At the time, it had not even occurred to Nell to bury the news of Con's arrival at a time when Madge was preoccupied with her brother and his ailing wife. Having done exactly that, she fretted powerlessly over the letter's timing, whether she had taken advantage of dismal affairs without even realising the rationale of her subconscious, whether Madge had – quite justifiably – interpreted it thus. And Hilda. She felt, in a strange sense, that she was undertaking some sort of deception, as far as Hilda was concerned; she hated the distance which made conversation almost impossible. She had foolishly thought that writing the letter to Madge would be the end of it; having written, she realised it was merely the beginning.
Madge was tactful; wrote to Nell expressing her pleasure at the arrangement, wrote to Con saying much the same thing with even greater warmth, ensconcing her firmly back within the bosom of the School and passing no comment on the circumstances that must have led up to her return, beyond a polite but genuine offer to help with any practicalities as might be necessary. The conversation would surely happen when next she saw Madge, Nell realised now – realised too that that conversation was one between herself and Madge only, that she would have to navigate these waters alone. As usual, Con left it to her to be practical, to be capable. Nell refused to lose sight of her burgeoning insight into Con's life in the years since they had parted, and especially the most recent times she had known; but it was hard to maintain her compassion and her admiration when this same strong, surviving woman seemed to falter now, rolling over and demanding Nell deal with everything for her.
The impermanence of the situation hung over her: even if she had resolved the question of Con's presence at St Mildred's, even if they worked out a sustainable term-time existence for themselves, it was an existence only in the suspended reality of termtime: come Christmas, Con would have three children to entertain, to house and comfort and provide for, and it was abundantly clear that she had absolutely no plan for how she would do so. They could have the cottage, Nell began to plan, but just as swiftly she cut off that thought. If she handed over the cottage to Con and her brood for the duration of the holidays, what would she herself do? It was hard enough sharing a bedroom at the School, and that was with plenty of other places where they both had to be for the hours of daytime. Already she had taken to sloping off to her office most evenings, just to be alone with her thoughts, and it was here that Grace Nalder found her one evening shortly after the second half of the term had begun.
"I believe I owe you an apology," Grace said, setting a mug of good-smelling coffee down on the desk before Nell and sitting down in the chair opposite with her own. "Con, I mean. It's my fault she's here, largely – and now here are you, hiding in your office night after night. I invited her to come, Bill. I didn't insist, but I can't claim it wasn't my own mad idea. She just sounded so desperate, and I've always held that mountains are restorative for times like that. They bring perspective - they're so impressive and we're so inconsequential and God is more powerful than we can truly imagine. I thought it would be a tonic. I didn't suppose she'd stay – I suppose I thought she'd go home to her people, or perhaps decide her marriage could be rescued after all."
Nell pushed a straying curl back from her frowning face. If Grace intended to offer comfort, she had not quite achieved her aim, but her intentions could not be faulted and Nell felt obliged to respond on the basis of intent. "It's strange, us three being back together again."
"Back then, I was always the anxious one. Oh, not to you - I'd never have dared offer advice to you, thank you! – but to Con – I’ve no idea how many times I warned her to be careful, be more discreet, think about it... And now look!" She finished miserably. "I'm the one who rushed in where angels fear to tread."
Her fears thus confirmed, Nell slumped back in her chair and gazed helplessly up at Grace. "Is it really so obvious?"
Grace shifted uncomfortably, her face thoughtful. "I don't think so. I knew, you know. I knew all along. Nobody else would do. Gertrude? Doubt it. Hilda, maybe, at a push – but Hilda's not here."
There was a question in her voice, but Nell avoided it.
"Don't be too hard on her, Bill," Grace urged, hesitant but firm; evidently no longer afraid of seeming to rebuke, Nell reflected with brief amusement. "There are things you can't understand."
"Oh?" Nell turned frosty eyes on her. "What is it I can't understand, exactly?"
Grace sighed. "How married women envy single women, for one. The best kept secret I know of! How many ways a man can ruin a woman's life. How helpless one feels, to look straight ahead and see what he plans to do to you, and know there is nothing at all you can do to stop it."
"So you did marry," Nell surmised wonderingly, giving her old friend a shrewd look. "I thought you probably hadn't, although I couldn't make a lot of sense of it. And you know I’d never ask."
"I didn't tell you, to spare you the trouble of knowing," Grace said softly. "And I can keep not telling you, if it makes things easier for you." Nell waved a hand, and Grace nodded slightly before continuing. "All right, then. Yes, I did marry him. More fool me. He had a love-child, Nell. A little girl of four or so when we married. I found it out two days before the ceremony, when we ran into her after church. She came running up to him, calling him Daddy – she lived nearby; we were all of us living cheek by jowl in this little university town, and he'd told me nothing at all until this – Daddy... I felt a fool. Everyone else must have known already, there was nothing kept secret about it whatsoever, except for the minor matter of him not telling me."
"But still you married him?" Nell asked gently, passing a clean handkerchief across the desk. Grace took it gratefully.
