November seemed determined that year to do what it could in the way of rain. Day after day it came down, with only brief intervals when it was possible for the girls to go out. The school took advantage of every moment of this, but even so, they had comparatively little outdoor exercise. Then came a day in late November when they woke to find that the rain had ceased and a pale sun was shining out of an equally pale blue sky. Nell could not suppress a smile when she saw Con's childlike delight, sitting bolt upright in bed gazing through the window, the covers pulled up with her in defiance of the cold; Nell’s covers, on Nell's bed, of course - for in Nell's room she still slept. The headmistress had decided that she would do well to make the most of the comparatively few perks that having sole responsibility for the branch permitted, among which the autonomy to do as she wished and face no challenge figured highly; she had also decided that hiding in plain sight was likely to be her safest option. With no panicked secrecy, how could anyone – of the very few who might even have noticed – suspect that anything was being hidden?
"I simply can't tell you how I've been yearning for a proper fix of fresh air!" Con declared now. "And I know you'll tell me I'm tempting fate, but I can't help but imagine this is only a matter of hours before the snow begins at last."
"I shall accuse you of no such thing!" Nell retorted austerely, securing her hair with a final pin. "Superstitious rot – I expect better from you, Con!"
Con laughed, scrambling out of bed with far more enthusiasm than she ordinarily mustered. "All the same, you agree with me on the weather to come, don't you?"
Nell glanced through the window once more, by instinct rather than any need for further consideration. She had come to the same conclusion of imminent snow, and close inspection of the sky – taken together with the forecasts of the wireless – had confirmed the matter for her. "I do. The girls must all get out and into this as early as we can manage - a tramp around Interlaken, for they'll bring quite half of the mountain back here on their boots if they stay more locally than that! I think we might see the first fresh flakes before nightfall – and once it starts, who can say when it will stop?" She sounded cynical, but her eyes sparkled. The dream of returning to the alps had been the persistent allure of this position, throughout all the weeks she pondered Madge's suggestion and tried to weigh up her amused dismissal of 'finishing' anyone against her ease in teaching the older girls; balance her reluctance to step out of Hilda's shadow against her curiosity about leading from the front, and not just as a pro tem arrangement.
"We shall ski before Christmas, my dear! And I for one can't wait." With that, Con snatched up her sponge bag and positively skipped through the door to the bathroom across the passageway.
Both had prophesied truly: the snow started before nightfall, and although the school at large fizzed with excited murmurings about skiing, Nell's caution about how long the snow might keep them indoors was well-advised. They got no ski-ing next day nor the day after, for the snow never ceased to fall the whole time. The third day produced short intervals when the wild whirling ceased, but there was no possibility of going out, so they had to make the best of it for yet another day. But the first of December was ushered in by bright winter sunlight and, duly warned and warmly clothed, the school ventured outside en masse for their first taste of true alpine winter.
The fledgling skiers scattered across the snow, wobbling and clumsy but certainly no less exuberant for it. At least two girls seemed to be unintentionally seated on the ground at any given moment, she noted with some amusement, but they were not, on the whole, doing too badly for a first effort. Her glance fell on Con, graceful on her skis, beautiful in the cold air, cheeks flushed and smile infectious; even Edna, whom she was helping – with all the appearance of a patience and generosity which Nell couldn’t quite reconcile with the Con she remembered – appeared unable to resist returning her a sheepish grin. Nell’s own involuntary smile dulled on her lips as her thoughts caught up with her: the sight took her straight back to their winters on the Tiernsee, as if the years between then and now had never happened at all; and it was impossible not to love Con, when she was still as she ever had been. It was a mirage: those years had happened, all too definitely, and however much things might look the same, she knew better.
By the end of the week, the girls made better progress and some of the more daring even indulged in a snowfight. The dry, powdery snow was easily dusted off, and if they fell, they fell into chilly softness so that they were not hurt. Watching them, Nell felt younger than she had done in years – transported by her memories to a time close to twenty years earlier; snowfights on the Sonnalpe with the small fry of the Russell nursery and other girls left behind over the half-term exeat; snowfights further afield with Con on those rare weekends when their days off had collided and the weather had been amenable. Easy on her skis with only half her attention on her charges scattered about the shelf in all directions, she caught Con's eye and knew she was remembering similar times. Peggy, meanwhile, had an adventure.
