexe before she left that morning, so welcome warmth greeted them as they stepped over the threshold of the Salon. Hilda stared round her home. It seemed different, strange, almost alien. Returning from the dead and from that vivid dream of Nell seemed to have altered her perspective.

Have you returned with us, dear heart?

“Take your coats off and sit down. I’ll put your things away and make that tea.”

Hilda shivered, but turned a smile on Matey. “We’ll put our few things back where they belong, Gwynneth. You go and make the tea. Come along, child!”

Matey searched her face and gave in. Hilda led Ellie through to the spare room, where she quickly arranged the girl’s belongings and laid Persephone on the pillow. She handed Ellie her wash bag, “Stow those in the bathroom while I deal with my own things.”

Ellie tucked the wash bag under her good arm and clutched Persephone. “I’m scared, Madame, which is silly in a so big girl, oui?” she whispered.

Hilda stroked the white cheek. “No, it’s not silly, chérie. You’ve suffered a great deal of pain the last few days, and also been extremely worried about me. Plus, you had a very nasty experience on Monday, before you left the school, and its memory is still there inside, waiting to leap out and attack you if you give it half a chance.” Ellie stared at Madame. How did she always know? “I’m scared, too, child. I have a great many things to put right in the school, and don’t feel equal to the task.” Ellie kissed her cheek. “So will you pray for me and I’ll pray for you? Good girl! As for your greatest fear, I intend to do something about it in the next few hours, so take heart! We can get through this and come out whole the other side.”

“You are very brave, Madame,” Ellie whispered. “I’ll put these away.”

Oh, I’m not brave at all, dear one. If I could run away, I would! But He didn’t bring me back to life so I could flee my responsibilities. He did it so I would stay and help girls and staff to return to normal, all their hurts gentled, and peace back in their hearts. At least Meg should bring us some light, now we know she’s happier in herself.

She returned to her own room and tidied away her belongings, leaving out only her Divine Office and the two mobiles. She held these up gently, one in each hand, watching them twist and turn. The butterflies she would re-hang in their place at the foot of her bed – if she had the courage to stand on a chair and not turn dizzy! She laid them on the bed, patted Nell’s photo, now back in its place, and wandered into the Salon with the dolphins, which she hung on the standard lamp as an interim measure, a tender smile on her lips. God had fulfilled, in her dream, one of her dearest wishes, so the least she could do was to take Him at His word – that He would be with her during her convalescence and support all her efforts to bring things back to some semblance of normality. So, why on earth was she feeling so low and helpless?

Shame consumed her. He had done so much for her. Could she not now do the little He asked and feel happy in the doing? She reminded herself of words from psalm forty: ‘The Lord set my feet upon a rock, making my feet secure.’(v 2)

So why didn’t she feel secure? She sat down on the couch with a sigh, and decided that every time she felt her spirits falling, one glance at those little grey creatures would lift her up, reminding her of all that was possible when she trusted Him and left things in His hands to do with as He wished. Had He not done with her as He wished, bringing her back to life, and then healing her far more quickly than was the norm?

Wait, daughter! Trust! Do not be afraid!

She smiled sadly, just as Ellie appeared and caught sight of the dolphins. “Do you really like them, Madame?” she asked eagerly, reaching out to set them twirling.

“They’re beautiful, cherie, and, like the blue butterflies, have a very special place in my heart because of my dreams. I’ll tell you more, one day.”

Matey came in at that point and set down a tray. “Who helped you make them, Ellie?”

“Miss Knowles and Marianne’s mother. They are, toutes les deux, the very special persons.”

“I couldn’t agree more.” Hilda drew the anxious-looking girl down and into her arms. “Why, Ellie even has a new mother, Gwynneth! Or part shares in one!” Matey raised an eyebrow as she poured coffee. “Mrs Westwood offered her some extra mothering whenever she feels the need, and Marianne then asked to be her sister. Our Ellie makes friends wherever she goes.”

“Mais tu es idiote, tu sais, Madame!” Ellie murmured with a laugh.

“You mean you’ve only just realised it, my wee flipperling? And here was I thinking what an intelligent child you are!”

Ellie poked her in the ribs. “Madame, you are pulling all the legs again.”

Hilda laughed softly, tightened her arms round the girl and rested her cheek against Ellie’s hair. “How’s the hand now?” She recalled Ellie’s pain when Jack had changed the dressings before they left the San.

“The injection is helping, but me, I think it will hurt later on.”

“Don’t worry, Ellie,” said Matey, setting their coffees in front of them. “Doctor Jack’s given me some strong painkillers for you, so you make sure to tell me when it starts to nag at you. Don’t be like your guardian here and suffer in silence.”

Hilda gave her friend a disgusted look. Ellie giggled quietly, but soon fell silent and listened sleepily to the two women talking companionably as they sipped their coffee. Madame and Matron always made her feel safe, and she was pleased Matron would still be part of her life when school was finished for her. Could she find her a special name, as she had for Tonton?

She was drifting, almost asleep, when she became aware that her guardian was trembling badly. She sat up and searched the pale face. “You are cold, Madame?”

Matey also sat up in alarm. “Are you feeling ill? Just cold? Hmm, I suppose it was very warm in the San. Shall I light the fire?”

“I think that might be a help,” Hilda murmured. “I’m sorry to put you to so much trouble.”

“So what’s new?” asked Matey, with a wink. She collected up the cups, and took the tray off to the little kitchen, returning moments later with a box of matches. There were logs set ready in the fireplace, twigs and other small pieces of wood in a tub nearby, and she soon had a fire going. She placed the guard carefully before it and turned to Hilda. “That better?”

“It will be, thank you, Gwynneth.” Hilda looked down at Ellie, then over at Matey, who saw the indecision written there. Hilda held Ellie more tightly, to ease the shock she was about to administer. “I’m going to upset you badly, cherie, but I think you’ll make yourself ill if you don’t face down your fears here and now.” Ellie went white. Hilda turned to Matey. “Would you do something for me? Find Miss Ferrars, bring her along here and leave her with us.” They both heard a whimper from Ellie.

Matey sat up, searched Hilda’s determined face and then Ellie’s, in which she saw shock and fear. “Are you sure?”

Hilda looked down at Ellie. “Shall we get it over and done with, child?” she whispered, her eyes encouraging her ward. “Face her now, and all that fear and anger and distress simmering inside you will disperse. You’ll realise she’s not the ogre of your memory, just an ordinary woman like Matron and me, one who will never again hurt you in any way. You’ll tell me if she does, I know, and she knows what I’ll do if that happens.”

Ellie looked long into Hilda’s eyes, and the firm resolve therein calmed her. She nodded. With Madame at her side she could do anything.

Matey rose to her feet and left the room. Hilda held Ellie close. “I’m proud of you, little one. You don’t have to say anything, just listen to her apology, which I’m hoping she will offer. My arms will stay round you the whole time.”

Ellie kissed her, laid her head against Hilda’s shoulder. “You give to me always the courage, Madame. I love you.”

“And I love you, too, dearest. Always try to remember these encouraging words from Daniel when you’re afraid: ‘Do not fear, greatly beloved, you are safe. Be strong and courageous.’” She kissed the top of Ellie’s head, seeking to allay her terror. “You might be afraid right now, little one, but you made one man very happy today. I’m proud of the way you reasoned out so carefully what name to call Mr Stuart, one name that would never bring hurt to yourself. He loves being called Tonton.” Ellie leaned up to kiss Hilda, then pressed deeper into her guardian, seeking comfort.

When the door opened just enough for Kathie to enter, Hilda remained where she was, her arms encompassing Ellie, who stiffened at the sight of this mistress who had hurt her and her guardian so badly. Hilda watched Kathie standing just inside the door, uncertain as to her next move. The sight of her Headmistress holding her ward close had clearly unnerved her.

“Come and sit down, Miss Ferrars. I believe you have something to say to Ellie.” Hilda’s eyes were grey and cool, her gentle voice neutral.

Kathie slowly walked across the room, but eschewed the chair in favour of sinking to her knees in front of the couch. She had not been expecting this summons quite so soon and knew she wasn’t ready. She could see the vast fear reflected in Ellie’s distended eyes, despite the nearness of Hilda, and groaned inwardly. She was the one who had put that fear in the girl’s eyes, caused the stiffness in her body. She reached out a hand, but the girl shrank back into Hilda. The rejected hand fell to its owner’s side.

Kathie cleared her throat, knowing Hilda would not help her out in this situation. Whatever the outcome, it must be Ellie’s decision. “Ellie, nothing I can say by way of apology could ever make up to you for the hurt I inflicted. I was cruel and unbelievably nasty, which makes me very unfit to be a school mistress.” Two pairs of eyes watched her, and she felt herself trembling. “I’m sorry I thrust you away so hard that you fell and made that poor finger worse than it already was. There was no excuse for my actions, when all you did was to trip over your own feet by accident. I’m even more ashamed of the dreadful things I said about you and Mireille, and the poisonous way I spoke to Jeanne. None of you deserved my cruel words. You never abuse your position as Miss Annersely’s ward. In fact,” she added with a slight smile, “from what I hear, you’re a very humble person, who’s always willing to help others. You take after your guardian.”

“I try always to be like her, you know,” whispered Ellie. Hilda was astounded. There was no glimmer of fear there. “Please to sit in the chair. You will be more comfortable.”

A tear rolled down Kathie’s face. “No, Ellie, I deserve to be on my knees before you – but thank you for that kindness.”

“Me, I am not sure I am kind, for I do not know yet how to forgive you in my heart.” Ellie’s voice was hesitant, but very sweet. Hilda kept absolutely still, her face impassive. “You hurt my hand badly, oui, but worse than this, you frightened me so much that, me, I did not want to meet you again. Ever!” Kathie flinched. “What was worse than all this, vous comprenez, was that you upset very much my guardian – indeed, you made her illness worse - and that made me to feel very angry.” She swallowed nervously. Kathie stared at her, mesmerised. “So will you wait a little until my anger goes away? I am sorry to sound harsh, but this is not easy for me. I am not like Madame so much, truly, for I do not have her mercy, you know.”

More tears rolled down Kathie’s face. “I… I don’t expect mercy, Ellie. I don’t deserve it. You’re still being too kind, and I truly am sorry for all the hurt I inflicted, on you and your guardian.” She wiped away her tears. “I don’t know what got into me.”

There was a moment’s silence, and then, “You had the jealousy.”

The softly-spoken words were like a bomb going off. To Kathie, they seemed to echo round the room like the ripples from an earthquake, unsettling her. Hilda’s self-control nearly failed at this evidence of her ward’s courage. She stared into the fire, not wanting to put Kathie off, while keeping a firm hold of Ellie.

“Who told you this?” asked Kathie, glancing sharply at Hilda.

“Do not look this anger at Madame, please,” Ellie said quietly. “She never discusses the staff with me.” Kathie blushed. “Mr Stuart told this to me when Madame was unconscious and I asked him why you did it. I was angry and upset, and very, very afraid for Madame, who was so very ill, so I wanted a reason then, you know, and not in the future.” Ellie recalled that Tonton had said Miss Ferrars was also jealous of Miss Knowles, so kept her name out of it.

“Then how did he know?” whispered an ashamed-looking Kathie. “He said the same to me yesterday. He told me my pride and jealousy are hurting you, Hilda.”

“I can’t deny it, dear, but you’re here for Ellie this afternoon, not for me. As to Mr Stuart, he worked it all out for himself,” Hilda said softly. “He sees the worst and the best of humanity in his job, and some things never change. Mireille also worked it out. She asked me after the event were you jealous, but yesterday Mr Stuart brought her over to see me because she’d grown even angrier and more upset about it on Ellie’s behalf, much like Ellie herself on my behalf.” Kathie’s eyes fell under Hilda’s cool gaze, then shot up again as Hilda added, “She also told me something which pleased me, Miss Ferrars. She asked you why you were jealous, and you and she then sat down together and had a long discussion about it, when she shared her own jealous feelings. I’m delighted you were willing to talk it through with the girl you had earlier discounted as a mere nothing,” Kathie winced. “I gather she told you she would accept your apology if you apologised to Ellie here, so I think you can safely say she will now accept it. She also offered you her help, I believe.”

“Dis donc, Madame,” muttered Ellie. “Mireille has much courage, non?”

Kathie gnawed her lip, looking mortified. “You also would seem to have great courage, Ellie,” she whispered. “Which I think is one of the reasons I was so jealous of you, along with other things, like your clever drawings and stories.”

“But, that is silly, no?” asked Ellie, after a momentary hesitation. “Me, I have nothing, nothing at all, you know. I have lost Maman and Papa, and all the grandparents. I have lost my home and my country, and all my own belongings, even my books and my jewellery, which were taken to pay Papa’s debts. Without Madame, I would have nothing, you know, but nothing!. Can you understand how it is to have nothing at all like that?” Ellie’s voice was very low, sounding puzzled at her own temerity. Kathie’s eyes widened in horror. Nothing left at all? “You have the home, and you have the family who love you. You have the very important job. I am sure you have the friends, many friends. I lost all my friends, too, when I came to England. There was no one left at all. So tell to me, please, if you have all these things, why you would be so jealous of someone who has nothing, except the love of my guardian and my aunt, and a few other kind people?”

Kathie shook her head, more tears rolling down, as she took on board this gentle questioning. She could only stare into Ellie’s white face and puzzled eyes and wonder where she found her gentle courage. She had put the mistress completely on the spot, for Kathie had no answers, or none that would seem reasonable, or be honest and true. Mireille had put her on the spot in much the same way. Were French girls braver, she thought, as her knees gave way and she sank even lower to the floor.

Ellie nestled closer into Hilda, whose heart was bursting with pride and humility. Her ward was far, far braver than her guardian would ever be, and was showing again that little air of authority she had displayed in Upper IVB when she walked in on the marble incident. How very far she had come from that silent, reserved, unhappy child in the convent.

Ellie took a breath. Clearly she hadn’t done yet! “Me, too, I had this jealousy, Miss Ferrars, though it astonishes me that Mireille had it. I wanted all of my guardian’s love at Christmas when she began to help me. I did not want her to be with anyone else, you know. But she is too wise, and too full of love, to accept to be swallowed up by me. Instead, she showed to me the way to love many people and not to be jealous of anyone. She told to me I was not less than someone else she loved, but had my own place, my special niche, in her heart. She said the more one loves, the bigger grows the heart. This was a new idea to me, but now, I trust her love for me.” She paused, her sapphire eyes very intent on Kathie. “Do you think you could trust those who love you, be happy that they love you, and not expect them to love only you?”

Kathie stared at her wildly. Was she dreaming this? How had Ellie hit on the exact spot that hurt? She was a witch!

Ellie leaned forward, adding in a confiding voice, “Tell to me if you would like me to help. I think it might help me, too, because, sometimes, you know, I still feel the jealousy.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Only, do not tell this to my guardian, you understand?”

Tears cascaded down Kathie’s cheeks. Hilda reached out to squeeze her shoulder and handed over a hankie. She was close to tears herself. God had poured His limitless grace on them that afternoon! Never, in her wildest dreams, would she have expected the terrified Ellie to react with such quiet courage and confidence. She knew now she had done the right thing when she stepped aside from Kathie and gave God room to manoeuvre. For manoeuvre He had! In a magnificent way! To get through to Kathie this afternoon, he had used a frightened child, as He had used two other children, Mireille and Jeanne, earlier in the week. So much for the so-called wise of the world!

“Okay, Ellie,” sobbed Kathie. “I promise not to tell your guardian, but I think I might like your help, as well as Mireille’s and Jeanne’s.”

“Tenez, we could have the jealousy club, no?”

Kathie snorted through her tears. Hilda drew Ellie closer and kissed the black hair. Ellie took Hilda’s hand, holding it tightly for courage, and actually offered Kathie a small smile. “Me, I said I could not forgive you, Miss Ferrars, but Miss Annersley has shown to me that being merciful, and not holding the grudge inside, makes things better for everyone, even the one who was hurt, you know.” She let go of Hilda’s hand and held her own out to Kathie. “Me, I think now that I will forgive you, as I know she does.”

Kathie took the hand, holding it tightly like a talisman and sobbing bitterly.

“Bless you, child,” whispered Hilda, pressing her damp cheek against Ellie’s “You have the most beautiful soul, and I am so, so proud to know you and be your guardian. Wait until your aunt hears all about it!” Ellie smiled and snuggled close again, taking her hand back from Kathie. Hilda touched Kathie's shoulder. “Try to stop, dear, or you’ll make yourself ill. You should be smiling, not weeping.”

“She’s so like you, Hilda,” sobbed Kathie.

“No, Kathie, she’s far better and kinder than I will ever be, with a thoughtful and unusual spirit, a spirit illuminated by His grace.” Hilda’s voice was rich and deep. “She never does the expected thing, and constantly astonishes all who love her.”

“I’m not surprised,” wept Kathie. “I’m even more ashamed now than when I came in.”

“Be like Ellie, dear, and imitate her humility, her grateful heart, her listening heart. Also, have a smile for everyone, as she does, now she’s no longer alone. You have a high position, but it means nothing without those attributes, for no one will be willingly to follow you.” Hilda paused, listened to her own heart. “I’ve tried to be merciful to you since I discovered what you were up to, but, now Ellie has spoken, I too forgive you your obsessive cruelty towards her.”

Kathie sobbed wildly into her handkerchief, shaking her head from side to side. Matey’s head popped round the door, one eyebrow raised in question at Hilda, who nodded. She knew fine well that Matey had left the door slightly ajar so she could listen. Normally, she would have been very angry, but she knew how much Matey still held Kathie’s behaviour against her, so was glad she had heard how penitent she was. She would also be needed, along with others, to give some support to the miserable girl.

Matey bent down and lifted Kathie to her feet in her strong nurse’s arms, glaring evilly at Hilda when she made a move to help them. “Bed for you, my dear, and you can cry the rest of it out. Ellie, I’m proud of you!”

Ellie and Hilda watched her take Kathie away, and sat close in silence for long moments, Ellie quivering at what she had done, Hilda still recovering from her shock and delight.

She hugged Ellie tightly. “Where did all that come from, child?”

Ellie stared into the flames. “Me, I have no idea, Madame. I hated her, you know.” She looked up. “But I thought of all you have said to me at Christmas, and every day since, and I tried to think what you would do – but, what I said, I did not know it was there, truly, Madame. Me, I did not know I had the courage to say it all to a mistress. Was I very rude?”

“No, chérie, you weren’t rude at all, just very open and honest. You made her think much more about her actions and words than I’ve been able to do. God was most definitely on your side, making you strong and resolute. You are truly filled with His spirit, child.”

Ellie looked up in astonishment, saw Madame meant it, and kissed her guardian before snuggling back down against her. Five minutes later she was sound asleep. Hilda held her closer to her heart, laid her own head back and stared into the fire, realising with a shock that things no longer seemed quite so black where school was concerned. Even if Ellie’s words had no real effect on Kathie, Ellie’s courage had mocked Hilda’s lack of it. There would be no more cowardice! Ellie had stiffened her sinews. What a miracle her ward had been to her from the day they met.

She’s as much of a miracle as You bringing me back to life, Loving Father. Your grace is a light within her and she passes on that grace to everyone she meets. Thank You from the bottom of my heart for what You've done for her and what you have gifted me since Nell died. Only... you've made me realise something I didn't know was there, and I'm wondering was it you put it there - and if so, why? Are you now making different plans for me?

Matey poked her head round the door, saw Hilda’s eyes fixed on the fire, so tiptoed across to her and knelt by that end of the couch, not wishing to disturb the sleeping Ellie.

“Why aren’t you asleep, too?” she whispered. Hilda shrugged. “My goodness, Hilda, she’s more like you than you are!” Hilda’s eyes widened. “Where on earth did all that come from, when she was so frightened? Listening to you since Christmas has most definitely shaped her own ideas, hasn’t it? Not many girls her age could have taken on a deputy head like that! She really did a number on Kathie, so let’s hope it sticks.” She gnawed her lip in thought. “You said on Saturday you’d step aside and leave room for God to manoeuvre. And He did! Through Ellie!”

“She was wonderful,” whispered Hilda. “As Ian’s been wonderful! He did a lot for Kathie yesterday morning, Nancy tells me. Mireille and Jeanne seem to have worked their own miracle with Kathie. Now Ellie! I wasn’t needed, at all, Gwynneth.”

“Where do you think Ellie and the others learned it all, then? From Minette, perhaps?”

Hilda wrinkled up her nose at her. “I thought you were listening behind the door. I saw the crack you left open.”

“Aren’t you cross?”

Hilda considered her friend’s face. “You were angry and bitter about what she did to Ellie, so I think you deserved to hear Ellie stand up for herself.”

“She did, too, didn’t she? But I also wanted to make sure neither of you got too upset, when you’re still feeling so rough.”

“Like the time I raged half the night and threw teacups at the wall, you mean?” Matey saw remembered pain in Hilda’s eyes and clasped her arm. “You listened that time, too, I believe, and for much the same reason.” Matey nodded. “What have you done with Kathie?”

“I filled her hot water bottle and told her to get into bed. I then went to fetch a sedative, took it down to Nancy to administer, explained what had happened and suggested she stayed with her till she fell asleep. I did suggest she listened first, as Kathie may want to talk.”

“You’re an old softie, really, aren’t you? You did exactly the right thing. Perhaps they can begin to find each other again. Shouldn’t Kathie be taking a class or something, though?”

“I’ll do it myself, if necessary,” stated Matey firmly. “She surely needed what Ellie gave her, and probably needed to break down like that, so I’ll excuse her for once.”

Hilda smiled lovingly, and glanced at her little clock. “May I ask a couple of favours, Gwynneth?” she whispered.

“Then will you go to sleep?” Hilda nodded. She was very tired. “Ask away!”

“Would you ask Karen if she’s able to provide Kaffee ünd Küchen for seven people in here, with perhaps some cakes and biscuits? We have to do something special to welcome Meg back, but it hasn’t been possible to arrange anything,” she sighed.

“Stop fretting. You’ve been ill, so she’ll have to take what she’s given. I’m sure Ian will warn her. Who’ll be here, apart from Meg, Ian, you and Ellie?”

“Well, you, for starters!” Matey blushed. “I’d also like Vivien and Jeanne, if you could find them. Ask them to come along at sixteen hundred. Vivien helped Meg enormously before she went off, and Jeanne and Ellie have all sorts of plans for Meg, so we need to get them together.”

“So, that’s cakes and so on for seven or more people. But you’ll do no preparation yourself, understand? Leave it to me! And you’ll have a kip afterwards, or my name’s not Gwynneth Lloyd! You have to hoard your strength. You never know when you may need it.”

Hilda frowned at her. “You’re up to something!”

“Me? Heaven forbid!” Trying to erase a knowing smile, Matey rose to her feet. “I’ll go and arrange all that and return later. No hanky-panky while I’m gone.”

“What possible hanky-panky could I get up to here, tell me! I did tell Jack I’d be good.”

Matey considered the pale face. “Feeling a little less depressed now?” Hilda nodded slowly, but Matey still saw something there, so clasped her arm and was gone.

Hilda stared into the dancing flames and thanked Him for the way He had worked His will for Kathie through Ellie. He had given her a great gift, for Ellie would be stronger in spirit now, and Hilda intended to make her understand just how much she had taught her guardian that day. She thought of some words by Evelyn Underhill in her book The School of Charity:

‘Everything we are given to deal with is the result of the creative action of a personal Love, who despises nothing that He has made.’

Hilda slept, a poignant smile on her lips as she accepted all that personal Love had decreed in her own life...

She was woken by Matey gently shaking her arm. “Hilda, love, it’s fifteen, fifteen, and Ian will soon be here with Meg.”

Gradually, the words sank in and Hilda opened her eyes. Beside her, Ellie was awake and reading. She smiled lovingly at her guardian. Hilda smiled back and looked up at Matey. “You should have woken me earlier.”

Matey shook her head. “If you could see how white you still are, you’d know why I didn’t. But I thought you might want to wash and brush up.” Hilda nodded, stretched her stiff limbs, and rose to her feet. “Come on, minx, you too,” added Matey to Ellie.

“Thank you for everything you’ve done since Monday, Gwynneth,” Hilda said quietly and with great warmth. “I don’t think Ellie and I would have coped half so well without you.”

She turned to walk round the couch to go to her room, then stopped and stared. Her table had been opened out, and plates, glasses and serviettes, cups and cutlery, all set out, ready and waiting. In the centre, Matey had placed one of Hilda’s bowls of half-opened hyacinths, which were scenting the air with their sweetness.

“Who’s been a busy little beaver, then?” Hilda turned to look at Matey. “Thank you,” she said again warmly. “I’ll have to give you some days off in lieu of all the hours you’ve spent caring for us since Monday.”

Matey shook her head. “Go on and get changed, if you’re going to. What about Ellie? Want me to go and get her velveteen?”

Ellie was still in her uniform, as that was what she had been wearing when taken to the San. Hilda considered her ward. “Do you want to disturb the hand now, and again at bedtime, petite?” Ellie shook her head. “Then we’ll leave her as she is, Gwynneth. I’ll just do her hair before I get changed. I’m feeling very crumpled.”

Ten minutes later, they were both back in the Salon, Ellie having taken some more pain-killers, and Hilda now wearing a russet-coloured skirt and matching sweater. “To keep me warm,” she said with a shiver.

Five minutes later came the expected knock on the door, which Matey opened, and in walked Ian with an encouraging arm round a very shy-looking Meg. Hilda gasped at the shining grey eyes, the smiling, slightly wary face. She walked over and took her in her arms. “Meg! Welcome back, child! You look so much happier. It’s quite obvious you thoroughly enjoyed yourself once you got over your fears. I’m so happy for you.”

Meg leaned into the welcoming arms. “Oh, I’ve had a wonderful time, Miss Annersley. They’ve been so kind and generous to me, and we’ve done all kinds of things.” She looked up into the smiling face. “You knew how scared I was of going, but you were right! There really was nothing to be scared of, at all.” She frowned. “But Mr Stuart says you’ve been very ill. In fact, he told me you’d died and God had brought you back to life. Is that really true?”

“Yes, child, God has been very good to me, far more than I deserve, but it does mean I won’t be around the school to help you for the coming week, but Ellie and Jeanne will do all they can for you.” Hilda agave her another hug. “I’m so glad you enjoyed yourself, dear, and I bet you loved having those extra days to play.” Meg burst out laughing and nodded. “Well here’s Ellie to welcome you, but you’ll need to take care as she’s hurt her hand again.”

Ellie came forward and Meg smiled at her. “Your aunt’s been so lovely to me, Ellie. She’s very special, isn’t she? Like Miss Annersley!” Ellie beamed at Hilda, and shook hands with Meg.

Meg looked back at Hilda and said shyly, “I’ve brought someone else back with me. They’re waiting outside. Shall I fetch them?”

Hilda frowned, looked round and saw Matey grinning like a loon, although Ian seemed to have disappeared. Suddenly, two heads popped round the door jamb, and two identical pairs of vivid green eyes twinkled at her. She gaped in shock. The next moment, loving arms were wrapped round her, a sweet voice gentled her.

“Mother?” Tears welled up and ran down Hilda’s cheeks, overthrown as she was by the unexpected appearance of this woman she loved so much. “Oh, Mother…” she whispered again, trembling in the circle of those strong arms. “No wonder Jack said I’d be well and truly sat on. He knew!” She laid her head on the grey shoulder.

They all laughed unsteadily, their emotions stirred by Hilda’s tears. Ian and Matey removed Meg and a delighted Ellie from the room, leaving Hilda to recover in peace.

“Yes, it’s me, child. And yes, you will indeed be well and truly sat on for the next week. Dear God, Hilda, I thought I’d lost you…” The sweet voice broke. Tears now ran down the nun’s cheeks, too.



*****


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Chapter 17 - Gathering Golden Moments by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Thank you so much for the wonderful and thoughtful comments on my last chapter, and to the sudden appearance of Mother Abbess. I know you’ve been waiting patiently to see her again. I hope you found my very grateful responses to your reviews.

I’d like also to thank Elder, Pauline, Blueskye and Linda for posting comments to my odd little drabble in February Day Girls on Lesley’s board. Well, I did say I’d bring back one of the Sinclairs soonish!!
Mother Abbess held Hilda close until their tears had dried, then drew a little apart to examine her properly.

“You’re so thin, child!” she whispered, stroking a damp cheek. “Thinner even than that first time you visited us. If you lose any more weight you’ll disappear altogether. But then, when I think of all the worry you’ve had this term, and now this dreadful illness…”

Hilda wiped away more tears. “I think the high fever burned it off, and I have to admit to not eating much before I collapsed. Oh, Mother, it’s so good to see you, but why have you come?”

Mother drew her close again, her head resting against Hilda’s. “I came for several reasons. For Ellie, who’s part of our family as Patricia’s niece. She was hurt badly yet again, and we needed to know she was recovering. Plus, it’s her birthday on Sunday, so might as well bring the presents as send them! I’m also here for you, sweetheart. You’re now one of us, and already the child of my heart. You’ve had nightmare after nightmare to cope with this term, and then we nearly lost you! Oh, daughter," she whispered in anguished tones, "but for God’s great mercy, I'd be standing at your graveside now, not holding you close like this.”

The nun trembled with the intensity of her feelings.

“Mother, don’t!” whispered Hilda. “I’ll tell you all about my dream as I lay dying, and you’ll be truly astonished.”

Mother drew back to stare at her blankly. “More dreams?” Hilda nodded. “I look forward to that. I’m also here for Meg, of course, for she’s become very dear to us, and a real pal to Sister Patricia. I wanted to support her over this news of her father, although you weren't ill when we managed to book me a seat. I should never have added that extra load when I phoned on Monday.” Hilda shook her head. Mother looked into Hilda’s eyes. “And before you ask, Sister Catherine’s totally in agreement with me. She, too, has been praying for you. She admires you enormously, very much wants you in our order, and felt my being here would benefit you as well as the girls. She’s met Meg and likes her, which didn’t surprise me at all. We all like her.”

“I’m delighted to hear all this about Meg, and it was very kind of Sister Catherine, but who…?”

“Who’s taking my place? Sister Catherine, would you believe? How’s that for being agreeable to my coming? She’s only staying a few days, since she’s off on her travels again, but Eleanor will manage till I get back. She’s had enough practice!”

“Are you truly staying a whole week?”

“I leave next Wednesday. You leave on Thursday, I think. Will you be strong enough?”

“That’s up to me, isn’t it?” Hilda said softly, and the nun heard the determination. “I meant it when I told Jack I’d be good. I've no intention of setting foot in school before Sunday, at the earliest, and won’t do any teaching till after half term. I have a duty to the school to be well again, and a duty to keep my promise to Meg.”

“Mère?” said a soft voice beside them.

They drew apart and Mother hugged Ellie gingerly, being careful of the arm slung across the girl’s chest. “Child, it’s so good to see you again!” She felt Ellie’s good arm go round her. Well, that was a first! “Your aunt sends her love. One of these days I’ll allow her to visit you, I promise, so she can see how well you’re doing.”

Ellie looked up with a smile. “Me, I would like that, for I love her now, you know.”

“I know, Ellie, and you’re no longer afraid of me and my bark, either, are you?” Ellie grinned, her eyes dancing, and Mother could see just what the Chalet School and Hilda had done for this child who had been so broken. She was transformed! “You look very happy, child. The school suits you.”

Ellie nodded. “Of course, Mère, but being with Madame suits me even more, you know.” Her good arm now slipped round Hilda’s waist.

They were mother and daughter in all but name, rejoiced the nun. “I didn’t need to ask, Ellie, Your love for her is written all over you. How’s the hand?”

Hilda placed an arm round each of them and spoke softly. “The hand still hurts, but our Ellie took on Miss Ferrars an hour ago.” The nun gaped at her. “She was absolutely terrified when we got back, so I decided to get them together immediately. Waiting would just have heightened Ellie’s fear. Miss Ferrars came, she apologised, and then Ellie very gently took her apart. I’ll tell you more later, but I have never been prouder of my ward.” Ellie’s smile was so brilliant the nun was astounded. “I intend to write to Patricia, and tell her all about it, chérie.”

Ellie rested her head against Hilda’s shoulder, and Mother thought she had never seen anything as beautiful or so natural as this gentle love between them. So new and yet already so strong! How hard God had worked for them both! As far as she was concerned, bringing them together had been as much of a miracle as Hilda being raised from the dead, and she was overwhelmed by it all, another tear or two trickling down her cheeks.

A throat cleared nearby. Ian coming to her rescue! Just as he had in their childhood! “Are we to hang around all day, waiting for you three to finish being all lovey-dovey?” His voice held a note of amusement.

Mother glared at him, but saw Matey hovering and at once wrapped her arms round the little woman. As before Christmas in the San, Matey felt as though engulfed by a force of nature!

Hilda chuckled at Matey's face and turned to Ian. “Thank you for arranging all this, Ian. It means so much to have her here!”

“To me, also, Tonton!”

“What did she just call you?” gasped an astonished Abbess, swinging round.

“Tonton!” said Ian. “She christened me this morning at the San.”

“But… why?”

“We wanted to sound more friendly, you know, Mère,” Ellie explained gravely. “To call him Mr Stuart is very formal, when we are the good friends. I call Madame Madame, not Miss Annersley, so I thought hard and we decided on Tonton. It means uncle in French. It does not upset you that I call him uncle, I hope.”

“Not at all, child, but that word you used sounded… strange,” laughed Mother. “I thought at first you were calling him tomtom, which is a sort of drum.” Ellie gurgled.

“Tonton’s a more familiar name than ‘oncle,’ when two people are close,” explained Hilda. “I think it suits him,” she added, bringing the house down.

The nun hugged Ellie. “I’m so glad you love him, child. He cares for you very much and thinks you’re the bee’s knees.”

Ellie frowned. “The bee’s knees? Bees have knees, ma Mère? Me, I did not know this. More of the English nonsense, Madame?”

“Ellie, you little minx,” chuckled Hilda, and caught her ward in her arms.

“You mean… she was teasing me?” asked Mother in awe. “Ellie Drake, you’ll be on the stage before long at this rate. How on earth did you keep a straight face?”

“But me, I like to pull all the legs, you know,” she smiled, astonishing Mother all over again. Where had this luminous personality been hiding?

Hilda controlled her own amusement and glanced at the clock. “Are you wanting a drink, Mother? It’s only about twenty minutes until snack and coffee time, but I could make a cup of tea. It’s just that you - or rather Meg, since I wasn't anticipating you! - are both a little earlier than expected. Not that I’m complaining, you understand!”

“We had food and drink on the plane, so we’re fine, but what about Ian.” He shook his head.

“Then why don’t we all sit down?” Hilda suggested.

“Before you fall down, perchance?” asked Mother tigerishly.

Hilda grimaced at her. Ian and Matey sniggered. Mother was running true to form. They were soon ensconced before the fire, Mother on one side of Hilda on the couch, Meg on her other side. Ian sat in the armchair near Meg, and Ellie curled up on the floor at his feet. Matey took the other chair, and realised that although Hilda seemed exhausted, her face was brighter.

“Who’s bringing the trolley?” Hilda asked her.

“Miss Knowles volunteered, saying I ought to be in here. Not sure why!”

“We’re very sure why, Matron Lloyd,” said Mother, suddenly realising she should not be using Christian names, with Meg and Ellie in the room. “Miss Knowles is right. I’m not sure how Miss Annersley would have survived without you these last few months.”

Matey blushed. “We’re now relying on you to sit on her and keep her out of mischief.”

“Just how many people were in on the secret?” asked Hilda, her eyes narrowed.

“Oh, Matron here, Miss Knowles, Miss Wilmot, Mlle de Lachennais, Matron Graves,” Mother said airily. “And Ian and me, of course!”

“Let’s add Doctor Jack to that list, shall we?” Hilda said dryly. “It accounts for his parting comments this morning. But I’m glad Helen was in the know. She’s a good friend.”

Matey nodded. “She told me about those first five days in the San last April.” Hilda’s eyes darkened with pain.

Mother saw it and turned back to Matey. “I don’t think I’ll need to sit on your Headmistress, Matron. She’s already made her decision and will stick to it. You know how stubborn she is!” Hilda pressed her hand in thanks. Mother looked round with a happy sigh. “I’m so glad to be here again with you all, and to see how well Ellie’s adapted.”

“Mais oui, ma Mère. Me, I am so happy now, in spite of hurting the finger. And I have the good friends.” She smiled up at Meg. “I hope you will be another good friend, Meg. Jeanne and I have made the plans to help you, you know.”

Mother was stunned. The girl who was hurt by Meg was now offering her friendship, and sharing her best friend with Meg! It was astonishing!

No matter how much Hilda has influenced her, some of this courage and ability to forgive has to come from Ellie’s own heart and spirit. How much of herself she hid away from us in those dreary weeks before Hilda arrived.

Meg was staring at Ellie. “But… I stole your photos, I made you nearly cut off your finger… I said horrid things to you… So why would you…?”

Ellie held up her hand. “Yes, you did do all those things, but, like me, you did not have the love from your parents. Remember all I told to you about my papa? I know how it stings, and tells to you to make the others unhappy, too. I wanted to hurt people, even my aunt, before Madame came, and she helped me to see another way. Me, I’ve changed, I hope, and so have you, non?” Meg nodded, tears in her eyes. “You’re not going to hurt me again, so we will be the good friends, you, Jeanne and me, and perhaps others as well,” Ellie said decisively.

Ian laid his hand on her shoulder and winked at his sister, who was listening open-mouthed. “Well, we all know who she gets that imperious manner from, don’t we? She doesn’t even expect to be told No thanks or get lost! Simply expects to be obeyed, like you-know-who!” Mother nodded and laughed.

