"We'll wait to hear from you, then - and it goes without saying that Mollie and the rest of you will be in our prayers. Be strong, Dick. We'll take good care of young Peggy."
Nell replaced the receiver with a heavy heart, and decided she would speak with her secretary before sending for the girl in question. If she intended to make arrangements, she ought to be quite sure of them before sharing her intentions with Peggy.
Gillian appeared almost the moment Nell's finger left the bell. "What can I do you for?"
Nell managed the ghost of a smile. "Come in, my dear, and take a seat for a moment. It's not happy news, I'm afraid. I've just had a call from Mr Bettany - Peggy's father."
"Madame's brother," Gill nodded, eyebrows coming together in concern.
"The very same. It's bad news, I'm sorry to say. Mrs Bettany is very ill and they are afraid that she may have to undergo a major operation. In that case, Peggy would have to go home at once to be near at hand in case her mother wanted her. The others are all fairly getatable, luckily; but if Peggy has to go, she must fly and that will mean sending someone with her."
Here she paused, and Gill was not slow to grasp her meaning. "And I would be the someone? Well, that's no problem so far as I am concerned. Oh, but that is dreadful news for the Bettanys. I'm sorry to hear it."
Nell nodded, flashing the girl a quick smile of gratitude. "Thanks, Gillian. Could you send for her now, please? Have her come straight through here and I'll tell her myself. Her father wanted us to prepare her, for if she is sent for, it will be immediately and it will mean that things are very bad indeed."
She crept noiselessly through the house as she made her weary way up to bed that night; the clock was edging towards midnight and, to her knowledge, no one else was still awake in Das Haus Unter Die Kiefern. But as she peered silently through to Peggy's room, she found her suspicion to the contrary was well-founded: that young lady was sitting cross-legged on her bed, her dressing-gown wrapped firmly around her, her eyes concentrated on the middle distance, plainly deep in thought. As the door swung gently open, she glanced up and gave her headmistress a brave smile.
Nell returned the smile with an encouraging one of her own, and closed the door softly behind her. "I hope I'm not interrupting you too much," she said, in the low tones which the experience of many years had taught her to use, since invariably they carried less than a whisper.
"Not at all," Peggy answered. "I was – well – but He knows already, so a little pause in conversation isn't much, in the grand scheme of things."
Nell nodded, pleased and proud. "He does know. And He is watching over your mother even now, Peggy. No, I've no news so far – and no news is good news, let's be thankful for that. Do try and get some rest if you can, dear. Whatever the morning brings, we can always face it better on a decent amount of sleep."
Peggy nodded. "I won't stay awake much longer, I promise."
"Goodnight, Auntie Nell." Peggy flushed slightly after she had spoken, as if unsure that the familiarity belonged here in termtime. Nell gave her another smile of reassurance: in the dead of night, with the worry over her mother hanging heavily over the responsible child's head, the comfort of family - if only of the 'brevet' variety - could not be anything but proper.
The comfort of family. Her final responsibility of the day attended to, Nell moved slowly and soundlessly back through the corridors to her own room. Since that phone call from Dick, she had spoken twice with Madge – still in Canada, but twitchy and restless. The twin bond ran deep, and Madge doubted – justifiably, Nell thought – her brother's capacity to cope if the worst should happen. Nell understood Madge, found her easier than most to read without expending real effort. The two women were almost exactly the same age, to within a matter of weeks; both eldest daughters orphaned young. She saw in Madge enough of herself to understand, and enough different to be interested. Of course Madge would fly to England to be there for Dick. Nell would have done the same herself. If...
She put the thought to one side as she descended the front stairs. Instead, she ran through the mental list of today's tasks which she had deferred to tomorrow. Both her remaining lectures of the week still needed preparing. There was something of a mountain of correspondence – Gillian had been fighting a cold for several days, and though she had been valiantly pressing on, both Nell and Gertrude had firmly dismissed her to her rest whenever her eyes seemed a little too red, her cough a touch too hacking. As with Rosalie before her, the secretary's work was usually taken care of so smoothly that the sheer volume only revealed itself when it went undone. Gillian was well on the way back to full health now, Nell hoped – surely well enough to travel with Peggy, should circumstances demand it. Yes, quite the mountain of correspondence. She must reply to Hilda's letter – Hilda's letters; there were now three which she had shoved hastily to one side, with determined intentions of replying. Hilda would be wondering what was happening. And then there was Christmas to think of – how much longer could all that planning be deferred?