She was ski-ing after Joan Sandys, intent on revenging herself for a well-aimed snowball which had caught her full in the mouth. The tip of one of her skis caught a hidden snag and over she went, plunging down from a little shelf to the hollow below. Here the snow had formed a deep drift, and Peggy vanished from sight into it.
Joan, glancing back, saw her go and turned to help her. When she reached the edge and no Peggy was to be seen, only the snow sliding majestically downwards, she set up a wild yell that brought at least half the school to ask what was wrong.
“Peggy’s go-one!” she quavered, pointing downwards.
“Gone? What do you mean?” Miss Wilson demanded, her blood running cold; while Miss Stewart, grasping at once what had occurred, turned and ski-ed away at top speed. She knew better than to try to drop down into the drift. Nell's own comprehension was no slower; and after dispatching Gill Culver to summon help, and instructing Julie Berné and Grace Nalder to gather and soothe the girls, amongst some of whom the message was spreading and a sense of panic rising, she hurried to follow her friend.
Gliding across the snow with an instinctive calm, she was astonished to see just how much snow Con had displaced already from the fluffy pile within which Peggy must lie. Con had discarded her gloves, "the better to feel what I'm doing – and to avoid being too clumsy when I reach her" she remarked shortly when Nell expressed her consternation; she dug through the snow with bare hands which must be burning with cold, and with a remarkable combination of ferocity, precision and care.
It took ten minutes’ hard digging before the end of a shawl appeared, by which time – thanks almost certainly to Gill's dutiful efforts – the news had reached Lauterbach, and half a dozen of the men and boys had appeared with spades, and a dog of nondescript breed. Con eyed their spades with some distrust, red-raw hands still raking carefully through the snow beneath which she knew Peggy’s face would be; protective. The very last of the work was expedited by their arrival, and the girl was dug out, rather white and dazed, but not much the worse, though two or three of the girls had been sure that she must be suffocated by this time, and Mary Wormald had burst into noisy sobs at the bare idea.
“W-will Peggy be—d-dead?” she gulped.
“Nonsense!” Miss Wilson told her robustly. “This is new-fallen snow, light and full of oxygen. Unless she hurt herself anywhere when she fell, the worst that can happen will be that she will be dazed and frightened—though I don’t expect that last with Peggy,” she added. “Stop that babyish bawling, Mary!”
This was drastic. Mary stopped at once and turned red, though no one had time to notice it: their attention was all on the unfortunate Peggy. Miss Stewart hurriedly examined her to be sure that no bones were broken.
Peggy came to herself during this and demanded: “What’s up now?”
“You fell over the edge into a drift,” Con informed her. “Do you feel hurt anywhere? Arms and legs all right?”
“Quite O.K., thank you.” Peggy’s head was clearing quickly. “I didn’t hit a thing that I know of. I suppose it was the shock of falling that put me out for a moment or so.”
One of the men had been unstrapping her skis and now he looked up. “Das gnädige Fraülein has one ski broken,” he said.
That brought Peggy up with a bang! “Oh no! What a horrid catastrophe! How on earth can I get it mended?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care!” Con said crossly. “The main thing is, are you sure you’re not hurt?”
“Oh yes; I’m quite sure. I can stand—look!” And Peggy scrambled to her feet and promptly sank knee-deep in the snow.
Nell relaxed at last, finally fully reassured of Peggy's safe survival, and this sight tipped her over the edge. She burst into peals of laughter at Peggy’s new predicament. “Clearly no harm done! But oh, Peggy, for pity’s sake look where you’re going another time and don’t give us any more shocks like this! You’ve taken ten years off my life! Now – the rest of you gaggle –" she directed her words at the crowd which had gradually gathered, held back a short distance by the watchful gaze of Grace Nalder at her most austere – "this little performance is over, so you may return to your skiing. Peggy can spend the rest of the day in San – on quite as strict a regime as Matron determines – and let that be a lesson to you all! I want no repeat performances, today or any other."
The crowd dispersed, and Peggy turned a sorrowful face on her, as she had anticipated. "Oh, must I really, Miss Wilson? I feel quite all right, truly..." her voice trailed away in the face of Nell's resolve. "Sorry," she added apologetically, as if suddenly realising she may have overstepped the mark.
Nell allowed the faintest hint of a grin. "Miss Stewart will accompany you to Matron; she'll need a dose of her own, just as a preventative measure – after all that scrabbling around in the snow." She gave Con a look just as stern as that she had trained on Peggy a moment earlier, almost daring her to protest too. She had to break her gaze sooner than intended, for the suppressed smile threatened to become full-blown laughter.