Hilda’s face creased in a knowing smile. She took hold of Meg’s hand. “It’s not an order, dear,” she said softly. “You may always refuse Ellie, but I guarantee she’s every bit as stubborn as her guardian, and will pester you until you do become friends.”

“Like you?” whispered Meg. “You pestered me into agreeing to go the convent, and then pestered my mother until she agreed to it. I don’t know what you saw in me, but I am truly grateful.” Hilda’s eyes lay very gently on her, and Meg gave her a shy smile before turning to Ellie with another shy smile. “You and Jeanne are two of the nicest people I’ve ever met, Ellie, apart from the four other people in this room, who are all angels, so, yes please. I’d love to be your friend and Jeanne’s. I seem to remember you wanted us to make music together as a trio.”

“Eventually,” sighed Ellie. “Who knows how long the hand will take to be better! But you can play with Jeanne. Me, I will listen.”

“Meg’s a superb pianist, Ellie,” put in Mother. “She’s played a lot on the convent piano, so she’ll be a valuable member of that trio. She sings quite beautifully, too.” Meg blushed furiously. “By the way, has a parcel arrived for her?”

“I’ve no idea,” said Hilda, looking at Matey.

“I’ll have a look.” Matey shot through the door, returning moments later with a small package bearing English stamps, and handed it to Meg.

“May I open it now?” Matey produced a pair of scissors from Hilda’s desk. Meg cut the string and tore open the brown paper, looked at the contents and handed Hilda a slim, prettily wrapped packet. “It’s a little thank you for everything you’ve done. You’ve changed my life.”

Hilda frowned. “You were meant to use that money on yourself, young lady.”

“But I couldn’t!”

Mother laughed. “She’s hardly spent any of it on herself. Like you, Miss Annersley, she seems to delight in flowers, and presented beautiful bouquets to Anne, Patricia and me on Monday morning - or the florist did! Poor Meg didn’t realise her thanks were going to be a bit previous, since she was to spend another two days with us. I was half afraid she’d produce more flowers before we left!” The other laughed gently, even Meg, and Hilda clasped her arm.

“But I enjoyed those extra days,” laughed Meg, “and I had to thank you all, somehow. I’ve never been so spoiled, except by Miss Annersley.” She turned to face Hilda, looking very serious. “You were the first to believe in me! Without you, I wouldn’t have gone to the convent, or been accepted by some of my form, although I know Ellie helped there. This little gift seems nothing in comparison, but I'll never forget all you’ve done.”

Everyone there was moved by her intensity, and Hilda drew her close. “Thank you, Meg, but in the end I did very little. The convent did far more, but you did the rest.”

Meg shook her head. “It was you who found out about Nanny for me. It was you who stopped the staff expelling me.”

“Who told you that?” asked Hilda softly.

“Miss Bertram, when you sent me to ski with her. She wanted me to know the truth, so I wouldn’t let you down ever again. And I won’t! You forgave me everything. You fought my mother, and that’s a very brave thing to do…”

Tears overcame Meg and she buried her face in Hilda, who looked helplessly at Ian.

“Open your present,” he suggested with a gentle smile.

“It’s in French,” sobbed Meg. “I bought one for myself, as well. It was Mother’s suggestion.”

“Oh, Meg, child,” whispered Hilda. “You’re such a loving, sensitive girl. I saw that when I told you about Nanny’s death, which is why I was so determined to keep you. Bless you, dear.”

She unwrapped the packet and discovered a slim volume entitled Prières.

“Michel Quoist is a French Catholic priest,” explained Mother. “He works a lot with youngsters. I know the title is Prayers, but they’re by no means your usual sort. I thought they might be something a little different for your prayer sessions with the girls. They’ll certainly shake them up. I’ve used particular ones with some of our guests – translating them naturally – and they really do speak to people. I’ve even used them in chapel with the community.” Hilda had been flicking through the pages during Mother’s speech. “One in particular spoke to Meg, which is why she got a copy for herself.”

Meg stopped Hilda flicking through and found the page. A shaken Hilda read out the words:

“’…Everything seems dark, ugly, horrid.
I would like to walk, run, to another land.
I know that joy exists, I have seen it in singing faces.
I know that light exists, I have seen it in radiant eyes.
But I cannot get away for I love my prison and I hate it.
My prison is myself.
Lord, do You hear me?

Child, I have heard you.
I have long been watching your closed shutters; open them, My light will come in.
I have long been standing at your locked door; open it, you will find Me on the threshold.
Why choose to be a prisoner of yourself?
You are free.
I am waiting for you.
But you must open the door,
For it is you, from the inside, who persist in keeping it solidly locked.’


“Goodness,” whispered Ian. “That’s mind-blowing! If I read that instead of giving a sermon, it would say far more than I ever could. It just speaks to one’s heart.”

“That is how I felt, you know, Meg, when I had to come to England, to the convent,” sighed Ellie. “I was like a prisoner locked inside myself and I would not come out even for my aunt, you know. But I could not explain my feelings in the way this book does.”

Hilda smiled gently at her ward, who felt as though she had been blessed by those loving eyes. Hilda turned to Meg. “Mr Stuart’s right. I can see why it caught your attention, dear. As Ellie says, you and she were both raging inside yourselves at what life had done to you, longing to be set free, but afraid of what freedom might ask of you. But I think you did open that door in the convent, for I see His light in your eyes now. There was no light there before”

Meg nodded, thrilled to be understood so easily. Hilda clasped her hand and went back to the book. Mother was stunned all over again by the gentle, encouraging way Hilda spoke to youngsters, She had heard it with Ellie, but to see it here in school with her girls was to acknowledge just what gifts Hilda would be bringing to the convent.

Hilda flicked through more pages, unaware of her friend’s scrutiny. “It seems to me a most unusual book, because there are prayers here about football and tractors, even bricks and the underground, the sea and people’s eyes and goodness knows what else, but the author relates them all back to God and what they mean for us. Listen to this about the brick, although I’ll have to translate it for Mr Stuart’s sake, so it might lose some of its poetry. It describes watching a bricklayer at work:

“’I thought, Lord, of that brick buried in the darkness at the base of the big building.
No one sees it, but it accomplishes its task, and the other bricks need it.
Lord, what difference whether I am on the roof-top or in the foundations of the building,
As long as I stand faithfully at the right place?’”


There were murmurs of appreciation from Matey and Ellie. Ian went one step further. “Would you, sometime in your busy life, Hilda, translate them all for me? They’d be great to use both here and in my new life next year.”

Hilda nodded, and Ellie said she would help. Hilda went on reading to herself, unaware of the others waiting to hear other lines in that mellow voice of hers.

“More please,” Ian finally pleaded.

“Oh, I shall have some fun with these.” Hilda smiled at Ian. “There’s a beautiful one for you here, dear man, about what it means to be a priest. It will be the first one I translate.”

Mother Abbess saw the love in their eyes for each other, a love not of passion, but of perfect trust and affection. Ian had now found his true place in Hilda’s heart, and she was delighted for him, especially hearing him called ‘dear man’. Hilda was opening up, and Ian still loved her, but it was a quiet, peaceful love now.

“Listen to this about football – or it could be netball or hockey, I suppose… He describes a little of the match, then says:

“’In this world, Lord, we each have our place.
You, the far-sighted coach, have planned it for us.
You need us here, our brothers need us, and we need everyone.
It isn’t the position I hold that is important, Lord,
But the reality and strength of my presence.

Here, Lord, is my day before me.
Did I sit too much on the sidelines?
Did I play my part well?
Did I co-operate with my team?
Did I battle to the end in spite of setbacks?
Was I made proud by the applause?
Did I think of praying my part?

I come in now to rest in the pavilion, Lord.
Tomorrow, if You kick off, I’ll play a new position…’”


“You’re right, Kate. They certainly aren’t your usual run of the mill prayers, are they?” said Ian. “But youngsters sometimes need something different to engage them, and they’ll more than do the trick. Think of the discussions you could have with and about them!”

“What did you choose for yourself besides this book, Meg?” asked Hilda softly. Meg showed her Gibran’s The Prophet. Hilda nodded. “I know that one very well. He uses beautiful imagery, though sometimes one has to work at the meanings. There’s a poem about friendship that means a lot to me.”

The adults there heard something in her voice that hurt them, and guessed that particular poem spoke much to her about Nell.

“May I borrow them to read, Meg?” asked Ellie softly.

“You may borrow mine, chérie,” put in Hilda. “Let Meg enjoy her new books in peace.”

The grey eyes eyes thanked her, and Meg rose to her feet. “Talk among yourselves for a while,” she murmured, looking round until she saw her case.

While she opened her case and rummaged around in it, Mother finally found time to take note of her surroundings. The room was like a breath of fresh spring air, she decided, decorated and furnished as it was with a light, spare touch. Flowery green curtains hung at the large windows, framing magnificent snowy views. The couch and chairs were covered in a light green material, and a cream linen cloth covered the table, which was fashioned from pale-coloured wood, as were the small desk and the cupboard set between the windows. Floor and walls were also constructed of pale wood, apple-green rugs were scattered across the floor, and photos and pictures hung everywhere. There were flowers on every surface, as always with Hilda. The fragrance of hyacinths hung in the air, and she could see pots of them on window-sills and cupboards, and one in the centre of the table. It was a room that suited Hilda’s personality admirably. No frills, just pleasant comfort and space to breathe.

And then there were the books! Hundreds of them, stacked against one wall in shelves that rose halfway up the wall, either side of a door. She itched to examine more closely the ornaments and other things displayed on them. More books were packed in lower shelves in the alcoves on either side of the fire. Because the room was large, opened up by the large windows, the shelves didn't encroach and spoil that sense of space and light. Mother laughed silently, wondering did Hilda ever actually throw a book away. They were too much like friends to her, the nun suspected.

She came back to herself when Meg returned to her place and offered a small package to Ian.

“For me?” he spluttered in surprise.

She nodded. “I’ve got a gift for you, as well, Ellie, but your aunt suggested I give it to you on your birthday, instead. Do you mind waiting?”

Ellie shook her head and watched Ian open his present. He could feel it might be breakable, so was removing the paper carefully.

“A snowman!” he cried in delight, holding up the figurine for all to see. It was about four inches high and delicately modelled. “Meg, it’s beautiful, but you really didn’t need to do this, dear.”

He held it in his right hand and held out his left to Meg, who took it in both hers. “Yes, I did. You helped me so much before I went away,” she said softly. “You knew what I’d done to Ellie, but you were always gentle with me and said lots of wise things, even hard things, but they made me think! And we made a snowman together, remember,” she smiled. “I had so much fun that day, so this seemed just the right gift for you.”

He squeezed the hand he was holding. “Thank you, Meg. You shouldn’t have, but I love it. It’s wonderful. You’re wonderful! It will be a reminder of the fun we had.”

She laughed shyly. “It’s Ellie’s aunt who’s wonderful. She made it. It was in her studio, and when I was thinking about presents, I saw that and immediately thought of you, so bought it from her. She wanted to give it to me, but I insisted on paying, because of all the hard work and love that had gone into it.”

The adults there were astounded. Was it really Meg who had returned, or a changeling?

“Mon Dieu,” whispered Ellie, in an awe-filled voice. “Marraine, elle est formidable!”

“Indeed she is, child,” Hilda said softly. “She’s not just a wonderful artist, but also a sculptor of note. There’s a great deal of humour in this little snowman. It’s just right for you, Mr Stuart.”

She winked, and he guffawed, but held the snowman carefully in his hand as though it was a precious jewel, and Meg felt more than repaid for her offering.

Mother Abbess was once more angry with herself. When Hilda was at the convent at Christmas, she had opened her friend’s eyes to Sister Patricia’s artistry, and was now doing it again. The nun knew she would never have noticed the sly humour in the figure until it was pointed out by Hilda’s quiet comment. The nun’s eyes were also being opened to the way these people admired, respected, even loved her brother. Hilda and Ellie had brought him out of his shell, involving him even more in the school and its problems than before. Oh, he’d given talks and lessons here over the years, taken the Protestant services, even chatted to girls who had major problems, but had never had this closeness with them all. However, Hilda had come to rely on him in her difficulties this past year, where before she would have relied on Nell, and Ellie had found in him the father she never had. He was allowing his sense of humour to show more, and she knew it was all wonderful training for his new post as parish priest in Norfolk, if he agreed to take it. Yet again she saw God’s hand in everything.

Her eyes turned to Hilda, who was watching Ian and the girls. Her face revealed not only weariness, but something else. Was it sadness, depression, fear? Mother didn’t know, but there was something and she was determined to seek it out before many more hours had passed and send it on its way.

“May I show you one more thing Sister Patricia did for me, or shall I wait?” asked Meg shyly of Hilda. “There’s also the homework you and Miss Charlesworth gave me, but I’ll save that for another time.”

At that moment, a tap came at the door and Vivien beamed round at them.

“Ah, Miss Fenella Flaherty,” sang out Mother Abbess, leaping to her feet. “Where’ve you been hiding?” Vivien glowered at her, but moved into the wide open arms and gave herself up to the enormous hug. “It’s lovely to see you again, even if you are fully dressed this time!”

Vivien and Hilda snorted, Ellie giggled, and Ian laughed out loud, having heard the tale. Meg and Matey looked at each other, and Matey shrugged. Hilda saw it and smiled. “I’ll tell you all about it, both, when there are fewer people in here. It’s quite a tale.”

“And who should know better than you, Miss Antirhinum,” said Vivien with dignity.

“I’ll explain that, as well,” added Hilda, her face wearing a huge grin. “Although, thinking about it, I may just get the two of them to act out what happened! Or – you could bring your picture down to show them, Miss Flaherty!” Vivien and the nun both turned to pull ugly faces at her, causing the others to yell with glee. “Most unbecoming! What can we do for you, Miss Flaherty? I thought you were bringing us Kaffee ünd Kücken.”

“In a few minutes, but may I borrow Ellie, please? If her hand isn’t hurting too much, that is.” Ellie was beside her before she had finished speaking. “How are you, enfant? Feeling better? Then come along! We’ll actually be about ten minutes or so.” With a little wave, Ellie disappeared through the door after Vivien.

Hilda looked at Mother and laughed. “We'll have to start calling her the Pied Piper! You saw how Ellie ran to follow her, no questions asked! Well, we seem to have another ten minutes, Meg, so you may show us whatever you like.” She stopped, for Meg was staring at the door, her lips trembling. Hilda put a hand out. “What is it, child?” she whispered.

Meg looked down, laid her other hand over Hilda’s and clung to it. “I don’t… I’ll never be as cheerful and loving as Ellie is, or as much fun. She just seems to get on so well with everyone, while I just upset them…”

Hilda wrapped her arm round the girl. “But you’ve come such a long way already, child. Yes, Ellie’s bright and bubbly in here, but that’s because she knows us all very well, and is relaxed. She’s not always like that in school, I know.”

“You were cheerful and loving and relaxed in the convent, Meg,” put in the Abbess. “Not just with Anne and Patricia, but with the guests, too, and you didn't know them. Why, you even relaxed with me in the end, though I know I frightened you, at first.” Ian rolled his eyes. “Here and now, though, you’re sitting with your Headmistress, and Matron Lloyd, both of whom can be very awe-inspiring to a mere schoolgirl, I know, but Ellie knows and loves them, as she does Mr Stuart, and so she's relaxed with them. Theirs is a different relationship, child, but you’re getting there. Don’t despair.”

“When Ellie arrived in England,” added Hilda gravely, her eyes meeting Meg’s, “she was just like you were, glum and hurtful, refusing to speak or eat, not wanting to be with any of the folk in the convent, even her aunt. She was in despair, Meg. The first time I saw her, her eyes were so bleak you would have wept. You were like that before you went off to England, which is one reason I sent you. Ellie isn’t always the bright, breezy persona you've just seen. She still has bad times, sad times, times when she hurts intensely, remembering all she’s lost, but she’s learning to lean on us, to come for comfort, to ask questions that clear her mind, and she knows now that we'll never let her down, if we can help it.” Meg was listening avidly. Hilda added gently, “I can’t be as close to you as I am to Ellie, Meg. She’s my ward and we’ve been through some hard times together, but you may come and find me any time and know I’ll listen, no matter how unimportant it sounds. As Mother would tell you, sometimes it’s the little things that hurt the most.”

She turned Meg’s head to face Ian. “Look at Mr Stuart. You and he get on so well together, and I’m sure he’d love another niece to tease.” Ian smiled encouragingly. “You may go to him whenever you feel the need and he has the time. Just come to me, and I’ll arrange it. Matron Lloyd and Miss Knowles both helped you before, and are also to be trusted, as is Miss Bertram. Above all, Ellie’s offered you her friendship, yet she doesn’t make friends easily.” Meg’s head turned back sharply her way. “She doesn’t trust people, dear, because they’ve let her down too often, so she’s given you a rare gift by offering her friendship. Be grateful for it and be a friend! But, please don’t think about being like her, child. You don’t need to be, because Meg Lyall is a very interesting character all on her own, with great sensitivity and courage, and a gift for music, among other things.” Amusement sparked in her eyes. “Shall I tell you something Oscar Wilde once said?

’Be yourself; everyone else is taken.’”

Meg searched Hilda’s face. “You mean… it’s no good trying to be like anyone else?”

“Exactly, Meg! It doesn’t work! God created only one person like you, dear. You! You can’t be like anyone else, because you weren’t given their gifts, their hair or eyes, or their personality. You were given your own, just as Ellie was, but you’re the one who has to use them to make yourself into the person God wants you to be. And the only way to do that is to be yourself, as Wilde says, and accept who you are. You’ve made a good start this week, but there’s still a long way to go.” She tapped Meg’s knee. “Why, I myself am still a work in progress, and will go on being so till the day I die. I’m not yet the person God intended me to be.”

Every adult in the room mentally shook their heads at that comment! Listening to her encouraging and challenging Meg was like watching a master at work. Like The Master, in whose hand she placed her own, and walked humbly beside Him, following His every word.

“We’re all that work in progress, Meg,” Mother offered quietly. “I could never put into words all Miss Annersley’s just said, but it takes a lifetime to be the person God created you to be, and many people never get there. But you will, because you’re strong, because you have strong people behind you, because you love those people and trust them. So go for it!”

Meg looked from her to Ian and back to Hilda, then onto Matey. They were all smiling and nodding! They believed in her! In Meg Lyall!

“No one but Nanny ever believed in me before now!” she whispered.

“Well, we all believe in you, Meg, and so do Ellie and Jeanne.” Hilda tapped her knee again. “Now, what was this last thing you were about to show us?”

“Two things, actually, but I didn’t want to show one of them while Ellie was here. I paid her aunt to make one like it as a birthday gift from me. It would have spoiled the surprise if she’d seen it.”

She rose back to her feet and returned to her case. Mother touched Hilda’s arm. “You okay?”

Hilda nodded, but knew she was beginning to fade, and hoped Vivien would return soon. A nap sounded very attractive, but a cup of tea would work wonders. Illness was so debilitating…

Meg returned to the couch with three packages, and set the two larger ones beside her. “Sister Patricia said she made this for me as soon as she knew I was going to visit, as a way of making me feel welcome.” She shook her head. “I couldn’t believe she would do something so beautiful, when I’d hurt her niece.”

Hilda placed an arm round her. Meg opened the smaller parcel, revealing the tiny porcelain box with its pretty design, and the porcelain medallion hidden inside. Ian and Matey left their chairs and crowded round to wonder at the sheer beauty of so small a box, and the words painted on the medallion: ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love.’

“She wanted me to know that, even though I’ve hurt people, God still loves me and I must never despair. That hurt, rather.” Hilda drew her closer. “She painted the flowers and the words with a paintbrush holding one single hair.”

“You’re kidding,” gasped Matey. Meg shook her head.

“It’s the absolute truth, Matron,” added Mother. “I couldn’t believe it myself when she showed me. To think I have people of such calibre in my convent humbles me.”

“Do you think Ellie will like it?” asked Meg tentatively.

“She’ll love it, Meg,” Hilda said softly. “She’ll love it because you gave it to her. She’ll love it because her aunt made it. She’ll love it because it’s absolutely exquisite. You’re a dear, and I can see you’re going to be a very generous friend.”

Meg blushed and put the little gift away, before opening the flat parcel. “When I first went in her art room, before I knew about this, she told me I could choose any picture I liked from all the art work on her walls. So I chose this one,” and she turned round the little cat.

“Why, Meg, what a handsome puss, with that black and white fur,” said Matey softly, “and just look at him peeping at us out of one eye. You chose well, dear.”

“I’ll say!” put in Ian. “I’m jealous!”

He didn’t see his sister eyeing him, and wondering why she had never thought to ask Patricia to paint him something. It would be her first mission when she returned. He never expected anything, the poor man!

Meg finally brought out the wooden panel, and explained how Patricia had made her smash the pale blue porcelain plaque so she could stick the broken pieces onto the panel, and what it all meant. Hilda read the words on the plaque: ‘Be like the flower, turn your face to the sun,’ and was overcome by all Patricia had done for this damaged girl. What a wealth of love and mercy her sister-guardian had in her heart!

She blinked away the tears and read out the words painted on the back: “’You are precious in My sight and I love you.’

Oh, Meg,” she said brokenly, running her fingers over the cracks in the plaque, “this is absolutely beautiful, and you’re a very lucky girl. Read all those verses painted on it regularly, and you’ll soon be on the way to the ‘you’ we talked about. Remind yourself every morning: ‘I am precious in His sight!’ For you are!”

“One can see where Ellie gets her artistic talents,” said Matey softly, in awe of the panel’s beauty. “Okay, her skills are different, but just as clever and beautiful. Was her father the same way inclined?”

“She’s never said,” Hilda replied slowly, her mind turning an idea over. “May I ask you a favour, Meg? When you’re feeling more settled and comfortable with your form, would you show this to them during my Scripture lesson?” Meg’s jaw dropped. “I think the idea behind it, as told to you by Patricia, is far more meaningful than anything I've taught them.”

Meg seemed terrified at the mere idea, but Mother was yet again stunned by Hilda’s beautiful humility, and by her determination to make this girl whole, help her be accepted by her form. Hilda’s approach to her pupils was merciful and gentle, and so encouraging that Mother felt she was learning her friend anew, and seeing more than ever before what a selfless, generous sister she would be, one filled with loving mercy and humility and with that gentle graciousness which was so much a part of her.

Ian had watched Hilda’s careful approach and Meg’s fearful response, and now laid his hand on Meg’s. “This panel and your beautiful medallion and box contain many lessons, Meg, lessons that would help the girls in your form in the same way they’ve obviously helped you. Would you feel better if I came along, too, as part of your support group with Miss Annersley?” Her face lightened, her fear lessened, and she nodded doubtfully. “I might even beg or borrow the panel one Sunday for our service in chapel, because the idea that we’re more beautiful when we’re broken, is the message Jesus gives us time after time in the Gospels. It’s when we’re broken that we turn to Him, and that allows His grace to seep through the cracks. Why would we need His grace if we’re already whole? But we’re not whole, not even Miss Annersley, as she said. We’re all in desperate need of His great grace. So what do you say? Will you share it with others, help us pass on the message it offers?”

Mother felt very moved by her brother’s wisdom. She had never known he was so patient and at ease with children, so loving and encouraging. She suspected he always had been, but Meg and Ellie loved him, and so he had opened himself up even more, both to them and to the girls, and that was reinforcing what he had imbibed from Hilda and Nell’s example over the years. Had anyone been left untouched by these two women’s loving presence?

“I think I could do it,” said Meg slowly, “if both you and Miss Annersley were there.”

“Ellie and Jeanne would also be there, Meg,” added Hilda softly. “But don’t worry about it for now. Just enjoy your beautiful gifts, and Mother’s presence here this week. I’ll make sure you’re still able to spend time with her. I know what she means to you.”

Meg smiled gratefully, and covered up her presents as the door opened…





*****
Chapter 18 - Come Dance With Me by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Thank you so much to those of you who wrote such interesting and loving reviews to the last chapter, and I hope you found my individual responses. I'm sorry you had to wait so long for this one...
Hilda and Matey rose to their feet when Ellie and Vivien trundled in the trolley, followed by a very shy-looking Jeanne. Ellie was smiling to herself as she recalled the conversation she had had with Miss Knowles on the way to the kitchen.

“Still happy to live with me when you leave here, now you’ve had twenty four hours to think about it?” Vivien asked softly. Ellie gave her a poignant smile. “I know, mignonne, you’d prefer it to be Madame, but you have to think about what would be best for her, too.”

“Me, I try to do this, and I know I will see her whenever I like, so it is not the end.” Vivien hugged her. “I told to you yesterday, if I cannot be with her, I am happy to make your home my home, for I love you very much, you know. You have always been good to me since the day Madame brought me to your house, when you both gave to me that wonderful day in London.”

Vivien put an arm round her. “In the meantime, while you’re here at school, if you ever have a problem, or need help, and you can’t find Madame, then you come to me, you understand? No matter what it is, big or small! If someone’s hurt you, or you just want to pour out something that’s bothering you, I’ll do my best to help, any place, any time. I’m not Madame, I know, and can only be second-best…”

Ellie leaned into her. “You are never this second-best, you know. I love coming to you, and you always welcome me with a smile. But Madame, she is Maman in my heart now.”

With a buoyant step, she now brought her friend to be introduced. “This is Jeanne, ma Mère. She is the very good friend, you know, and much, much nicer than I am, you understand. She makes me to think before I do something. ”

Mother shook hands with Jeanne, seeing the serenity in face and eyes. “Enchantée, Jeanne. I know just how good a friend you are, for I’ve been told how well you and Mireille protected her on Monday. She’s badly needed a friend of her own age – especially one who makes her stop and think! - so thank you for all you’ve done. She’s a very lucky girl.”

Jeanne blushed and shook her head. “I am also a very lucky girl, for we seem to suit each other very well. I’m glad to have her back, and to meet you, Mother Abbess. Ellie has told me so much about you and her Marraine.”

“Please call me Mère, as she does, dear. It’s much less of a mouthful,” laughed the nun. “After all, you’re French, too!”

“Are you feeling less jangled about things now, Jeanne, dear?” asked Hilda.

“Thank you for allowing me to sleep in Ellie’s bed last night, Miss Annersely, and for Mireille to sleep next to me. It was a kind thought and I felt much better this morning. Matron Lloyd even persuaded me to use your bath,” Jeanne said with a wry smile. Mother chuckled.

“I’m pleased it all helped, Jeanne,” Hilda said softly. “Now make yourself at home in here and don’t feel shy. These are all Ellie’s friends, so they’re now yours, too. We’re all in the process of becoming one happy family, it seems to me.”

Ian came over to have a chat with the girls and his sister, and Hilda walked across to the table where Matey and Vivien were putting out the food. She glanced at Ellie, and wondered about the imp of mischief she could see in the sapphire eyes, then caught the same imp in Vivien’s eyes and knew something was afoot.

Vivien put a laden plate on the table and turned to grasp Hilda’s arm. “It’s good to have you back, ma bonnie wee chieftain, although you still look much the worse for wear.”

“Thank you for those few kind words, Miss Knowles. A real Job’s comforter, aren’t you?” Hilda’s voice was dry, but her eyes expressed her intense gratitude for all Vivien’s help.

Turning to the room, she invited everyone to be seated. A smile tugged at her lips when, in the general confusion, she saw Meg and Ellie once more insinuating themselves into seats on either side of Ian, with Jeanne to Ellie’s left. Ian looked up and winked when Hilda sat down opposite him at the round table. Vivien sat on Hilda’s left, and Mother settled herself between Vivien and Meg, so she could keep an unobtrusive eye on Hilda, to assess her state of mind.

Matey sat on Hilda’s right, saw Vivien pour the coffee, and turned to Hilda. “Would you prefer tea?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” Hilda teased her. “Yes, please! What about you, Mother?”

“And miss out on your wonderful continental coffee? I think not!” Mother looked in amazement at the array of cakes and biscuits. “This is a snack?” she gasped. “Do you eat like this every afternoon? I’d be as round as a dumpling, let me tell you!”

Amid shouts of ribald laughter, Hilda replied with some amusement, “I think Karen’s trying to fatten me up, or welcome me back, not sure which! Usually, we get plain bread twists and the occasional biscuit. Girls are allowed to raid their tuck boxes at this time of day, if they have anything left. Do eat up everyone! We don’t want to disappoint Karen.”

Mother turned to Ellie. “Does this mean we should be sending you off each term with a box of goodies?”

Ellie nodded vigorously. “The bigger, the better!” Everyone roared.

“Pipe down, petite friponne! I’ll be doing the packing – if I remember, of course!” Ellie pulled a face at her guardian. Mother winked at Ellie.

“You all spoil her,” groaned Hilda. Mother and Ellie nodded.

Hilda shrugged, saw Meg was looking rather bewildered by this barrage of teasing, and raised her cup to her. “Welcome back, dear. All this is in your honour, for we didn’t know you were bringing Mother back with you.” She raised her cup to the nun, who bared her teeth.

Meg was overcome. “You’re all so kind,” she whispered. Ian patted her hand. “All this teasing is not what I’m used to, and sometimes I think someone’s going to be hurt, but then you all just laugh. I know you tried to teach me about teasing, Miss Annersley, and they also tried in the convent, but it takes some understanding.”

“You mean Mother never teased you?” cried Hilda. “I refuse to believe it. She cuts me down to size all the time.”

“Her brother, too!” muttered Ian.

“I only did it very gently with Meg,” put in the nun, her green eyes laughing at Ian. “When you’re accustomed to it, you don’t realise how it can hurt those who’ve never experienced it. Ellie was used to it, because her grandparents were great teasers, apparently. It’s okay, Meg. Everyone will help you,” she reassured the girl. “Not one person in this room would ever hurt you deliberately.”

“I seem to recall a young lady who pushed an elderly pastor over in the snow! Even threw snowballs at him, would you believe?” Ian commented wryly. Meg blushed. “Now, were you teasing me or vice versa?”

“Was that teasing?” she asked shyly. “I thought we were just having fun.”

He nodded. “Having fun with friends usually involves a great deal of teasing, and we were sharing our fun with the patients. I only push people over in fun.”

Meg gave him a brilliant smile, and Mother was dumbfounded at their obvious fondness for each other. No wonder Meg had wanted to bring him a gift!

Bless you, Ian, dear man. Hilda has coined exactly the right name for you.

As afternoon tea progressed, Vivien topped up people’s cups, Ellie and Jeanne chatted with Matey, Mother talked to Meg and Ian, while still keeping her eye on Hilda, and noting how little she was eating. She was so thin, so pale, with those dark smudges under her eyes.

Mother knew her job was not to restrain any attempt on Hilda’s part to do more than the absolute minimum, because Hilda had already made plain her firm intention of not going into school. No, Mother’s job was to keep her occupied, to help her with Meg and her father, to overcome that deep anxiety - and what looked very like depression - over all the recent unfortunate incidents in the school, and to help her bring Kathie to some sense of shame for her behaviour. Hilda might be closeted here in her rooms, but she was still Head, and would want to make sure all was running smoothly. Meetings with Nancy, at the very least, would have to take place. Mother sighed, for she knew people like Matey and Jack would try to stop Hilda doing anything, but that would be counter-productive, as it would have been for herself. Hilda was physically fragile, yes, but her mind was still alert.

Hilda sat quietly watching everyone, urging them to eat more, smiling at the odd joke, sipping her tea - and all the time, unbeknown to Mother, waiting for the moment when Vivien and Ellie would break out and stir them all up.

“Those hyacinths smell heavenly,” said Vivien, as though picking up on Hilda’s thoughts, “considering they’re having to compete with the smell of coffee and cake and whatnot.”

“I’m afraid the smell of whatnot eludes me, Miss Knowles,” Hilda commented dryly, and Vivien shook a fist at her. “Behave! You’re right about the hyacinths and their evocative aroma, though:

“’China tea, the scent of hyacinths, woodfires and bowls of violets – that is my mental picture of an agreeable February afternoon.’”

She smiled round at them. “No violets today, I’m afraid, but the cheerful faces of good friends, instead. No, the very best of friends,” she added, and raised her cup to them all. “This is a very agreeable February afternoon!”

“Who wrote those lovely words?” asked Mother, thinking how wistful had been Hilda’s smile. Was she thinking of past February afternoons spent with Nell?

“Constance Spry.”

Vivien leapt to her feet. “Talking of whatnots, as we were – or as the boss lady was! – we haven’t had our afters yet!”

“There’s more?” exclaimed Mother. “I couldn’t eat another mouthful, unless…” She looked at Hilda. “We do have a meal later at the normal time?”

Hilda nodded silently, still keeping an eagle eye on Ellie and Vivien, making Mother wonder what was bothering her.

“Right! Jeanne and Meg, clear the empty plates away from the centre of the table, but leave people their own plates. No, Ellie, sit still! You too, Miss Annersley,” Vivien said regally.

As they all scurried around, Hilda saw Ellie struggling to contain her excitement.

“Right! Table clear? Then sit down, everyone, and wait for la pièce de résistance.” Vivien’s glance swept round, saw all was comme il faut, and bent to open a side panel on the trolley. She lifted out a large plate, which she placed in the middle of the table and lifted off the metal dome to reveal the contents.

“Yum!” said Mother, licking her lips, much to everyone’s amusement as they stared at the dome-shaped gateau. It appeared to be covered in glossy white chocolate and decorated with strands of coconut, a large, juicy cherry placed centrally on top. Hilda stared at it, met Ellie’s laughing eyes, and buried her face in her hands, groaning out loud.

“Hilda?” said Mother anxiously.

“Madame, but you give away the game, you know,” complained Ellie.

Hilda raised her head. “Perish the thought, infant. I’m just wondering if I can persuade Mr Stuart there to strangle the pair of you now, and stop you in your tracks!” Ian stared at her. Ellie giggled. Hilda gazed round at everyone and held up her hands. “I had absolutely nothing to do with what’s coming next, so if you have any complaints, please take it up with the two culprits here.” She looked at Vivien. “Allez-y, mon amie. Do your worst! Excuse me for a few moments, everyone. I’ll be right back.”

She rose to her feet and disappeared into her room, re-appearing just as Vivien handed Meg a large spoon and told her to hit the cherry. Hard!

“But… why do you want to squash it?” Matey said blankly.

“Because that’s the nature of the game, Matron Lloyd,” replied Hilda, sitting down again. “Take it from me, anything normal goes right out of the window when this sorceress and her apprentice are around. I should have had the music ready!”

“Oh, just ignore her, everyone. She’s only the Headmistress!” scolded Vivien.

Hilda laughed softly and sat back to watch the unfolding proceedings. Meg walloped the cherry, Mother instantly exclaiming that was no cherry, and the cake indeed no cake! Ian discovered there were suddenly slots in the base of the cake, and Vivien declared they all needed Swiss francs, which brought forth cries about empty pockets. Hilda held her breath when Vivien leaned over and produced a coin from Mother’s wimple, and Ellie one from Ian’s ear, then spluttered at the twins’ identical stunned faces and fascinated eyes. By the time Ellie and Vivien had produced a coin from everyone’s ear, all there were agog.

Except for Hilda! When Ellie reached her guardian and put out a hand, Hilda dipped her own hand into her pocket and laid a silver coin on the table.

“Madame, tu es méchante, tu sais!” Ellie exclaimed, trying hard not to laugh. “Truly, you are naughty and impossible. So that is why you disappeared for those moments!”

“She had you there, Liebchen,” laughed Ian. He tapped his coin against his cup. “Ignore her and come and show us what to do! Although,” he added slowly, “I think I see… These slots at the bottom edge are about the right size, so I wonder what will happen if I push this in...”

His coin disappeared. At once, a click was heard. A small section of cake sprang open and fell slowly backwards, revealing its metallic inner surface. They all gawped at it.

“Definitely not the luscious cake it seemed,” sighed Mother, and pressed in her own coin. Another section fell slowly backwards.

“Altogether now, one, two, three,” sang Vivien, waving her arms, and all the coins were slotted in, all the slices opened – except one!

“At least there are no frogs inside this one!” muttered Hilda, eyeing the inviting-looking macaroons lying there, as she slotted in her own coin.

“Frogs?” Meg shuddered, although she wore a huge smile at being part of so much fun.

“Little paper frogs on springs,” Hilda replied. “These two monkeys were trying to cheer up very sad ten year old twins at the time.” Her eyes swept round the table. “Of course, you’re all far too old for such nonsense, even our twins!”

Vivien pulled a face. “One can go off the nicest people, ma bonnie wee chieftain.” Hilda chuckled at the sight of Mother, Ian, Matey and the girls also pulling faces at her.

“’It was a nasty look. It made me feel as if I were something the dog had brought in and intended to bury later on, when he had time,’” she quoted impassively.

“Oh, you wretch!” muttered Vivien. “Where on earth did that come from?”

“Wodehouse! My Man Jeeves.” Ian winked at Hilda. “I’m a great fan of his!”

“Actually,” said Vivien, leaning down to the trolley, “I never said there weren’t also frogs!” She laid a bowl on the table, adding wickedly. “Although I’m afraid I only had a few left!”

The frogs were leapt on by the girls, who soon had them hopping over table and floor. Mother and Ian each picked one up and examined it closely.

“These are very clever, Miss Knowles,” Ian said. “Did you make them?” Viven nodded.

“I’m never quite sure how she finds time to do her school work,” sighed Hilda, “but I suppose being a magician helps there, too. Macaroon, anyone?”

Mother sniggered and helped herself. “You and Ellie make a good team, Miss Knowles. You’ve taught your apprentice well, and I shall have great fun describing to your aunt the new skills you’ve imbibed, Ellie” She winked at Hilda. “Whereas you, my friend, should join up with Miss Knowles here and take up a new career as a comedy duo.” Hilda gaped at her, then burst out laughing, while Vivien muttered saucy imprecations under her breath. Mother shrugged, adding with a wicked gleam in her eyes, “This has been extremely entertaining, and helped us all relax with each other, so thank you, Ellie and Miss Knowles. Thanks, also, to Madame la Guillotine there, with her neat way of cutting us all down to size. What say you, Jeanne? You must think all pastors and school teachers are a little crazy.”