The minute hand crept past twelve, but one more person was still awake in the big house. Con, too, was atop the covers, Nell's own dressing-gown pulled around her. Guiltily, Nell's heart sank. She had been pinning her hopes on the rejuvenation of solitude, twenty minutes of comforting silence before finally sinking into the sleep she also greatly needed.
Con looked up at her, her countenance oddly uncertain. Guilt wrenched in Nell's gut like a knife. "Any news?"
"None." She sat at the edge of the bed to change into her nightdress, limbs suddenly leaden, eyelids burning.
"No news is good news," Con murmured, unknowingly echoing Nell's own words just moments earlier.
"Yes," Nell agreed, her mind frankly too flabby to offer anything more. She realised now how heavily Con, too, had been weighing on her mind. The past few weeks – something of a whirlwind, as most weeks were once term was well underway – had left too much unsaid to allow for any comfortable certainty; had built too much fond closeness to allow the resultant certainty to not matter. She had not fully appreciated the happiness of her life in recent years: after working so hard at it back in Armishire where grim determination had only just won out over cynicism, contentment had crept up on her so gradually she had scarcely noticed it – until now, when Con threatened to unsettle it all. She knew she had withdrawn on countless occasions over these weeks, and she knew her sudden silences disconnections had caused pain and anxiety to this most beloved friend, but her own fear knotted in her stomach; she could not bear to be so hurt again.
"I missed you in the staff room this evening," Con commented now.
Nell bit her tongue, but could not prevent a hard edge from creeping into her voice. "I've been speaking with Madge. And with Peggy. And making provisional arrangements, should Peggy need to travel at short notice to be with her mother." Her fingers – tired with typing, writing, tapping anxiously at the desk as she soothed Madge through the telephone wires – fumbled with buttons, trying her patience further. Con's hurt silence was deafening. "Sorry if I'm a little terse tonight. It has been a difficult day."
She was thankful when Con responded with a helpless shrug and lay down beneath the covers, demonstrating intentions of sleeping. She did not mean to be unkind, and she did not want to fight – not exactly; but responding with the sort of generosity and gentle reassurance Con seemed to yearn for was beyond her for the time being.
Sheer tiredness explained a large part of her black mood, she conceded; and where she had for years needed the solitude of her final minutes of the day to restore her good grace, she now lacked that essential balm for the soul. The solitude she had given up willingly, she reminded herself sternly.
But exhaustion and an absence of restorative aloneness did not entirely answer for the day's darkness. It had so long been a simple fact of Nell's life that people with families must care for them, and that those without must facilitate the familial care-taking of friends thus blessed. She could reel off countless examples: Joey and her young triplets on the Sea Witch; Joey and baby Stephen that awful term, when she and the others had been absent for months - when Hilda had been out of action for a full year - that awful, awful year... Less painful, and more petty, was the recollection of her own cottage, relinquished uncomplainingly to her cousin and the children for four years of the last war, twelve (count 'em) consecutive holidays within which she had had no option to go home and be herself alone. Once upon a time, Con had been the closest thing Nell had had to a family – but Con had always had a family of her own, even then, and now she had a real family, the sort that would be everything to her, a family to whom she would always first and foremost be answerable. And Nell – Nell still had no one; her place to nobly stand back and know that she mattered less, always.