A glimmer of indignation flickered in Con's bright eyes, but outwardly she remained the consummate professional – a heroine to the last, Nell murmured inwardly to herself, thrilled. "Quite right. Come along, Peggy. The men have brought a little sled for you - it's my own two feet for me! Well, my own two skis at any rate." And she helped Peggy settle herself securely and comfortably on the sled, while Nell saw to it that all those who had come to their rescue were adequately remunerated. Not that they had been very much needed after all, she thought to herself with a good deal of satisfaction – other than the sled, and she supposed she could have found or improvised something equally practical, if perhaps not quite so promptly.
Gertrude Ryder tended first to the embarrassed invalid, who apologised profusely to all involved for the inconvenience and protested ruefully that she was quite sure she was well; once she had Peggy changed into fresh warm pyjamas and tucked up in the San's comfy bed with hot milk laced with aspirin, she turned to her colleague. "I daresay I can trust you to take yourself off to bed for the rest of today, my dear? I'll send for Miggi to bring you some coffee at once, and warm the room. I'll pop in on you later to see how you're coming along."
"Oh, Gertrude!" Con protested, for they had moved out of earshot of Peggy who was already drifting off to sleep, worn out from her adventure and aided by Matron's sedative. "I've the constitution of an ox! An afternoon in bed is quite unnecessary."
"I'll be the judge of that," Matron retorted, but not unkindly. "Rather an afternoon today, than let you carry on as you fancy and then have you laid up the best part of the week with a bad cold. It's not just the cold - it's the shock of it too, when it hits you."
"I can assure you my nerves are fine!" Con rejoined, but she knew when she was beaten. Matron ruled the roost and well everyone knew it. In the event, Con did take cold: the first time Nell crept in to her, just after kaffee und kuchen, she was still awake and cheerful, sitting upright in a navy blue silk bed-jacket, complaining of boredom and demanding permission to get up.
Nell laughed outright at this. "Permission from me to disregard Matron's strictest orders? Over my dead body – which it most certainly will be, if ever she heard of it!" – with which disregard for the English language, she blew the invalid a kiss and fairly ran off to her office, for as a rule she made herself available to the girls for the hours between kaffee and supper. The second time she crept in, after supper and before heading to the staffroom, Con was sleeping peacefully; and the third time, when Nell herself came to bed soon after eleven, Con stirred as she slipped in between the sheets.
"Bit of a cough," Con mumbled, groggy with sleep. "You might – might want to keep your distance. Sorry..."
Nell paused before extinguishing her candle, concerned. "Do you need me to fetch Gertrude?" She remembered Con laid low with an awful throat infection, that last full winter in Tyrol, and fear clutched at her for the second time that day.
Con gurgled with sleepy laughter. "Not in the least – I don't much fancy any of her patent jorums! I never was one of those delicate folk. I'm just snuffly. Don't want you to get it – that's all..."
Nell relaxed, more at her own conscious command than in direct response to Con's reassurances. She was right, though: that one infection stood out because it was the only time she had ever known Con properly ill, in all the years they had lived so closely together. "Just the consequences of your heroics in the snow, then?" she chided mildly, snuffing the candle and settling down comfortably on her pillow.
"You were supposed to be impressed," Con informed her, slightly plaintive, with all the unjudged honesty of drowsiness. "Oh, not in the first instance – that was just a case of having to get to Peggy as quickly as I could – but afterwards, I rather thought you might be impressed."
Nell chuckled, unable to resist Con's disarming frankness, knowing she might gnash her teeth at it by morning. "Is that so? You're quite right, you should know. Of course I'm impressed. I'll take my chances with your germs, too, so you can stop worrying on that score."
Thus adjured, Con settled again and drifted back to sleep quickly, and it was not too long before Nell joined her. She stayed awake long enough to reflect gratefully on Con's quick thinking that day, her determination and hard work, and the good humour with which she had taken it all in her stride; not for the first time in her lifetime, but for the first time in many years, she felt a deep sense of gratitude and pleasure at having Con by her side, the best sidekick anyone could ask for.
Author's Chapter Notes:
And here's some more! Thank you for the comments, it's good to know people are following this.
Once again, bolded bits are borrowed from 'Oberland' (and somewhat reworked here - with apologies to EBD!)