Jeanne looked flummoxed. Ellie opened her mouth, but Hilda spoke first: “’After a good dinner, one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.’ So I forgive you whatever you were about to say then, imp, as I forgive all my so-called friends here, although I notice Matron had the good sense to keep quiet.” Her eyes twinkled at Mother. “When you asked poor Jeanne that question, you forgot to mention nuns. I would say, myself, that you’re all more than a little touched.”

Ian snorted. Ellie clapped her hands over her giggles. Mother winked, nodding at Hilda, and they both chuckled at the thought of Hilda joining that club of ‘touched nuns’ very soon.

“Who said such outrageous things, tell me!” demanded Vivien.

“You mean the quotation? It’s from Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance!” Hilda shook her head. “I don’t think that epithet applies to any of the women or girls here, though. You’re all very important in your own right, and important, also, to Ellie and me.” She turned her eyes on Jeanne, who was trying hard not to laugh. “Let it out, Jeanne. We’re not proud, and don’t mind how much you laugh at us! And to answer Mother’s question, I think all good teachers are a little crazy, especially this one on my left. So what do you say, everyone? Three cheers for the sorceress and her apprentice.”

There were cheers and applause all round. Vivien gave Hilda a very dirty look as she answered Matey’s and Mother’s question about how the cake had been made, and showed them how it broke down for travel.

She then rose to her feet and went to Matey. “You’ve been very quiet this afternoon, Matron Lloyd, which I suspect was a wise decision. At least you didn’t have any of our leader’s insulting quotations thrown your way. You’ve been a real brick all week, and a little appreciation seems due.”

She reached out a hand to Matey’s ear. At once, a pretty bouquet of origami flowers appeared in her hand, which she presented to an overcome Matey with a curtsy.

“How on earth did you do that?” she whispered, clutching the bouquet. Mother also demanded to know how!

“Trade secret, I’m afraid, Matron, so don’t try worming the secret out of my apprentice over there! Enjoy the flowers.” She kissed Matey’s cheek and moved away. Hilda reached over and clasped Matey’s arm, knowing how moved she was.

Vivien sat down and offered a hand to Mother next to her. “I apologise for disconcerting you quite so much this afternoon. Not quite what you expected at a young lady’s academy.”

Mother took the hand. “Not at all, Miss Knowles! I’ve had a ball, as usu…” She suddenly squeaked, for Vivien had withdrawn her own hand, and left Mother still holding a hand. An artificial one! She stared down at it in alarm, then met Vivien’s laughing eyes. “I should have known better, after all our skirmishes,” she growled, and thrust the hand back at Vivien. “Here! You gave me a real fright!” She pretended to wipe away the sweat from her brow.

Vivien gurgled and offered hankies to Meg and Jeanne, who were mopping up tears of laughter. “Here, these’ll help.”

They each took hold of the hankies in Vivien’s hands, only to find themselves pulling multi-coloured hankie after multi-coloured hankie, and giggling the while. Hilda thought to herself how very attractive Meg was when smiling and at ease. Her grey eyes sparkled. Please God the school could keep them so!

She saw the girls struggling with their lapfuls of hankies. “Do what Mother here did! Drape them casually round your necks, as though it’s something you do every day of the week!”

Ian raised his eyebrows at his sister, and exploded with laughter. “What a picture! You kept that one very quiet! You’re definitely more than a little touched, but then you always have been! You must be exhausted, though, with all this excitement after your long journey, and that close encounter with that er, hand!”

“I’m not quite in my dotage, brother dear!” Mother said frostily.

“But, Madame,” Ellie burst out excitedly. “I am wondering where Mère is to sleep tonight.”

Hilda eyed her thoughtfully. “I suppose I could sling a hammock in here for her, infant!” Ellie wrinkled her nose at her. “Or you could give up your bed…”

Ellie’s eyes lit up. “Tiens, Madame, I could sleep in the dorm with Jeanne and Meg.”

“Down, boy! Not tonight, you couldn’t! Matron and I want you where we can keep an eye on you.” Ellie subsided, much to everyone’s amusement. “Don’t look so sad. Perhaps we could try it tomorrow or Friday. But to answer your question, I’ll sleep in the spare bed in your room to keep you company, and Mère will have my room.”

“Hilda, I don’t think…”

Hilda simply gazed at the nun impassively, one eyebrow raised, until Mother also subsided, to even more amusement from the others.

Hilda nodded at her. “Quite so!”

Goodness, she’s good, thought Mother to herself, having seen Hilda use that same look on Ellie, but never on her future Abbess before. No wonder she cows the naughtiest girl! But would she attempt it in the convent if she ever disagreed with her Abbess? Mother didn’t think so, somehow. Hilda had vowed to be obedient when she entered, and she always kept her word.

Hilda looked at her watch and drew a deep breath, reluctantly preparing to ruin Meg’s enjoyable afternoon. “As Ellie’s just said, Meg, you’ll sleep in the same dorm as before, with her and Jeanne. Carmela and Gillian will also be there.” They all saw how serious Hilda now looked. Meg bit her lip, anxiety rippling across her face.

“But that means…”

Hilda nodded. “Yes, Mother, it means she will have to face her form before bedtime, so the worst is then over and done with!” Meg’s eyes were now haunted. “I want you to retire to bed knowing some of them, at least, will care enough to welcome you back with a smile, dear, so I’m going to suggest you join them for prep, and accompany them to Abendessen.”

Her compassionate eyes caught the moment Meg realised her sabbatical was finally over. She now had to face whatever lay ahead of her, for good or ill. It could no longer be put off! Ian placed his hand over hers, where it lay clenched on the table.

“I’ll be around, too, Meg, don’t forget,” put in a quiet voice. “We’ll face them together, whatever happens. You don’t ever need to feel alone.” Meg tried to smile at Jeanne.

In that quiet moment, Mother saw the true beauty of Jeanne’s character, and was moved to tears that such a girl had chosen to befriend Ellie, for Ellie, too, still needed just such quiet support and caring. God was quietly knitting up her broken spirit, as He was Meg’s, and had elected Jeanne as His helpmate. But He had installed Hilda as the instigator of all this love now being poured out on these two, and was quietly knitting up her spirit, too.

“May I go, Madame?” pleaded Ellie. “We can toutes les deux give the support to Meg. And me, I have missed much work this week, you know, so need to catch up.”

Hilda frowned, and turned to Matey, who weighed up the three girls across the table. “I don’t see why not, Ellie, as long as you protect that hand at all times.”

Ellie nodded. “May I also go to Abendessen with them?”

“If Meg and Jeanne sit one each side of you to protect your hand from knocks, then, yes.”

Ellie’s eyes lit up, and she turned back to Hilda, another question in her eyes. Hilda nodded. “Yes, chérie, you may stay with them until bedtime, but come back earlier if you’re in pain. Understood? Bien, I want you back here no later than twenty-one hundred.”

Ellie flew round the table to hug her guardian, while Meg looked considerably more relaxed.

“Miss Annersley, would you like me to… ?” began Vivien. Hilda kept one arm round Ellie, laid a quietening hand on Vivien’s, and turned to Mother, who at once understood her daughter’s mind.

She smiled across at Meg. “Miss Annersley would very much like to take you herself, Meg, and speak to your form, but she’s not allowed in school at the moment, since she’s still very weak, so would you like me to come with you and have a few words?”

“You’d really do that for me?” Meg was stunned. Mother nodded, and tears sparkled in the grey eyes. “Then, yes please. You’ve helped me so much this week, but I never expected…”

“May I tag along?” put in Ian softly.

Mother smiled her gratitude. Meg flung herself into his arms, and he spoke to her soothingly, promising things would not be as hard as she thought. “Jeanne and Ellie are two strong and determined people who will see you through it all after we’ve left, as I’m sure will some of the others.”

Ellie’s good arm tightened round Hilda, expressing her own concern, and Hilda kissed her. Ellie leaned her cheek against her a moment, then went back to her seat. Hilda smiled her thanks at Mother and Ian, before turning to Vivien. “I hope you didn’t mind, Miss Knowles. It was kind of you to offer…”

“Not at all,” Vivien said warmly. “They’re exactly the right people to do it, for they’ve both been a great source of help and comfort to her. Haven’t they, Meg?” she asked kindly.

Meg’s head nodded against Ian’s shoulder. He lifted the multi-coloured hankies over her head. “Here, dry your pretty eyes with these.”

Mother raised her eyebrows to Hilda in surprise. Hilda smiled. Ian was determined to make up to Meg for the loving, teasing parenting she had never received. No father had ever called her pretty. No mother had ever drawn her close to soothe her.

Mother glanced at her watch. “You know, Meg, you haven’t shown Miss Annersley your homework yet, and I have letters to hand over, so shall we do it quickly before we leave?”

She was hoping this might just give the girl the lift she needed to get her out of the room in one piece. Meg dried her eyes on the hankies, handed them back to Ian with a word of thanks and trudged over to her case, Hilda’s compassionate eyes following her. How she wished she could lift the heavy burden!

Mother, meanwhile, reached into her bag and produced three flat parcels, which she handed to Ellie, Hilda and Ian. “These are from Sister Patricia. She’s been very busy, I can tell you. There’s a letter inside for each of you, too.”

Hilda carefully removed the paper from hers, saw what it contained and gasped out loud. It was a water-colour of Ellie and herself with their arms round each other, standing under a tree in the convent garden and smiling out at the world. It measured perhaps six by eight inches, and was mounted in an ornamental wooden frame. She gazed in wonder at its tender beauty, then lifted her head to see Ian and Ellie doing exactly the same. Ellie met her eyes and turned her picture round to show Hilda. This one held three figures – Ian and Hilda with their arms round Ellie, who was standing between them.

Ian’s was identical to Ellie’s, and he seemed dumbfounded. “They’re… exquisite,” he whispered. “But why did she feel the need to…?”

“She knows the great love you and Hilda have for Ellie, and how much that love is returned, so this is a small thank you for all you’ve done. Read your letters, and she’ll tell you herself. I think these are among the most beautiful works I’ve ever seen her do, for there’s a great tenderness to them.” Mother reached behind her for the large, flat parcel she had removed from her case earlier, and now handed it to an open-mouthed Vivien. “Patricia said to tell you this is a small token of all she owes you for your wonderful offer to Ellie and Hilda.”

A stunned Vivien removed the paper with trembling hands. Inside was a water colour, about the same size as her Fenella Flaherty portrait, and it showed Ian, Hilda and Vivien herself all standing protectively round a radiant Ellie. “But I don’t deserve this!” she murmured. “What we do for love doesn’t need payment.”

“I would agree with you, my friend,” Hilda said softly, “but it would seem Patricia’s heart is full of wondrous generosity and gratitude, much like her niece’s. And you do deserve it, for a great many reasons, Miss Knowles.”

Ellie had come round to view the painting, and now wrapped her good arm round Vivien. “I am so glad Marraine did this for you, because you have made me to feel so very happy, and you also made Madame to feel so, non, Madame?” Hilda nodded, and Ellie looked across at Mother. “Marraine is a so beautiful person to do this, and a so clever one, too.”

“Oh, I haven’t finished yet, child.” Mother delved into her bag again, and produced two square parcels, about five inches square, which she handed to Matey and Jeanne. She smiled at Matey. “Patricia wanted to paint a picture of you with Ellie, as well, but she hasn’t met you yet, so says she’ll do one when you visit at Easter.” Matey’s eyes expressed her shock. “Meanwhile, this is to thank you for all the love and care you offer Ellie and her guardian, as Jeanne offers it to her friend.”

Jeanne blushed bright red as she and Matey slowly unwrapped their parcels. Jeanne gave a low cry of delight when she saw what it contained, while tears trickled down Matey’s cheeks. She handed her gift to Hilda and searched frantically for her handkerchief. Hilda stared in silence at the beautiful, simple painting of a tree in full leaf, its branches outspread, and under those branches were painted the words: ‘Friendship is a sheltering tree’.

Stunned, Hilda looked up to meet Jeanne’s eyes. “But it is the very same thing you said to me on Sunday evening, Miss Annersley,” said the girl, equally stunned. “How did she know?” Hilda shook her head. Jeanne looked at Mother. “Would you tell Ellie’s aunt that I’m honoured to receive such a beautiful gift, and will always look out for Ellie. I love her very much.”

Mother’s eyes were too full of tears for her to speak, so moved was she by the earnest face and voice of Ellie’s friend. What a delight she was!

Thank You, Father, for all You’ve done for Ellie in these few short weeks. A girl who had nothing and no one, has found friendship and love, even a mother’s love, and grown beautiful and true and very funny, under the influence of all these fine, loving, gentle people.

Hilda wiped away her own tears. “They’re beautiful, Mother, absolutely beautiful, and that’s exactly what Jeanne’s friendship has been for Ellie, and Matron’s for me over the years, and now for Ellie.” She shook her head. “How on earth did Patricia find the time to do all these? And why is she so very good to us all?”

The green eyes were luminous as their owner thought of another gift Patricia had sent for Hilda, as yet hidden away. “You’ve all made Ellie feel happy and safe and very much wanted, and that makes Patricia happy, too, so she’s offered you the very best of her great gift.” Her eyes met Hilda’s. “A gift I never really appreciated until you pointed it out to me, daughter. For that, also, she loves you very much.”

Hilda shook her head again, handed Matey back her gift, and stared down at her own, overwhelmed by all this generosity and affection. She felt even more overwhelmed when Meg appeared with her two books, and laid the larger one on the table before Hilda.

“You and Miss Charlesworth both asked me to do some research, but left me to decide my subject. So for one I chose Garibaldi.”

“Because of the staff play,” whispered Ellie. Meg nodded.

An astonished Hilda ran her fingers over the beautiful picture of a cloaked Garibaldi on the front cover and recognised the artist. “Sister Patricia,” she murmured.

“She made the actual book for me, too, would you believe, as well as painting all the pictures. I didn’t really have time to do all the research and write it up, and then draw or trace pictures for it. Anyway, I’m no artist,” Meg added wistfully.

Hilda carefully turned over the pages, relishing the stunning pictures and reading snippets from the pages. “I’m impressed, Meg, very impressed,” she said softly. She looked up. “I think Miss Charlesworth and I are going to be fighting over this, as to whether it should be classed as History or English. In fact,” she laughed, looking up at Meg, “I think it really belongs in the library, where everyone may see it. It will be one of the most beautiful books there. I think you’ve found your true métier, child.”

Meg was by now bright red, her grey eyes alight. “I never realised before what fun it is to discover stuff for myself, and to make sure all my facts are right. But… did you really mean all that?” she whispered.

Hilda took Meg’s hand. “Yes, child, I meant every word. You’ve worked really hard and it shows. I am so, so proud of you, for taking yourself in hand like this and producing something of this calibre. You’ve worked miracles with yourself.”

Meg fell on her trembling knees and laid her head against Hilda, tears streaming down her face. Hilda stroked the brown curls and passed round the book. Meg heard the exclamations of surprise and admiration and raised her head to look at Mother, whose eyes were shining. She had realised in those moments just why Meg had wished Hilda was her grandmother. Hilda’s encouragement and gentleness must have seemed like manna from heaven to a child who had never received any love in her life, except from her Nanny.

“I told you, child,” she said now with a smile. “It’s absolutely brilliant. You’re absolutely brilliant. You were the one who did all the hard work. Sister Patricia only gilded the lily. You also worked extremely hard with your German translation and finished that, too.” Meg’s lips trembled, and she hid her face in Hilda. “I did tell you there wasn’t time to do the St Hilda research, Miss Annersley, which was the other person Meg wanted to explore, but, during the extra days we had, we teased what we could out of Bede’s great tome, and tried to imagine what it was like at the great Synod of Whitby, where Hilda was in charge. Although, I must confess that Hilda seems extraordinarily like the Hilda here present! I could just see you keeping that rabble in order,” she added with a quixotic smile.

Hilda found herself blushing at the wealth of love in the nun’s sweet voice, and looked down at the smaller book. She turned the pages, and was astounded by the work Meg had produced, for she knew the nun would not have carried the girl, but made her do the hard graft. Patricia’s pictures only enhanced the whole.

“I think you got more out of Bede than I ever would, Meg. You’ve certainly put your imagination to good use and enhanced Bede’s dry facts, just as you used your imagination to write that story about Becky Sharp.” Hilda gave her a wicked grin and held the book close. “I’m not going to share this one, child – except with you! Oh, I’ll show it to Miss Charlesworth, but it’s mine, to treasure. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Meg, for taking the chance I offered you and running with it. I’m stunned by all you’ve achieved.” She kissed the shy face. “Has all this given you the courage to face your form?”

At that moment, the bell sounded and Meg started. Hilda put her arm round her. “Ellie and Jeanne will see you through, once Mother and Mr Stuart have started you off. And Meg,” she added softly, “try to forget all your past unhappiness and loneliness, and be the one who dances with her Lord, as in this poem by a poet called Hafiz:

Every child has known God,
Not the God of names,
Not the God of don’ts,
Not the God who ever does Anything weird,
But the God who knows only four words,
And keeps repeating them, saying,
“Come dance with Me, come dance.”

She smiled at Meg. “He’s calling you away from your all burdens and troubles, so yield to Him, child. Hang on to His hand held out to you, and dance along beside Him, knowing how very loved you are.”





*****
End Notes:
Hafiz was a Persian mystic and poet, born sometime between the years 1310 and 1337 in Shiraz, at the foot of the Zagros Mountains in southwest Iran.

*Friendship is a sheltering tree,* is a line from Youth and Age by Coleridge.
Chapter 19 - Water Pooling in Darkness by MaryR
Author's Notes:
I'm sorry I've not updated for ten days, but I thought it might be nice to celebrate the fact that I posted my first chapter of ND on this day 12 years ago, St Patrick's day. I never envisaged writing such a saga, nor indeed that I'd have the imagination so to do, but is it now beyond boring? Thank you for all the lovely things you've said over the years.

Thanks also to those who posted a review on the last chapter. If you haven't read it, you really need to if you want to understand how Meg was encouraged to face her form. Oh, and you might get a bit of a shock near the end. Hilda certainly gave me one. Oh, and to celebrate Paddy's day, I've posted a drabble in LGM about, well... about lime green doings!
Meg was entranced by the picture painted in the poem by Hafiz, of God wanting to dance with her. “Will you write it down for me?”

Hilda smiled. “I think I left some space in the book of quotations.” Meg nodded. “Then bring it along, or send it via Ellie, and I’ll write it in there, and perhaps one or two others, too.”

Meg smiled her thanks. Hilda hugged her, then ushered her to her feet, allowing Mother to lead the girl to the door. Hilda tried to rise, too, but it was impossible. Her muscles had given up the ghost. Ian saw her difficulty and quickly helped her up.

“You going to be okay?” he whispered. She nodded, but her legs were shaking so badly she had to cling on to him. He raised his voice. “You go along, Kate, and I’ll catch up with you.”

Mother turned, saw the problem and nodded, worried about Hilda but knowing her first concern right now was Meg, so left the room with the three girls in tow.

“Hilda, you should go to bed and have a nap,” Matey said forcefully.

“The couch will do,” Hilda whispered. “My bed needs making up for Mother.”

“Come on, then,” commanded Ian. “Hang on to me.”

He helped her over to the couch and laid her down, put some more wood on the fire, then turned to watch her trying to get comfortable. He yearned to stay, but knew Meg needed him more.

Hilda’s eyes opened. “Do you have to return to the San afterwards?” He nodded. “Then will you come back for Abendessen at nineteen – and bring Helen?”

He frowned. Matey frowned harder. “Hilda, you’ve done enough for…”

“One hour, Gwynneth,” she whispered. “That’s all I’m asking! I haven’t seen Nancy yet, who’s doing all my work, as well as her own, so why not the others, too? God didn’t heal me at breakneck speed, then send me back to put my feet up. He wants more than that from me! He told me so! Bad things have happened and I need to reassure myself that all is as well as it can be in both schools. There are things I want to say, and I couldn’t do that with the girls here. It’s nearly two hours away. I’ll sleep till then, which will be more than enough. I’ve already had one nap this afternoon.” Matey opened her mouth, but Hilda added urgently, “Please don’t argue with me, Gwynneth. I said I’ll be good, and I will. Trust me, as Mother does.”`

“You can’t know that!”

“Oh, but I can! She and I read each other very easily, which is odd when you think how very different we are. Did she not warn you, after Linda’s accident, not to argue with me quite so much?” Matey nodded reluctantly. Hilda took her hand. “I know you worry, so I’ll try not to test your temper too much.” Matey couldn’t help but laugh. “In the meantime, would you put clean sheets on my bed for Mother, then see to Meg’s case? Oh, and show Mother her room, and the bathroom, if I’m asleep when she returns. I’m so sorry to be such a nuisance.”

Matey stared down at Hilda, noting the determined eyes, and gave in. She squeezed the hand holding hers, and said fiercely, “You’re never a nuisance! Never, d’you hear?”

She set the thin hand down gently, undid the clasp holding back the brown hair and fled to Hilda’s room, where she shed a few tears. She then returned with a pillow, which she tucked under Hilda’s head, removed her shoes and covered her with a thick blanket. She left the room again, saying she’d be back shortly. Ian had been watching that scene very closely, but felt now was the time to leave, since Matey had calmed down. He clasped Hilda’s shoulder, promised he would see her later, and was gone

Vivien had also been watching from the table and knew she had to do something. She leaned over the back of the couch to stroke the brown hair. “I’ll see to the dishes and table, Hilda, and take the trolley back to the kitchen. Look after yourself.”

Hilda’s heavy eyes opened. “Will you also return at nineteen, Vivien?”

“If you’re sure, I’d be delighted. Till then, sleep. Thank you for a wonderful afternoon tea, and for yet more evidence of your absolute understanding of your girls.”

Hilda’s lips curved slightly. “I think I should be the one saying thank you. Meg’s gone into school feeling so much more relaxed after your idiocy.”

“I could take offence, ma bonnie wee chieftain, but I know you mean it well.” Vivien stroked a white cheek, then disappeared to tidy up.

Hilda rolled onto her side and stared into the fire, feeling utterly helpless and ready to weep. The confusion she was feeling had sprung from nowhere, and she was at a loss. And it hurt to struggle against Gwynneth all the time.

The latter bustled back in with a hot water bottle, saw what Vivien was doing, and nodded her thanks. Vivien took her chance, and drew her back to the door. “Don’t fight her, Gwynneth,” she warned softly. “She’s back to worrying about the school and Kathie and goodness knows what, and that can’t be good for her, so let her do what she can to make things easier for everyone, as she’s just made things easier for Meg. Do you really think she would have found the courage to face her form without Hilda’s gentle encouragement?”

Matey heard the gentleness in her voice and knew she was not being criticised. “I sense you’re probably right, but is trying to help everyone better than resting?”

Vivien nodded. “If she sleeps now, why not? It’s perfectly obvious she’s worried sick about things, whereas yesterday she was relaxed and happy. I can’t believe the change. She said just one hour for Abendessen! If we keep her to that, she’ll be fine. Better than fine, if she’s able to ease other people burdens. It may also ease her own, for something surely seems to be weighing her down. You want her to sleep tonight, I imagine?”

Matey nodded. Her face was grim, but she knew in her heart Vivien was right. The science mistress would never do anything to harm her beloved Headmistress. She also knew she herself was far too dogmatic with Hilda, who then had to waste precious energy fighting her. Vivien smiled fleetingly and returned to table and trolley. Matey went to the couch, slipped the hot water bottle under the blanket and watched Hilda staring fixedly into the fire.

“Warm enough?” Hilda gave a slight nod, and Matey sat down on the couch beside her. “Try to sleep, love. You did wonders for that girl. Even I’ve never seen you quite so inspired. Meg would walk to the ends of the earth for you right now.”

“Oh, I think she reserves that for Mother and Ian,” Hilda whispered. “By the way, Gwynneth, you’re also invited this evening. Would you pass on an invitation to Nancy for me?” Matey nodded. “Is Kathie still asleep upstairs?”

“I expect so, after the sedative I handed to Nancy for her. No more talking! Relax! Sleep!”

Hilda closed her eyes, heard Matey depart, and prayed feverishly for Meg, that she would be accepted by her form, and would eventually accept her father, once she knew the truth. The heat from fire and hot water bottle gradually dulled her thoughts of Meg, but others took their place, strange thoughts she hadn’t anticipated on her return, and which were slowly annihilating her...

Fifteen minutes later, Ian walked his sister back to the Annexe, hoping the two of them had achieved something for Meg by their words to the form. They were deep in conversation about Hilda and Ellie when they reached the door to the Salon.

“I’ll have to leave you now, Sis, so see you later. Try and help Hilda when she wakes - that’s if she’s even asleep,” he added, sounding concerned.

Her eyes widened. “You noticed it, too.”

He nodded. “She was filled with peace at the San, once she was on the road to recovery, but her mood seems to have darkened since she got back, despite all her smiles and jokes.”

He looked so upset that she gave him a hug. “You still love her, don’t you? I’ll try and deal with her faithfully, though half of me wishes she’d go to bed, rather than have a dinner party.”

“Only half of you? Good! Because it’s just one hour she’s asking, not the earth! She really does need to see Nancy, to reassure herself she’s not left her wallowing in too many difficulties. It was those difficulties that made Hilda ill, so why wouldn’t she worry? She doesn’t want Nancy falling ill. Try and sit on Gwynneth, get her to cut Hilda some slack.”

She laughed. “Two minds with one thought. That’s my intention, if she’ll listen! Jack, as well, because fighting them all just makes things harder for her. It did the night of Linda’s accident, which is why I tried to warn Gwynneth. I’ll see you later, Tonton.” She winked.

“Behave!” he laughed, pulling her into a bear hug. “It’s so good to have you here, Kate!”

“It’ll be even better when you’re living close next year,” she said softly. “We don’t have many years left to us, and have been apart too long. Twins need to spend time together.”

She winked again, and silently entered the Salon. Hilda was lying perfectly still on the couch. Was she asleep? She tiptoed over, saw Hilda’s eyes were closed, so was about to sit down when her friend’s head moved on the pillow. The next moment, her eyes fluttered open and she stared up into the loving green eyes. Those keen eyes saw the inner darkness, even as Hilda tried to smile. Mother dropped to the floor beside her and stroked a white cheek.

“Why so miserable, child?”

Hilda grasped the hand, which tightened round hers. “Tell me about Meg! Oh, and by the way, if I should fall asleep, your bedroom’s through that door, and the bathroom’s next door. Make yourself at home.”

“Stop thinking about others, and pay some attention to yourself, daughter!” the nun said tartly. She dropped a kiss on Hilda’s cheek, kept hold of the thin hand and settled more comfortably in the floor. “I’ll be fine wherever I sleep, although your autocratic mandate certainly caused some amusement among the rabble. Getting one over on your Superior is not going to become a habit, I hope!” She groaned when she saw Hilda’s lips twitch. “Oh, lor’! I hate puns as much as you do. That came out all wrong, but I hate to move you out of your own bed when you’re still ill and need to rest.”

“All three beds are the same model, so what’s the difference? And Ellie and I enjoy being together…” The blue-grey eyes grew even darker, and Mother wondered if her low mood had something to do with her ward. How very strange!

“Before I tell you anything about Meg, may I thank you for all you’ve done for Ellie?” Mother put a hand over Hilda’s lips. “Don’t argue! She’s the most adorable, entertaining, sensitive sprite I’ve ever come across, with a very real love for others. I’ll have so much to tell her aunt. You’ve changed her almost beyond recognition.”

“I haven’t really changed her, nor have the others who care for her,” Hilda replied softly. “We simply loved her enough that she gradually learned to trust us, and felt safe to drop her guard and reveal her true character and many gifts. She’d been hiding away from everyone through fear and desperate loneliness and a terrible sense of betrayal. When you’ve lost literally everything, how can you still be yourself, be what you were?” Tears sparkled on her eyelashes. “Nell’s death taught me a little of how that feels. Oh, Mother, God and you brought two lonely, grieving people together, and made them so very happy. We suit each other admirably. I love her now as though she were my own daughter… but therein lies my problem,” she added miserably.

Her eyes were so haunted that Mother grew troubled. “Hilda, what is it?”

Hilda grasped her hand. “Tell me about Meg,” she ordered. “Perhaps then I’ll have enough courage to open up. Please!” she begged.

“Okay, love, okay.” Mother kept hold of the slim hand. “Ellie and Jeanne practically had to drag her in the classroom door, and I saw why, when the most awful silence fell on everyone as they looked up and saw her.”

“The trouble is, I wasn’t here to prepare them,” whispered Hilda.

“Don’t blame yourself, child. God knew what He was doing. Two of the girls shot to their feet almost immediately and greeted her like their long-lost precious lamb.

“Mary Garth?” Mother nodded. “Erica?” Another nod.

“The two of them had most of the others on their feet in an instant, shuffling desks and chairs to make room for the three of them. I have to say those portable desks are amazing.

“Oh, God bless them both!”

“Meg didn’t know which way to look and clung on to Ellie. They really seem to have bonded, which is odd after all the mess between them, but I suppose stranger things have happened,” mused Mother. “Your influence, no doubt! There was one other girl there, sharp-featured…”

“Rita Quick? She, Erica and Mary, along with Jeanne, were the first to help Ellie build that bridge of friendship, although Rita had to think about it long and hard first.”

“Well, she soon chivvied Meg into a chair, with Jeanne and Ellie either side of her. Erica and Mary promised to help them get their books out when we two adults left, and show them what they’d missed.” She laughed. “Tell me, how did they know we’d be leaving them to it?”

“The sixths are always left to their own devices during prep.”

“Well, we now know that at least some of them will protect and befriend her, if only to stay on Ellie’s and Jeanne’s good side. A good many were neutral, saying little, but there was nothing overtly inimical there, although there were two who literally turned their backs…”

“Sara Carlyon, one of Ellie’s original sheepdogs, and Barbara Holmes,” Hilda sighed unhappily. “They do seem to have taken a real hate of Meg. They were the same the day Ellie and I tried to explain the reason for the poor girl’s behaviour.”

“You mean they dared to show it in front of their Headmistress?” Mother was shocked. “A woman they know to be full of mercy and kindness? They’re mighty brave to take you on, love.”

Hilda shook her head. “I refused to get into it with them. One can’t force seventeen year olds to change their stance. I hoped… but Meg has been so unfriendly and nasty to most of them over the last few years that I’m not really surprised by their reactions. That’s why I tried to prepare her. And you have to admit that taking on the Headmistress’s ward, and bullying her so badly that she hurt herself, did Meg no favours at all, as far as her form’s concerned.”

Mother stroked the furrowed forehead. “Don’t look so harried, child. Meg’s stronger now, and we’ve taught her not to react to such behaviour, but ignore it. Two girls against her out of twenty-odd seems pretty good going, I’d say, even if some were neutral and may turn against her later. The influence of your loving mercy is most definitely at work in there.” She smiled at Hilda’s shake of the head. “We all know it, even if you won’t accept it, child. Anyway, once they were all settled. Ian kicked off the proceedings - an Ian I’m no longer sure I know, any more than I knew the teasing, loving Ian I saw in here earlier. You’ve changed him beyond recognition, love. He’s been so self-contained, since he broke down all those years ago.”

“And who can blame him, after all he went through!” murmured Hilda. “Trouble has the same effect on me, as you know. He just needed some self-confidence instilling, and Ellie did that for him in double-quick time. He was tickled pink by her immediate adoption of that blinking adoration society, which just popped out of his mouth - or so he says! - and he’s blossomed in her love for him. As has she, in his love! What you now see was always there – as you know from your childhood together! He relaxed enough with Nell and me over the years, but Nell’s death and my own terrible grief, which he hadn’t expected, threw him back in on himself. My turning down his proposal didn’t help, either!” she added with a sigh, but Mother shushed her. “He supported me last term, when I still found it very hard without Nell, and the tension between us gradually evaporated. All that, added to Ellie’s love this term, has encouraged him to recognise his own worth.” Mother was dumbfounded by Hilda’s loving assessment of Ian. She knew him better than his own sister! “Neither of us could do without him, Mother, although I still feel guilty I can’t love him in that way. I sometimes think I’m just using him.”

Mother kissed her gently. “Of course you are! That’s what he wants, so he can help you and Ellie learn to live again, without your loved ones. He’s trying to make up for failing you when Nell died.” Hilda shook her head again. “He loves both of you almost as much as he loves me, I’d say, but he’s not sad now, because he’s gained a whole new and precious family, one that includes Nell, Vivien and Meg.” She thought back to Ian’s ease with Ellie’s form:

Ian smiled lovingly at the three girls when everyone was settled, then looked round. “What a cracking bunch you are! Meg was terrified you wouldn’t accept her back, but I’m absolutely delighted you proved her wrong. I see you take after that Abbess of yours, who is mercy personified. You’re helping to build higher that bridge of friendship started by Ellie, and also welcomed Ellie herself back, in a most loving fashion. Doctor Jack does ask that you be careful not to knock into her. Her hand is still very painful, but she was desperate to get back to you. I can’t for the life of me think why,” he muttered wryly. “Personally, I preferred to keep away from my teachers and all schoolwork. I wasn’t your model pupil!”

Most of them burst out laughing, but he caught some cold looks being cast Meg’s way and held up his hand. “Please, I beg you. Don’t look like that! Meg had nothing to do with Ellie’s recent injury. Her hand was healing nicely, until someone who should know better was very cruel to her on Monday morning, hence her ending up at the San in so much pain. None of us, including Ellie herself, blames Meg for what happened. Miss Annersley certainly doesn’t!”

Ellie looked round. “Please to face it, mes amies, I was the one who cut the finger, you know, so why blame Meg? I learned two things from her. One, that if one is bullied, one should always tell this to someone, because the bully needs the help, too. The Abbess made me to see this. Meg was lonely and miserable, but no one knew it. The other big thing I learned is to hold in my temper. Being angry hurts only me, not the one who makes me angry. So, please, help me to make higher and stronger the bridge for Meg, so we can make Meg elle-même stronger. She has not had the happy life most of you have had. Jeanne and I are now her friends, so if anyone wants to hurt Meg or to be horrid to her, they will have to face us.”


Mother laughed. “She said it so forcefully, yet so calmly, that it could have been you speaking, daughter. I was stunned. Don’t ever tell me she doesn’t love you enough to copy everything you do. Those girls knew she meant every word, just as you always do.” Hilda tried to smile, a smile which made Mother want to weep. What on earth was up? “They did ask about you, and banged the desks in delight when they heard you were back among them and on the road to recovery. I gather Ian told the two sixths about the miracle, and had an interesting question and answer session about miracles and answers to prayer. What a school you lead, love! How many others would have trusted their older girls in such a way?”

“Gwynneth suggested it, apparently. I think she was right, especially after the angry way Jack reacted to my coming back to life, and to the fact that God ordered me out of bed yesterday when I could scarcely move.” Mother gaped. This was something Ian had never mentioned. “Ask Ian about it later! If my death, and what followed after, helps even one girl, and brings her closer to God, then it was worth telling them. I suspect it may come up again in my Scripture lessons, but I don’t mind. The Lord will give me the right words.”

“I think your faith is stronger even than mine, daughter,” Mother squeezed the hand she was holding, her love for Hilda shining in her eyes. “I know you’ve told that form some of what went on in Meg’s life, but I gave it to them plain and simple, even the truth of what really happened at Christmas, and why she was so horrid to everyone afterwards. I explained that you’d had to be careful what you told them about Nanny’s death, because Meg hadn’t known you were revealing it, but she told me to go ahead. I have to say, this true version of Nanny’s death really drew out their compassion, as it should!” She paused, thinking hard. “One girl did ask Ellie why she’d forgiven Meg, but she just said she knew exactly how it felt to be totally unloved and unwanted, that she’d spent several years in the same sort of pain Meg was experiencing. That shut them up fast, I can tell you! She packs a punch, your ward!”

“They respect and like her, for all that she’s only been here so short a time. The concert revealed what she was, especially when it was obvious she was in a great deal of pain. She’d already made the juniors her slaves, and saving Linda’s life completed the rout! She’s got a strong personality, but it needs channelling, for she’s still given to the odd explosive outbreak. And, as I said to Meg, she still has dark times when everything rises up and she feels empty inside. I’m not sure that will ever go away completely. As for her form, most of them have loving families, so it won’t do them any harm to discover that some girls just don’t, and hence their personalities may be warped. They’re close to adulthood now, and must learn to summon up some compassion, not hatred and anger, for those who transgress.”

The respect in the nun’s eyes made Hilda blush. “All they need do is follow your example, love, as I’ve already told my nuns to do.” Hilda’s mouth fell open in shock, but Mother simply laid a hand on her lips to stop up the words she knew were forming. “Mary Garth had a hard time believing anyone could be so cruel, and even one of those who’d been giving Meg cold looks began to soften a little.” She laughed quietly. “Ian summed up my own and Ellie’s words so beautifully, bringing out the poignancy of Meg’s situation:

“You know, girls, in all her seventeen years, no one ever told Meg she was pretty, or that they were proud of her. Her parents never went to concerts at her junior school, when she was performing. Can you imagine? I’m sure most of your parents give you big hugs and tell you all sorts of proud and loving things?” Most of them nodded. “Like you, my sister and I were extremely lucky, and had a glorious childhood. But no one, except her Nanny, ever told Meg they loved her, never asked her to sit and relax with them, never asked her what she might like for a present, never asked how she was getting on at school, or took her out anywhere, to the cinema or out for a meal – and then even tried to hide the truth, when the one person who did do all that for her had died. That would be a cruel thing to do to a stranger, but how can you do it to your own child?” He winked at Ellie. “My friend Ellie here knows what all that feels like, although she had grandparents around until she was fourteen. She feels great sympathy for Meg, and knows exactly what she missed out on. Ellie was another who never heard those loving words from her father, was never told how beautiful she is.”