"Oh, yes. Still I married him. Two days – I could scarcely think in two days – especially two days so filled with wedding preparations. My folks came up that afternoon. I didn't know how to not marry him. And so, I thought – well, this is my lot. I'll have to find a way of managing with it." She paused and stared at Nell's bookshelves for a minute, unseeing. "Only, that wasn't my lot. There was more still, that only came out later. He was giving the girl's mother money – quite the right thing to do, of course – but it was an awful lot of money, and he hadn't exactly loads to begin with. His private income was a modest one, and a schoolmaster doesn't exactly earn a fortune, as I don't doubt you know. Still, that was my cross to bear. And money is only things, after all. But the part I couldn't live with – what I couldn't accept – was when I came home from tea one day, and I found him – I found him –" she closed her eyes and gave a small shudder – "with the girl's mother. He'd never let her go. He had no intention of it. We'd been married less than a year."
"Oh, Nally." There was nothing else to say, and how right Grace had been: How many ways a man can ruin a woman's life.
"Yes, well. There we were. There's one mercy, and that's that I hadn't had any child of my own with him – for then I would have been trapped. As it was, it wasn't so difficult to slip away to another town where nobody would know me. And thank God for the war! I joined up straight away, using my maiden name; nothing like a war to hamper paperwork! When it was over, I had a good recent reference from the WAAF, to add to my good teaching references from Hilda and Madge, and I found a good post at the High. The rest, you know. I'm glad to be here, for I love my work, and I'd have never had to chance to come back to Europe if I'd lived the rest of my life married to a housemaster in Oxford; but I'd have liked to have had children of my own, Bill, and now I shan't. That takes some getting used to."
Nell wondered whether Grace had ever thought of anyone else, but answered the question herself and had no doubt left to voice. Grace would not have divorced, still less remarried. That much was out of the question. As it was, in a sense, for herself: there had only ever been Con. She wondered about Con anew: did Con envisage a divorce? Probably not, she suspected, but could not be certain: Con's faith perplexed her sometimes, was at once fiercer yet also more pliable than her own.
"Con has plenty to get used to herself," Grace murmured, seeming to have almost read her mind. "And I suppose so have you, for that matter. But you could just turn away – just as Jock has done. She can't; it's her life. Please don't be too hard on her, Bill."
Nell nodded thoughtfully, thanked Grace for her honesty and assured her that all she had shared would be treated in the strictest of confidence. Her words echoed round Nell's head for many days after.
Nell was at least two-thirds of the way through her mountain of correspondence, dictating letters to her secretary with an increasingly elaborate range of facial expressions and gestures to indicate her exaggerated impatience and amuse Gillian, even as her words remained the epitome of courtesy. She almost continued her performance in response to the hesitant knock on her door and would have done so, back in England in the familiar company of Hilda and Rosalie; but this still-new venture called for a shade more caution. Letters from comparative strangers were one thing; muted impatience with her own charges here were rather another, although how anyone could begrudge her such a response, she couldn’t personally say. They could try the patience of a saint, and Nell had never made any pretence of being that.
She looked up, rather startled when, in answer to her “Herein!” the door opened and Peggy and Elma came in together. A glance at Elma’s face told her that that young lady had been crying. She also noted the unusually firm set of Peggy’s lips and the flash in her eyes as she said formally: “Please, Miss Wilson, may we speak to you?”
“Of course. Come in, girls!” The Head waved them to chairs and then turned to Miss Culver. “That will keep you going for the next half-hour or so, I think, Miss Culver. I’ll ring when I want you again. Now, you two,” when Gillian Culver had gathered up the letters and the rest of her impedimenta and departed, “pull up your chairs and tell me what’s wrong.”
For reply, Elma laid her letter on the table. “This came for me to-day, Miss Wilson. Please, what can I do about it?”
The Head took it up and looked at it. Like the secretary, she saw the Irish stamp and at once leapt to the conclusion that there was bad news of Elma’s parents.
“Do you want me to read it, Elma?” she asked.
Having managed so far, Elma was incapable of either doing or saying anything more. She nodded dumbly and Peggy came to the rescue. “Miss Culver gave it out with the other letters and Elma doesn’t know what to do about it.”
The Head glanced keenly at Elma, but she said nothing. She took up the letter, opened and read it, folded it up and returned it to its envelope, all in a deadly silence. The girls looked on anxiously. What would she say—or do?
“I see,” she said at last. “Thank you for bringing it to me at once, Elma. That was the right thing to do and, in the circumstances, the brave thing to do. Not easy, was it?”
“No-o-o,” Elma said, “but Peggy said you’d understand and—and help me. I—I don’t want to have anything to do with it.”
The Head nodded. “Very well, my dear. I will attend to it myself—and at once!” She saw the look of relief that flashed into Elma’s eyes. Then she turned to Peggy. “And what is your share in this, Peggy?”
“Oh,” Peggy said easily, “I just came with Elma to—er—buck her up a little. Shall I go, now?”
“Yes; I want to talk to Elma for a moment or two and you’ve done your share. By the way, what about your practice? Have you finished?”