Memories of her own family, and the hole where they should be, had long since subsided to a dull ache, a well-worn truth in the fabric of her being. But with the combination of all that happened since the move to Switzerland, they drew ever closer to the forefront of her mind: her instinct towards Peggy was, neither deliberately nor unconsciously, entirely rooted in her recollections of caring for her own dying family when she had been not much older than the girl was now. Breaking the news to Peggy had been a hard blow: she remembered only too well how it had felt, sitting the other side of the desk. She hoped that Peggy would be sent for almost at once. Once home, she would feel that, as the eldest girl, she must see to the rest and it would make it easier for her.
She blew out the candle and slid down beneath the covers in the dark, her mind still whirring on as Con slept - or at least seemed to. If her own family had lived, would she have found it as easy to resist marriage, and all else it entailed? Everything she was, everything she believed, was bound up in her own sufficiency, her obstinate refusal to compromise her autonomy; but what if she had not had autonomy thrust upon her so?
If her family had lived, if they had not been sick, if she had not had to grow up quickly and look after first Cherry and then, too swiftly, her parents too – if she had not learned through the unstoppable march of suffering and death how to then take care of all manner of practicalities, orphaned and alone at 22 – would she ever have grown into the strong, independent woman she prided herself on becoming? She could scarcely remember who she had been before then; and if those lean years of fruitless caring and unremitting loss were the hard experience which gave her no choice but to grow up - how similar had been Con's more recent experiences? Alone in the night now, freed from her resentful obligation to offer sympathy and comfort, she found a renewed respect and admiration for what Con had survived, emerged full circle to find love again.
In the darkness, she searched for Con's hand, grazed it with the gentlest touch of her own. Heartfelt thanks for the grace that emerged only through difficulty mingled with a bittersweet yearning for the carefree times the two shared in the Tyrol, when both were younger, more full of hope, less battered by the world.
She awoke before Con in the morning, as she ever had done; but this time – the first time since her old friend's reappearance – she lay still beside her, watching her sleep with a passionate tenderness which she tried not to be frightened by. She had watched Con sleep before, of course: those few stolen nights in the Tyrol years; and every morning for some months, that year the School had been closed, when the two of them had shut themselves away in Nell's cottage in Devon, trying to stave off the outside world and recreate the magic of the Tiernsee; but back then it had all been in vain, and Nell had known it. Even as she slept, Con had been slipping away from her all the time. Nell had never dreamed she would come back. Her breath caught, and Con stirred, blue eyes blinking open in the pale morning light which now streamed into Nell's pretty room.
"Shhh." Nell wasn't sure why she stoppered any conversation before it could begin, so they could be free from the irrepressible preoccupations and deliberate distractions of their own minds, but as Con's sleepy smile spread slowly across her face she was glad to have done so. Her face told her all she needed to know, and for the first time in their reunion she knew with certainty that Con was sharing the moment with her. Everything was not all right: from the soul-warmth of the bed, she was keenly aware that nobody knew what news the day would bring from London; and yet all seemed manageable now.
They were interrupted by the rising bell, and Nell tumbled from the bed with the unquestioning immediacy of one who had spent so many consecutive years in a boarding school. She looked back at Con as she pulled her slippers on, and smiled. "I'll write to Madge today and explain your presence. Better late than never – not that it is particularly late, in the grand scheme of things. Do you know, I suppose she'll be thrilled to hear it, after a fashion."
“I’ll take your word for it,” Con murmured – sceptical but willing to trust – Con of old, and so very welcome. Nell paused at the door, knowing that as soon as she pushed it open the spell would be broken, that the day would begin in earnest, that news from the Bettanys in London awaited, that the tasks not completed last night demanded urgent attention this morning, that this particular headache of Con was not truly as resolved as it felt right now, within the safe cocoon of this room. She willed the world to stop turning, just for a moment, as she laid her hand on the cool metal of the door handle.
“And I’m sure her pleasure, like mine, would be tempered by your incorrigible laziness. You never could bring yourself to stir your stumps when the bell rang,” she remarked tartly over her shoulder as she turned the handle and let herself out into the passageway beyond, not allowing herself to stop long enough to hear Con’s response, to savour her contented protestations. Like it or not, the day must begin.
Author's Chapter Notes:
I have re-purposed some snippets of 'Oberland' - in bold.