Mother sighed. “You can’t really understand such cruelty when your own life is so happy, but they tried, bless them. They said lovely things to both girls. Then Ian asked them to do something that will be hard for them:

“Life is never easy when you feel unloved and unwanted, so perhaps you could make up to Ellie and Meg, in some small way, for all their loneliness and despair. Unlike Ellie, Meg has had no love from any relative her whole life, only from Nanny, a stranger, so could you find it in your hearts to give her some of that love, as Jesus does, as Ellie and Jeanne are doing, as Miss Annersley and my sister are trying to do? After all, Jesus tells us that our love for Him is no love at all if it doesn’t encourage us to love others, even the strangers among us.”

Hilda stared at her, trying to imagine that scene, and loved Ian all the more for his tender care of everyone. Her eyes blurred. He had done so much for Ellie and her, and now was doing as much again for Meg. She still wondered why he’d taken the girl under his wing, but knew he would never tell her. He was so brave, so true, she thought to herself.

“I’ve no real idea what you’re thinking, love, but I suspect you’re filled with admiration for Ian and Ellie's efforts for Meg. It was very moving! Some nodded their heads, and even smiled at her. Perhaps she only needs a few of them to try. That will be enough to make her feel welcome and forgiven. Some will hurt her, of course, but we’ve tried to teach her how to cope. I don’t think she has Ellie’s fiery nature, so you’re safe from any more conflagration.” Hilda rolled her eyes. “But tell me, love. Why isn’t Ellie jealous of all her aunt and Ian have done for Meg? When I think how very jealous she was of Tessa...”

Hilda’s eyes turned to the fire. “She knows now that she does still have family who love her, and that it’s forever. Just as she knows how much she’s loved by Ian and myself, and by Vivien and Gwynneth. She’s also finding real friendship now, and knows that many people like her for who she is, and not just because she’s my ward. She no longer worries that I love other people, because she trusts that she has her own niche in my heart, as Nell does, and that I will always love them. Love keeps this old world turning, Mother,” she added softly.

“Your love certainly keeps this old world turning for Ellie. I know you feel others have given her as much, but it just isn’t true, love. You were the one who gave her unconditional love from the moment you saw her, a grieving teenager. You loved her just as she was, not as the rest of us wanted her to be. Like the Lord, you knew that was where one had to start, to effect any change. You’re imprinted on her mind and heart now, as a mother duck is imprinted on her duckling the instant it first sees her, and would then follow her anywhere.” Tears trickled down Hilda’s cheeks at the love in the sweet voice. “Patricia thinks you’re the bee’s knees and would do anything for you. As indeed would I! But you know that!”

“I know you would,” she whispered, “and you know the feeling is mutual. By the way, did Mr Lyall discover Meg was still there two days later?”

“Yep, and got quite angry at my still not allowing him to visit her. I pointed out to him, once again, that he’s had seventeen years to get close to her, so why hadn’t he!”

“You’re a hard nut!”

Mother tapped Hilda on the nose. “And you think you’re not? You didn’t hesitate to throw Meg straight into the lion’s den this afternoon.”

“Because the longer I left it, the harder it would have been for her. I saw that the lovely time she was having here was giving her some much-needed strength and courage, so I just went for it with all my fingers crossed. It’s a delicate balance!”

Mother Abbess winked. “I have no idea why Nell ever thought you were soft-hearted. What are you going to do about giving Meg the good news?”

“I’ll start tomorrow. No, we’ll start! You’re up to your neck in this, so you’re not escaping putting in your two pennyworth. We’ll introduce the topic and see how it goes.”

Hilda turned her eyes to the fire, to escape the acuity in those green eyes, but Mother was having none of it. She ran a gentle finger down Hilda’s cheek. “What’s wrong, sweetheart? You’re down and almost out, it seems to me, yet you laughed and joked with the others earlier, and were so wonderfully encouraging to Meg. Yours were the words that stiffened her spine and sent her on her way.”

There was a long, fraught silence, then the words seemed to be dragged, kicking and screaming, out of Hilda. “It fell on me the moment I walked in the front door. It fell on Ellie, too, although I thought that was simple fear of Kathie, but… oh, I don’t know,” she sighed. “Perhaps we just missed the simple serenity of being together in that peaceful room at the San. Once I was brought back from the dead, I was less tense and worried than I’d been since Nell’s death.” Her head turned to the nun, and saw how gentle were the green eyes. “I’d handed all my problems over to Him there, but could feel myself seizing them back the instant I stood in the entrance hall. Aren’t you ashamed of me? It’s hardly what you’d expect from a nun, even a lowly green hopeful.”

“It’s perfectly normal, child,” Mother said gently. “In the San, you left all your worries at the door and could concentrate on Ellie and on getting well. You were cocooned in love, both human and divine, then had to leave that cocoon and face the outside world again sooner than you expected. And let’s face it, any severe illness leaves one depressed and out of sorts.”

“He raised me from the dead!” Hilda said harshly and with heavy emphasis. “How many people are gifted such a miracle? I owe Him! Yesterday He coaxed me out of bed, filling me with strength that I shouldn’t have expected to feel for several more days. Why did He do it? He told me I was needed here, and would shore up my weakness. I have no right to be depressed! I should be walking on cloud nine, thanking Him every moment. He told me all would be well, that He would be with me. Why isn’t that enough?” she asked despairingly.

“Hilda, how many accidents and appalling incidents have there been recently?” Mother asked softly. “And all of them following on one after the other so quickly? You hardly had time to draw breath between each one, and you’ve been at death’s door twice now since November, leaving you very, very frail. Having to gird yourself to face Kathie must have been trauma enough, without all the other problems needing your saving grace.”

“Ellie was also afraid, yet she coped with Kathie like a Trojan warrior. I’ve never been so proud of her. I threw her in at the deep end at once, just like I did to Meg. I felt her fear would escalate if we didn’t get it over and done with. She proved me right.” Hilda’s mellow voice spun magic out of Ellie’s dealings with Kathie.

Mother gaped in wonder. “My God, Hilda! That’s unbelievable, when she was so terrified. How did she find the words, the thoughts, the gravity, the sheer gumption? A jealousy club, for goodness sake! She’ll go far!” She shook her head in disbelief.

“She has a great deal of hard, Gallic, common sense. Once she got going, she was off and running, but in a very gentle way. She did keep hold of me the whole time for courage, but after Kathie had gone – a near-hysterical Kathie, I might add – she was much more relaxed. I don’t think she could have been so light-hearted and amusing this afternoon without that confrontation. So I guess being a tough nut has its uses.”

“I’m so proud of you both!” Mother studied Hilda’s face. She felt they still weren’t getting to the bottom of it. “But I think leaving you lying here all alone, contemplating Ellie’s problems, your own illness and breakdown, and all the matters still needing healing in school, have let loose the demons of your grief, just to add to the burden.”

Hilda’s hand trembled in the nun’s. She swallowed. “I met her in my dream - when I was near death, I think,” she whispered. “We walked along the sea shore, just chatting like last time, the blue butterflies following us… You’ll find them hanging over your bed.” She turned to look into the fire again, sheer misery in her face.

“You going to tell me more?”

“Perhaps, when I’ve thought about it in the clear light of day and seen what it means for me. It brought me peace, but now…”

Mother turned Hilda’s face her way, and their eyes locked. “Sweetheart, a lot’s been going on inside that head of yours while you’ve been cooped up at the San, so don’t be ashamed of your reactions, thinking they’re strange. They’re not! They’re perfectly normal. You came close to a mental breakdown, you died from an extremely serious illness. Two shocks to your poor system! I can sense the breakdown still hovering, so we’re going to talk a lot, just as we did at Christmas - talk until it’s out of your system. My therapy worked last time!”

Hilda stared into the intense green eyes, gnawing her lip, tears obviously close to the surface. Mother Abbess grew frightened. She knelt up, leaned over her. “Hilda, what is it, child? Can’t you tell me? You’ve trusted me so far with things you would only have told Nell…”

The sensitive lips trembled. “It wasn’t just school problems getting back up and hitting me when I walked in the door,” she whispered. “I suddenly felt so very lonely, realising that Ellie and I would lose all the closeness we’d had at the San. It was liberating to show our love without let or hindrance, to have her climb onto my bed and hug me, saying whatever she wanted, and be so natural and loving. It was like we were truly mother and daughter.”

“Ian told me what he saw during your first night there. You were unconscious, and Ellie left the friends she was with, and made Ian bring her back so she could be with you the moment you died, if that were to happen.”

Tears fell from Hilda’s eyes in a great rush. “She wishes so much that she could have been with her Papa when he crashed his plane, because then he might finally have told her he loved her.” The green eyes widened. “Also, she knew… she knew how desperately I’d wanted to be with Nell, to hold her, to tell her I loved her one last time before she died. My mother, too! So I’m thinking she wanted this chance to hold someone she loved and say goodbye as they left her. I suspect she also wanted me to know how much I was loved. Oh, Mother,” she sobbed.

Mother was stunned into silence. “What a loving, loving child she is!” she finally whispered. “You’ve grown even closer than I realised, if that’s the sort of thing you talk about. And because of all the secrets she’s been revealing, you’ve opened yourself up, as you so rarely do, made yourself vulnerable and revealed your own secrets, to show her you understand completely, that you’d been in her position and suffered as she had.”

“I had to try and make sense of it all for her,” Hilda added, the tears streaming down her face. “Nell told me it was the best way to help her. We all need someone who knows just what’s in our hearts, Mother,” Hilda whispered, startling the nun. “God was very good to her that night, raising my hand so it could rest on her head, letting her know I loved her, and also knew she loved me. Apparently she fell asleep at once.” Hilda fell silent, closed her eyes over her tears, as though afraid to reveal the rest. “We won’t have that same closeness again, not once her hand’s better and she returns to sleeping in school. I won’t be able to help her dress, do her hair, chat non-stop, tease her and be teased back… And, once we leave school, there’ll be nothing. I’ll be a nun…”

The tears fell faster, and she covered her eyes with her hand. Mother stared at her, aghast. Was Hilda saying what the nun thought she was saying?

Quickly, she knelt up and eased an arm under Hilda’s head, drawing her close. “Sh, child, sh! Don’t be ashamed of your feelings for Ellie. You always wanted to be a mother, and God seems to have given you that chance – but He’ll take it away again next year, when you enter, won’t He? Is that what’s been underlying everything tonight? Like water pooling in darkness? You’ve looked so haunted.” Hilda nodded, burying her face in the grey garments and weeping bitter tears. “You feel you’d rather be Ellie’s mum than a nun? Oh, sweetheart, what a conundrum!”

She held her close till the quiet weeping slowed. Hilda turned her head, drowned eyes looking up at the nun. “I know it’s daft. She’ll be at uni most of the time, and then will want to be with her friends. She won’t need me, once she’s grown independent and is surer of her place in the world. And God… in my dream.. He told me about all the work He had waiting for me in the convent, looking after His little ones.” She ran her hand through her hair, scrubbed her face. “I’m no longer sure what my vocation is, where I go from here... I’m so confused, Mother.”

The nun rocked her gently, praying the while. “Let me take a leaf out of Hilda Annersley’s book and quote at her from Tolkien: ‘A man who flies from his fear may find that he has only taken a short cut to meet it.’”

Hilda frowned up at her, struggling with her tears.

“What I think he’s trying to say, love, is that being afraid of things, fearing the worst, only makes the fear worse.” Mother stroked the hair back off the white, tear-stained face and smiled lovingly. “Don’t worry about it for now. You’re at the end of your tether, have been dreadfully ill, are still not well, and came perilously close to that breakdown I mentioned, so I’m not sure you should even be thinking about your future at all. You’ve got enough to worry about here in school. Just go with the flow, and enjoy being with Ellie. Rest in God’s love, and He’ll show you eventually where your life lies. I’m not surprised you love Ellie and want to be with her. She’s such a funny, loving, sensitive and unusually mature person. I’ve fallen in love with her myself today. She just lifts you up, and I can see exactly why you wouldn’t want to lose that.” She bent to kiss Hilda’s forehead. “Live for the day, child, and all will come right. Trust Him for everything. He knows what He’s doing.”

Hilda opened her eyes, and Mother saw the shame. “Oh, no, you don’t! This is nothing to be ashamed of, daughter. We all have strong feelings about things, and they’re not easily dismissed. How can you be ashamed of loving someone, especially someone as beautiful as Ellie? You’re not disappointing me at all, if that’s what you fear. I’m stunned by the perfect love you have for her, and I see how very much that love is returned. You’re completely in tune with each other, and such great love is a God-given gift, Hilda. He wanted you to find each other, of that I’m certain. I was merely the conduit. He’ll let you know sooner or later what he wants of you – even if it has to be a sacrifice on your part. But let’s not jump the gun and think like that now. Just be the mother you want to be, enjoy being with her, go on holiday with her, go to Vivien’s with her – and, of course, bring her to the convent! I’m happy for you, and so is Nell, from what you tell me.”

“You don’t think I’m trying to replicate what I had with Nell?” Hilda asked tearfully.

“No, Hilda, I don’t think that!” Mother said firmly. “What I do know is that you’ve been under far too much strain, both physically and mentally. You’re not yourself, and not thinking straight like you normally do. You’re in that very dark place, more even than I realised, but God is in that darkness with you, so cling to His strength.” She looked at the photos on the walls. “When I see how surrounded you are by Nell, I don’t doubt that thoughts of her also fell on you as you walked in that door – because, let’s face it, at one time she would have been the one to welcome you home. But you accept now that Nell is gone, that you have to make a life without her – and I’m perfectly sure you would never try to use Ellie as a replacement! You love her too much to have anything but the most honest of relationships with her.”

“No, Ellie doesn’t replace Nell. No one could do that. She has her own place, and is tucked away there securely. The love I have for her is very different from the love I have for Nell.”

Mother smiled down at her. “I know that, child! I trust my daughter. You’ve told me that Nell’s clamouring to be part of this new family, so enfold her into it, and weep and laugh with her, as you do with Ian, Vivien and Ellie. You have such a vast, loving heart, child, so love Ellie as only you know how, and leave the future to God. Only He knows where you belong and what is right for you, so delight in this gift He’s offered you for the present moment, and relax. I love you so much, daughter, and will do my best to help you unravel the confusion.”

She drew Hilda closer, stroked the damp cheek, smiled down into the fearful eyes. “For now, just listen quietly to this blessing from Saint Teresa of Ávila. Take on board its truth for your own life at this moment, and let its comforting words lull you to sleep:”

“’May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received,
And pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be content, knowing you are a child of God.
Let His presence settle into your bones
And allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.’”


Hilda’s eyes closed at the word ‘praise’ and she slept, her hand held securely in that of her friend, the Abbess.


*****
Chapter 20 - Even Darkness Must Pass by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Thank you for all the very interesting thoughts on Hilda's distressing dilemma and on her friendship with MA.

I'm so sorry for the long delay, but there were reasons!

We're leaving Hilda to sleep and having a wee peep at what others are doing in that same time frame.
“Teacher’s pet!” spat a soft, vicious voice.

Heads shot up in alarm. The form room had been silent until that point, everyone settling to their work once Mother and Mr Stuart had departed. Erica had passed on to Meg what she had missed in History, and Meg was soon catching up on the reading Miss Charlesworth had set them all, determined to push aside her fear of the girls. Alas, it was not to be!

She raised her head at the sibilant whisper, and met the cruel gleam in Sara’s eyes. Tempted to respond angrily, she recalled all the words of advice from the sisters and dropped her eyes back to her books. Ellie was not so forgiving. Forgetting all her guardian’s sage advice, she glared at Sara, fingers clamped tight round her pen. She took a deep breath, opened her mouth to make a scornful riposte – and felt a hand on her arm.

“Leave it!” whispered Meg.

“No talking, please,” Erica said firmly, looking hard at Sara, who shrugged.

Most of them tried to work on in the silence, but Sara was not done with Meg. “Why are you all being so nice to her, after what she’s done?” she muttered a few minutes later, pure venom in her voice.

“I said no talking,” re-iterated Erica. “I’ll discuss this with you later, Sara, if you so wish!”

There was enough tartness in the form prefect’s voice to subdue Sara for the moment. She knew what would happen if this got to a mistress’s ear.

Tears began to drip onto Meg’s book. It was hopeless! They would never accept her back! Both Abbesses were wrong!

Ellie’s hand crept over to pat her knee. A note was placed on her desk from Jeanne: 'Ignore her! Not everyone feels that way. You have friends now.'

Mary Garth from behind whispered, “Buck up, Meg!”

Heartened by all this quiet support, Meg dried her eyes and tried to concentrate on her book. The form settled down again, but some were very annoyed at the interruptions, and blamed Meg. Barbara Holmes, meanwhile, was feeling as aggrieved as Sara. Why did no one ever get their just desserts? Meg should never have been forgiven, let alone have a holiday! Mr Stuart was so wrong! She flung down her pen, which rolled onto the floor.

“Barbara!” warned Erica.

“What?” Barbara stormed, eyes blazing as they swept round the room. “Why should someone who’s been so nasty to all and sundry have everyone bowing and scraping to her? She even hurt Ellie, but Mr Stuart and his sister seem to think she’s something special. She’s nothing!”

“You’re disturbing everyone, Barbara,” warned Katherine Leonard quietly. “We all have too much work to have time to start insulting folk! Let her be and get on, do!”

“Why should she?” cried Sara.

“Because she’s behaving like a child, and seems to have forgotten the rule about working in silence. Because the Abbess asks us to be pleasant to people, no matter what! Would she ever call someone a ‘nothing’? She’s been very ill, and we should be making life easier for her while she recovers, not causing more problems. Ellie herself told you Meg wasn’t the one who made her cut her finger.” Erica spoke quietly, but there was a bite to her words.

“Listen to her, do!” begged Mary, with a sigh. “Stop being so horrid to someone who’s doing you no harm, and let us get on!”

Sara turned on her angrily, mouth open to speak, when Erica said softly, “I’ve written down every word you and Barbara have said, Sara. If you don’t stop baiting Meg and get on with your own work, I’ll go to Miss Wilmot after prep. Miss Annersley told us not to put up with any bullying, and that’s what you’re doing to poor Meg.”

“Who do you think you are, Erica Standish?” hissed Barbara.

“She’s the form prefect, and well within her rights,” Mary replied calmly. “And I’ll support her in all she says.”

“For goodness sake, everyone, shut up, do!” yelped Clare Kynaston, tugging at her hair. “The bell will be going soon and I’ve done nothing yet! I can’t think straight! Sara, please leave Meg alone! I know you’re form prefect, Erica, but just ignore them!” she pleaded.

Jeanne turned to Erica. “May Meg, Ellie and I go and work in the library?” she asked quietly, as was her wont. “You can all get on if we’re not here.”

Erica nodded, smiled kindly at Meg and caught her hand in comfort as she rose to her feet.

“Thank you,” whispered Meg, wiping away her tears.

Sara saw those tears, and suddenly felt less sure of herself. Why on earth had she got on her high horse like that? She knew what the adults would say if they ever found out.

The three left the room and made their way to the library, but not in silence. Ellie’s temper was well and truly roused. “But, they are horrid, horrid, horrid, ces idiotes! They should be…”

“Ellie, tais-toi, chérie,” murmured Jeanne. “We’re supposed to be silent in the corridors, and anger won’t help anyone. Look how quiet Meg remained! She’s being very brave.”

“I don’t have the right to be angry, Jeanne,” Meg whispered, wiping away more tears. “But they do have a right to have a go at me, since I’ve been so horrid to them. Your aunt’s taught me to keep quiet when they say nasty things, Ellie. She told me to pretend to fasten a zip on my lips.”

“What a good idea, Meg! There, Ellie, your aunt has spoken!” teased Jeanne.

Ellie looked ashamed. “Madame has taught to me the same idea. Me, I am sorry, Meg. It is not fair what they do…”

“What who do, mes amies? And why are we dawdling in the corridors and talking, tell me.” They spun round. Miss Knowles was behind them, carrying an armful of books. She started to say more, but saw the tears. “Meg, what is it, child?”

She then caught the anger blazing in Ellie’s eyes and her heart sank. So much for the amusing tea party, and for Mother and Ian speaking to the form!

“They have been saying the so nasty things to Meg, Miss Knowles,” Ellie said angrily.

“We decided it would be better to keep out of their way and work in the library.”

“You’re a true peacemaker, Jeanne,” smiled Vivien. She eyed the three of them and realised they would get no more work done that evening, if left to their own devices. “Come along to the lab and let’s see what we can do about it,” she added gently. “How’s the arm, chérie?” Ellie wrinkled up her nose, so Vivien guessed it was hurting and made a mental note to see Matey later. The girl looked worn out, as indeed did Meg.

Oh, Hilda, if ever you were needed in school, it’s now. Meg is going to suffer for a wee while, I’d say. Don’t be too long getting better, ma bonnie wee chieftain.

Once in the lab, she settled them on stools round the large benches, and gave them glasses of water. “Tell me, from the beginning,” she said gently, sitting opposite.

“Me, I got angry,” Ellie said miserably.

“But you didn’t actually say anything, ma mie,” put in Jeanne.

“No,” Ellie hiccupped, “because Meg put out the hand to stop me.”

Vivien smiled at Meg. “Well done, dear. That must have been hard.”

“I felt I deserved anything they cared to say, after all my sins. Ellie’s aunt told me over and over not to get into an argument, because you can’t ever really win, even if you’re in the right. She taught me to mentally fasten a zip over my lips.”

“It is the good lesson for me to learn, too, non?” mourned Ellie.

Vivien patted her hand. “So why exactly did you leave? What was said? And no, Meg, you don’t deserve such shoddy treatment. You’ve said you’re sorry, you’ve been punished and forgiven, so that should be the end of it.” They looked at her in silence. “Miss Annersley wants all bullying stopped, doesn’t she? Well, this was outright bullying, by the sound of it, so tell me! I won’t have a go at them, I promise.”

Meg remained silent. Ellie knew she, too, should stay silent, so Jeanne quietly explained.

Vivien’s eyes were very kind as they dwelt on the girls. “I hate to say it, but you three did the wisest thing. You remained silent, then left the room. That helps everyone.” She took a deep breath, reminded herself these girls were mature enough to hear the truth, and added softly. “I know Erica is form prefect, although you don’t really need one in the sixth, but it would have been better if she had also remained silent. If you don’t feed that sort of thing, it fizzles out – for the time being, at least. All Erica did was fuel Sara’s and Barbara’s anger. I don’t blame Katherine and Clare for complaining! The thing is, if that argument had carried on, even some of those who had been feeling kindly towards Meg might have lost their patience and blamed her for wasting their time, though it wasn’t her fault. No one wins in that sort of mess.”

“It is so awful, you know, because Mère and Monsieur Stuart, they tried to tell to them about Meg’s life, about how horrid and lonely it was, so why did these silly girls not listen?” Tears stood in the sapphire eyes.

“Mr Stuart and his sister were too kind, trying to help me like that!” muttered Meg.

“No, they weren’t too kind, dear.” Vivien clasped Meg’s hand across the table. “They only tried to tell the girls that you’ve been lonely and unhappy your whole life, which made you hurt inside and so want to hurt others. Still, I’m surprised those two behaved so badly not ten minutes after Mother and Mr Stuart left the room. They will be so disappointed.”

“Do we have to tell them?” asked Meg. “I only got what I deserved!”

“But this is not so, Meg,” Ellie declared. “You said to me you are sorry for my hurt, and Madame punished you. What more do these girls want, tell to me! It makes me so angry, you know,” she fumed.

“What angers me, chérie, is that you were the one most hurt by Meg, yet you’re the one championing her. Shouldn’t that tell them something?” Vivien sighed, rose to her feet. “I think I have to see Miss Wilmot.” She raised her hand. “Sh, Meg, I can’t let this go on. These are sixth formers we’re talking about, not middles! They’ll be going out into the world soon, and one would hope they’d go out having learned some self-control, compassion and understanding.” Her face was sad. “They heard about a miracle yesterday, when Miss Annersley was brought back to us from the dead, something so overpowering that it should put into the shade any pet hates they might have.”

She rose to her feet, tidied away her books and found her jacket, all the time watching their woebegone faces. “Want to stay here and work, rather than going to the library? In silence, you understand!” They nodded. “May I make a suggestion first? I think Matey’s taken up Meg’s case, so why don’t you go and help her unpack, while there’s no one around, then return here to finish your work while the others are relaxing? It might help get rid of the fidgets, and I’ll come back soon to keep you company.”

Ellie and Jeanne jumped to their feet at once. “Merci bien, Miss Knowles,” they chorused.

Meg followed more slowly, not understanding why Miss Knowles was so keen to help a reformed bully. Vivien saw her confusion and spoke gently. “It’s okay, Meg! None of this is your fault. You’re trying hard, and we want to make this as easy as we can. That was the why of my chocolate cake!” Meg’s face lightened. “Let’s face it, the Abbess would never forgive me if I let you go on stewing in your unhappiness! Remember, Tolkien once wrote: ‘Even darkness must pass.” Nothing lasts forever, child.” Meg gave her a tentative smile. “Cheer up! It’ll all come out in the wash!”

Ellie’s mouth dropped open. “Mais… that means what, please?” Vivien gurgled and disappeared.

“It means, I think, that everything will be alright in the end,” Meg said slowly.

Ellie shrugged. “Then, tell to me, why did she not say this? Bah! Your English sayings, they defeat me! Every time someone teaches me about one thing, another arrives!”

They all felt better for the laugh and left the room to go upstairs to their dormitory.

Reaching VIB’s door, Vivien tapped briefly and entered. They lifted their heads and immediately rose to their feet, some of them anticipating a tongue-lashing.

She smiled. “Please be seated, girls. I just popped in, Erica, to let you know that Meg, Ellie and Jeanne are working in the lab with me, should anyone want them. I found them wandering the corridors, searching for a home.”

“How are they?” asked Erica.

“How do you think they are?” Vivien asked quietly.

“Upset and angry, at the very least,” muttered Erica.

“Meg’s upset, but understands why it happened.” She heard a few gasps. “However, Ellie’s very angry, and I see why. She was the one hurt most badly by Meg, but she’s forgiven her, so doesn’t understand why some of the rest of you can’t do that very thing.” She saw Barbara and Sara lower their heads. “Meg knows what she was, girls, and accepts that some of you might be unkind or cold-shoulder her. The poor girl feels she deserves it. That’s why she refused to rise to the cruel words that came her way.” She looked at Erica, and spoke very gently. “Because she refused to retaliate, all might have gone well, dear, if you’d just done the same and remained quiet.” Erica blushed. “I know you’re form prefect, and were trying to protect Meg, but she knows no one can really do that. She accepts there’ll be some nastiness, because she was nasty, and so has to weather the storm.”

“But she had reason for her nastiness,” put in Mary Garth. “Miss Annersley told us a little about the death of Meg’s nanny, but Mr Stuart and Mother Abbess showed us what her home life’s really been like.” She grimaced. “It wasn’t pretty, was it?” Vivien shook her head. “Oh, and I also argued with those who said horrid things.”

“So did I,” added Clare, blushing furiously, and Katherine added her own sin.

“Perhaps the sinners should drop a few coins in the fine box!” Vivien suggested with a wink. “You’re truly kind girls, just like Miss Annersley herself, but I suggest you back off a little and let Meg fight her own battles. After all,” she added wryly, “do you really want to tangle with Ellie?” A few chuckled, well aware of Ellie’s fiery nature. “Try to divert people if things are said, as they seem to have been said today, but don’t pull them up. Humiliating folk never helps anyone. And only get an adult involved if it seems to be really cruel and nasty, since that constitutes bullying.”

“But she doesn’t deserve the things people said to her,” said Erica slowly.

“Yes, she does,” came a waspish voice from the back. Vivien’s eyes jumped to Barbara. “She was allowed to be horrid to us all for ages, and now suddenly everyone’s being nice to her and that nun and Mr Stuart are trying to make us feel sorry for her. Why should we?”

Vivien had to restrain her own waspishness in the face of such impertinence. “That nun has a name, Barbara,” she said softly. “You call her Mother Abbess. She’s Mr Stuart’s sister, as you well know. And when you speak to a member of staff, you put up your hand, and speak politely.” Barbara blushed, but refused to look away. “We’re not trying to make you feel sorry for her. We want you to imagine walking in her shoes, having no one to care about you at home, no one to care whether you’re happy or sad. Did they even care whether she lived or died? I don’t know, but it’s not a home life I would have liked to contemplate. Compared to my own upbringing, it sounds achingly lonely. What about your home?”

Barbara finally looked away. That home life had sounded pretty horrid when Mr Start described it, but now it sounded like a prison, with jailers for parents.

“Honestly, Miss Knowles, if Auntie Joey treated me like Meg’s family treated her, I’d be horrid, too,” cried Erica. “It sounds just awful! How can you be nice, if you’ve never been taught how?”

“That’s very profound statement, Erica and shows you’re thinking things through. The simple answer is, you can’t, not without a lot of help – which Meg is now getting. You have a generous heart, dear, and Meg needs girls with generous hearts around her just now.”

“Ellie has a generous heart, too, and tried to argue wi…” Mary paused, aware of nearly naming names.

“But Meg stopped her, didn’t she?” asked Vivien. “That’s because she now knows that silence is the only answer to such words. Perhaps she should give you lessons,” she teased gently. Erica and Mary shifted uncomfortably. “You know, I don’t want to embarrass anyone, but what sort of things were said, Erica?”

“She was called teacher’s pet!”

“Ah! Because Miss Annersley and others are helping her, whereas some of you think she should be punished, instead.” She looked round at their earnest faces. “Don’t you think she’s been punished enough by her parents?” Everyone grew very still. “I must add, in fairness to Meg, that she was punished quite heavily by Miss Annersley, not made a pet of at all, and was then forgiven, so why are you now setting yourselves up as judge and jury?” Some of them looked discomfited. “Hasn’t Miss Annersley forgiven each of you some crime over the years? Has she ever thrown it back in your faces? No, she forgives and forgets, so why aren’t you doing the same? Do as we’re doing, and try to give Meg what she doesn’t have – a loving home and some real affection. Give people love and they learn to give it back, as Erica pointed out. That’s our hope for Meg, anyway. Will you try to understand, and help us?”

Most of them nodded, and Vivien saw Sara was biting her lip and looking very unhappy.

“As for Ellie, she’s feeling very protective of Meg, because she’s suffered in much the same way. She, too, was deprived of love for many years. So if you don’t want her to go off pop, as she’s wont to do wherever injustice is served, watch what you say, although I’m sure Jeanne and Meg will do a good job of sitting on her!”

She winked, and they burst out laughing, looking much happier. She wasn’t going to preach!

****

The three girls made their way silently up the stairs and along the corridors to their dormitory. Jeanne and Ellie felt very miserable for Meg’s sake, feeling she had been punished enough, while Meg seemed to have withdrawn into herself. They entered the dorm without really looking where they were going, and nearly knocked over a small figure on the way out.

“Matron Lloyd!” cried Ellie, steadying Matey. “Tiens, did we hurt you?”

Matey shook herself. “No, thank goodness, Ellie, but it wasn’t for want of trying, was it?” she asked tartly, pulling the strings of her cap straight. She saw their crestfallen faces, and quickly tried to make amends. “I’m sorry, girls, I didn’t mean to sound quite so cross, but something upset me earlier. Why are you here? Shouldn’t you be in prep?”

“We were,” Ellie said miserably, but left it to Jeanne to explain, knowing how angry she herself would still sound.

Matey held out a hand to Meg. “I’m sorry dear. After the lovely tea party, that must have been quite a shock. Miss Annersley will be very disappointed.”

Meg tried to smile. “But it's what I deserve, so I can’t really complain. But I hoped…”

“Me, I do not think so many of them feel like that, though, Meg, now I look back,” Ellie said slowly. “I was angry, yes, but it was mostly Sara and Barbara who were horrid, you know.”

Matey took Meg’s hand again. “I suspect Ellie is right. Most of them will have taken on board all Mother and Mr Stuart said to them, but you’re never going to please everyone. Not even a saint could do that! So stick with the friends you trust, and don’t rise to nasty comments.”

“But this she did not do, you know,” Ellie said dismally. “It was me who, how you say, rose to their comments. My aunt has taught to Meg to pull a mental zip over the lips, so, me, I shall practice this.”

Matey laughed at the face Ellie was pulling. “I’m sure Madame will be delighted.” Ellie stuck out her tongue. Matey pulled the black pony tail, then turned to Meg. “Well, if Miss Knowles has sent you to unpack your belongings, I’ve just brought up both case and rucksack. They’re in there waiting for you.” She looked back at Ellie and saw she was very pale, now the smiles had gone. “You look as though you need some more painkillers.” Ellie nodded. “Well, go on in and I’ll bring them along.”

They went in, but when Meg reached her cubicle, she sank down on the bed, hid her face in her hands and wept softly. Ellie and Jeanne look at each other, then sat one either side of her, pressing close.

Their warmth gradually insinuated itself into Meg’s heart and the weeping slowed. “How can I stand it, day after day?” she whispered.

Ellie’s head rested against Meg’s. “Lean on us, Meg. We will protect you, when we can. So will people like Mary, Erica and Katherine, you know. Not everyone hates you.”

“She’s right, Meg,” added Jeanne. “We have to have hope. But I think we should do your unpacking, since Miss Knowles will wonder where we are.”

Meg mopped her eyes and they sprang up. Meg opened her case, and Jeanne went off to hang dress and skirt in the wardrobe. Ellie hung up her dressing gown, while Meg hid her medallion under her jeans she was placing in the drawers before Ellie could spy it. She removed the books, then carefully brought out her little cat painting and showed them.

“That is exquisite, Meg. How clever your aunt is, Ellie,” said Jeanne.

Ellie stroked the little cat’s painted head. “Perhaps she will teach to me to paint like this. My sketches are not anything like her work.”

“That’s not true,” Meg said quickly. “Everyone loved your sketches at the concert, and all the nuns drooled over the sketches in that book you sent about Polly and Patch spoiling the tree. It got passed round time and time again, and now lives in the sitting room, so all the guests may see it. You’ll have to do them another one, because it will wear out soon.” She winked.

Ellie blushed with pleasure and thought about another idea she had had to send to the convent. Meg, meanwhile, removed the plaque from her case and uncovered it. The other two examined it excitedly, exclaiming at its strange attraction.

“Tiens, Meg, that is so beautiful,” sighed Ellie.

Meg smiled at her. “Your aunt made it for me.” Ellie’s eyes widened, and Meg explained the significance of the broken pieces, and how she hadn’t want to drop and break it. “Your aunt’s very determined, though, Ellie. She insisted and went on insisting, till I did drop it.”

Ellie and Jeanne ran their fingers over the cracks and read all the verses painted on both sides. “You are a so lucky girl, Meg,” sighed Ellie. “Do you think she would let me to make one when I go there at Easter?”

“But you don’t need to be broken and made new, Ellie,” Meg whispered. “You’re lovely just as you are!”

“Mais non, Meg,” said Ellie despondently. “You must ask to Madame and she will tell to you how me, I am not always lovely at all. Although, perhaps I do not need a plaque like this, for Madame she makes me new every day and shows me how to become someone better.” She smiled at Meg. “Me, I am so glad my aunt does this for you.”

Meg gaped at her. “Aren’t you jealous?”

“Why should I be jealous? I know she loves me, as I know now she also loves you. That is good, no? Madame has taught to me how not to be jealous, shown to me that my aunt has a place in her heart just for me, as she now has a place in her heart just for you. I am glad you have someone else who loves you, chérie,” she whispered.

More tears leaked from the grey eyes as Meg hugged Ellie, wondering how she could ever have hurt this beautiful girl. “Thank you,” she whispered. “And thank you, too, Jeanne. I never knew how to make friends, but I hope you two will stay my friends, for you are the most generous girls I’ve ever met in my life. I will try to learn how to be a good friend myself.”

“We’ll teach you, Meg,” Jeanne said softly. “Think about the picture Ellie’s aunt made for me. It says: Friendship is a sheltering tree. That’s all you need do to be a friend - shelter and love your friend. Ellie and I are very willing to shelter you, non, Ellie?”

****

Vivien said a short, encouraging prayer with VIB, then left the room and walked quickly to the office, where Rosalie nodded her through to the study. Nancy looked up from the letters she was signing, and frowned as Vivien closed the door. “You look worried. Has something happened to Hilda?”

“Hope not! She was about to fall asleep when I left her. She was beyond exhaustion.” Vivien moved closer to the desk. “No, I’ve just been having a few quiet words with VIB, but now wonder whether I’ve made things worse.”

“Meg?” Vivien nodded. “They were unkind to her?

“Most of them were fine, I think, even better than fine, but therein lay the problem.” She explained briefly about the nastiness. “Perhaps Ian and his sister going in with Meg and talking a little about her life in was a bad idea. I don’t know, but one of the things thrown at Meg was that she was a teacher’s pet!”

Nancy threw down her pen with a groan. “We can only live in hope, Vivien. Mother, Ian and Hilda have all done their best, both with Meg and the other girls. If we say any more the insults will only get worse. I’m glad you had a few words, though. I know how gentle you will have been, and you probably laid on the humour with a trowel.” Vivien winked. “I’d have marched in there and laid the law down to them – which is exactly what Hilda wouldn’t have done, if she’d been well.”

