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Peggy had entertained a vague idea that Rosalie's arrival and Andrew's departure soon after might smooth relations in the Burnett household. Forming two pairs, together with Mary and Andrew, had pleased her enormously - had seemed to bestow an equivalence on both relationships; she could tolerate imagining the annoyance this state of affairs might cause Kitty - surplus and alone, left behind, no part of the validation and victory Peggy herself was so much enjoying. That would be no unreasonable feeling on Kitty's part, and meant nothing personal to Peggy, either.

But the change in company did not alter Kitty's bad mood. The evening after Mary's husband had left, they gathered round the table after supper - all three sisters, Rosalie and Rhyll, drinking coffee and chattering gaily. Peggy shuffled the cards suggestively, cutting and stacking and preparing to deal, impatient, waiting for the moment she could interrupt and solicit opinions on what game they would play; but Rosalie was in the middle of regaling Mary with the finer details of how the school had come to move from St Briavel's to Switzerland, and the moment for interruption did not come. Peggy fell into the conversation too, giggling wildly at the recollection of Michael Christy and his hunt for long-lost pirate treasure, the nonsensical stuff of children's adventure stories, and how utterly ridiculous that he had indeed struck gold.

"Of course, as reasons to move go, it's probably no more farcical than the drains at Plas Howell..." Rhyll put in with a grin, and Peggy and Mary both laughed along too.

"Not that it was strictly Commander Christy's unexpected riches that we have to blame," Rosalie corrected her cheerfully. "That was the funniest part of it - that he turned up, terribly solemn and business-like, quite prepared for Hilda to - well, I don't know what he thought he was prepared for: shock, undoubtedly - but sorrow? fury? Anyway, there he was, apologetically explaining that he'd come to serve us with notice to quit - and the letter already in the post from Canada giving him notice!"

Without a word, Kitty rose angrily to her feet, pushing her chair away behind her and stalking out of the room with her head held high. Immediately the group fell silent. Mary shrugged at Rosalie in a show of helplessness, evver the peacemaker.

Peggy was not convinced by the shrug, and did not imagine Rosalie would be - but if their cousin recognised the reason for Kitty's departure, she did not mention it, nor take blame on behalf of the whole group for indulging in thoughtless gossip on a subject that couldn't help but exclude one of their number. She gave another shrug of her own, and kept her voice reassuringly light as she suggested Peggy deal out the cards now. As Peggy dealt, Rosalie kept up a gentle flow of chatter, as if their conversation had never been disturbed: "Did you already know he had a habit of coming and going via the window of Hilda's study, if you please?"

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mary's quick smile of gratitude; and then, immersed in the game, doubled up with Rhyll against the other two - and losing quite spectacularly - she quickly forgot all about Kitty.

 

***

 

The following morning was a fine one, bright and cold, and Peggy declared her intentions of a walk on the beach after breakfast. Rosalie looked up with an eager smile, and Mary announced that she would come too, adding a tentative "Kitty?"

"Not me," Kitty answered airily, busying herself with a book. "It's bitterly cold out there today."

Out of sight, Peggy made an impatient face at Mary. The lie was obvious: Kitty had never been one to be left out of any adventure, had accompanied them on enough blisteringly cold occasions for this excuse to hold no water at all with either sister.

"I think I'll stay here too," Rosalie intervened swiftly, surprising them all. "It is cold, and I've some letters I might get on with while you're gone."

Peggy shrugged and went straight to the cupboard to fetch her coat and boots. Behind her, she heard the murmured goodbyes of the others, and then Mary and Rhyll following her.

It was fiercely cold outside: along the beach where gulls shrieked and the wind whipped mercilessly right through them, they all three gave up on conversation for the words were carried far away almost the instant they opened their mouths. She saw the pleasure on Rhyll's face, and it warmed her; she looked again at the familiar coastline, and saw for the first time how powerful it was, how commanding; she had thought the landscape here could not compare with the greater drama of the alps, that the shapes and the colours and the weather were all milder and consequently less interesting, less striking, but she had been wrong.

Near the town centre, just in sight of the pier and the pavilion, they sought pink-cheeked respite in a small tea-room. They ordered hot drinks, and Rhyll excused herself to go and freshen up, leaving Mary and Peggy alone at the table.

"She'll come round eventually," Mary murmured insistently. "Kitty, I mean. Oh, I know she's upset now, but you know as well as I do just how quickly up and down she is."

So Kitty had spoken to Mary; of course. Typical of Kitty to speak first and think later, especially when aggrieved. Had she sought in Mary a sister and an ally, or a mother's uncritical indulgence? And what had each said to the other?

"I told her I didn't know what she meant," Mary went on, one eye on the little passageway through which Rhyll would re-emerge at any moment. "I agreed that it must be hard on her as the only one amongst us who didn't ever join the staff, and that perhaps it might feel a little odd for her to have one of her former mistresses visiting. But when she sighed dramatically and asked sarcastically whether I really thought that that was the whole of the problem, I feigned ignorance. It wasn't the greatest stretch from the truth, but it was untruthful nonetheless. I didn't like to be dishonest, but I thought it was the best answer I could give."

Rhyll reappeared at that moment, and the sight of her brought a faint smile to Peggy's face. It was only much later than she mulled the discussion over and felt an unusual bitterness. Mary's good intentions could not be faulted, of course not - her discretion was considerate, and there could be little choice for her in it. Peggy supposed it did, after all, have to be secret. But that realisation took away all the pleasure of having been a valid counterpart to Mary and Andrew over the previous week; diminished everything, making her feel as though perhaps she had imagined the camaraderie, the mirror that Mary and Andrew had held up to her and Rhyll; cloaked it with shame, somehow - something where the 'best answer' was a pretence of ignorance and of innocence, a lie worth telling, even to a sister.