Peggy went very red. “I—I haven’t even begun yet. May I do it this evening between Kaffee und Kuchen and Abendessen?”
“By all means. At any rate, you must not miss it. Run along now and I’ll see you later about it.”
Peggy got up to go, but Elma stopped her. “Miss Wilson, it was my fault Peggy didn’t do it now. I asked her to speak to me and—and,” she added shamefacedly, “it was she who made me come. I wouldn’t have dared, I don’t think, if she hadn’t gone on about it till I said I would. Please don’t blame her for it.”
“When she said that,” the Head said when she was talking things over with the staff that evening after Abendessen, “I felt that our worst troubles were over where she was concerned. Oh, I don’t say she won’t make a pest of herself at times. I don’t expect miracles and it will take more than half a term or even a whole one to transform a girl like Elma Conroy. Still, I do feel that there’s some hope for her now.”
For the moment, alone with her stormiest petrel, Nell looked at her thoughtfully. Grace’s words came to her, yet again, and guided her to an approach she might otherwise not have taken: more confident, more frank, more compassionate, more concerned with the longest possible horizon. “You know, Elma,” she said, “in one way, I’m not sorry this”—she tapped the letter—“has happened.”
Elma stared at her. “Why—I—don’t understand,” she stammered.
“Perhaps not.” The Head set her elbows on the table, clasped her hands and balanced her chin on them. “I’ll explain. You got an unpleasant shock when you were found out before and you were very unhappy about it. But things like that wear off, my child. Sooner or later you’d have forgotten, and then the next time the same sort of thing happened, you might—I don’t say you would—you might have gone into it. If that came to pass, believe me, Elma, I should send you away. I couldn’t take the risk of keeping you here with the others. It wouldn’t be just to them.” How many ways a man can ruin a woman’s life!
Elma looked at her with wide eyes. “But—but what I do can’t matter to them—not so long as I don’t talk about it,” she said.
“Don’t you believe it!” Miss Wilson retorted. “It would be bound to come out sooner or later. However, this man, who is certainly one of the most selfish and inconsiderate beings I have ever known, chooses to put you in a position where, if you had not had the sense to listen to Peggy and come to me, the worst might have happened so far as you are concerned. I should think the knowledge of his selfishness must have opened your eyes pretty considerably to what he is and what a grave risk you have run of ruining your own happiness in life. Tell me, Elma, do you really care for him?”
Elma flushed. “I thought I did,” she said. “Now—well, now I only hope I never see him again!”
“Very good. Bring straight to me any other letters that may come to you from him and I will deal with them.” She paused here, and when she went on Elma sat upright with surprise. “You are a handsome creature and you are attractive as well. The sooner you learn to deal with situations like this, the better for you. Be careful how far you let men spend friendship or what may pass for friendship on you. That’s all I have to say to you now. But don’t worry about this!” She flicked the letter contemptuously with a finger. “It’s not worth worrying over. As for any difficulty that this may have made between yourself and your friends here, that, I am afraid, is something that only you yourself can settle.”
She noticed Elma’s startled expression and suppressed a grin. Would these girls never learn how little went unnoticed by their well-practised mistresses? “All you can do is to be patient and be ready to make advances on your own side and if any come from the other, accept them in a friendly spirit. Now my preachment is finished—and quite time, too, I imagine you are thinking! You had better run along and see what you can do about that geography essay of mine.” The Head concluded with a broad smile which Elma answered with a rather feeble one of her own before she left the study, feeling happier than she had done for some weeks.
Nell paused to reflect before ringing the bell for Gillian to return and finish the last of the day’s work together. Self-congratulation did not sit well with her, as a rule, but she was quietly satisfied with her interview with Elma – and acutely aware that it was some distance from the response she might have meted out had Grace not intervened on an apparently unrelated matter less than a week earlier. She had come out to the Oberland to challenge herself anew, and in such lofty terms, the first half-term had not disappointed her; but the precise forms and sources of challenges, and developments, and new ideas which had spurred her on, had been nothing she might have imagined.
r03;Finger hovering above the bell, her last thought turned, ineluctably, to Con. She was seized with a surge of red-hot anger, directed first squarely at Jock. How many ways... How many lives, even. Nell had about as much use for self-pity as she had for self-congratulation, but for the first time in many years she stopped to acknowledge the gaps left between the life she had led, and the life she had spent a great many years, back in the Tyrol, planning for. With deliberate conviction, she put that thought from her mind once more: her own life had not been ruined, not by Jock and not by any stretch of the imagination at all. Still, a glimmer of resentment burned, and Con flickered between an object of pity and the spineless architect of her own – their own – ruin. She kicked herself for the unfounded optimism beneath her misjudged letter to Madge. In a hopeless bid to overcome the agonising transience of the first half-term, she had instead declared to all and sundry a future which was, surely, quite untenable.
She rang the bell.
Author's Chapter Notes:
Thanks for comments! And sorry for the delay - work work work, etc. Hoping to get the rest of this tidied up and posted in the next week or three, though!
As previously, bolded bits are taken directly from 'Oberland'.