Vivien sighed. “It’s a delicate balance, Nancy, and who’s to say who’s right. I just didn’t think laying into Barbara and Sara would have brought peace to the state of Denmark.”

Nancy laughed. “It wouldn’t! Meg has to weather this on her own, really.”

“But with plenty of background support from us! Meg knows the ball’s in her court, and she reacted beautifully, saying absolutely nothing. It was Ellie who was prepared to meet fire with fire – but Meg stopped her.” Nancy’s eyes widened. “Oh, yes, I’m afraid Ellie’s a spitfire, but fortunately has the calmest person in the world as her guardian.” Nancy grinned. “As for Meg, I’d say the convent’s done a grand job with her, building on all Hilda and Ian did before she went. The trouble is, Erica added more fuel to the fire, trying to head them off. It didn’t go down well. Perhaps you could have a quiet word with her about being form prefect, and remind her that silence often achieves more than chiding people. I hope they’ve all learned a much-needed lesson – that less is more, in any argument. They should take Hilda as their example - only speak if absolutely necessary.” She rolled her eyes and Nancy laughed again.

“Mmm, she has that down to a fine art, doesn’t she? I recall the staff meeting at the beginning of term. Most people would have flattened Kathie and thrown her out. We should all follow her example, not just the girls.”

“I hope I’m not breaking any unwritten rules, Nancy, when I say it might be better to give Meg some peace during prep for the next few days. Would you let the three of them work in my lab tomorrow and Friday? Meg will be wound up tight after a day of dark looks and the odd cruel word.”

“I don’t see it will hurt. Let them decide, shall we? It’s a good job those three sleep away from the rest, though, or some of the silly idiots might have been silly enough to try twice as hard to hurt Meg in the dark, hoping they’ll remain anonymous.”

“I’ve warned them all that, if it becomes really hurtful, they must bring it to you, as it constitutes bullying, and their Headmistress is trying to eradicate that, as they know.”

Nancy nodded, wishing once again she had Hilda’s perception, her understanding of girls. “I gather I’m summoned to Abendessen in the Salon later.” Vivien smiled. “I do have to warn you, though, that Gwynneth’s cross with you and Ian,” Nancy added in a wry tone.

Vivien sighed. “Jack Maynard will be, too, I should think, and not just with Ian and me. I suspect Mother will also be treading on a few toes. She had harsh words with Gwynneth after Linda’s accident, reminding her that Hilda was in charge, and therefore bore the heaviest burden and did what she needed to do, no matter how ill she felt. If one is the leader, one has to bethe leader. Gwynneth didn’t much like it, but acknowledged to me over at the San yesterday that she was wrong to have been so heavy-handed with Hilda that night. I tried to make her go gently with Hilda tonight, and let her make the decisions. After all, hers was the miracle! She knows how very good God has been to her and won’t throw His gift back in His face.”

Nancy saw how sombre Vivien looked. “You’re worried they might come to blows.”

“Funnily enough, yes, considering what good friends they are. I know Hilda’s been ill several times this year, but Gwynneth’s become too protective. Hilda’s mind’s still active, Nancy, no matter how frail she is. There have been so many problems recently, that she feels the need to be the Head again, and help sort them, even if she’s not in school. She’s not shutting you out, nor Ruth and Jeanne, but you have both schools to run, and Jeanne and Ruth have several staff to cover for, including her own good self. So let her do what she can, over in the Annexe, even if it’s only sign the never-ending letters and see girls individually. In fact, I suspect ideas are stacking up in her head with the enforced rest.”

Nancy searched the grave face. “I see what you mean. I was all for tidying her away in her box for the week. She looked as though a breeze would blow her away last night.”

“Mother won’t let you lock her away. She understands the price one pays for being the leader, and will allow Hilda some leeway – but she’ll pull the plug, if necessary!” Nancy snorted. “Hilda couldn’t talk about school this afternoon, with the girls there and, anyway, the tea party was to welcome Meg back and encourage her to make good, giving her as much ballast as we could. Do we tell Hilda how it went?”

Nancy nodded. “If we don’t, Ellie will, if she was that angry. But I think she needs to know, so yes, we tell her, also Mother and Ian.”

She wondered to herself why Hilda had never broached the subject of Vivien becoming Head at St Mildred’s in place of Kathie. She would be so right! Look at how gently she was trying to head off more problems, and how she sensed what Hilda would want.

“It’ll pull her down, I’m afraid. She had such high hopes, but she and Ian will jolly Meg along. Mother, too. She and Meg have a wonderful relationship. But it’s early days yet, so there’s still hope. Going back to Hilda, since she couldn’t talk this afternoon, I think she wants this dinner party to discuss some ideas she has, but… there’s something bothering her, Nancy, something dark. It wasn’t there in the San, but it certainly seems to have hit her back here. I’m hoping Mother’s got it out of her, or she’ll lie awake tonight fretting. Even her laughter this afternoon, and there was plenty, couldn’t hide it from those who know her. Mother was watching her like a hawk – as one watches a much-loved child who's been in danger. I’m so glad she’s here,” she added with a fierce whisper.

“You love Hilda!” Nancy said softly. Vivien nodded. “And Ellie.”

Vivien nodded again. “Mother, as well. She’s a.. a… force of nature, with a compassion that just overwhelms you. Hilda has that same compassion, but it doesn’t overwhelm, it gentles and encourages. You have to be strong to stand up to Mother, strong like Hilda or even Meg. I’m not sure I’d have the necessary strength to withstand her.” She sighed. “I’m talking for the sake of talking, so forgive me for taking up your valuable time, Nancy! I’d better get back to the girls. I just hope I haven’t done serious damage in there.”

“You never cause damage, Vivien,” Nancy said warmly. “You encourage people, as Hilda does. You surround them with gentle love – and humour! You’ve supported and encouraged me no end while I’ve been standing in for Hilda, and were compassion itself when you spent the night with me after Hilda discovered Kathie’s appalling behaviour. You understood my feeling of betrayal as few others could have done.”

Vivien shrugged her shoulders. “That’s the only gift betrayal leaves behind - an understanding of others who are suffering in like manner. It leaves you feeling less than a whole person, and attacks your self-confidence in a huge way.”

“I don’t think I could have survived Kathie’s behaviour without Hilda, you and Ian, nor indeed coped with taking over Hilda’s role when there are all these problems to tackle. You and Ian have kept me going this week. You two have also kept Hilda going, I gather! You’d make such a good Head yourself, Vivien.”

Vivien shook her head. “I have other fish to fry, dear, and really don’t want it. Hilda did ask, but soon saw my heart wouldn’t be in it.” She saw Nancy was tired, and feeling unsure about everything. “Hilda thinks a lot of you, Nancy. She's very grateful for all the mothering you’ve given her since Nell died, and trusts you implicitly. You made life so much easier for her, welcoming her tears when it all got too much. There aren’t many people willing to cope with one’s everlasting tears. You’ll be a brilliant successor, with or without Kathie.”

The usually merry blue eyes looked haunted. “I was terrified I was going to become Head this week, when she was so ill we feared she might die – and she did die, didn’t she? I wasn’t ready!” Her breath caught in her throat, as she thought how close they had come. “Fortunately for all of us, she was brought back to life, so I’ve escaped for the moment. I’m frightened of so many things, Vivien,” she added softly.

Vivien moved closer to Nancy. “Don’t you think Hilda was frightened, Nancy?” she asked softly. “She, too, was thrown in at the deep end, when Mademoiselle became too ill to continue, and was probably just as terrified, though I’m sure no one ever knew it, except perhaps Nell. Don’t you think she still is frightened, sometimes? She’s frightened for Ellie, and what the future will hold for a homeless, parentless child. Helen’s behaviour must have terrified her, as indeed must Kathie’s, for she has no idea what to do about St Mildred’s, and feels helpless to change Kathie. That helplessness is probably a rare feeling for her.”

“But she was so calm on Saturday after the fires, so quiet and organised, so thoughtful for everyone and about every little detail. It was as though she was born just for that day.”

Vivien choked. “Yes, I see what you mean! Let’s not think about the number of times she passed out because of that incipient blood poisoning!” Nancy pulled a face. “But she learned self-control in a hard school, Nancy, and has only added to it over the years. She didn’t have your happy home life, so learned to hide her feelings, to say nothing and watch and listen. I think that watching and listening stabilised the world for her at a bad time. She listens with her heart, hears not just every word, but the space between the words, the meaning behind them, and hears even what’s not said. People speak with their eyes, with their faces with their whole bodies, and she’s learned every nuance. She doesn’t need your words to explain yourself to you. She’s an expert on reading people, which must frighten the silly middles to death sometimes.” Nancy chuckled. “Her vast experience helped her get it right last Saturday, as yours will, sometime in the future. Don’t give up on yourself, Nancy. Hilda won’t ever give up on you.”

“But I’ll never be what she is, for all your kind words, and indeed her own kind words. She thinks a lot of you, too, Vivien. You’ve been a real blessing to this school since last September. Hilda would say that God sent exactly the right person to take on Nell’s job.”

“But I could never fill Nell's shoes, Nancy,” Vivien said softly.

She smiled, and was gone, leaving Nancy staring sadly at the door, and thinking back. Hard to believe that Nell was alive this time last year, being her usual jovial, sarcastic self, and never suspecting how few days remained to her. As she died, was she aware of the vast grief and loneliness she would inflict on her friend’s soul?

Nancy surprised herself by bowing her head, closing her eyes and pleading with Him for the healing of Hilda’s long grief and frightening fragility.




****
Chapter 21 - What Is Life Without A Friend? by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Thank you for all those extremely thoughtful reviews, and the loving things you said. I was very touched, and do hope you found my responses. This is different and rather static, but was hard to write, so I hope you find something in it that appeals.

A very Happy and Joyous Easter to all.
Back to 17.30, when Hilda fell asleep.

Still on her knees by the couch, Mother Abbess remained quiet and watchful as Hilda slept. She had no desire to disturb the rest her friend so badly needed. She was still in shock herself from all she had heard about her stay in the San. Why had He allowed yet more ill-health to flatten the poor woman, given the shooting and the car accident, never mind Nell’s death? Great good had come from that death for many people, yet it all seemed so unfair to Hilda. But Hilda herself hadn’t seemed to see it that way, so Mother knew she herself would simply have to accept God’s vagaries. Like St Teresa, she was not averse to hauling Him over the coals on occasion, but for now she could only thank Him devoutly for bringing Hilda back to them, for everyone’s sake, especially Ellie’s. And mine, she thought to herself with a shiver.

With a sigh she knelt up and gently stroked the brown hair, then pulled the blanket a little higher, wanting to hug her daughter to her, or else run away with her to a place where she would never again be hurt! But that was patently ridiculous! There was no such place! Only in death, and she certainly didn’t want that for Hilda. Why had this new darkness fallen so suddenly on Hilda, when there was already so much darkness inside her? She had been so very certain of her vocation for months, accepting with a willing heart the difficulties her greater age would bring her. Now, Ellie may well win out, even though Hilda had just acknowledged she wouldn’t be needed when her ward was away at college.

It was clear the effects of the severe illness, plus the shock of being brought back to life, had played havoc with that sensitive nature of Hilda’s. When she did break down, it was usually in a quiet way, no matter how distraught she was, so those wild tears before she slept had been a real bombshell to Mother, given the smiles and laughter at the tea party. That iron self-control again! Hilda had once promised Ellie she would never leave her – with the proviso that such things as sudden death did happen. Was she now fretting that Ellie would be even more terrified of losing her guardian, given her death at the San? If it had happened once, it could happen again, so Ellie needed her while she still lived! Ian had said Ellie had been highly excited at the thought of living with Vivien, but only moments later the poor girl had admitted to Vivien that it would indeed be delightful, but at heart she still yearned to live with Hilda. Was it too soon? Did Ellie need more time with her guardian, having had no one to give her the sort of love she needed - as any child needed! - in the years since her grandparents died? Who wouldn’t want to cling to a woman such as Hilda, a woman who squandered so much love and tenderness on you, a woman who had so much wisdom and spirituality?

Did she, the Abbess, need to delay Hilda’s entering? Did she need to put aside their plans for her postulancy to start at Easter? Perhaps God was saying ‘yes’ to that last question. The shooting and car accident had come very close together, and far too soon after Nell’s death, leaving Hilda exceedingly fragile at Christmas, when she had then taken Ellie under her wing. The guardianship had required a major adjustment on her part, despite the love she had for the girl. Now, she had fallen gravely ill three days ago, and was flying over to America in a week’s time, so, all things considered, what she really needed at Easter was not more hard work, both mental and physical, but complete rest and relaxation. Her body and soul required time to just be and not do. It would be hard enough for her to survive the first anniversary of Nell’s death. If she was in anything like the state she had been in on the six month anniversary, she would be in dire need of quiet peace and loving support. Thinking it all through, the nun decided the long summer holiday would be time enough to get serious about Hilda’s vocation. She and her community would simply spoil her at Easter!

Shaking her head, Mother pushed herself wearily to her feet. If Hilda still felt the same in a week’s time, she would put all those thoughts to her, then leave Hilda and God to work it out between them.

She could hear quiet movement next door, so went through and discovered Matey changing the bed in Hilda’s bedroom. “Let me help,” Mother offered.

Matey shook her head. Her face was pale and set. “Why not unpack your case?”

Mother looked round and saw Hilda’s belongings still on the bedside cupboard. “I’ll do it later, when Hilda’s had time to sort her own things out. I’ll just hang up my spare gown. There’s not actually much left in my case, now I’ve handed you all your paintings.”

Gwynneth opened the wardrobe, but Mother shook her head. “Let her take out what she needs first. I’ll hang it here on the side for now.” She did so and rubbed her hands together, made unaccountably nervous by Matey’s taut silence. She watched her lay the plumeau over the other bedding. “Goodness, sleeping under that’ll be like sleeping under a marshmallow!”

“It’s a bit heavier than that, I’m afraid.” Matey smoothed it out. “But you’ll be glad of it in the middle of the night while the snow’s still about. It gets pretty cold at two in the morning, despite the radiators.”

“Now you’ve done that, why don’t I help you with Hilda’s bed in the other room?”

“I put clean sheets on it this morning. Jeanne slept there last night.” She explained about Jeanne’s and Mireille’s reactions to the two incidents.

“That was good of Hilda, to let her sleep here in peace. Poor Jeanne! She was involved in both nightmarish scenarios, and watched two people lose complete control of themselves. It’s no wonder she was distraught yesterday, despite the tranquillity I see in her. We couldn’t ask for a lovelier person as Ellie’s friend, could we? God’s been so good!”

Matey stared at her across the bed, and Mother saw, not just fear in her eyes, but a mix of anger and frustration. She walked round the bed and took Matey in her arms. “Relax, Gwynneth! She’s not fighting you. She’s just trying to do her job, helping people. When God had her out of bed and walking around yesterday, He told her He wanted her back here quickly, for all sorts of reasons. To add to that, she had a dream the night she was dying, in which He also made it clear there was much for her to do.”

“But she didn’t have to have this tea party the minute she got in, did she?” asked Matey stiffly. “Or the meal tonight?”

“Oh, I think she did, you know!” Mother let go of Matey and sank onto the bed, looking up at her. “Meg was one of God’s reasons for wanting Hilda back here. You saw what the tea party did for her, giving her the courage to face her form. It also showed her she was forgiven, that help was here if she needed it, and that Ellie and Jeanne want to be her friends. That last was a complete shock to her, and did more than anything else to salvage her self-confidence!”

“It wasn’t just Ellie and Jeanne. Hilda and you also helped give her that courage and self-confidence, as did Ian and Vivien.”

“You did, too, Gwynneth! Everyone’s words were potent, but it was the whole loving, amusing atmosphere that did the trick. Hilda’s not stupid. She knows her girls, knows what will help any one of them, and proceeds accordingly. That’s her great strength. It’s how she gets so much out of them, and why they love her so. Vivien, bless her, seems to be cast in the same mould, and between them they sent Meg on her way feeling better than she did about herself and her life, better than she ever thought she could feel. We’re her family now, since she has no other, so we all have to do our part. Hilda knows that, because she’s listening to God. Would you try to do the same, and help with the other problems still facing her? They haven’t gone away while she’s been fighting for her life. ”

Tears welled up in Matey’s eyes and she blew her nose. “Nancy, Ruth and Jeanne should be doing that,” she whispered. “And Kathie!”

“Let’s leave Kathie out if it for now! The other three are doing all they can, according to Ian, but Hilda was the one caught up in all the recent horrific events, so is more clued up about them, and wants to do what she can for those involved while she’s stuck here recuperating.” Mother reached out to clasp Matey’s arm. “I know how much you love her, and she appreciates all you’ve done for her and Ellie these last few days. Does it hurt, that I’ve arrived and seem to want to take her over? There’s room for you, as well, Gwynneth. She would never exclude you from things.”

The faded blue eyes met hers, but there was no bitterness. “No, it’s you she needs. She’s too strong for me these days. You and she seem to have a rare meeting of minds, and you’ll be her superior soon.” Matey shrugged. “Anyway, I have a job to do. I’ve shirked it while I’ve been at the San, leaving my work to others. I need to make up for that.”

“You’ve won your place in her heart, Gwynneth,” Mother said gently. “And in Ellie’s, too! Why else would she be so excited at the thought of you living with them?” A smile skittered across Matey’s face. “Don’t spoil all that by fighting Hilda now. She’s on her second nap of the afternoon. What more do you want?”

“Total rest, I suppose,” sighed Matey.

Mother gently pulled Matey down beside her, and put an arm round the small figure.

“Gwynneth, you watched Hilda die two nights ago,” she comforted her softly. “That’s a huge shock to the system when you love someone, and it’s making you over-protective. You’re scared of losing her as suddenly as you lost Nell, aren’t you? I understand, but that sort of reaction is going to put her back up. The more you tell her to do nothing, the harder she’ll dig in her heels. She’s not physically disabled, just weaker than normal, and has every intention of taking things easy. I’ll make sure of that! Nor is she mentally disabled, so why stand in her way? Her mind’s still active, so let her act. She can work quietly here behind the scenes, supporting staff and pupils. Helping Meg, too, for there’s more to come there, I’m afraid. That’s one of the reasons I’m here.” Matey frowned, but refrained from asking. “Look what she did for Mireille! How many Heads would have invited their Head Girl to visit them in hospital, knowing they didn’t look their best? It didn’t seem to bother Hilda, though, did it? She couldn’t have cared less that she might appear frail and dishevelled. The only one who concerned her was Mireille. As I said, that’s her greatest strength - being there for her pupils, listening to their heartaches and worries, and leaving them less harried. Don’t fight that, because you won’t win. Her girls will always come first with Hilda.”

“It just seems…” Matey shrugged.

“It just seems wrong to you as a nurse.” Mother drew apart a little and turned to face Matey, eye to eye. “Yesterday, God poured strength into her weak, sick body and had her up and doing almost at once. Why? Because she was needed here! That’s her motivation, Gwynneth. He is her motivation. If you go against what God has done for her, I fear for your relationship,” she added, her eyes very gentle.

Tears trickled down the lined cheeks. “I don’t want…”

Mother took Matey’s hands in hers. “You may control her body, if you keep on insisting, but her mind, her spirit, will evade you, and then you will lose her trust.” she whispered. Matey laid her head on the grey-clad shoulder and closed her eyes. “That’s what you don’t want, isn’t it? The trouble is, you’re tired out yourself and not thinking straight. Hilda’s opened up to you a lot this year. She needs you. Indeed, I’d say you need each other, need that close, loyal friendship you’ve developed, so go easy and don’t stand in her way. I’ll put a stop to things, if she goes too far.” She paused, debating whether to go on. “I shouldn’t really be saying this, but I’m even more worried about her now, after something she told me before she slept. She had a jolly good cry about it, and that’s not Hilda, is it?” Matey’s head popped up in alarm. “It fell on her as soon as she walked back in, she says, and must have been germinating for a wee while. It’s been an almighty blow to her, in all sorts of ways, and she’s suddenly not sure of anything. So, if you love her, let her be,” she added urgently.

“I’ll try,” whispered Matey, “but it’s Ellie’s birthday on Sunday. She should be saving her strength for the party, especially if she’s fretting about something.”

“That’s four days away, Gwynneth, and it’s mostly the same people she had today, nothing huge, so give her room to manouevre. She’d fret a lot more with nothing to do but twiddle her thumbs, and you know that. Between us - you, me, Jack, even Ellie – we’ll cajole her back to health. Cajole, not force.”

Mother’s sweet voice remained gentle, but her eyes were keen as they watched Matey’s every expression. Matey gave in. This woman, this force of nature, seemed to understand Hilda as only Nell had done. Possibly even better than Nell! And she took no prisoners.

“I’ll be good,” she whispered. Mother hugged her. “Why don’t you go back and sit with her and I’ll make a pot of tea?”

“I’m fine, Gwynneth, but what I do need is to freshen up.”

“Then I’ll leave you to it and see you later.” Matey nodded her thanks, rose from the bed and silently left the room.

Mother’s shoulders slumped and she covered her face. Had she been too forceful? Had she hurt Gwynneth? She hoped she hadn’t been overly clumsy, but someone had needed to step in and halt Matey’s attempts to lay down the law, for Hilda would not take lightly to God’s work being constrained. Was this another reason He’d put it into her mind to come with Meg?

Shaking herself, she unearthed her wash bag and straightened up, now able to savour Hilda’s inner sanctuary at leisure – the photos and pictures on the wooden walls, the dainty flowered curtains, yellow this time, the deeper yellow rugs, the comfortable deep yellow armchair set by the wide window, the burnished wardrobe and bedside cupboard, the tall chest of drawers set in the corner on the other side of the bed. It was a sunny, light-hearted room. More bookshelves in here, low ones running along the wall either side of the bathroom door, photos and ornaments set out on them. She laughed when she noticed a framed sketch of herself among them. Ellie’s work, no doubt! She admired an exquisite blue and grey figurine of a woman reading to a child seated at her feet and cuddling a kitten. Looking up she saw the blue butterfly mobile, and wondered about the dream last Friday. She had noticed another butterfly mobile in the Salon, and dolphins hanging from a standard lamp. Vivien had been busy! Above the bed was a shelf containing the beautiful twin angels crafted at Christmas by Vivien and Ellie, the white guardian angel group given by Ellie, and the elegant silver crucifix Hilda had taken to the convent both times.

Studying the shelf’s contents, it hit her with the force of a blow – the loneliness and grief that must have suffocated Hilda in this room. What terrible agony had these walls seen? What desperate cries of hers had they heard? How many tears had they yearned to wipe away? It had all been hidden away here, permeating the atmosphere.

No! She pushed the thoughts ruthlessly from her mind. She would think those thoughts later, when she went to bed! For now, she should freshen up and return to Hilda. She opened the door into the bathroom, walked in, caught a glimpse of the spare room through the other open door opposite, then stumbled to a stop! She stared round in open-mouthed astonishment. Moments later, she was laughing out loud, her sombre thoughts totally disrupted.

“Well, your sense of humour certainly crept in when you created this masterpiece, daughter of mine. Did Nell encourage you, I wonder? How little people know of the real you, when so much of who you are remains hidden, just like this bathroom.”

The bathroom walls were wooden, but there the resemblance to the Salon and Hilda’s bedroom disappeared. The white bath was encased in red panelling! Crimson red! As loud as you please red! A look at me red! A large red rug lay by the bath. There was a shower cabinet in the far corner, with a smaller red rug beside it, and a toilet in the opposite corner. A white wash basin stood in the centre of the wall opposite the bath. A radiator painted red sat beside it, with red towels hung from silver-coloured rails above it, and above the red cabinet placed on the other side of the basin. Over the basin hung a large hexagonal mirror, its frame composed of red and silver triangular tiles. On either side of this were placed silver frames, holding beautiful scenes with quotations printed on them. Typical Hilda!

She smiled to herself in the mirror. “Oh, Hilda, daughter, I love, love, love it! Every bit of it! Vivid isn’t the word! What a hoot! But your secret’s safe with me.” She wondered how many people actually knew about it.

While washing her hands in the basin, she caught sight of a picture reflected in the mirror. She spun round, and her eyes widened at the sight of the huge photo, framed in silver, which was hanging over the bath, depicting Hilda and Nell arm in arm, and smiling to the world. Nell wore green, which suited her magnificently, and Hilda wore the pink suit she had taken to the convent. It was one of the happiest photos the nun had ever seen. They were glowing!

How could Hilda bear to confront her former happiness like this night after night? Did it help – or make her sorrow worse? She knew she would have to ask, since Hilda had stored her grief with her friend.

Turning sadly to leave, she looked up and met her own self! The end wall, where she had entered, was covered entirely in mirrored tiles, reflecting the room back at her and making it seem twice as large and three times as cosy. Set down either side of the tiles were silver hooks on which to hang dressing gowns and so on. There were small windows high up in both end walls, and a pole standing against the far end wall to open and close them. It was dim in there now, so she switched on the lights. Immediately, the whole room sparkled, light dancing off the mirrored tiles and silver frames, but all was warmed and softened by the redness of things. The room was like a precious jewel hidden away in a secret chest.

Still smiling to herself, she peeped round the door into the far room, where she knew Ellie was sleeping, and saw it was decorated in the same light green as the Salon, flowery green curtains at the wide window, green rugs and chairs, another burnished wardrobe and bedside cupboard, and the same marshmallow on the bed! She grinned. Did it even stay on the bed when you slept? She’d soon find out! There were more bookshelves in here, holding books she suspected were chosen to entertain whatever guests Hilda might have. No doubt this room had been used most often by Nell herself.

She crept back to the Salon and sat by Hilda, who still lay deeply asleep, the firelight touching her relaxed face with some colour. Mother’s laughter fell away, and she prayed fervently for peace in Hilda’s overburdened heart. She knew she was right in what she had said to Gwynneth. It was always better to go with the flow where Hilda was concerned, and apply the pressure lightly – but even then she slipped the leash on occasions and did what she thought was necessary, no matter how ill she felt. Look at the way she had swanned off to London with Ellie before Christmas! But Mother knew it had all been worth it to Hilda, just to see the light beginning to blossom in the bleak sapphire eyes.

And wasn’t that the point? To spend our lives for others! Didn’t the Lord do that, and demand it of His disciples, of all those who professed to love Him? Hilda but followed His example, and had taught her future superior and community a much-needed lesson on love.

Mother’s thoughts were disturbed by a light tap at the door. Looking at her watch, she saw it was twenty past six. How had that happened? She rose to her feet, switched on the two standard lamps over the armchairs and tip-toed to the door.

“Jack,” she whispered, and held out her hand. He slipped in the door and shook it, then moved to where he could see Hilda’s face. He examined it and sighed.

“Too pale for you?” She smiled. “She’s been asleep for over an hour, and had a nap earlier, too. She’s being very good.”

“But she’s just had a tea party, and is now having a dinner party.”

“Jack, simmer down,” she said softly. “Let me tell you what I’ve just told Gwynneth.”

It seemed he was half-prepared to ignore her. “She needs to rest,” he insisted.

“Isn’t that what she’s doing right now?” Mother whispered tartly. She drew him reluctantly to the back of the room. “Listen to me, Jack! Tie her down and she’ll grow depressed and make no recovery at all.” His eyes widened. “Yes, she’s very depressed. It hit her when she walked in. I think it’s mostly leaving the safety of the San, where she could legitimately shove her worries to one side. Now she has to face them again! But she’s also suffered a very serious – fatal! – illness, and that brings its own depression. I’m willing to bet that hearing about her own death brought Nell’s death back, in all its horror.” She could gild the lily as well as the next person, she told herself firmly. “Let her do the little she can, let her be the Headmistress she is. She can sign forms here, see girls individually, and do what she does best, easing their worries. I’ll sit on her, don’t worry, but she needs to know her girls and staff are being supported.”

Jack sighed. “It’s not what I’m used to.”

“Just as you’re not used to the idea of God working with you to heal your patients?” Her eyes bored into his.

“She told you!”

“There’s hardly been time for that! No, Ian told me about your small… er, disagreement with Hilda yesterday” Jack grimaced. “Ian thought she’d got through, but I’m not so sure after seeing that face. It was God who brought her back to life, Jack, and God who set her on the road to recovery faster than you’d like, because He wanted her back here. She was needed, were His words. So don’t hold either her or God back, my lad. He’ll give her only the strength she needs for any task He wants done, and then she’ll rest, as she’s doing now, which was her own choice. No one forced her! Her tea party just now did wonderful things for Meg. Hilda did wonderful things for her! Were you cross yesterday that she wanted to see Mireille, who was angry and confused?” He nodded gloomily. “Yet she drew out the poison and left her Head Girl able to do her job again. Mireille will love her for that, and it will be a wonderful example to her in her own adult life. Didn’t she also support that young girl who broke her leg, and suggested she return to school in a wheelchair, with her mum to help? She’s used to sorting out situations for her girls, Jack. You saw how she did it last Saturday, with Helen. So let Hilda be Hilda! The Hilda you know and love,” she added urgently.

“Boy, you don’t hold back, do you?” he muttered with a wry smile. “You had a lesson for me last time, too.”

“But did it have any effect?”

He grinned. “Oh, yes, I think my patients benefited, as yours probably did when you were still nursing. You must have been unstoppable.” She winked. “I hurt Hilda yesterday, when I denigrated all He had done for her. It just… frightened me,” he admitted, shame-faced.

“She understood your fears, Jack, and tried to allay them.”

Jack nodded. “She was so quiet about it, but so sure. She had an answer for everything I said, and yet was gentleness itself. She didn’t mock my inadequacies.”

“Does she ever? That’s what she’s so good at, Jack, getting through to people, opening their eyes and their hearts, encouraging them to feel better about themselves. So let her encourage people who need it, while she’s recuperating. Doing nothing is not part of her make-up.”

He heard the urgency in her voice, and once again wondered just what she meant to Hilda and why she was here. She seemed to understand Hilda in a way no one else ever had, except perhaps Nell. He moved quietly over to his patient. Leaning over the back of the couch, he laid gentle fingers on the pulse in her neck. Moments later, he was raising startled eyes to Mother, who rustled over, suddenly fearful.

“Her pulse is absolutely normal!” he whispered. “Despite all she’s done since early this morning, it’s steady as a rock. How? If she’s exhausted enough to sleep, it should be all over the place.”

He shook his head. Mother smiled. Thank You, Father! Help him to see!

Hilda stirred, her eyes opened and she rolled onto her back. Seeing them standing there, he frowned. “Everything alright?” she whispered.

Jack leaned back over the back of the couch and placed a hand on her forehead. “Everything seems fine, my friend. I was concerned you were doing too much, but your pulse tells me otherwise. Mother Abbess has warned me off.”

Hilda’s eyes clung to the nun’s and saw the teasing smile. “You’re in charge,” she murmured.

“You’d better believe it, child!” The voice was firm, but the nun’s wink assured Hilda of her understanding. She wouldn’t order her around, but she would be obeyed!

“Thank you for everything, Jack,” Hilda said quietly. “You and Helen took splendid care of Ellie and me, giving us a room together and Helen to be our chief nurse. We owe you a great deal, when I already owed you for all the support and assistance you gave on Saturday and Sunday. I wouldn’t have got through without you…”

“That was my pleasure, love. You needed some help, with all there was to sort out – help that Nell would normally have given you, I know. I don’t think I’ve ever been so impressed by anyone. Watching you do your job was a lesson in many things, but especially in the power of gentleness and self-control, and also in trusting to God for answers.” She smiled up at him, and he realised just how grateful to God he was for sparing her to them. He took her hand gently. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning, and you’d better still be in bed when I arrive!” She nodded.

He crossed to the door, where he turned and winked. “Enjoy your supper party!”

Hilda gaped, but he was gone! She stared at the nun. “He didn’t…”

Mother sat on the edge of the couch beside Hilda. “He didn’t insist you rest instead of entertaining? No, I’ve been trying to keep him and Gwynneth at bay. I’m not sure I’m flavour of the month right now!”

“Never mind,” Hilda whispered, laying a hand on the grey arm. “You’re my flavour of the month, every month. Thank you for standing up for me.” She looked up into the loving green eyes and tears crept down her cheeks. She tried to smile as she murmured:

"'What is life without a friend?
A dreary race to run,
A desert where no water is,
A world without a sun.'"

(Henry Alford)

“Sh, love, sh,” whispered Mother, smiling tenderly and wiping away the tears. “That’s a lovely little piece, and I appreciate the sentiment, but it’s really the lack of Nell that leaves you in the dreary race and waterless desert.”

Hilda shook her head. “I’d still be out there in that sunless world, but for your friendship and love.” Her lips trembled so much she could barely speak. “I never envisaged finding another such as Nell, someone who loves me as I am, yet wants me to be more.” She put up a hand to the soft cheek. “I’m sorry for weeping all over you before. I’m not quite sure what got into me. I was desperate, feeling I was letting Ellie down when she loves me so much.”

She shook her head, not able to explain just what had been going on inside. Still was going on, if she were honest!

Mother took her hand. “You never let her down, sweetheart. Those wild tears convinced me my daughter is struggling very badly. But think, child! You lost your life the other night. Finding that out must have been a real jolt. I wonder how Lazarus felt when he was brought out of his cave? Did he, too, experience this dislocation you’re experiencing? I know you’ll have been grateful for the great grace of it, but… did it bring the horror of Nell’s death back? Did it make you wonder why there was no miracle for her?

“Not then,” she whispered, her eyes clinging to the love she could see in Mother’s eyes. “At first I felt utterly unworthy when I was told, because before I fell asleep late that night, I’d just wanted to go home to Nell. I was in such pain and felt so ill, and was bothered about so many things, that I didn’t see how I could go on. I didn’t even seem to care that I’d be leaving Ellie…”

Slow tears wended their way down her pale cheeks. Mother slipped to the floor and drew her daughter close against her for comfort. Hilda explained about the grey misty corridors and finding Nell’s black marble grave.

“You described it to me before, child, and I know what a comfort it was.”

“The Lord was there, so kind, so forgiving, but determined to show me all He wanted of me in the years ahead. Only then would He would take me home to Nell. I was so ashamed, Mother.” She wept again. “But He soothed me with such loving words, then laid a hand on my cheek – and I thought I would die of the sudden agony. It flooded my whole body. Was it then He cured me, shocked me back to life? Moments later, the pain went and there was nothing but love, inside and out. Finally, there was Nell!” She opened her eyes, and saw the awe in the green eyes before her. “Why did I deserve so much, Mother, when I was so cowardly? Nell and I seemed to spend forever splashing in and out of the waves at the water’s edge. I’ll try and tell you what we talked about some time. It was very strange. But as we wandered along, I saw dolphins playing in the surf a few yards out! I fell in love with those whimsical creatures on the cruise with Nell, but these beauties seemed to be inviting me in to play with them. Just me! A dream of mine come true! So I tore off my nightie and in I plunged. Nell was scandalised…” Mother choked. “I had so much fun with them. They danced and swam around me, and towed me along as I held on to their fins. We plunged down huge waves and they gently pushed me back up. I'll never forget it, as long as I live! They smiled at me, Mother! It was just magical, yet so mysterious, and I wanted it never to end.” She closed her eyes, her lips curved in the sweetest smile.

The nun's eyes were radiant at the thought of all He was doing for Hilda. It reminded her of her own vibrant experiences of Him in her youth. How much love He lavished on mere mortals! How much He did for them that was never noticed or appreciated. Yet still He did it! “You were very blessed, daughter, but don’t ever feel you’re a coward, or that you didn’t deserve the miracle of new life – or even the miracle of the dolphins. You bless others every day of your life. Why shouldn’t He bless you in return?”

Hilda smiled dreamily. “I dreamt of my mother yesterday afternoon. We talked, just like you and I are talking now. I rarely dream of her, so this was beautiful, reassuring…

“'Only in sleep I see their faces,
Only in sleep Time is forgotten.
Do they, too, dream of me, I wonder.’

(Sara Teasdale)

“An eternal question, love! I’d like to think Stephen sometimes dreams of me, as I still dream of him,” whispered Mother, wiping away more of Hilda’s tears. “I’d like to think my baby girl does, too. I often wonder has she grown in her time with the Lord. Are she and Stephen together, keeping watch over me, as Nell keeps watch over you?” Hilda stroked the lined cheek in sympathy. Mother caught the hand. “I see dolphins hanging on your lamp.”

“Something else that was magical and mysterious! Ellie made them when doing origami on Monday with Vivien and the girl who broke her leg. I was overwhelmed when she produced them, but I’m guessing He had a hand in that somewhere, too.” Damp eyes searched Mother’s face. “He’s given me so much, so why do I suddenly feel I can’t give Ellie up, even for His sake? Everything was sorted in my head, and now, once again, I can’t see my way. He said He wanted me in the convent, so why give me this fierce, protective love for Ellie?” More tears ran from her eyes. ”I just want to be with her.”

“Sh, child! I’ve been doing some hard thinking while you slept, and I do think your own death shocked you so much that it brought back all the agony of Nell’s, and re-awakened your grief. Two severe shocks that would have felled the strongest person! You’ve been gravely ill, you were very close to a breakdown, Ellie was hurt by Kathie… Need I go on? So many things have happened that you must wonder whether you’re on your head or your heels, so this sudden clinging to Ellie isn’t really too surprising. Ellie and the school are known quantities to you, whereas entering the convent and leaving Ellie behind will be two unknowns. We all cling to what we know and love.”