 

***

 

The day for their departure finally arrived. Both would catch the same train initially, as far as Southampton, where Peggy would take the ferry over to France and Rhyll would catch another train onward to Wales. Rosalie and her father were leaving the same day - Rosalie driving them both home to Kent, where she would stay another night before flying to Switzerland.

After the first flurry of goodbyes, once the Denes' car had swung out of the drive and along the shady road out of sight, Rhyll loaded their bags into the boot of Mr Burnett's car. Mary hugged Peggy tightly, reiterating in a quick whisper her reassurance about Kitty, together with a recommendation to keep in touch with her as usual - correctly anticipating Peggy's instinct to cut her off in a sulk. Releasing her hold, Mary raised her voice. "You'll always be welcome to come to Aberdeen, just as soon as you can find the time. That goes for you too, Kitty. I wonder whether you could both manage Easter - or is that too much to hope for our little continental dweller?"

Peggy smiled brightly, appreciating the effort; and - perhaps it was her imagination, but - Kitty's smile did not seem entirely false. She submitted to her mother's embrace, grateful for the excuse not to speak immediately in reply, for she thought her voice might break. The conciliatory effort was well judged and generously made, she recognised; but the explicit exclusion of her own friend from the invitation - the reminder that she might not even be able to travel back to England for Easter, which already felt a distant prospect - the inescapable truth of the hard choices she would always have to make concerning too-scarce time in this country and how to spend it, with whom - tears sprang to her eyes and she blinked them back, face pushed safely into her mother's warm shoulder. Hopefully Evvy would move to the Oberland before too much longer; that would make some of these problems, at least, a great deal easier.

It was a pleasure to be alone together again - if in the company of numerous other travellers. Tired, they sat in easy silence for much of the journey, each interrupting it occasionally to point at something through the window, or to offer the other a toffee from the bag Peggy had impulsively bought at the station. Peggy smiled as their fingers brushed against each other inside the paper bag: when she looked up, Rhyll was turned away, looking determinedly through the window at the fields outside, and Peggy knew quite well that she was hiding an unstoppable smile of her own.

Safely disembarked at Southampton, they scanned the departure boards. "Oh - you could make the ten-past train if you hurry now," Peggy observed, keeping her voice factual, trying to silence any trace of disappointment.

"Oh, I don't think so," Rhyll said, firmly. "It's ages yet 'til your crossing, isn't it?"

"Five o'clock", Peggy answered.

Rhyll nodded. "Then I've no urge to catch the ten-past. There's an evening train - I think it's at about seven. I'll take that one."

"You'll be dead by the time you arrive in Cardiff."

Rhyll shrugged. "Worth it."

Peggy grinned. "Shall we walk down to the docks for a while, then?" As she spoke, she led the way through the station and out into the cold air. "Remember being here at Easter? It seems hard to imagine that was only - what - eight months ago." It feels many years. Peggy felt the sharp stab of impending separation. In a great number of ways she was keen to get back to the clean, breathtaking beauty of the Alps in winter, but she wished desperately that Rhyll was coming with her. Rhyll would love the sheer splendour of the mountains, huge with vitality and promise and adventure...

All week she had yearned to be alone with Rhyll, unseen and unheard; but now that her wish had been granted she could hardly think of a single thing to say. This was no longer the comfortable silence of the railway carriage: she felt tongue-tied and stupid, unable to find a way of bridging the gap that was already opening up between them. She was almost relieved when the time came for her to board the ferry; at yet as soon as she was gone - the very moment she stepped off the gangway at the other end, where the smiling officer checked her ticket and directed her to her cabin, and she could no longer turn tail and run back into Rhyll's familiar arms - she regretted that sentiment, and cursed herself for the wasted afternoon. Standing hopelessly at the railings, squinting back to see Rhyll in the dim light and distance, she felt the unbearable feeling of having left some small but essential part of her ashore.

She must pull herself together: she was a strong helpful woman, not a jellyfish! Almost mechanically, she noticed a woman nearby, struggling with two small boys and a suitcase.

"Here - let me." With a smile, and without waiting for a reply, she took the suitcase from her and waited expectantly for directions. The woman gave her a grateful smile, the harassed look fasding from her face temporarily. Taking one child in each hand, she led the way down the steps until they reached her cabin. At the door, Peggy laid down the suitcase, waved away her thanks, smiled quickly at the children and retraced her steps in search of her own cabin. The brief act of doing something for somebody else had strengthened her, and suddenly nothing was so dreadful after all.

Through the door of her cabin, she set her suitcase down, unpacked her essentials and stowed them neatly on the little ledge. This task done, and the great ship preparing to set sail, she took up her notepaper and she settled down to write a letter:

"In my mind's eye, you're still standing on the docks, waving bravely at the ship as it draws further and further away from land. No doubt this is fanciful nonsense and you're already striding back to the station, or sitting on your case in the ticket hall waiting for the evening train. I hope it's not delayed. I hope you're not too cold."

On a whim, she put the pen down and slipped back through the door of her cabin, heading for the deck and a view of England as she pulled slowly away.

It took a moment for her eyes to adjust, but there she was - she was right: Rhyll still stood on the docks, watching the boat as it swung out to sea. Feeling a little foolish and hoping nobody on board was watching her, Peggy waved frantically. It was silly, of course - she was too far, and too small, and it was too dark: there was no chance of Rhyll seeing her. And then - could it be? - Rhyll was waving back. A broad smile seemed to stretch right across Peggy's face, ear to ear, in spite of the chill; she could not make out Rhyll's face at all, of course; but she had no doubt that she, too, was smiling.




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