Some of the strain left Hilda’s face. As always, Mother grasped the heart of it and made it easier to understand and accept. The sweet voice added gently, “I don’t think we should worry about it for now. Keep on loving Ellie, holiday with her, visit Vivien’s with her, and we’ll see how it goes. If God’s told you He wants you with me, then leave it to Him to make it plain in His own time. Until that time, I’ll walk along with you when the going gets too dark, holding those stars you once mentioned to light your way. ”

“How many people would understand me as you do? He truly blessed me in so many ways the day I decided to visit the convent.” Hilda whispered, more tears standing in her eyes. “Ian's also been a faithful companion in my darkness these last few weeks. He then spent so much time with me at the San, and kept Ellie amused, too, even lending her his crocheted blanket for comfort.” The green eyes glowed. “I’m delighted he’s returning to England and will be close to you again.”

“We can be twins once more for a wee while, yes. I’m filled with joy that he’s found the courage to try being a parish priest again. I know you had a lot to do with that, child.”

Hilda was shocked. “That just isn’t true, Mother.”

“Oh, yes, it is! You knocked on the head forever the idea that he’s a coward, something I could never do. You’ve accepted him as a brother, you’ve loved him, talked to him at length, and taught him more about God than I ever could. He’s told me all you said to him on Saturday evening. You’re pure gift, child.” Mother whispered.

Hilda nestled closer to this woman she loved, and wondered why she had been so agitated earlier. Had she not wanted to return to the school? Was that at the bottom of it all, because of Kathie and all the other problems? Well, she had made a commitment to two more years, and she would stick to it!

Mother cleared her throat. “I’ve been peeking and prying, daughter.” Hilda raised an eyebrow. Mother laughed out loud. “You should have been an interior designer! I love, love, love your bathroom. It’s so perfect, so different…”

“So red!”

“Indeed it is! It’s also beautifully stylish and unique. What made you do it?”

Hilda shrugged, and Mother saw the new topic had revived her a little. “I just gave in to my love of colour! It’s not often you can be quite so vivid, but who’ll see it, except a few friends. Ellie says she’s going to have a bathroom just like it one day! I indulged myself, I know, but it works.”

“I don’t think I’d ever get tired of it!”

“I haven’t, in the three years I’ve had these rooms. Nell thought I was mad, but helped me find all the accessories. She produced that amazing mirror one day, out of the blue!”

“And the photo?” Mother asked softly.

“Nell could never be contained in something small. She had a big personality, so still takes up a big space in my heart and on my wall. I wanted her, the real her, around me here somewhere.”

Mother kissed her. “It’s beautiful! You were beautiful together, and matched each other perfectly. I’m proud of you for placing it there in the midst of your great grief.”

Hilda smiled up at her with trembling lips. Having seen the reality so recently in her dreams, she knew the photo would hurt when she next saw it. Nell was still so vivid in her mind that she clung to her with a grip of iron.

“But does anyone need quite so many books?” whispered Mother in her ear, sensing the sudden pain.

“Ah! My one real extravagance!”

“Oh, I don’t know! What about spoiling people?” teased Mother. “That’s a real extravagance of spirit.”

“There are more in the study. Books, I mean!” Mother mouthed ‘More?’ in pretend shock, and Hilda rolled her eyes. “I did say I’d leave you my books, but I fear Ellie’s eager to keep a lot of them.”

“She’s a book addict, too?” asked the nun. Hilda grinned and nodded. ”Dearie me! How you’ve infected her!”

“Rubbish! You saw how she gobbled them up at Christmas. I have a few more for her birthday,”

“A few, eh? Remind me to count them on the day.” Hilda poked her gently, realising she felt so much better in spirit, thanks to this glorious woman who always raised her up.

“There are still Nell’s books from the cottage in those cartons down in your cellar. Perhaps we could look over them at Easter, if I could summon up the courage, and you could have any you want. I do have all the books from her rooms here, and aim to give some of them as gifts when I leave, so people remember her. I gave several to Marianne to keep her amused, and told her to keep them in memory of Nell. She was heartbroken by her death. Any I don’t give away, or Ellie doesn’t want, I’ll pass on to you. Um, I’m afraid she asked for my quote books, too, even though I thought to offer them to the convent, so I’ll see what I can do there.”

Mother kissed the tip of Hilda’s nose. “You’re a very generous woman, you know.”

“What time is it?” Hilda asked in sudden alarm, pushing away the blanket. “I need to tidy myself up before people arrive.”

“The only thing you need do is tidy your hair. Your clothes are remarkably lacking in creases. How on earth do you manage it? I noticed it at the convent.” Mother looked at her watch. “Well, we might seem to have talked forever, but it’s only quarter to seven, although I suppose that means we should be setting the table and so on.” She eyed Hilda sombrely. “Talking of books, I did bring those two diaries you wanted.”

“And I did ask for them, especially the diary where she wrote her thoughts about losing me. Hopefully, those thoughts will now help me, if I can bring myself to open it.” Without warning, sadness and something like fear mushroomed in Hilda’s eyes.

Mother rushed to comfort. “Oh, love, it will get easier. Please trust Him, just as He’s shown how much He trusts you. Don’t fear the days and years to come. God is already there, waiting for you, preparing the ground for you. There’s a verse in psalm 92 that seems written just for you: ,‘They shall still bring forth fruit in old age.’ I know – know, you understand? – that, even should you live to be one hundred, you’ll still be bringing forth fruit, because you care so much for others. You and the Lord together make a formidable team, daughter.”





*****
Chapter 22 - No Hand Left Unheld by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Thank you so much for all the loving, insightful reviews on the last chapter. You are all so kind. I'm sorry for the delay in updating but elderly bodies have a tendency to a mind of their own, hindering one's intended doings! However, here it is, such as it is! Mostly Hilda tying up some loose ends and thanking her friends, much to Matey's despair.

Oh, and thank you to all those who posted a review on my small drabble, Revenge is Lime Green, either here or in LGM.
Mother’s words, about Hilda and the Lord making a formidable team, brought a hot flush to Hilda’s pale cheeks, and she quickly pulled herself up to a sitting position on the couch. Matey turned up at the same moment, a Matey who felt she was intruding but who didn’t want Hilda rushing around laying the table, tidying the room and generally wasting what little energy she might have re-couped with her nap. Both Hilda and the nun saw how discomfited she seemed and welcomed her warmly.

Matey relaxed. “Glad to see you aren’t running around hurling cutlery and plates at the table and trying to tidy what doesn’t need tidying,” she said tartly.

“But I was told by a benevolent despot to do nothing, so I’m doing nothing!” Hilda replied with a broad wink.

“Hmm, I suppose talking could be construed as doing nothing,” Mother said wryly as she rose from the floor, sat in an armchair and watched with interest. “I promise she slept for a whole hour, Gwynneth, and would have slept on, but for Jack disturbing her. Now what may I do to help? I’ve told Lazybones here to go and do something with her hair.”

“And probably wipe her face, too,” Matey said softly. Traces of tears were all too evident. Hilda swung her feet to the floor and rose to her feet. “How are you feeling after a second nap?”

Hilda’s eyes twinkled. “A bit achy, but brighter mentally, thanks to Mother. That do you?”

Matey frowned. “And this is only going on until twenty hundred?”

“I think Mother’s weary after her long journey, Gwynneth, so yes, although I hope it won’t bother you if Ian lingers to chat with his sister.”

Matey held her tongue and shook her head. Hilda winked, knowing how hard that had been for her, but Ian and his sister did deserve some time together.

“By the way,” Matey said, “I told Karen to send along school dishes and cutlery, so no one needs to wash yours up afterwards.”

“Good thinking, Gwynneth. Who’s bringing the trolley?”

“Nancy agreed to stay here tonight, at your invitation, so she and Vivien are bringing it.”

“Nancy’s another who’s weary,” sighed Hilda, as she turned to go to her room. “I’ll take my personal items through to Ellie’s room, Mother, and clear some space in the wardrobe, then you can unpack and feel more at home.” She disappeared through the door.

Mother rose to her feet and gave Matey a hug. “Well done!” she murmured and hurried after Hilda, leaving Matey feeling rewarded for following the nun’s earlier advice.

A few minutes later, Hilda wandered back in, her hair clipped loosely at the nape of her neck, face cleansed of all trace of tears, her eyes a little brighter than when she first arrived back at school. Matey had put the cream linen cloth on the table, and set out wine glasses, so Hilda went to the cupboard below her drinks tray and drew out a bottle of red wine, which she put on the table. She went across to replenish the fire with a couple of small logs, then sat down on the couch. Matey nodded to herself. Hilda really was taking it easy.

As Mother walked back in, looking refreshed, a tap at the door heralded Ian and Helen, who both handed over bottles of wine to Matey, one red, one white. Hilda shook her head at them, but smiled her thanks. Helen and Mother greeted each other with a hug, then Helen went to sit beside Hilda, taking her hands and searching the white face.

“How are you feeling, now you’re home?”

“Thanks for coming, Helen,” Hilda said with great warmth. “I’ve had two naps…”

“Plus afternoon tea with sundry guests,” muttered Matey.

Hilda grimaced. “I had a nap either side of it, and a long chat with Mother. Yes, I’m tired, but think how much He’s done for me, Helen, and try not to worry too much. I’ll be good!”

Helen gurgled. “See you do!! You’re surrounded by dragons, now, remember!”

Hilda grimaced at them all. Ian hooted, before turning back to his sister. Hilda watched, recalling that Mother hadn’t seen Ian since their accident last November. She must be delighted by how well he now looked, and how involved he was in Ellie’s and Hilda’s life, and, indeed, in the life of the school.

The door opened again and in walked the trolley, propelled by Nancy and Vivien. They left it by the table, then Vivien turned to chat with Mother and Ian. Helen saw Nancy making for Hilda, so clasped Hilda’s arm and jumped up to join the others.

Nancy sank down beside Hilda and took in her arms. “It’s so good to have you back,” she breathed. “I know you’re not coming into school, but just having you close by makes me feel much easier about things.”

Hilda smiled into the kind blue eyes. “I have to say you look better than you did last night, but you really don’t need me, you know,” she added softly. “I think I’ll send you for a dose of Mother later on this year, so she can teach you to appreciate your own skills.” Nancy pulled a face. “Come on! Everyone seems to have brought wine. That’ll bring some sparkle to those weary eyes of yours.”

“Before we join them, I just want to say I rang Vi a short while ago,” murmured Nancy. “I had planned to do it yesterday, but could never find the time. She was worried about you, and sends her love and her prayers.”

“How is she, Nancy?” Hilda asked anxiously.

“She says her mother’s slowly fading, but the doctors don’t think she’ll go just yet. Vi seems… accepting. She’s so like you.”

Hilda’s eyes grew soft. “I’ll ring her tomorrow morning, poor dear. For now, though, let’s eat.”

Nancy allowed herself to be dragged over to the table, where she was hugged by Mother. “I’m delighted to see you again, dearest Nancy! How are you? We’ll have to have a good chat at some point while I’m here. We hardly had time for each other when I came after the accident, did we?” Nancy’s sombre face brightened even more.

“Ian, sit here, opposite me,” said Hilda softly, “and you shall have Nancy for company.” Ian pulled out a chair for Nancy, then sat beside her and proceeded to uncork both wines, while Hilda seated Mother on his other side, saying lightly, “You can keep you beady eyes on me from here, to make sure I’m behaving.”

The loving green eyes twinkled up at Hilda, who seated Helen beside herself, as she never had time to see much of her, and Matey between Helen and Nancy. “You can talk medical stuff with Gwynneth, Helen, while I fend off Vivien and her dark arts on my other side.”

Vivien made big eyes at her as she sat down. Mother was stunned by this light-hearted banter from Hilda, after the wild tears and broken-hearted confession earlier. She thought she herself was pretty good at hiding her fears and worries, but Hilda was a master craftsman. Her impassive features must have misled so many people over the years. Hilda glanced across, caught the green eyes assessing her and gave Mother a minute shake of her head. Just for a moment, the mask slipped, but was quickly replaced.

Ian’s quick eyes, however, had caught that momentary glimpse of distress. He waited until Matey and Vivien had passed round cutlery and plates and placed the dishes of food in the centre of the table, then rose to his feet to retrieve something from the capacious pocket of his coat and walking over to Hilda.

“This might help,” he murmured, and laid the golden shawl round her shoulders. “It even matches your sweater rather well.”

Hilda drew it closer round her, relishing its light warmth. She gave him a gentle smile, and heard the others exclaim over its beauty. “Thank you, dear man,” she whispered.

He clasped her hand and returned to his seat. Mother took his hand under the table. To his surprise, he felt hers trembling.

“That must be the most exquisite thing I have ever seen, Hilda,” Nancy said quietly.

Vivien reached out to stroke the crocheted flowers. “Who made it?”

About to explain, Hilda looked across the table at Mother and saw the tears in the green eyes, as their owner absorbed the beauty of what used to be hers. Without a second thought, Hilda rose to her feet, walked round the table, removed the shawl and gently laid it round the grey-clad shoulders, settling the grey veil over it at the back. Silence fell as Hilda stood behind the nun and put both her arms round her, enveloping nun and shawl close. Mother closed her eyes at the light touch of the shawl after all the years, her hands coming up to clasp Hilda’s.

Hilda smiled round. “It is beautiful, Nancy, and was crocheted for Mother by her mother. She was in her twenties at the time, and going through a very bad time, so her mother made it to comfort her and remind her that hope still existed. I can’t tell you why she needed hope, as it’s Mother’s story, but, when she entered, she gave it to Ian to look after, which he did for years, treasuring it for his sister’s sake. Then, when I sat by Linda’s bed the night of her accident, Mother told him to lay it round my shoulders to warm me. I never did work out how she knew I felt cold through and through, but it did warm me, along with Ian’s doctored coffee!” she said softly. Ian gave her a broad wink. “That they would consider me worthy of its beauty humbled me, still humbles me. Their mother’s love is woven into every stitch, and it gave me tremendous comfort that night.”

Everyone remained still and silent, spellbound by the tale the mellow voice was spinning. The tears rolled slowly down the nun’s face, her hands tightening round Hilda’s.

Hilda watched the faces round the table. “She told Ian to give it to me that night, as a gift from them both, but I saw how Ian still clung to it, in memory of his sister and mother, so I told him I couldn’t keep it, but he could lend it to me it whenever he felt I was in need, which is why he brought it tonight, I think. This is the first time Mother’s seen it in…”

“In twenty years,” Mother whispered, looking up at Hilda. “Bless you, child.”

Hilda kissed her. “It’s yours while you’re here. Thank you for bringing it, Ian. You were truly inspired, courtesy of His eternal love, which has surrounded all of us these last few days.”

There were tears in Ian’s own eyes as he passed his sister a hankie. Hilda gave her friend another hug and returned to her seat, thrilled to be able to offer her such a gift. There was so little she could ever do for her. Mother stroked it gently, a nostalgic expression in her eyes.

Vivien cleared her throat. “Is that why your mother made your blanket, Ian? The one you wrapped round Ellie? She was very reluctant to part with it.” She described it for the others.

“Kate wanted Mother to make me a shawl just like hers, but Mother had to admit it would hardly do for a full-grown lad in his late twenties.” They all laughed gently. “So she made my blanket, and it’s brought comfort to both children and adults over the years. Hilda’s right. Our mother’s love does seem to be woven into them both, but this,” he touched the golden shawl, “this is a masterpiece of love and creativity, and perhaps one day Hilda will accept it from us with all our own love woven into it, as well as our mother’s, for she’s done so much for both of us.” All his love was in his eyes as he looked at her across the table.

“I haven’t done anything,” Hilda whispered. “Just the opposite! You two and Helen here saved my life and sanity after Nell died, and all of you round this table have been keeping me going ever since. I owe you all more than I can ever repay. As for the shawl, perhaps one day I’ll feel worthy enough to accept it – but only if I may then share it with you both.”

“You’re more than worthy, daughter mine,” murmured Mother, “but I have to confess to a sense of deep joy to have it round my shoulders again. May God bless you and Ian for your goodness and generosity.”

Vivien, Helen, Nancy and Matey had never seen this more emotional side of the nun, having only known her as a force of nature, utterly strong and compassionate, so were very moved both by her tears and the beauty of her shawl.

Hilda took pity on her friend. “Ian, would you like to pour the wine? Come on, everyone, dig in or it will be cold.” Mother smiled at her tremulously, still stroking the lustrous silk shawl.

Hilda had suggested to Matey earlier that Karen forget the first course, and just send along a main course and sweet, so they were soon helping themselves to streaming vegetables and succulent veal, but Hilda smelt the sauce the veal was cooked in and knew it was beyond her. Before she could say anything, Matey was placing a small bowl in front of her, containing softly-scrambled eggs enriched with chopped mushrooms and smoked salmon pieces.

“Thanks, Gwynneth,” she whispered in relief.

“It will take a while for your appetite to come back properly, after being so ill,” Helen said quietly. “Don’t fret about it, just eat little and often to build up a store of energy.” She tapped Hilda lightly on the hand with a fork. “Just remember, if you don’t eat, you’ll have the two of them on your back trying to force you, and Jack behind the scenes.”

Mother winked. Matey bared her teeth.

Hilda grimaced at them. “Point taken, Helen,” she said wryly, and took a few sips of white wine to help the food down. “How did it go with Meg?” she asked, changing the subject, but looked on in alarm as Vivien and Nancy eyed each other. She set down her fork. “I thought you went along to speak to them?” she asked of Ian and Mother.

“We did,” Ian replied with a frown. “I’ve no idea what’s happened since, but most of them seemed genuinely pleased to see her, and listened to us and Ellie. A small number weren’t happy, but there seemed to be a good atmosphere when we left.”

“Looking at Vivien and Nancy, I’m beginning to think now that we didn’t help at all,” Mother offered quietly. “What went wrong?”

Vivien laid down her knife and fork, knowing she had to be honest. “I think you did help, from what I discovered later. They took in your words and dwelled on them carefully.” She looked at Hilda. “I met Ellie, Meg and Jeanne in the corridor about… oh, half an hour after prep started. Meg was upset and Ellie very, very angry, but one word from Jeanne calmed Ellie down, and they explained what had happened.” Hilda’s eyes grew haunted. Vivien laid a hand on hers. “Don’t look like that, ma bonnie wee chieftain. Let me explain.”

She told them all the three girls had told her, and how she had sent them upstairs to help Meg unpack as a way of distracting them, then gone along to VIB to have a gentle word with them, alerting Erica to the fact that she would have done better to remain silent, as Meg had.

“You taught her brilliantly at the convent, Mother, and made her strong,” she said. Mother nodded. “I thought I ought to tell Nancy, so went to her after leaving the form room…”

Hilda’s eyes turned to Nancy. “What did you do?”

“Nothing! Vivien’s words were short and to the point, and said with gentleness. Any more would have been tantamount to interfering, and we don’t usually do that with the sixths.”

Hilda reassured her. “No, you did exactly the right thing, Nancy. You too, Vivien! We’ve all tried our hardest to smooth Meg’s path, but she and we knew it would be hard. She thinks she doesn’t deserve to be taken back into the fold.”

“That’s what she said in the corridor,” Vivien added.

“Meg’s stronger than you all think,” Mother put in quietly. “She surprised me with her quick turnaround and her willingness to engage in changing both herself and the situation here. It seems to me she also has the right friends to coax her along.”

Vivien nodded. “I found that out later. I returned to the lab, but there was no sign of them, so went up to the dorm and found them sitting close together on Meg’s bed. Ellie seemed to have got hold of herself and summed up the situation well, when she pointed out that in fact it was only two girls who were outspoken in their nastiness. The rest either stood up for Meg or kept out of it. So Meg doesn’t have as much to worry about as we feared, does she?” Vivien smiled at Hilda. “It dawned on me then that Jeanne hadn’t suggested they leave because of the nastiness, but because of the fierce argument that ensued. She felt things might calm down sooner without Meg and Ellie there. She doesn’t like arguments or loud voices, does she?”

Hilda looked more relaxed. “No, Jeanne’s a tranquil, peaceable creature.”

Vivien chuckled. “I think you should introduce a peace prize just for her, to add to the other prizes.” She clasped Hilda’s hand. “I’m sorry I worried you, but I’d hoped to keep it quiet. I should have known better. It’s not all bad in there, so take heart. It’s strange, though,” she added, “how quickly Ellie can fly up to the rafters in an incandescent rage, then come down to earth and show calm common sense just seconds later.”

“But she was so funny and loving and light-hearted in here,” said Mother with surprise.

“She’s very mercurial,” Hilda said slowly. “She can literally explode, shaking with rage, like the time I refused to expel Meg, then be caring and loving, even amusing, mere seconds later. It worries me at times, and I’m so very thankful she has a friend who’s able to bring her back to her senses with just that quiet word or two.”

“But, think about it, love! She was just beginning to relax and be happy here with you, when she was attacked, in turn, by two people with no control over themselves.” Mother’s green eyes were thoughtful. “She thought she’d reached Paradise, only to find snakes lurking round every corner, and became unsettled and terrified of life again. So is it any surprise she now veers from one extreme to the other? She’s probably lost some of her trust in people, but she has the calmest, most self-controlled person in the world for a guardian, and I’ve seen how much steadier and more forthcoming she is, thanks to your patience and forbearance, so don’t worry too much. If you recall that dreadful scene on Boxing Day when you were ill, I’d say you’re working miracles with her. You and Jeanne, with input from everyone here, are gradually leading her in a better way, as will Patricia, now Ellie’s learned to love her.”

Vivien nodded vigorously. “Patricia will do great things with Ellie. Meg showed me the plaque Patricia made with her. What a gift to give Meg, the viewpoint about how much more beautiful and interesting we all are with our cracks and failings. Patricia has great insight and creativity and will be able to do much more with Ellie now, as well, just as you’re doing, ma bonnie wee chieftain. She’s lucky to be blessed with such beautiful people to teach her.” Hilda’s white cheeks were scarlet, but the others all added their agreement. Vivien looked at her intently. “Dinna blush, woman! You deserve every drunken word!”

Hilda nearly choked on her wine, while the others roared at Vivien’s insouciance towards her Headmistress.

“What do you think, Mother? To the dungeon with her, for her lack of respect?” Hilda looked wryly at Mother, who gave her a loving smile. She thought Vivien had it just right where Hilda was concerned, and loved their very natural, easy-going relationship. Hilda needed someone in school who wasn’t afraid to say just what she thought to her, and also tease her mercilessly, as Nell had always done. She felt Gwynneth was too dictatorial to take that place.

Hilda looked at Vivien with great warmth. “It isn’t just my input that’s helping Ellie, you scoundrel. Mother included you all, and I have to say, Vivien, that without you and Ian, Ellie would feel a lot less loved than she does. You both make time for her when I can’t, and Gwynneth does her bit, too, and Ellie loves her.” Matey blushed. “But, tell me,” Hilda asked softly, “why were they sitting on Meg’s bed, instead of returning to the lab? Matron Lloyd would have ten thousand fits if she knew!” Matey winked at Mother. “Was Meg upset?”

Vivien explained that Meg had mourned the fact that she had never had any friends, so Ellie and Jeanne had reminded her of Patricia’s pictures of the tree of friendship, and said they would both shelter her with their love and care, just like the tree.

“How do you do it, my friend?” she exclaimed softly. “That child has been bullied by Meg and Kathie in the most dreadful fashion, so how on earth can she forgive Meg just like that, and offer to shelter her and others, as we know she does? She looked after those villainous twins so beautifully, even as she was saving Linda’s life – and, indeed, has spent a lot of time with them since - yet at the beginning of term she was too inward-looking even to venture out and make friends?”

“Circumstances had made her turn in on herself, Vivien,” Hilda said softly. “In her lonely life, the only one she could trust was herself, but she now knows how much she’s loved, loved by people she can trust, because she’s gradually begun to accept that our love is forever. She doesn’t have to rely only on herself any more. She also knows how much we appreciate her many and varied gifts, whereas, in her other life, those gifts were dismissed out of hand by intelligent people who should have known better. Our love and appreciation have been like the sun coming out, encouraging her to open up her heart, so she’s now the lively, generous, loving, outward-looking person that I suspect she used to be long ago with her grandparents, with a cheeky sense of humour to go along with it all. Remarkably, Vivien, despite her lonely life, she loves people with a generous graciousness, gathering them up and cheering them on.”

“Much like her guardian, really,” Vivien murmured. “She models herself on you.”

“Hear! Hear!” came from all round the table.

Mother’s eyes beamed at Hilda. “That was a remarkable summation of what Ellie was, and now is, Child. And we all know that what she now is was set in motion by you and your beautiful graciousness.” Hilda’s eyes denied it.

“She’ll do great things one day,” Ian remarked softly.

“I agree,” said his sister. “Funnily enough, I think Meg will, too, if we can help her settle back into school, and get her over the next hurdle.”

They all looked at her, then at Hilda, but the latter shook her head. “We can’t tell you about it until Meg herself is put in the picture, and is happy about what we tell her. It’s one of the reasons Mother came, because two heads giving Meg the news are far better than one. I’d like prayers for her, please. She has some decisions to make in the next few days, about things we had no knowledge of until Monday, but those decisions might be difficult for the poor girl. If only she knew that true happiness could be waiting for her, just around the corner...”

They all promised prayers. She looked down at her bowl, and saw she had eaten more than she thought she could manage, and pushed the bowl to one side. She offered them more veal and vegetables, then cleared her throat as they ate.

“Talking of Meg, Viviens’s words have decided me. I had the germ of an idea before she went away, but this illness knocked it out of my silly head until now.” They all looked her way. “Before she went to the convent, she spent some time helping in the juniors with Mireille, and was with me in the corridor after one of those sessions when I said I had to see Tonia, who was also having a bad time. Meg asked was there any way she could help. I was staggered at this new sign of thoughtfulness, and immediately took her up on it, saying we’d talk more when she returned.”

She saw their puzzled looks and assembled her thoughts carefully. “My idea was to do with bullying. We’ve had so much of it this term, even from a member of staff, and I’m sure a lot goes on in smaller ways that we never know about, because the girls are too afraid to make an official complaint. So… what if we had mentors for those girls? Meg and Ellie are ideally placed to help victims of bullying, in an informal sort of way. After all, Meg’s been badly bullied, too, by her own mother. Once we’ve explained to the school what we’ve put in place, those girls who are suffering could go to them quietly, knowing it wouldn’t be reported unless they agreed. They could talk over just what’s happening and discuss how to cope with it.”

She looked at Mother. “You’ve given Meg a great many hints and tips there, as I’ve been doing with Ellie, who was afraid to report her own victimisation. They could pass those tips on, and nothing would go any further, unless they thought it necessary. If Ellie and Meg did think that, they could come to me – or, indeed, go to Joan Bertram,” she added slowly, thinking hard. “She’d be admirably placed to help someone being bullied. No, I can’t tell you why, but she gave great support to Meg before she left, and could do the same for others in her new role, if she would agree to take it on. Between them, there’d be a lot of help for the victims. More than there is at the moment, anyway, to my shame.”

She paused to take a deep breath, and they stared at her, minds working overtime.

“I don’t think there’s any shame where you’re concerned, Hilda,” Vivien said softly. “We’re the ones who’re with the girls day in, day out. We’re the ones who should be noting who’s having problems, and helping them – and if we can’t, should be coming to you and explaining what we know. So listen to me, woman, and listen well!”

Hilda and Vivien searched each other’s eyes. Hilda nodded reluctantly.

“That’s a brilliant idea, Hilda,” Nancy exclaimed. “I might follow suit and start it over there. It gives the victims somewhere to go, without making a big thing of it, but enabling them to get their fear out of their system.” Hilda nodded, pleased Nancy understood. “I can sense you think you’ve dropped the ball, with this sudden onslaught of bullying, but you should be listening to Vivien. She’s right about the staff, but unless children are open about it, what can we do? You always see more than the rest of us do, and have an eye out for any child who might be unhappy, trying to help them, no matter how small the problem – or, indeed, the child.”

“I’d agree with all that, Nancy. Hilda can’t be everywhere, though she tries hard. It’s the staff who should take notice.” Vivien looked at Mother. “I know that what you and others have done with Meg has taught her a great deal, because she didn’t retaliate in any way earlier, and that takes strength of mind. She’d be very well-placed to do as Hilda asks.”

Mother nodded. “It’s so heartening to see all her hard work coming to fruition like this. To know you want to use all she’s learned to help others will be mind-blowing for her. It’s a great idea, Hilda, and just like you to think of the relief it would give the victims.” She frowned. “I wonder, since Jeanne is now part of that little triumvirate, if she might also like to be involved? She could offer some necessary tenderness and soothing balm. She certainly seems to have a large fund of common sense.”

Hilda’s eyes lit up. “Bless you, Mother. I hadn’t thought of her, but she would add the finishing touch, and really make them a force for good.”

“It would also give Meg and Ellie some much-needed confidence in themselves, knowing they’d be helping people who’ve suffered as they have,” Ian said quietly. “Meg thinks she’s worthless.”

“So does Ellie, at times, Ian,” Hilda replied. “I’m sure lots of our girls do, and though they know they may come to me any evening, or talk to the staff or a prefect, bullying very rarely gets mentioned. They keep quiet, because the bullies have too strong a hold over them.”

“Go for it, Hilda,” said Nancy eagerly. “I’ll back you to the hilt, and I’m sure Mother could give them some training before she leaves.”

“That should keep you out of mischief,” Matey said to Mother. “That, and keeping our honoured friend here on the straight and narrow.”

“Baggage!” muttered Hilda, wrinkling up her nose. “Thank you, Nancy, and all of you. I can see from your faces you think it’s a good idea, or, at least, an idea worth pursuing. I wasn’t sure whether it was just a madcap idea brought on by my high fever.”

“Are any of your ideas madcap?” asked Mother with no little curiosity.

The others shook their heads, but Hilda laughed. “Far too many of them, I’m afraid, as Nell could have told you! Mind, hers were often even more madcap.”

Matey nodded. “I’d have to agree with you there!” She peered round. “So we’ll leave it to Hilda to sort out, with Mother’s help?” They all nodded, and Matey turned back to Hilda. “Now you’ve got your own way with that, what about Marianne?”

Hilda clasped her forehead. “Oh, goodness, I forgot all about her. Nancy, if you remember, I mentioned last night the idea I had about Marianne coming to the school in a wheelchair, with her mum to help.”

Nancy nodded. “I’m afraid I haven’t given it much thought, love. Life’s been too busy. Perhaps you’d explain more so everyone here understands, not just me.”

Hilda nodded, and explained her thoughts about Marianne returning to school, adding with a smile, “Isobel can't wait to sleep in a dorm, but I think that enthusiasm might soon pale, so we could give her one of the small staff bedrooms. Marianne really does need to catch up for her O levels this year, but if you don’t want the hassle, Nancy, I’ll understand and send her home, as planned. You’ve got enough on your plate with me out of the loop.”

“You’re still in the loop, as far as I’m concerned, because I’m sure I’ll be knocking down your door occasionally.” She rolled her eyes at the black look Matey was giving her, and looked a little uncertainly at Hilda. “Is Marianne well enough?”

Hilda turned to Helen, who explained the ins and outs, before adding, “It’s Wednesday now, but she was coming along quite well today with the crutches, so she might be strong enough by Friday. You don’t need to worry, Nancy, because Jack or I will come across regularly to check on her, and I know Gwynneth will be watching her like a hawk, as she’s watching Hilda,” she added, with a broad grin at Matey beside her.

“Then I don’t see why not,” Nancy said slowly. “As I’ve just said, love, you try to think of every child’s good, holding their hand and walking along with them. But how will the staff feel about having a parent sitting in on their lessons?”

Hilda’s eyes were keen. “Would it bother you?” Nancy shook her head. “Nor would it bother me. You could let them know it was all my idea, so you don’t get the flak, but I’m afraid they’ll have to put up with it. It may even do one or two of them some good, shake them up a little.” Hilda’s voice was quiet, as always, but they heard the steel.

Mother Abbess laughed to herself. Hilda might be gentle and gracious, but she was never soft. She wondered how Kathie ever thought she could defeat this quiet, stubborn, steely woman.

‘Nothing is so strong as gentleness. Nothing is so gentle as real strength.’

(Ralph W Sockman)*

“Perhaps you should have all your staff meetings over a meal,” laughed Ian. “Look how much you’re sorting out, without any argufying.”

“Are you saying my staff meetings are acrimonious affairs, my friend?” purred Hilda, with a dangerous gleam in her eye.

He held up his arms in front of him. “Don’t beat me!” he pleaded. “I’m sure they’re the epitome of peace and sensible agreement.”

Nancy choked. Matey rolled her eyes. Hilda sighed. “I’d like to think that were true, Ian, but there have been times and seasons when it isn’t, alas,” she murmured, thinking of the staff meeting after Christmas. “Argufying, as you put it, has been known to take place. Actually, there may be some of that argufying when I voice my next request of Nancy, because I’m afraid my minders won’t like it.”

She laughed when she saw both Mother and Matey lean forward to fix their stern eyes on her. “Go away! I have more to say about Meg and Marianne. The thing is, Nancy, Meg’s missed a whole week’s worth of work, as has Marianne now. I was thinking, while I’m here being kept quiet, that I could take them on a one to one basis and help them catch up, at least with their foreign languages and English.” Matey tried to interrupt, but Hilda held up her hand.” A moment, Gwynneth! That would mean less work for people like Julie, Jeanne and Ruth.” She looked at Vivien. “There’s also Ellie. She hasn’t been away long, but what about her botany?”

“She hasn’t missed anything there, fortunately. If she’s struggling with the prep I set last week, I can see to her on Thursday afternoon, in the time I set aside for the extra tuition she now no longer needs. As to Marianne, I’ve been over a couple of times and done some experiments with her, but I could easily give her a couple of extra sessions on her own to bring her up to scratch in science. Isobel would enjoy it, too,” she added, with a wink.

Nancy looked troubled. “Will you be allowed, love?” She turned to Helen. “What do you think?”

Helen chewed her lip, searching Hilda’s quiet face. “She’s not ill, Nancy, just frail and needing to build up her strength. An hour in the morning and again in the afternoon shouldn’t be too tiring for her.”

Hilda gripped Helen’s hand in gratitude. “I’ll be honest and admit I couldn’t sit here in my room for a week and do nothing. Yes, Mother’s here, but even we can’t talk all day, every day, nor can I read all day and not start climbing the walls. I’d obviously have to fit in with their timetables, but, as Vivien said, some people have been sending work to Marianne, and Ian’s been talking German with her, so I’d say Meg’s the one needing more help.”

“What’s Jack going to say?” Matey asked icily.

Helen Graves jumped in quickly. “I’ll discuss it with him, but I see no reason to make Hilda sit and twiddle her thumbs for seven days, Gwynneth. Her mind’s too alert, so let her help the staff without taking too much on her shoulders.”

Hilda saw how upset Matey was, but shook her head slightly, and rose to her feet. Going to her little desk, she handed a note to Nancy. “Would you ask these members of staff to come for coffee tomorrow morning at break? And ask Rosalie for a copy of Meg’s timetable. Vivien can give me Marianne’s, since she’s her form mistress. Mother and I want to show Meg’s teachers all she’s done while she’s been away. Mother also wants to talk about her change of attitude, and how we can help her keep it up.” She frowned. “I’ll find out from Jeanne and Ruth how much Marianne’s missed, but could you find out from her other teachers, Nancy? Or at least find out in what way I could help her?”

Nancy glanced anxiously at Matey, but saw Helen was nodding cheerfully, so gave in.

“I’ll see what I can do,” she said with a smile, putting the note in her pocket.

“Actually, I think it’s a good idea, Gwynneth,” put in Mother quietly. “I would like to talk to Meg’s teachers, because you – and they – will be astonished by how much some things have changed. And I’ll make sure I’m here during these lessons, and will instantly step in if Hilda seems ill or tired. Would that pacify you?”

Matey suddenly laughed, and held up her hands in defeat. “Oh, you’re all on her side, I can see, but I’ll agree she does need something to do. So be it! I won’t interfere!”

Nancy cleared her throat. “Before we move on, I’ve just remembered something. Both Mr Lewis and Monsieur Mousselin phoned today to see how you were. I’d given them the bad news yesterday when they phoned to speak with you, so they rang today to hear the latest, and said they’d ring again very soon.”

“That was kind of them,” Hilda whispered. “Put them through if they do ring, but, tell me, what’s been happening about the phone the last few nights?”

“Rosalie insisted on it being switched through here and she left her door and the Salon door open so she would hear.”

“But… how often do people actually phone after school hours, Nancy? It could have been switched off in the interim.”

“Actually, it was a good thing it wasn’t switched off, Hilda,” Vivien said softly. “How else could Nancy have phoned through to rouse us at four yesterday morning to ask for prayers?”

Hilda’s eyes grew damp. “I don’t deserve my staff,” she whispered. “That you would do such a thing for me shows enormous love and faith. Alas, I can only thank you, but mere words seem paltry on this occasion. One isn't granted a miracle of this magnitude every day.” They all smiled lovingly at her, noting the glad light in her eyes. She looked across at Nancy. “May I suggest we leave the thing unmanned for a couple of nights? Ellie will probably return to her dorm tomorrow or the next night. Mother will then move in there, and I’ll be back in my own room. We’ll switch it through then.”

“But you’re meant to be resting,” Matey said tartly.

“As I just said, Gwynneth, how often does the phone ring after school finishes? Most parents wouldn’t dream of phoning between seven in the evening and seven in the morning. For once, emergencies will just have to wait, as I won’t have Rosalie left in that position again. She works a long day and deserves to relax, like the rest of my staff.”

Her voice was very firm, so no one argued, though some suspected Matey might have another go later. Mother also suspected the same and determined to head Matey off.

“Oh, my goodness,” Hilda suddenly yelped. “I’m failing in my duties! Just because I don’t want to eat, doesn’t mean you don’t! You all seem to have finished your first course and I’m wittering on and on here!”

“Wittering and not eating!” said Matey caustically, looking at the remains of the eggs.

“I’ll try to eat a little of the sweet,” Hilda said, humbly acknowledging that Matey was correct. “Thank you for giving in so graciously, Gwynneth.”

Matey rolled her eyes, but clasped Hilda’s hand as she removed the half-empty bowl. She and Vivien collected up the dirty plates and dishes, placing them back in the trolley, then passed round smaller plates for the sweet.

“I hope it’s not Vivien’s chocolate cake again!” muttered Hilda. “I’ve had it twice now!”

Ian and Mother choked, Nancy and Helen looked puzzled, so the others explained, but confused them so much that Vivien intervened. “I’ll invite you to my next tea party, Helen. We just have to make sure our esteemed Head isn’t present, as she tends to spoil the surprise.”

“May I come, too?” Ian asked with a wink. “It bears a repeat performance!”

“The more, the merrier,” teased Vivien, placing a large, gently steaming dish on the table, while Matey followed with a jug of cream. “It seems to be some sort of European bread and butter pudding, with chocolate in it! Can you face it, and shall I do the honours?”

“Yes, Vivien, please do, but only a tiny portion for me.”

She watched Vivien carefully spooning it into the sweet dishes, and discovered tears in her eyes as she recalled the whisky and cream bread and butter pudding she had had made by the Sinclair brothers for a birthday of Nell’s several years ago. What a beautiful day that had been, and the start of a new and wonderful friendship for the four of them.

A hand clasped her gently. “You okay?” Helen murmured.

She nodded. “Just a sudden memory of Nell,” she whispered, then remained silent, the conversation of these dear friends swirling sweetly around her.

She took a tiny bite of the pudding, looked up and met Ian’s eyes gazing at her anxiously. She smiled, and gave a tiny shake of her head, signifying all was well - even though it wasn't, really!

Something else leapt to mind. “You know, Ian, you and I were going shopping in Interlaken last Saturday.”

“So I could buy a gift for Ellie’s birthday, but you were ill on the Friday, and her birthday’s this coming Sunday and I’ve still got nothing,” he moaned theatrically, making them all hoot.

“I’ve a lot to answer for at the moment,” Hilda said, with a twinkle in her eyes. “Well, I was thinking. Don’t laugh! I do think, very occasionally! Why don’t you take Mother down to Interlaken on Saturday for the day and show her the sights, as well as buying Ellie that present? I’ll give you some ideas for gifts and where to go for them! You could then take Mother back to spend the night with you. You need some time alone with each other. It’s not something that happens often, so I mean to ensure you make the most of it. She could then return here on Sunday after the service, or later in the day if you want more time with her.”

“Had enough of me already, daughter, dear?” asked Mother sardonically. Sniggers ran round the table, but Hilda’s face said it all. Mother looked at Ian, who nodded. “Bless you, sweetheart. Only you would have thought of such a thing.”

“Not at all! Anyone would have thought of it who remembers you’re twins and get precious little time together. I'd be very selfish to keep you all to myself! It would mean you’d miss the panto on Saturday afternoon, of course, so if you prefer another day…”

Ian shook his head. “No good! I have to find that perfect present!”

“Then you could also collect Ellie’s birthday cake for me. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get it up here, now I’m housebound.”

“I see! We’re just a means to an end,” Ian teased her.

She winked. “Of course! You are hoping to eat it, I assume, so you might as well be my dogsbody and fetch it for me. I’ll have to give you directions there, too.”

“We’ll be your dogsbodies, child,” said Mother, “though I think I’m going to regret not seeing this pantomime.”

“It might hurt ears that are more accustomed to the silence of the convent, and the gentle singing in chapel,” warned Hilda.

“It is rather riotous,” put in Helen, with a laugh. “We take along all those of our patients who feel well enough, but the noise has to be heard to be believed. Some people have even been known to end up on the floor, writhing with laughter.”

“It’s written by the girls of St Mildred’s,” added Hilda, “and they make most of their own costumes, and rehearse and direct themselves. They really go all out, and it is a riot, as Helen says.” She saw Mother was sorely tempted, simply because it was so different from the tranquillity of the convent. “I shouldn’t think I’ll be allowed to go, but if Ian could free himself on Friday, you could shop then, stay Friday night, instead, and attend the panto.”

Ian and Mother looked at each other. “We’ll think about it,” Ian finally said, a wry twist to his lips. “I don’t somehow think a riotous, noisy panto is going to be any trouble to someone who drove an ambulance hell for leather during the London Blitz.”

“What?” cried several voices.

Hilda sat back and listened to the nun describing her exploits at that desperate time. She saw the awe and respect dawning in her guests’ eyes for her friend, and laughed to herself. They didn’t know the half of all her new mother was capable!




*****
End Notes:
a)I think the next chapter may well be titled: The Truth Is Finally Revealed. I wonder what truth? *winks*

b)*The quotation about gentleness is also attributed to St Francis de Sales. Perhaps others, as well!

c)The bread and butter pudding Hilda’s thinking about occurs in Hilda’s Revenge
Chapter 23 - Landmarks Shift by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Thank you for all the kindly comments about the dinner party and Hilda's ideas for the mentoring of victims of bullying. I adored Blueskye's idea of Mother's beautiful shawl having a life of its own - and it certainly will appear many times in this saga.

I'm sorry it was such a long chapter, though this one is nearly as long, but the scene isn't finished yet, in the sense that Hilda now has to act. I'll try and have that chapter ready more quickly, now things have eased a little here.
“Perhaps you should relate some of your exploits to Kathie when you get her to the convent, n Mother,” mused Hilda, as Vivien offered seconds of the sweet. “It might show her what true courage looks like, protecting others rather than lording it over them.”

“Until I discovered Hilda’s plans for entering,” Nancy said softly, “I always assumed nuns were weak creatures hiding behind walls, because they found the world too difficult to face.” She shook her head and laughed. “One can hardly call Mother or Hilda weak creatures hiding their lights under bushels, can we? Especially now we’ve heard all about your exploits in the Blitz, Mother.”

“I don’t think either of them ever hide from anything!” muttered Vivien forcefully, making everyone chuckle.

“I see, now, how much courage it takes to leave the world and give up everything you own, leaving you facing your new life totally empty-handed,” added Nancy. Mother saw Hilda look down at her left hand, where resided Nell’s ring. “And I’m sure it takes more guts even than that to actually live out a life of self-sacrifice behind walls.”

“Never empty-handed, Nancy,” Hilda said softly. “If one has God, one has everything, and He provides for us in all sorts of ways.” Her eyes turned to Mother. “I know He’ll go before me, preparing my way, whatever I do in the future.” Her eyes grew bleak for a moment or two. “I meant what I said, Mother. Your exploits in the war, and your life since then, show us all that we’re here on earth to help others, to put ourselves last, to be a light in their darkness. Each and every one of you here has been a light in my darkness this past year.” She sighed. “Kathie might listen to you, Mother, as she apparently listened to Ian yesterday morning. My efforts have been incapable of piercing her brittle surface, which is why I stepped aside to leave room for God, although," she laughed softly, "Ellie got through to her in a masterly manner this afternoon. Perhaps she was His instrument.”

Vivien gaped at her. “You mean you faced Ellie with Kathie as soon as you got back?”

“When we returned, it was obvious she was terrified just being in the building, so I decided the sooner she faced her nemesis, the better, then it wouldn’t be hanging over her.” Hilda’s eyes grew distant. “I just never expected what transpired. Ellie took Kathie apart, slowly, gently, thoughtfully, but with a mighty sharp scalpel. She told me afterwards she had no idea where the words came from to do it. She even forgave her, so I had no choice but to do likewise.”

“He was filling that space you left for Him,” whispered a shaken Vivien.

“I think so, yes,” Hilda nodded. To her mind, it had been yet another miracle.

She and Matey described what had happened - Ellie’s calm strength, her total honesty, and Kathie’s utter disintegration. A stunned silence followed.

“A jealousy club!” hooted Ian, recovering. “Oh, Ellie, I love it! You are such a clever child, with so many original ideas!”

“I remember I told you, afterwards, that Ellie's more like you than you are,” laughed Matey.

Everyone exploded, but Mother nodded her agreement. Ellie surely modelled herself on Hilda.

“That idea of a jealousy club is more or less what Mireille said to her, or so Kathie told me on Monday,” Vivien said excitedly. “She told Kathie she’d suffered from jealousy at one time, so they could talk about it, if she wished. Kathie said Mireille was gentle and kind, but very firm that she had to apologise to Ellie before she would forgive her.”

Hilda was overcome. “Mireille didn’t mention it when Ian brought her over last night. That girl just grows and grows in strength and wisdom. I hope….” She bit her lip. “I hope Kathie will be persuaded by it all, stop being jealous of those close to me, and start showing some respect and love for the girls and staff in both schools.”

Her eyes were dark with pain, and Mother looked round the table, hoping against hope that Nancy or Matey would finally find the courage to tell this brave, gentle woman the complete truth, before she collapsed again under the weight of her worry. Nancy was looking down, playing with her sweet. Matey’s lips were taut, as thought restraining herself. Mother’s eyes met Vivien’s, and saw how anxious they were. She gave the nun a slight nod. So! Vivien felt it wasn’t her place, being a newcomer, but that it was more than time the truth was revealed. Ian’s hand gripping hers under the table was the final push she needed.

She cleared her throat. “No one else will tell you this, child,” she began softly, “despite all my pleadings to Nancy and Gwynneth, so I’m going to take the bull by the horns and give you the plain, unvarnished truth, the truth you’ve surely deserved these past months” Hilda stared at her, wide-eyed. “Vivien saw what was happening and wanted to tell you, but felt it wasn’t her place as a newcomer, that she might have been interfering where she had no right.”

“Mother?” whispered Hilda, her voice trembling. “What are you saying?” She looked round the table and saw the compassion in Vivien’s eyes, the shame in Nancy’s face, the guilt in Matey’s. “Why are you all looking at me like that? What am I not being told?”

“Look at me, Hilda,” the sweet voice said gently. “Kathie’s not just jealous of those who you love, sweetheart. She’s jealous of you.

Hilda’s hand went to the throat. “Of me?” she whispered, her pale face growing ashen. “That’s ridiculous! Why would she b…? What on earth do you mean?”

“She’s scared stiff Nancy’s going to fall in love with you, so every time you and Nancy have a meeting, she gives Nancy a hard time afterwards. She wants Nancy all to herself, hence her temper tantrums and general nastiness to you and everyone else,” Mother said tenderly, trying not to hurt her fragile daughter beyond endurance. “Nancy phoned me a few times, because she felt desperate and angry and needed a sounding board. She couldn’t… wouldn’t talk to you about it, although I tried time and again to persuade her.” She shrugged her shoulders.

Hilda’s eyes were grey with horror. “And that’s why…” She swallowed, still clutching her throat. The careful mask that cost her so much had slipped completely. “And that’s the why of everything she’s done? I’m the why? Dear God, help us!” she whispered in anguish. “Nancy? Gwynneth? Is this true?”

They looked into her ashen face and nodded shamefacedly. She fell silent, and they all held their breath, hearts filled with sorrow for her distress. Ian felt his own heart would break.

Her eyes flew to the nun. “Mother?” she croaked. “Why didn’t you tell me? I thought I could trust you, at least.”

Her face reflected a terrible sense of betrayal. The hollows in temples and cheeks brought about by her mortal illness seemed to deepen. The shadows round her eyes grew darker. Mother rose to her feet and walked behind Helen to kneel by her friend. Their eyes met and held.

“It wasn’t my place, child,” she said quietly. “It would have been interfering, since I’m not one of the people involved, and don’t belong to the school. I’ve pleaded and pleaded with Nancy and Gwynneth till I was blue in the face, because I knew you could help Kathie if you had the truth of it. It wasn’t fair to keep you in the dark, when you were trying so hard to make her understand where she was going wrong.”

The sweet voice held a vast sympathy, but Hilda’s shock and horror were too great to be soothed by it. She stared down at her, searched the green eyes frantically, then looked across at Matey.

“Why?” her voice broke. She tried to clear her throat. “I see why Nancy would find it hard to tell me, but why didn’t you?”

Matey shivered, knowing what a mess they had made of it, letting Hilda down so very badly. “We felt… if you knew, you would no longer allow Nancy to comfort you when your grief surfaced,” she whispered. “You would keep well away, trying to avoid hurting either of them.”

“And you would have been right, but that’s a trifling excuse. Kathie needed help… and I gave her the wrong help, because you kept this from me.” They all heard the despair in her voice.

“I would have been hurt if you hadn’t allowed me to comfort you,” Nancy said in a trembling voice. “But, in fact, that wasn’t putting you first, was it? It was just making me feel better. All we ended up doing was giving Kathie carte blanche to do as she pleased. I’ve had argument after argument with her about it, and had harsh words thrown at me.”

“But why?” Hilda whispered, her eyes glistening with unshed tears. “Why doesn’t she trust you, Nancy? Or me? I’m an elderly woman, nearly thirty years older than her, so why on earth would she think you would fall out of love with her and in love with me? Or think that I would return such a love, when I’ve just lost the dearest friend I’ll ever have...” Her voice cracked.

There were tears in Nancy’s eyes, called forth by Hilda’s terrible distress, and she shook her head helplessly. She knew now she should have done better by her Headmistress.

Hilda’s eyes flew to Matey. “That was the why of her pointed comment last Friday evening.”

Matey nodded, longing to wipe away Hilda’s pain. She saw Helen’s puzzled face. “Kathie asked Hilda, when she was recovering from an appalling migraine, what would the staff think about Ellie sleeping next door to her.”

Anger flared in Helen’s eyes, and she muttered under her breath, but Hilda leaned her elbows on the table and buried her face in her hands. Mother knelt up and put her arms round her, holding the thin, trembling body close. Perhaps she shouldn’t have been so brutal with the truth when her poor daughter was still so frail, but Hilda had needed the truth.

“Forgive them, child,” she said gently. “They were worrying about you, and not thinking straight. Gwynneth was torn both ways, listening to me, and then to Nancy. They love you so much and wanted you to go on having the mothering I know Nancy’s been giving you. They were wrong, but they’ve known that all along, and just didn’t know how to set it right without showing Kathie up in a bad light.”

Hilda leaned heavily against her, trying desperately to grasp this shocking, inconceivable news. Two pairs of grieving green eyes met across the table, their owners knowing they were both asking God to help her. A silent Helen was beginning to gather what had happened, since she knew about Kathie’s attack on Ellie, and her heart broke for Hilda. This, the poor woman did not need right now! How much more could she take?

Hilda’s hands fell away from her face, revealing a face that seemed to have aged ten years in those short minutes.

Her tormented eyes turned to Nancy. “But it wouldn’t have shown her up in a bad light at all. I would have understood, tried to help. We’ve all been jealous at some time in our lives…”

Vivien opened her lips, closed them again, then whispered, “I told her all that on Monday afternoon when she apologised, and begged her to give you the truth.” Her eyes were fierce. “I know you, and how you react to people, so why doesn’t she, after ten years here? I would trust you with my greatest failings, certain that you would welcome me graciously and help me overcome them, but she wouldn’t listen. I’m so sorry.” Tears stood in her eyes.

Hilda held a shaking hand out to her. “You did your best, Vivien, and saints can’t do more. I’m the one who’s sorry, sorry you ended up being put on the spot, sorry you tried with Kathie and got nowhere. I can imagine how much you wanted to tell me, because you’re always totally honest with me. Thank you, dear, but don’t fret about it anymore,” she whispered. Vivien clasped the hand gently, holding it for moment or two.

Hilda looked once more at Nancy and Matey, her eyes betraying more bewilderment than anger, though they could see the anger glimmering there behind the horror.

“No wonder I couldn’t do anything with her! She was afraid of me and all my works. If you’d explained, I would have tackled the whole thing differently, been so much gentler.” Hilda’s hoarse voice broke. She leaned her head against Mother’s. “Thank you for telling me. I know it wasn’t easy.”

“It was very easy, for you were suffering badly.” The nun hugged her closer. “You’re always gentle, love, even when you have to chide people.

Hilda consented to be held for a few more moments, then rubbed her hands over her face and drew away from the loving arms. She folded her own arms on the table to keep herself upright, and looked round at each person in turn, trying to regain some control of her emotions. Her whole body was beginning to ache again. The hurt in her eyes was all too evident, and they watched and waited in a tense silence.

Like smashing a mirror, she deliberately broke that fraught silence, making them jump, and spoke in a taut voice that had lost all its beauty.

“Helen and Ian, I’m sorry you got caught up in this messiness, because you didn’t deserve it, but when I think of all my wasted words with Kathie, of all those staff and girls hurt, or goaded beyond endurance, for no good reason, I just feel so helpless.. so confused… so angry. How long has it been going on?” she rapped out.

“Since last November, at least,” Mother answered, since everyone else’s throat was too tight.

“What? So long? Dear God, all the damage she’s done since then – because of me! Why didn’t I see it?” she whispered in despair.

Mother took the frail figure gently in her arms again, holding her close before she shook to pieces. She knew what this was doing to Hilda’s sensitive nature, and to her sense of rightness about things.

“Look at me, daughter,” she said softly, turning Hilda’s face her way. “You didn’t see it because you never think of yourself as anything special, so it would never have occured to you that Nancy might have feelings for you. Nancy has tried time and again to make her see how much she loves her, but Kathie’s deaf to it all. The poor girl is afraid of you, yes, because you’re selfless, generous and gracious, and engage gently and lovingly with people. She knows how much the girls and staff love you. You have a beautiful voice, a gentle manner and a compelling presence, without being at all aware of any of it.” Hilda closed her eyes, not liking what she was hearing. “Kathie knows that anyone might fall in love with such an appealing person, and is indeed a little in love with you herself, I suspect, which is why she’s so afraid of losing Nancy to you. Because she loves Nancy, she sees no reason why you might not also love Nancy.”

Hilda’s eyes snapped open and stared at her in shock. “I’m not… I would never… Nancy would never..”

“We know that, child,” Mother said tenderly, “but she’s young and a little immature, and totally confused by it all, I should think, not knowing which way to turn, so she lashes out, as she did at Ellie. I know she’s lashed out at you before now. Because of her confusion, and your own inner beauty, she doesn’t trust you or Nancy, and so her jealousy knows no bounds - but there’s no way on God’s earth this is your fault. You must not blame yourself, as we all just heard you do. Kathie did all that damage because of her own inadequacies, not because of yours! It’s not your fault for being the loving, generous, merciful person you are. It’s not your fault she’s jealous of you, yet wants your attention and friendship. Nor is it your fault she has no gratitude for all the good things that have come her way recently, courtesy of you.”

Her arms tightened round Hilda. “Blame Kathie, blame Nancy and Gwynneth, blame me, even, for keeping quiet in the hope they’d find the gumption to tell you - but never, ever blame yourself, child. I won’t let you!” she added tenderly.

Hilda’s haunted eyes stared into the loving green eyes for long, silent moments. She swallowed painfully, then leaned forward to rest her forehead against the nun’s once more.

“What would I do without you?” she asked softly.

The others had listened, spellbound, to Mother’s tender words, and now watched silently, with tears in their eyes, as she kissed Hilda’s forehead. Hilda drew out of those supportive arms, gave the grey-clad shoulder a gentle squeeze, helped Mother back to her feet, then set her elbows on the table. Mother drew another chair near and sat close beside her, sensing Hilda had found some balance, had resurrected some of that steely inner core, and was now ready to face what had happened.

Taking a deep, unsteady breath, Hilda looked at Nancy. “You and Gwynneth were right. I would have kept my grief from you, if I’d known, but that’s a very lame excuse for your silence, dear.” Her voice and eyes were so very gentle. “The school has to come first, and it needed me to know the facts, so I could protect the staff and girls – which I didn’t do! You’re a headmistress now, Nancy. There’ll be times when you’ll have to give people dreadful news, as I had to last Saturday. You can’t hold back, if you want to safeguard the girls. Giving me the facts about Kathie might have been hard, but it wouldn’t have been the worst sort of news, would it? It would certainly have helped safeguard both staff and pupils. I wonder how long this would have gone on before you or Gwynneth came clean, so to speak, if Mother hadn’t taken her courage in both hands. It wasn’t her tale to tell, but she, above all, recognised what your silence was doing to the school.”

One could have heard a feather fall in that room, as her haunted eyes moved in silence from Nancy to Gwynneth and back again.

“You may not have wanted to hurt me, or shame Kathie, but keeping quiet meant both schools suffered badly. So many staff and girls were hurt, including my innocent ward and poor, grieving Vi. Neither of them deserved Kathie’s proud pummelling. And it was done from pride, make no mistake.”

Tears rolled slowly down Nancy’s face, but her eyes clung to Hilda’s, for she saw no condemnation there, only perfect love. “You and Kathie, as co-heads, have to tell each other the hard things. You’ve tried to do that about this problem, you say, but Kathie’s been too stubborn and angry to listen, hasn’t she?” She raised an eyebrow. Nancy nodded. “That must have been very frustrating for you! But, Nancy, you also have to learn how to make each other do the hard things – like encouraging Kathie to come to me with the truth, rather than returning anger with anger. Nell and I were quite demanding of each other, and always pushed each other very hard when things got difficult. Nell would have had nothing to do with me if I hadn’t been brave enough to say or do the hard thing that needed doing or saying – and she knew I would be displeased if she wasn’t brave enough. It’s not easy, never easy, but together you can do anything, be anything. Nell gave me all the strength I ever needed to be brave. Without her, I’m nothing, and fall apart time after time.”

“That’s not true, love,” Nancy said firmly. “I watched you last Saturday doing some of the hardest things you’ve ever had to do. You never hesitated, even when telling Sarah’s parents how she had been burned on your watch, and you did it all with gentleness and compassion. The compassion and gentleness we should all try to show, no matter how much we’re challenged. You mothered everyone that day, even feeling as ill as you did, and certainly didn’t need Nell to steady you.”

“Agreed, Nancy,” Ian said quietly. “I saw her great strength, as Gillian saw it and learned from it. I heard her ask Hilda, later in the evening, if she, Mireille and the other prefects could write to Hilda after they leave, so they could go on learning how to be more like her. There were tears in Hilda’s eyes at that beautiful compliment, but, being Hilda, she told Gillian they had to grow more like Jesus, not like her, because the world didn’t need another Miss Annersley, but it badly needed a Gillian Reece and a Mireille Matthieu.”

Hilda’s eyes once more glistened with tears, but the others stared at her in wonder, while a stunned nun leaned over to grasp her hand. Only Hilda, Mother thought to herself.

Ian added softly, “Hilda and my sister are the two strongest people I know, because their strength is not their own, but His. As are their gentleness and their brave, loving hearts”

“I couldn’t agree more, Ian,” Nancy murmured, even as she watched them both shake their heads in denial. “I, too, learned a lot that day, like Gilllian.” She looked down and sighed. “But not enough to make me brave! I tried to convince Kathie you and I would never love each other, not in that sense, even though we meet regularly as Heads, but I was wasting my breath.” Her desolate eyes met Hilda’s. “We came close to blows a few times. I threw her out of my room once, because she was being so waspish about you - and I know she blamed you for it, even though you weren’t there. ”

“I’m sorry, Nancy,” murmured Hilda, “but if you’d told me straightaway, I would have been the recipient of that waspishness, not you, and could have put her straight.”

“I know that now, and I’m so sorry, but she was too blind, or too ashamed, to see that telling you was the way to go. I think… I think she actually enjoyed going up against you, making you struggle. It was almost like a game to her.” Nancy whispered. “She couldn’t see the great hurt she was inflicting.”

“Oh, she saw it, dear,” Hilda assured her softly. “Her eyes told me she knew exactly what she was doing, where I was concerned. But being the Head, I could stand up to her, whereas the others she hurt had far more of a struggle, because she was a deputy, a future headmistress, so they felt they had to defer to her. She hid her actions from you quite deliberately, and those she attacked didn’t seek help from you because they thought her orders came from you!” Nancy winced and closed her eyes. “Even Vi thought that, and she’s been here from the beginning, which means Kathie must sound very convincing. I’m just so thankful Vi plucked up the courage to come to me - thus letting the cat out of the bag. Julie let you down badly, as deputy, because she admits she knew some of what was going on. So now you know, as Head, that you have to keep your eyes and ears wide open, and be stronger with those you lead. I know you’ve been trying to ease Kathie into her role, but you have to show her exactly what you expect of her. You’re strong, Nancy, so now help make Kathie strong. We haven’t much time left…”

“But, when you love someone, it’s hard to force them to face reality, to make them own up to things, and change what perhaps they don’t want to change.”

“Actually, it’s not, Nancy,” put in Helen quietly. “Forgive me for intruding, but both you and I know Hilda and Nell had no problem spurring each other on. They were not ashamed to do it in front of us. If you want another couple, take Hilary and my brother Phil. He used to hide from his failures, and refuse to face up to hard things, but Hilary never let him do that once they were married. She made him confront what he’d done, confront the mistakes he’d made, correct them, apologise for them. She also taught him to stand up for those who struggle. He’s a slow learner, my brother, but now he never allows any doctor to bully a patient, or a doctor of lower rank, or a nurse, which he didn't even think to do at first. Hilary has always stood up for the underdog, but she taught him to take responsibility in every part of his life, including the children, just as someone needs to do with Kathie. Letting people get away with things because you love them is actually letting them down.”

“Listen to her, Nancy! If you love someone, you want them to be the best they can be, and sometimes that means challenging them, just as God challenges us to,” Hilda added softly, with a tiny curve of her lips for Helen. “I leave you to imagine how hard Nell sometimes challenged me!”

Helen snickered. “Hilary credits everything she now is to you and the Chalet School.”

Hilda shook her head. “It’s far more likely to be that terrifying trek from Austria with Nell, Jo, Jack, Robin and others, to escape the Nazis. Hilary had to be strong and face up to her responsibilities, because she was Head Girl and Nell was too incapacitated by her bad foot to be any kind of leader. Hilary was a very strong Head Girl, as Gill was in her turn.”

“She is strong, and has made Phil much stronger than I ever thought possible. He always thought his charm would see him through.” Helen smiled at Nancy. “I have to challenge my nurses, help them grow, just as you have to challenge Kathie, until she’s wise enough to challenge you in return, as Hilda and Nell did. As Heads, you two will have to be a team, as they were a team, pushing each other to be stronger than they already were.”

“No, Helen, I wasn’t strong at all when I first became Head,” Hilda said softly. “Anything but! I hadn’t anticipated Madge Russell asking me. I’d only been deputy a couple of years and thought she’d bring someone in with more experience. I often stumbled badly in my new role. I now know I was too harsh and abrupt in those early years, and Nell felt much the same about herself. She was already greatly loved by then, of course, but was known for her biting sarcasm, as indeed was I, though I didn’t exploit it as much. Madge was too busy to help, so we began to take a long, hard look at ourselves and taught each other a better way to be as we went along. I suppose growing more mature also helped,” she mused, her eyes distant.

She took hold of herself, and the eyes she focused on Nancy were very tender. “Don’t ever put me on a pedestal, dear. You think you’re not a worthy successor, but, believe me, you’re worthier than I was when I took on Thérèse’s role. You’re older and more experienced, and a much more relaxed, out-going person. They all love you, which is always a good start. This little hiccup doesn’t make you any less fit to lead the school. You’ve learned a hard lesson, and will never make the same mistake again. I learn far more from my mistakes than I ever do from my successes. Hopefully, Kathie will be strong enough to become your equal in every way.”

Nancy’s face grew brighter, but Hilda’s voice faded at Kathie’s name, the distress returning to her eyes. Mother’s hand came out to take hers in comfort.

“You might be a quiet person, Helen,” the nun said, “but you see well beneath the surface, just like Hilda. Jack’s lucky to have you as Matron over there.”

Hilda nodded in agreement before turning to Matey, who quailed at the hurt and disappointment in those shadowed grey eyes. “You pride yourself on being forthright and honest, Gwynneth, so why weren’t you this time? People were badly hurt, because I wasn’t given the necessary knowledge to protect them.” Again her voice was very gentle, very soft, but no one doubted her distress. “You were brave enough to tell everyone at Saturday’s meeting what Kathie had said to me, even though you knew I would be sorely annoyed…”

“But they needed to know,” Matey said brusquely.

A deathly hush fell on the room. Hilda’s eyes never left her friend’s face, and saw the moment the words resonated within. Matey blushed painfully, her eyes revealing her shame.

“As I needed to know,” Hilda replied in a very soft voice. “Knowing about her feelings was far more urgent than people knowing about her disgraceful comment. I’m still not sure why you think being told about her jealousy would upset me.” Matey blinked, then sighed, knowing it wouldn’t have hurt Hilda at all, just given her the necessary ammunition to help Kathie, and make her bigger than she was. “You were brave enough to go against my wishes about her words, yet not brave enough to give me the reason she said them - her jealousy of me!” Matey bit her trembling lip. ”You fought me several times this afternoon, trying to stop me having the tea party, and then this dinner. You didn’t mind upsetting me, trying to bend me to your will, yet refused to upset me with the truth about Kathie. That sounds rather like a contradiction in terms to me.”

“I know and I’m sorry,” Matey lamented, her voice breaking. “I was actually in two minds. Half of me wanted you to know, and the other half worried about your grief. I nearly gave you the truth on Saturday at that meeting, then again on Monday, when Ellie was hurt. It was my fault she was so badly hurt and terrorised,” she whispered, her voice revealing her torment.

“Perhaps it was, in the sense that you refused to let me in on the truth! But, in the end, as Mother’s just said to me, it was Kathie’s fault, and Kathie’s alone. She’s a grown woman, with ten years experience and a good head on her shoulders. She chose to do what she did!”

“And I chose to keep quiet,” Matey whispered, tears rolling down her lined cheeks.

“Yes, but you did it for my sake, Gwynneth, though I could wish you’d thought about Kathie and all those she was hurting.” Hilda’s eyes were very gentle on Matey. “You would say it was for my sake you fought me when we got back this afternoon – but you were really fighting the One who saved me, for I know now why He got me to my feet yesterday, and why He sent me home today. People needed me! Kathie needed me, didn’t she? Or, rather, she needed what Ellie had to say this afternoon. Ellie also needed me, to disperse her terror by facing her with Kathie. Meg needed me, and needed the tea party you didn’t want me to have, to assure her of our support and love. Even more to the point, if I’d listened to you and not invited these good people to dinner, I would still be clueless about Kathie, and she would still be rudderless…”

“And Meg less relaxed and strengthened,” added Mother softly.

“And Ellie still terrified,” Hilda said. “But none of that happened, because I insisted on having my own way. Ellie’s gentle, honest words to Kathie have shamed me into being open and honest with what I think about your secrecy.” Her eyes were sad as they moved from Matey to Nancy. “I hope I was also gentle – and thought-provoking. Please remember that I’m not important. The girls and staff must always come first.” She turned to the nun, sitting so close beside her. “I owe you a great deal, Mother. Your brutal honesty has worked its magic and made us all more open with each other. Hopefully, I might now be able work some magic with Kathie.”

Mother hugged her. “I’ll be praying for you, child. Go and do what you do best.”

Hilda leaned against her for several seconds, receiving courage and healing almost by osmosis, then withdrew from the nun’s arms and rose to her feet, looking wasted with tiredness.

“Is Kathie awake?” she asked abruptly of Nancy and Matey.

“She was when I nipped up earlier with a light supper for her,” replied Matey, her heart in turmoil as she thought over Hilda’s courageous words. “The sedative I gave her earlier was only a short-acting one.”

Hilda glanced at Vivien. “Would you be very kind and make some coffee, if everyone’s finished? I’ll be down when I’m able.”

Without another word, she squeezed Mother’s shoulder and left the room. The nun yearned to support her, but knew this was Hilda’s job as Head. Frail as she was, her spirit was strong and capable. And Nell and the Lord were with her!

Looking round, she saw everyone seemed white and shaken. Tears rained down Matey’s cheeks, forced out of her by Hilda’s extreme gentleness in the midst of her distress. Helen moved closer and placed an arm round her in comfort, feeling shell-shocked and disbelieving that something so important had been kept from Hilda. Even the breakdown and blood poisoning might have been avoided if she had been able to do her job properly, with all the facts to hand. She met Ian’s eyes and saw he was thinking much the same.

Nancy was also close to tears, unable to speak. Vivien moved nearer and held her hand comfortingly. Everyone looked at Mother, and saw those green eyes watching them.

“It had to be done,” she said quietly. “It should have been done sooner, as Hilda said, but I shouldn’t have been the one to do it. You prevented her doing her job, and people were badly hurt. You know what that will do to Hilda, who works till she drops to make sure all her chicks are well and happy.” Nancy and Matey looked away, unable to meet those mesmerising green eyes. Matey wiped away her tears. “Vivien, no blame attaches to you. You’re right. It wasn’t your job to tell her. Why don’t you go and make the coffee, as she suggested? Helen, would you help her, and she’ll explain anything you don’t understand. I know you and Hilda are close, so you deserve to know what’s hit her so hard.”

She watched them leave with hooded eyes. Ian rose to his feet and lifted her from her chair.

“Well done,” he murmured, gently removing the shawl from her shoulders. “I think Hilda might need this when she returns.”

“I’d say so,” she said quietly, adding, almost in despair, “How did it come to this, Ian?”

He shrugged and went to lay the shawl over the back of the couch. Mother went to sit in his vacated chair between Nancy and Matey, taking a hand of each.

“I know why you did it. As she does! She knows Gwynneth was torn, but I suspect it will take her a while to forgive, despite her understanding. She’s right! She could have sorted this out months ago. Now, it may be too late for Kathie, even perhaps for St Mildred’s. I hope not. I hope Kathie’s apologies mean some change has taken place in her heart. So pray, as hard as ever you can.”

Ian put his arm round the three of them and prayed aloud for strength for Hilda, for forgiveness for Nancy and Matey, and for Kathie to listen at last to her Headmistress.

He then went over to Hilda’s drinks tray and poured out small glasses of brandy, just as Vivien entered with a pot of coffee and small jug of milk. Ian brought the glasses back to the table and placed one beside each cup as it was handed out.

“Either drink it or pour it into your coffee. You all need your nerves settling. Down the hatch!”

“Where’s Helen?” asked Mother idly, as she poured her spirits into her coffee…

*****

As the door closed behind Hilda, she walked slowly to the foot of the stairs, but then had to lean against the wall to steady her legs and wait for the shaking to stop. Her mind was in turmoil. How could they have done such a thing? Hadn’t enough happened recently, without their silence compounding the mounting problems? She almost understood Nancy. But – Gwynneth? Who liked to give people the truth, even when they didn’t want it? How could she ever forgive her? She had hurt not only Hilda, but many another, even Kathie herself, by not allowing anyone to halt the latter’s activities.

Still leaning against the wall, she bowed her head and covered her eyes with her hand.

Help me, Heavenly Father. Is this, above all, why You wanted me back here so quickly? As it says in Psalm 32: ‘You are my hiding place.’ Only by hiding in You will my legs find strength to walk up these stairs. Only in You will I find enough wisdom and gentleness to speak truth to Kathie, who’s been blundering along blindly with no compass to hand. Open her eyes and ears, open her heart, so she’ll listen and not turn away. Help her see this may be her last chance. And please, please don’t allow me to break down and weep. Tears are too close for comfort, but Kathie needs me composed and strong. If you could send Nell to stand alongside me and uphold me, that would help. Oh, and please soften my heart towards Gwynneth, who’s been so good to me this past year.

A gentle arm went round her, drawing her close. Helen! She leaned against her, drawing strength from her generous affection.

“Take heart, love! Does it not say in chapter two of Hosea: ‘God is the only one who can make the valley of trouble a door of hope.’

“A door of hope? Is there any hope now?” Hilda whispered.

“There's always hope for those who love Him, as you do. He’s shown you vividly this week how much He returns your love, so go up there in His strength and help poor Kathie, who doesn’t seem to know what she wants, judging from what Vivien’s just told me and what I’ve heard in there. Did you know that, on Monday, when you were taken to the San, Kathie apologised to nearly everyone she’d hurt? She went to Vivien, begged her pardon, then told her it all. She heard the Lord, love.” Hilda lifted her head and stared at her in shock. Helen nodded. “He spoke to her in the corridor, apparently! As he spoke to you in that room! So He’s in this with you, and will guide you every step of the way. Ah, I see a little joy peeping out of those weary eyes!”

Silence fell, but the shaking had stopped. Hilda leaned against Helen, trying to assimilate all the Lord had done for them this week.

“Want some help up those stairs? You’re still very weak, don’t forget.”

“Bless you, Helen. I think I do need some help. I’d hate to slip and end up back in the San. Jack would kill me, if I hadn’t already done it to myself.”

Helen spluttered. “Come on! Steady now, take it slowly. Tell you what. I’ll go and fetch my coffee and sit here on the top step till you’re done, then I can help you down again. I am your nurse, after all!”

Hilda turned to her at the top, and Helen saw the tears. “Are you sure, Helen? Then, I think that might be a good idea. I don’t know how long I’ll be, but when you fetch your coffee, you could also get a book from my spare room to while away the time.” A fleeting smile crossed the white, weary face. “Thank you for letting me know about Him and Kathie. We’ve all been the recipients of so much grace recently. As for your words of encouragement, I needed them, Helen, so thank you. In fact, I think He sent you along, because I was asking Him for strength and wisdom when your arm went round me.” Helen hugged her close, holding her tightly for a long moment. “Would you be a dear, and ask them all to stay? I couldn’t bear to return to an empty room.”

“Chump! You know Mother and Ian will still be there. I’ll tell Nancy and Gwynneth to stay, too, if you’re sure.” Hilda nodded. “I’m sorry they let you down so badly, but Mother will help you with the fall-out. I know how much you mean to each other. Go on, Kathie needs you. I’ll be sitting here and praying.”

She turned Hilda away from the stairs, towards the short corridor leading to the spare room, then went slowly back down the stairs to find book and coffee, pleading for help for her friend. Hilda trudged along the corridor until she came to the spare room door, which was showing a strip of light along its bottom edge. Kathie was awake! She raised a hand to knock, and let it fall again. What on earth was she going to say? Where did she start?




*****
Chapter 24 - Dance of The Waters by MaryR
Author's Notes:
Thank you for the thoughtful comments regarding Hilda finally knowing the truth about Kathie’s jealousy. In fact, I’ve got to the stage where I ought to thank you just for reading each chapter, never mind commenting, as this saga must be getting too big for its boots, so to speak. Some of you have been reading and reviewing for years, and I am truly, truly grateful for every thought you ever posted about it.

I’m sorry this one has been so long coming, but it was difficult to write. Indeed, it was re-written several times, and I'm quite sure most of you would have written it very differently. *winks* I will try to have the next chapter ready *within* the week!
Taking a deep breath to steady herself, Hilda lifted her hand again and tapped lightly on the door. At first there was silence, but then a quiet invitation to enter could be heard. She opened the door and stood on the threshold, waiting. The room was lit only by the bedside lamp, and Kathie was sitting up in the rumpled bed, staring at her in surprise.

“Hilda?” she whispered. “What is it?”

“May I come in, dear?”

A guarded expression crossed Kathie’s face. “Of course!”

Hilda closed the door and walked over to the bed, Kathie watching her warily. Hilda indicated the chair by the bed with a raised eyebrow. Kathie nodded. Hilda sat down and surveyed with compassion the swollen red eyes and tear-streaked face, then quoted softly from Tagore:

“’You’re crying, you say you’ve burned yourself.
But can you think of anyone who’s not hazy with smoke.’”


“You mean, w… we all do bad things, terrible things?” stammered Kathie wildly.

“Oh, yes! We all crash and burn, hence the smoke - then weep bitterly for our sins. I’ve done it many a time, so don’t think you’re any different from the rest of the human race. Not one of us is perfect. You still seem bothered, though, whereas I’d hoped a good sleep would have settled you a little.”

Kathie leaned back against the pillows with a sigh. “It has! I’m sorry I broke down this afternoon, but Ellie was…” She shrugged.

“Ellie was inspired, although she doesn’t realise it,” Hilda said gently. “She was terrified when we returned to school, which was why I asked you along almost immediately. I wanted it over and done with, for both of you. She had no time to plan what she was going to say, and I didn’t suggest anything. Her words were all her own! She told me afterwards she had no idea where they – or, indeed, her forgiveness - came from.” Kathie’s eyes widened. “Right up until the moment she saw you, she felt she couldn’t ever face you again, never mind forgive you.”

“And you?” whispered Kathie.

“I wasn’t sure I could forgive you, either,” Hilda said sadly. “If you’d hurt me in such a manner, it would have been easy, but to do that to an innocent child…” She shook her head. “However, Ellie led by example, and left me no choice but to forgive you. I’m very proud of her, and of you, too.”

Kathie frowned. “How could you be proud of me, after all I did?”

“You apologised to us, not once, not twice, but over and over. Until now, you’ve found that word ‘sorry’ too difficult to say. Has that pride of yours softened a little?” Kathie’s face reddened. “I’m told you apologised to several other people on Monday, some of whom you’d hurt rather badly. That made me very glad and more at peace about you.”

“Who told you?” There was curiosity in Kathie’s voice, but no resentment.

“Vivien.”

Kathie gnawed her bottom lip. “Did she tell you why?” she whispered. “She’s the only one I’ve told, apart from Nancy.”

Hilda reached out to take Kathie’s hand, which clutched hers as though unwilling ever to let it go again. “She told me you’d heard the Lord’s voice that afternoon.”

“You don’t sound surprised,” Kathie said hesitantly. “Vivien wasn’t, either.”

Hilda smiled. “I heard His voice yesterday, dear, so why be surprised?”

Kathie started, let go of Hilda’s hand and struggled to sit upright. Hilda leaned over and settled the pillows more comfortably for her.

“What did He say to you?" Kathie whispered. "I ask, because Mr Stuart spoke with me yesterday morning, and said you were so weak that you’d be in the San for a long while recovering. Yet, here you are!”

“That should have been the case, yes. I could hardly move at that point, had no strength to lift my hand or turn my head, but, when the room emptied, I heard Him telling me to sit up.”

“Just like that?” gasped Kathie, all eyes.

Hilda winked. “Just like that! So I pushed up the pillows for support and discovered enough strength to sit up all on my own.”

“It’s not possible!” Kathie seemed almost frightened by what she was hearing.

“With God, all things are possible, dear. Just because we don’t understand something, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Let’s face it, He’d already brought me back to life several hours before, so helping me sit up must have been easy in comparison.”

“Do you always obey Him?” Hilda nodded. “But… it might not have been God. It could have been the Devil… or your own imagination.”

“What comes from God leaves only peace in my heart. Satan surely wouldn’t want me to be at peace, nor do my own imaginings bring peace. I’ve obeyed His voice for so long now, that I would always recognise it and do as it asked - as you will, now you’ve heard it.” Kathie shook her head. “When I was alone again in the afternoon,” Hilda added equably, “He told me that this time He’d like me to get out of bed and walk.” Kathie’s eyes grew round with awe. “It wasn’t an invitation, you understand. It was a command, a gentle one, but still meant to be obeyed.”

“What did you do?”

Hilda took possession of Kathie’s hand again, her eyes veiled. “I’m not in the habit of revealing my secrets, Kathie, especially about matters that are personal and precious, so I hope what I say here won’t be spread around. I’m telling you only because I hope it will help, because I think you’re looking for a way out of your misery.” Kathie's eyes clung to Hilda’s. “What did I do that second time? I asked Him why He was in such a hurry.”

Kathie’s mouth fell open. “You questioned God?” she gasped.

“And He answered, telling me people needed me, and needed me now, not next week.”

Kathie blinked. Silence fell. Hilda waited. Kathie’s fingers tightened round Hilda’s.

“Was I one of those people?” she whispered.

“Yes, dear! He loves you and wants you whole – which you aren’t, are you?” Kathie closed her eyes, unable to bear the honesty in Hilda’s quiet eyes. “He mentioned Meg, too, who was returning today, and Tonia, who’s been having a very bad time. He also mentioned Mireille, who was extremely upset by your actions, and Ellie, terrified by those same actions.” She paused, added softly, “Nancy also needed me.”

Kathie’s eyes flashed open, saw the compassion and blushed. “That’s my fault! I wouldn’t listen to her yesterday morning, and refused to fill the gaps left by you and others. So much for my apologies on Monday! It was as though… all my good intentions had flown out of the window.”

“The Lord didn’t give His reasons, but I made an educated guess where you were concerned. So I swung my feet to the floor… then hesitated.”

“Why?” Kathie whispered, eyes wide.

“I felt so weak that I wasn’t sure my legs would hold me up, but He just told me to go in His strength, that He was with me.”

“And He was!” Kathie knew Hilda’s great faith by this time.

Hilda laughed. “Oh, I tottered a bit, my legs like the proverbial jelly, but I was soon able to walk the length of that room and back.” Her eyes grew distant, and she added softly, “I had no strength in myself, so I had to step out into the unknown, depending totally on His strength. He wants us to trust Him always, for everything, Kathie.”

“It was another miracle,” Kathie whispered.

Hilda nodded, remaining silent. Kathie stared ahead of her, clearly pondering something weighty. Heaving a sigh, she sank back against her pillows.

“Yes, I did hear a voice. There were prayer services for you, both Catholic and Protestant, after Mittagessen on Monday. Vivien did ours, and it… softened something inside me. It was so simple, yet very gentle and very moving. Afterwards, I was walking back to the study on my own, finally accepting what a mess I’d made of everything, including hurting Ellie so badly, and you on Saturday evening in the Hall. I wondered what on earth I could do about it all…” She hesitated, the look of fear back in her eyes. “It was at that point I heard the voice saying, ‘Apologise!’”

Hilda shivered. She knew the first time you heard that voice could knock you for six, completely overwhelming you. “What did you do?”

“It scared the life out of me, but, when I looked round, there was no one there. Yet, I could sense something nearby… so I shouted out that it would be too hard. He… the voice… replied that He would bear the shame for me.”

“Oh, Kathie,” whispered Hilda, clasping the small hand reassuringly.

This, too, was a miracle, Father! Your abundance knows no bounds. Thank You from the bottom of my heart. You and Ellie succeeded where I failed utterly to make one iota of difference. How much we should leave to You and Your little ones!

“I asked why, and He said He loved me.” Kathie stared at Hilda. “How could He love me, after the dreadful things I’ve done?”

“He loves us all, saint and sinner alike, and always forgives us if we’re sorry. You hadn’t got that far that afternoon, but were feeling very uncomfortable about your behaviour, which was a start.”

“That’s what He said, the bit about saints and sinners!” Kathie whispered in awe. “I asked Him how He could love me. I’ll never, ever, forget His words:

‘I loved you before you were born. Your name is sealed on the palm of My hand. Once upon a time I died for you. Now you must live for Me.’”

Hilda was stunned. She had said she would move aside to leave room for Him – and He had taken her at her word! “Are you going to do as He asked, and live for Him now?”

Kathie bit her lip, looking scared. “I didn’t really understand Him, even though I went straightaway to apologise to Gill and Julie, then Vivien, Mireille and Jeanne. Yet I was back to hurting Nancy the very next morning,” she sighed in despair. “Mr Stuart had to shake me hard to get me going again, to make me pull up my socks and do as Nancy asked. I think I just wanted to be annoying because I was jealous of your miracle.” Hilda raised an eyebrow. Kathie saw and nodded. “I was quite nasty about it at first, but Mr Stuart sent Nancy away and gave it to me straight!” Hilda almost smiled at the slang. “Neither you nor God deserved such nastiness, and neither did Nancy, he pointed out, then told me I was having a temper tantrum, just like Helen Cassidy.”

“And you didn’t like that!”

Hilda stifled the laugh bubbling up at the thought of what those words must have done to Kathie’s pride. It could have gone either way at that point.

Kathie blushed scarlet, the flood gates opened and she poured out all Mr Stuart had said to her, including the tale of Emilia, feeling it was the only way to show this gracious woman how his strong words words had shaken her. Hilda’s heart was warmed by Ian’s wisdom and honesty, but Kathie’s next words astounded her.

“He told me you’d had a lot of suffering in your life, which was why you understood people, so I asked had he suffered, because he, too, seemed to understand me so well. I don’t even know why I asked, but he was beginning to intrigue me. After some thought, he told me about the concentration camp, and his breakdown.”

Hilda stared at her in disbelief. Ian never revealed his chequered history to people he didn’t know well! He must really have wanted to give Kathie a good, hard shock!

“I hope you’ll keep his secret, for you were very honoured,” she warned. “Did it help?”

“It opened my eyes to my own selfishness and immaturity. I knew in my head that people had suffered in very terrible ways during the war, and I'd heard a few tales at university, but you were right in what you said to me one day. I haven’t suffered, not like him, nor your friend Emilia, nor indeed most people. And I certainly could never have found the courage to do what you did to save Mr Stuart’s life last term.” Kathie took her hand from Hilda’s and reached for a piece of paper on the bedside table and handed it to Hilda. “He left this for me later in the day.”

Hilda read the words written there and was reduced to silence. Ian couldn’t have chosen anything more calculated to appeal to Kathie.

Oh, Ian, how much you understand people’s self-seeking and lack of simple kindness. Thank you for your courage in revealing your story to help this poor girl find her way back. Thank you for all you’ve done for Ellie, Mireille and Nancy, and for me while I’ve been ill. I'll never forget any of it, and will make sure Kate knows it all. You have truly been a light in my darkness since Nell died.

She handed the sheet back with a trembling hand. “Will you do as it asks?”

Kathie nodded, holding the paper as though it were something very precious. “I have to try, don’t I? I have to give up any evil I might still do, and trade it for some kindness and gentleness, before it’s too late. I have to work hard to prove to God I’m worthy of His love.”

“Oh, not one of us is worthy of His love, dear,” Hilda disagreed softly. “Not of our own accord. We can’t earn His love. It’s already given, totally and forever. We love Him because He first loved us. We don’t do good works to earn His grace and favour, to prove our goodness. We do good towards others for His sake, if we truly love Him. His love forces us out there to carry that love to others, to be a light shining in their darkness. Because He loves us, all we have to do when we go wrong is turn and say we’re sorry, and He will welcome us back with open arms. All is forgotten and forgiven.”

Kathie searched Hilda’s face. “You don’t see it, do you?” she murmured. Hilda frowned. “All you’ve just said about God is exactly what you do. You love everyone. It’s there in your eyes, in your kindly smile, in your actions. Once we apologise for some misdemeanour, you forgive and forget. You never remind us of past faults. You only encourage us to be bigger and better than we were.”

She caught a flash of vulnerability in the tired eyes. “That’s what His love demands of me, Kathie, but I need His help to do it, to be gracious and kind, and to forgive. I’m not big enough on my own,” Hilda said softly. “I even have to beg for His smile some days, when my own goes missing. Without Him and Nell I would be nothing.”

“You still miss her,” Kathie whispered, taking her courage in both hands.

“I will always miss her, Kathie. There’s a part of me that will be forever broken now.”

The vast pain in Hilda’s voice, the pain she always tried so hard to hide, hurt Kathie very badly.

“But… you have Ellie now, and Mother, and…” She broke off suddenly.

“They have their own places in my heart, but they can never take Nell’s place, and they know that, even Ellie. Nell meant too much for me to put another in the place that was so uniquely hers. That’s why there’s still a huge, gaping hole inside me.” Hilda’s eyes were very soft as they watched Kathie. “You don’t really understand, do you, child, for you’ve never lost a loved one. That’s why you were so harsh with Vi.” Kathie’s eyes lowered in shame. “How would you feel if you lost your aunt or uncle?”

Kathie’s eyelids lifted. “As though the world had come to an end...”

“So try to understand that’s how it is with Vi and with me. With Ellie, too, for she’s lost more than any of us, lost everything that made life worth living. Yet she’s one of the kindest, bravest people I know, which is why your treatment of her was so appalling.” She saw the shame bloom in the brown eyes. “Use that vivid imagination of yours, and you'll know how people feel when they lose someone, or struggle with some other hurt. Think about your own feelings since you let Nancy down! You feel you’ve lost her love, and that’s hell on earth, I know.”

Kathie’s jaw dropped at hearing such strong language from Hilda. “That’s how you f…”

Hilda nodded, her vast loneliness all too evident in her eyes. Kathie cowered. The pain of it hurt too much, making Hilda untouchable, for how could anything you said or did assuage that terrible anguish? Hilda remained still and silent, sensing a softening in this young woman’s heart and spirit.

Finally, she broke that silence. “You were going to say I have Mother, Ellie and… Nancy, weren’t you?” Kathie nodded, her cheeks red, so Hilda took her courage in both hands and asked softly, “Why are you jealous of me, Kathie? Nancy and I will never love each other, not in the way you think.”

The colour drained from Kathie’s cheeks at this plain-speaking. She gulped. “What made you realise how I felt?”

Hilda sighed. “I would never have realised, if left to my own devices. It was Mother who told me the truth of it just now. She thought it was time, since neither you nor Nancy, nor even Gwynneth, were prepared to tell me. I thought you were just jealous of those who were close to me, but I was blind, wasn’t I? Oh, Kathie, what a great deal of damage has been done, all because I didn’t know that one simple fact.”

Kathie felt like backing away and hiding from those probing eyes. Her fingers twisted together, and she looked down. “Vivien guessed. She urged me to tell you on Friday night, when she drove me across. Why didn’t she…?”

“It wasn’t her mess to clean up, dear. It was yours! She worked it out, because she watches everything, much as I do, and notices what others miss – including myself this time, it would seem! You underestimate her at your peril. It’s a great pity you didn’t listen to her that night because, instead of enlightening me and receiving help and reassurance, you hurled the worst kind of abuse at me, trying to damage my relationship with my innocent ward.”

The very softness of the mellow voice struck at Kathie’s heart. Tears began to trickle down her cheeks. “I never meant to say that. It just flew out of me.”

“As your cruelty on Monday to Ellie, Mireille and Jeanne flew out of you! You couldn’t have hurt them more if you’d taken a whip to them.” Kathie flinched. “If you want to follow Nell as head of St Mildred’s, you have to put a guard on that quick temper and fiery tongue of yours, and trample on your compulsion to violence.” Kathie lifted her head, thunderstruck. “Child, you were so out of control that Mireille was afraid you'd end up killing Ellie. That’s why she refused to get up and leave her, and why I felt compelled to intervene before it went any further. I feared very much the same as Mireille.”

“No! No! No!” sobbed Kathie, shaking her head from side to side. “I would never have done that… I was just so angry about the panto, and…"

All of a sudden, she stopped speaking and rubbed the tears away frantically, recognising the truth. She had been appointed Head of St Mildred’s, so she had to be as adult as Hilda was being, because Hilda was treating her as an equal, and doing it with total honesty and great gentleness, while not pulling her punches. She wasn’t talking down to her. She was asking her to face herself and accept how very badly she had behaved.

“Kathie, look at me,” Hilda ordered gently. The tear-filled eyes met hers. “Why didn’t you come to me, ask for my help? Have I ever given you cause to think you wouldn’t have been welcomed and understood?”

Kathie saw the sadness in Hilda’s eyes. “I was ashamed,” she whispered.

“No one else would ever have known, except you and me – and Nancy, I suppose. I could have reassured you, settled your worries, as I’m sure Nancy’s tried to do. Instead, several people have been cruelly hurt, and St Mildred’s perhaps fatally damaged. The damage was already done to Vi, Julie, Gill, Solange and Jane when I confronted you that afternoon, but, if you'd come clean at that point, Nancy wouldn’t now feel so angry or betrayed, and some, like Ellie, might have escaped harm.”

“Instead, I nearly killed you,” Kathie whispered, horror filling her eyes. “No, I did kill you!”

“No, dear, I think we have to put that down to the blood-poisoning, though I’ll admit Jack did think all the recent stress had left me vulnerable to such an infection. He wasn’t impressed by your behaviour last Saturday evening.”

“If only I’d…” sobbed Kathie.

“Such sad words, If only! How often we humans use them! Kathie, dear, why are you so jealous of me? And why has that jealousy made you so cruel to everyone else?”

Kathie bit her lip. “I was just so angry all the time,” she whispered. “You and Nancy spend a lot of time together, with meetings and planning and so on, and… Nancy’s the one who supports you when your grief catches up with you,” she admitted shamefacedly.

“Twice, dear! That’s all! When I fell apart, I never intended for Nancy to be the recipient of my grief. I don’t seek company when it seizes hold, preferring to weep alone.” Hilda closed her eyes. How much of herself did she feel able to reveal to a young woman totally lacking in sympathy for others? “I have to admit, though, if Mother Abbess hadn’t phoned Nancy to come across that day last October, I’m not sure what would have happened. She acted very courageously, for I was completely lost in a world of intense, insane agony. If Nancy hadn’t managed to bring me back…” She shrugged. “Who knows? I think what I really needed in those few hours was medical help. I do know I terrified Nancy, and am deeply ashamed of myself.”

By now, Kathie was wondering what had hit her. “She tried to tell me, but I…”

“You wouldn’t listen, because you were too jealous and angry. Poor Nancy!” sighed Hilda, “She must have been desperate for sympathy and support, for she had to go way beyond her own knowledge and experience to help me. Guided by Mother, she had to find harsh words, cruel words, to break through my icy shell – which went totally against her kindly nature.” Her gentle eyes met Kathie’s, which were filled with shame, but also with a great horror that such terrible grief could exist. “You let her down very badly that day, child. She looked to you for comfort, for a renewal of her spirit. It’s never easy to support someone who’s grieving as badly as I was that morning. She didn’t ask for such an intolerable burden, but she took it on willingly, only to be spurned by the very one who claimed to love her.”

“I think she loved me less after that day,” Kathie said sadly. “I was so… horrid to her.”

“And you blamed me!” Kathie winced at the desolation in Hilda’s voice. “Instead of offering Nancy some much-needed compassion, you thought only of yourself and your totally false, mistaken ideas. Why?”

The anguish in Hilda’s face forced the truth from Kathie. “I thought she must be falling in love with you, to do all that for you… She thought more of you and your pain than she did of me and my love!” Hilda shook her aching head in denial. “She always seemed to put you first.” Kathie added, struggling to be honest. “I know that, sometimes, when you’re looking after someone who’s suffering in some way, you can develop feelings for them, and I felt sure she was falling in love with you… so I was afraid you’d start to love her - out of gratitude, I suppose…”

She faltered, looked up and caught the terrible despair in Hilda’s face. It nearly broke her heart. She clutched Hilda’s hand, leaning towards her.

“Oh, don’t! Please, don’t,” she sobbed. “That’s how you looked after Nell died.”

Hilda’s own eyes were tearless. “Kathie, I’m thirty years older than you. Nancy’s loved you for many years now. Why would she suddenly fall in love with an elderly woman, rather than remain in love with a young, vibrant person who has plenty of character?” The lovely voice was flat. “Nancy and I are friends. It’s you she loves.”

“I’m not sure she does now,” Kathie murmured in despair.

“Can you blame her?” whispered Hilda. “You didn’t trust her – or me! I’ve just lost the dearest friend I ever had. I’m still grieving for her, so why would…?” Her voice broke.

“But people who lose their loved ones often look to others for sympathy, and then, when people give that sympathy, strange things happen…”

“I’ve never looked for sympathy, Kathie. As I said, I tend to hide from people, so I don’t…” Hilda broke off, a look of total disbelief on her face. “Is that really what you think?” she whispered, aghast. “That I tried to use my pain to make her love me, because I was lonely?

Kathie realised she had hurt Hilda in monstrous fashion, and was horror-stricken. “No, God, no! I didn’t think you’d do it deliberately, but it c…”

Hilda steadied her shaken nerves, drove back the tears. “Kathie, listen to me! Nell and I never had the sort of relationship you enjoy with Nancy, so why would I start now, at my age?”

“But… you’ve been so lost, grieved so very badly, are still grieving, as you just said… No one grieves like that just for a friend.”

How very young you still are, child.

“Despite my great grief, ours wasn’t a sexual relationship, Kathie,” Hilda said softly, shocking Kathie with her bluntness. “There was no passion in it, not in the way you mean the word. But, believe me when I tell you that one can grieve very badly for a long-standing friend. Nell and I lost all family quite early on, and were both more or less alone in the world, but over the years our friendship grew wider and deeper, working so closely together as we did from the time she became my deputy. We depended totally on each other. What does it say in the first book of Samuel?

“’And it came to pass that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.’”

Hilda’s eyes stayed fixed on Kathie’s. “Like them, our souls were gradually knit together. Our souls, Kathie, but that's all... Mother calls us soul friends.” Silence fell, but Kathie could summon up no words. “I loved her in the sense that I would have taken her place in that earthquake without a second thought, if God had allowed it.” Kathie blinked in shock. “I would have stepped in front of a bullet or a speeding train to save her life. I miss her every moment of every day, because she was a part of my daily life for nearly thirty years. We were probably closer in many ways than you and Nancy, for we trusted each other absolutely, understood each other so well, and gave each other only the truth. I knew I could appear at her door at any moment of the day or night with a grief or trouble, and she would send me away healed, sometimes without a word spoken.”

“And you did the same for her, I know,” murmured a stunned Kathie, who had no real conception of such a beautiful, selfless love.

“I hope I did. I hope I was as good a friend to her as she was to me.”

“Of that there could be no possible doubt, Hilda. But… you never…”

“No!” Hilda shook her head firmly. “Neither of us was that way inclined. It was a different sort of love, which is why your jealousy has been so misguided, and fatally wounding to so many. I began to feel it was my fault when I heard, just now, that I was the cause of all the harm you’ve done, but Mother soon disabused me of that idea. If you had come to me earlier dear, we could have put it right between us.”

Kathie dropped her head in her hands, but there were no tears. She just felt very small, very shabby, and totally overcome by her own stupidity and by Hilda’s astonishing courage in telling out, in words of one syllable, how much she, Kathie, had erred.

Hilda waited, wishing with all her might that she had had this conversation months ago. On the other hand, she hadn’t then overcome her dislike of revealing herself in such wholesale fashion, so might not have been as open and honest. She shifted uncomfortably in the chair. Her head, legs and back were all beginning to ache badly and she knew she should be resting, but Kathie’s need was greater.

Kathie finally lifted her head, but what she saw in the weary face frightened her. “You should be in bed. You look terrible. You’re going to collapse again…”

“I’ll live, dear, but am I making you see more clearly? I do not, and never will, love Nancy, nor will she ever love me, not in the way you fear. So, please, ditch this jealousy which is hurting everyone, and show Nancy some sympathy and sorrow for your rather outrageous assumptions.”

Kathie reached out her hand with a sob. “Sorry is too poor a word for all I’ve done, but I mean it, all the same. May I... may I be very rude and ask… have you ever felt the sort of love Nancy and I feel?” She blushed, knowing she was trespassing. She shook her head. “Forget I asked…”

Hilda took the outstretched hand, wondering could she reveal even more of herself. “I was engaged once upon a time,” she whispered. Her eyes were steady on Kathie and saw the sudden shock. “I was in my late twenties….”

“Why didn’t you…?”

“He was a doctor. We planned to go out to India as missionaries, but… he feared I wasn’t strong enough to withstand the heat and conditions, so went out alone to judge whether I was up to it. He wouldn’t allow me to go with him, to make that decision for myself.”

Kathie stared at her, rapidly changing her shallow ideas about this quiet woman. “That’s why you’re always so keen for our girls to be independent, to think for themselves, to study hard and work towards a proper career, if they have the ability. You’re so strong, Hilda.”

“He was killed in a train crash almost as soon as he arrived, leaving me alone and so very lonely. We should have faced death together, as we had faced life together, but he denied me that right!” Kathie squeezed Hilda’s hand gently. “So yes, dear, I’ve experienced the passionate love you mean, and the pain of losing him was unbelievable agony. I’d already lost my mother when I was only thirteen. Grief seemed to be part of my very nature until I met Nell. She taught me to laugh again, although it took years for me to tell her about James.”

“I’m so, so sorry, Hilda. Mr Stuart was right. You have suffered greatly, and it’s made you the wonderful, compassionate person you are.”

“Pain is a great teacher, dear, both about oneself and others.” Hilda shook herself. “By the way, please don’t be jealous that Nancy already knows about James. She overheard me talking to Gwynneth last Friday when I had that bad headache.”

Tears dribbled down Kathie’s cheeks. “I won’t be jealous of you and Nance ever again,” she whispered. “You’ve made your point, and I’m so very sorry for all your losses.”

Hilda held Kathie’s hand gently in her own, and stared down at it as she tried to marshal her scattered thoughts. When she looked up again, Kathie saw how much wearier she seemed. The white face was looking worse by the minute.

“You really should go to bed,” she said softly.

“I agree, child, but I might need you to fetch Helen to help me down. She’s sitting on the stairs waiting for me.”

Kathie’s eyebrows rose. “She must love you a great deal. But, then, everyone does. No surprise there! Look how you’ve come up here tonight to straighten things out, despite still feeling ill.”

“We haven’t finished yet, so here I stay! May I ask a question?” Kathie nodded, her hand still in Hilda’s. “Do you wish to end up as unhappy as I was when I lost James? No, of course you don’t, but that’s the way you’re heading, unless you change your ways! You say you’ll never again be jealous of us, but I suspect those feelings won’t disappear overnight, despite all my words.” Kathie bit her lip, wondering how Hilda saw things so clearly. “Nancy and I are good friends, and that made you jealous, but everyone needs friends, dear, even devoted couples. They can’t be all in all to each other. You can’t keep Nancy all to yourself, and make her your reason for being. You can’t hold her back from others. She’s a friendly soul, and would lose something of herself in the process. I speak from experience when I say that what you and she bring from your friends, and offer to each other, will enhance your closeness and love, not take away from it. If you don’t allow Nancy that freedom, you may still lose her. So let her go, Kathie! Give her the freedom to have friends other than you, and she will always return to you. Have your own friends, too.”

Kathie shivered. “I’ll try. I did once, so I suppose I can do it again, if they’ll have me.”

“Voltaire once wrote: ’God gave us the gift of life. It is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well.’” Hilda searched Kathie’s face. “But the effort has to come from us. We have to take His gift and run with it – and, on the way, help others live their own lives as well as they’re able. We all need a lift now and then, and friends give us that.”

Kathie met Hilda’s eyes, saw the question there and nodded.

Hilda smiled. “Getting down to the nitty-gritty before I leave you, I want you to go on filling in for Linda, Vi and me till half term. I’m not allowed in school for the next week.”

“You shouldn’t really be up here now, should you?” Kathie whispered, suddenly alert to the great strain Hilda was putting on herself.

“No, Jack would have a fit. I’m supposed to be in bed, but, once I knew the truth, I had to see you immediately!” Kathie squeezed the hand holding hers. “You’ll go on working here with Jeanne, Ruth and me after half term, learning as much as you can, because it’s your future for which we’re equipping you. You’ll then return to St Mildred’s sometime before Easter and do what you were supposed to be doing when I sent you there, learning from Nancy how St Mildred’s is run – her way, Nell’s way, not the way you’ve been trying to do it.” Kathie grimaced, but there was fear in her eyes, which made Hilda wonder. “Once you’ve settled back over there, you’ll join Nancy and me in our meetings. Hopefully, that means there’ll be no more jealousy.”

“Everyone over there will hate me,” whispered Kathie with a terrified shiver. “All those I hurt will pass on the news and they’ll refuse to work with me.”

“Who’s everyone? You did hurt a few people, yes, and hopefully they’ll forgive you, but you must be kind with their hurt, since you were the cause. You challenged me on Saturday, which did you no favours with the staff here, but there are worse things than behaving foolishly in public. Give it time, and make allowances. Aristotle once said:

‘There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, be nothing, say nothing.’”

“But I can’t…”

“Of course you can’t, and shouldn’t! As a Head, you have to accept criticism, look at it carefully, then either forget it or use it. Not all criticism is harmful or wrong, as I quickly discovered as a new Head myself.” Hilda considered Kathie. “The trouble is, you’ve been trying to go it alone, turning to no one for help and advice, not even Nancy or Julie. It’s a dangerous path, dear, and may lead to a warping of your ideas and a too high opinion of yourself. No one gets it all right, so you need a sounding board. I miss mine every day. How do I know when I’ve gone wrong, now there’s no Nell?”

“But you don’t!”

“But I do!" Hilda countered forcefully. "As you will, if you and Nancy don’t start taking a good hard look at yourselves and each other. You have to challenge each other, give each other the truth about your ideas and actions, even if it’s a hard truth, and yet still love and understand each other. You must listen to her and not take offence, always mulling things over before reacting. Don’t set all Nell’s work at nought, Kathie. Be what you’ve always been, till recently – honest and kind, funny and thoughtful, loving and gracious - and all will be well.”

Silence overtook them for several minutes, as they both pondered her words. “That’s why I’m sending you to the convent,” Hilda added softly. “Mother knows a lot about leadership, just as she knows about loss and loneliness, so you couldn’t be in better hands.” She could see the reluctance in the brown eyes. “Meg didn’t want to go, either, but she’s come back a changed girl. She thoroughly enjoyed her stay, once she stopped hating herself. I want you to do the same. They’re the kindest folk on earth and Mother will spoil you to death. She might be harsh with you now and then, but she’ll heal any hurt she causes. Don’t be scared, dear,” she added gently. “Learn from her about humility, about being a leader, about love of others, and even about the sort of love you and Nancy have for each other.”

“Is she really capable of doing all that?” Hilda laughed softly and nodded. “Oh, goodness, I’ve just remembered,” Kathie added in horror. “Mr Stuart told me you were the one who paid for my fare and the stay at the convent. It never even occurred to me to wonder who was paying, or that anything needed paying for. I’m too busy thinking about myself – or have been! I’ll try to rectify that, Hilda, and I am grateful, very grateful, for bothering about me in this way and being personally responsible. I’m not sure I can ever make up for it all, though,” she finished sadly.

“Kathie, all I’m asking is that you take responsibility for the position I offered you as Head,” Hilda stated quietly. “I don’t need repaying for anything I may have done.”

Kathie’s face was a picture of misery. “You… you gave us the cottage and some money to update it… Nancy told me I threw all that back in your face with my behaviour. She was right, too, and I am so, so sorry - but I don’t know how to rectify it all…” Tears leaked from her eyes.

Hilda squeezed the hand in hers. “You’ve said you’re sorry,” she murmured, “so we’re going to put it all behind us now and make a fresh start. You can’t rectify it. It’s happened, but I hold none of it against you. A fresh start, remember! Even if you feel you don’t deserve it!”

“I don’t!" Kathie sobbed. "Thank you, Hilda, from the bottom of my heart. I hope that one day I can do something meaningful for you that will cost me something.” Kathie wiped away the tears. “Does it worry you? That Nance and I are…?”

“No, Kathie, it doesn’t trouble me. You’ve always been very discreet. You’ll need to be even more so now, as Heads, for your every move will be noted, your every word heard and dissected.”

“You’re kidding me!” Hilda raised an eyebrow. Kathie blushed, knowing it was true of Hilda and Nell, where the staff, at least, were concerned. ”I guess circumspection will have to be our watchword. What about Lady Russell. Does she know?”

“Yes, she knows. As over-all Head, I hide very little from her.” Hilda reached out with her free hand and stroked Kathie’s tear-stained cheek. “Love presents itself in all sorts of ways, Kathie, and who am I to judge what’s good and what isn’t? Only God can know, since He created you, and loves you. As long as you’ve searched your conscience, and hurt no one by how you live your life, then love Nancy as you’ve always done – but be circumspect at all times. I also ask that you be humble and kind with both staff and girls, watch out for their hurts and be ready to soothe and sympathise. Always remember that every one of them comes before Kathie Ferrars.”

Kathie watched the thin, white face, the shadowed eyes, and recognised all Hilda’s tenderness, her gracious and thoughtful ways, her love and great generosity for others. She really did act in loco parentis, for the staff as well as the girls, and wore herself out for them all, yet never asked more of others than they could give. For Hilda, everyone else really did come first.

Kathie suddenly realised she herself could remedy that a little, by relieving Hilda of some of her burdens. She could also start imitating her loving, unselfish ways.

“I’ll never measure up to you,” she whispered.

Hilda tightened her hold on Kathie’s hand. “Nancy says the same, but neither of you have to measure up to me, you know. Nor up to Nell! You have to go your own way, a different way, using the gifts you have, which are not the same gifts we had. You will be a different sort of leader, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be any less effective or less loved.” Hilda’s lovely voice was soft and mellow. “You and Nancy have always been two of the best-loved teachers in the school. That doesn’t have to change, dear, if you just be yourself. It used to be a very lovable, sparkly, sensitive, thoughtful self.”

Kathie’s eyes grew haunted. “It hasn’t been recently, though, has it? I didn’t even get up to pray for you yesterday morning.” Her chin wobbled.

“I know, child, but I don’t hold it against you.” Hilda’s eyes were very kind. “There were very many others praying for us.”

“You mean I don’t really matter one way or the other.” More tears ran down Kathie’s cheeks.

“I didn’t mean that at all. You do matter, both to God and to me, in all kinds of ways. You matter to the sixth form, who will have noticed your empty place. You matter to Nancy, whom you hurt by that discourteous act. You’re a member of a team, a leader in that team, and should have been part of what they did, just as the sixth were there as part of that team. You threw away something precious, and now it's up to you to retrieve it.”

“Will you help me?” Hilda nodded, hoping, almost against hope, that today’s shocks had pulled the girl back from the brink. “Every one of the team loves you, Hilda, which is why they got up so early to pray. They would have spent the whole night in prayer, if necessary. They were so afraid of losing you. They’ll never love any other Headmistress as much as they love you and Nell.”

“Oh, they will, in time, as we fade from their memories. They’ve always loved Nancy, as you know, for she’s a very honest and lovable person. They used to love you, and will do so again, once you come out of this great sulk.”

Kathie’s head snapped up in shock, but she caught the teasing smile on Hilda’s face, and blushed scarlet. “I have been sulking, haven’t I?” she mumbled.

“On a grand scale, child,” Hilda replied gently.

Tears streamed down Kathie’s face. “I’m sorry, so, so sorry…”

Hilda moved gingerly to sit on the bed, drawing Kathie into her arms. Kathie leaned into her and sobbed bitterly, weeping away some of the awful strain.

“Always take the gentle path, Kathie,” Hilda whispered. “You don’t need to be harsh to make people grow into who they should be. All they need is love, most of the time. Be gentle and humble with every child and adult in your charge, showing them kindness and tender care, and you will be loved, too, I promise. They will respond eagerly to you, turn to you with their problems, and work and play harder for you in every way:

"‘Not hammer strokes, but dance of the waters sings the pebbles into perfection.’"

(Tagore)




*****
Chapter 25 - This Is The Wilderness Time by MaryR
Author's Notes:
For those who've no idea why there's been such a long delay, I'll just say that I've had computer meltdowns and lost this chapter - twice! The second time I found most of it, fortunately! Many thanks for the very interesting comments on the meeting with Kathie, after Hilda found out the truth. I'm not sure it was what some of you expected, so I'm sorry if you were disappointed. but I do hope those of you who posted reviews all found my responses, because I was truly grateful. It was a hard chapter to put together.
“‘Not hammer strokes, but dance of the waters sings the pebbles into perfection.’” (Tagore)

“That’s beautiful, Hilda,” murmured Kathie, “but how on earth do I change myself from a sharp hatchet into that dance of the waters?