Christmas loomed ever nearer, and Nell fought to honour her promise to leave Con to make arrangements for after the end of term. Every instinct she possessed urged her to step in, to take control and suggest first-, second- and third-choice courses of action to be taken. She was accustomed to problem-solving, either alone or in partnership. She could scarcely recall the last time she had held back and allowed someone else the chance to fail, and she did not like it. Privately, she resigned herself to the prospect of visitors for Christmas: not what she had wanted, nor what she had planned, but at least a viable option where Con had so far indicated none.
She consoled her anxieties somewhat, and reconciled this apprehension regarding the future with her strengthening happiness in the present, by reminding herself of the ways in which Con had grown, as well as having remained very much the same. Her teaching had been somewhat rusty early that term, Nell had noticed without comment; but in place of her previous, rapidly-returning proficiency she had acquired a certain maternalism rather in spite of herself. Nell had found this shift irksome and alien, charming, amusing and fascinating by turn; in her more pragmatic moments, she had decided it admirable and frankly useful. The raw edges of autumn seemingly smoothed over, she no longer found herself confronted by the hideous immaturity and unreasonable demands which had so unsettled her. She was content to trust that these had been a symptom of distress, not of some permanent emotional regression. It had been hard at first not to contrast her with Hilda’s serene understanding; but she had trusted that Con brought her own qualities of insight and rapport and that trust, too, had been proven well-founded. She extracted what solace she could from these victories.
A great international conductor was at Interlaken that weekend conducting two concerts, and the girls had been promised that if the weather held, they should go to the afternoon one to be given in the Casino on the Hoheweg. The weather did indeed hold, to everyone’s great excitement, and so it was that the School, en masse, rushed through Mittagessen at an extraordinary pace and skied down to Lauterbach to take the little mountain train from there.
Nell had given a great deal of consideration to her own attendance at the concert: whilst the prospect was tempting in the extreme, she was – not for the first time – feeling the difference it made to be a Head on her own, and had some concerns over just how much she still had to do before the end of term. An empty chalet would be an excellent opportunity. It had been Gill Culver’s immediate offer to stay behind and get things done that had decided the matter for her. She would not permit this sacrifice, however willing, from her secretary, and therefore it followed that she must match the action to the word and demonstrate that she, too, had earned the treat of the concert and would work all the better next week for having enjoyed it.
The concert hall was packed, and she found herself at the end of the row, next to Vi Norton. There was something about the evocative setting, as the great room fell silent and the conductor mounted the rostrum, that left her relieved Con was a dozen or more seats along from her, and no nearer. She was present enough in Nell’s mind, and already it was surprisingly difficult to divide her attention fairly between the performance and her charges – however grown up and responsible she might hope them to be. Schubert’s Rastlose Liebe struck her as a fitting irony, if one she could gladly do without; having not long speculated on the apparent disconnect between the young contralto and her searing rendition of Gretchen am Spinnrade, she could not help wryly noting that she was herself certainly too old to be thus moved by this sort of wearying and beguiling drama. Happiness without peace, indeed. Con’s love still frightened her, it was so fiercely unconditional; to resist was an insult; to resist was the only appropriate response, for if Nell did not resist – then what? Where shall I flee? Nell grimaced at her own ridiculousness. She had thought these flights of intensity and indulgence to be well behind her, and good riddance.
She was still lost in her thoughts as the music moved on to Roslein auf der Heide, sung with the simplicity of a child, and answered her as clearly as any speech. There was to be no resistance, nor any continued contemplation of resistance. In the unsentimental wistfulness of the song, she saw at long last that there was only one resolution. The rest of the concert seemed to drag, beautiful though it was; she only ached to be alone with Con once more, to tell her without words what she had now learned.
Evening came later than usual: the reliable little mountain train took it upon itself to provide the alarums and excursions the staff had all been – prematurely – beginning to imagine they might have escaped this term after all. Having reached the end of its run across the narrow plain and begun to climb the mountain slope, suddenly the lights went out and the train stopped dead. Not that it stayed there. It began, slowly and terrifyingly, to slide backwards! Cries of terror and dismay broke out. Someone in one of the other carriages began to scream and that acted like an electric press-button, releasing other shrieks from the passengers.
As if by the same press-button, Nell sprang to her feet, grappling in her bag for the torch she carried for the walk beneath the trees from Lauterbach to Welsen. Most of her girls stayed admirably calm, as she had expected; but she also knew well enough to expect one or two – in this case Pamela and Edna – to lose their heads altogether. Two were quite enough: Edna thrust at Matron, Pamela contrived to horrify onlookers with an hysterical attempt to leave the train, and Nell made a wild dive up the aisle to the panic-stricken girl.
“Pamela! Stop that! Stop it at once! Do you want to be thrown out and killed? Come away from that door!”
“Let me out – let me out!” Pamela gasped hysterically. At that moment, the train ended its slow, downward passage and stopped short with a jerk which threw Pamela off her feet and nearly sent Miss Wilson on top of her, had she not caught at the back of a seat for support. Pamela clutched at the nearest thing clutchable, which happened to be the Head’s ankles, and this time Miss Wilson did overbalance and would have been right down but for Matron, who had left Edna to Dickie and followed her Head to help with Pamela. She managed to catch Miss Wilson’s shoulder in a firm grasp and succeeded in steadying her, though, as that lady found out later on, only at the cost of bruising her badly.
By this time, a number of other passengers had also found their own torches, and officials were moving through the train reassuring that all were safe enough. Nell, determined that no one should see a member of the School in such a state of terror, stooped again and, using all her force, dragged the girl to her feet. Almost immediately, someone else came forward and lifted the weight from her. It was Elma. Nell breathed several sighs of relief: Elma would be exactly the tonic the silly girl needed, and at last their silly feud would be over.
At that very instant, the lights flashed on again and the train began to move very slowly uphill. The School party were thankful to leave the train at Lauterbach, and a great many other passengers clearly felt the same – including those whose usual journeys would have taken them further up the line. As they disembarked and gathered themselves beside the little station, Nell noticed Con, busy reassuring and directing some passengers for Mahlhausen who preferred to take the long, snowy tramp up the mountainside, rather than risk any further excitements on the train. The conversation seemed to take longer than strictly necessary – after all, they had only to follow the railway – but Nell supposed that the combination of a misbehaving train and a new walk in the darkness was an unsavoury one for anyone of an anxious disposition.
After some moments, Con appeared at her elbow. “Might we spare some torches for the Mahlhausen folk, do you think? They’ve only three between them, and none have walked it before even by daylight.”
“By all means.” Nell handed over hers without hesitation, and Peggy Bettany and Nell Randolph, who stood nearby, followed suit. Con smiled her thanks, and took them over to the little party. She lingered a few moments longer, speaking quietly with one of the Mahlhausen people, before bidding her a cheerful goodbye and joining her own folk for the walk across the little alpe to the woodland path, while those bound for Mahlhausen followed the track parallel to the railway.
“My stars! I’m not a P.T. mistresss, and for good reason. I hadn’t expected to break my body for the girls in the same way. And yet...”
Nell winced as she slipped her shoulders free of her blouse and inspected the angry bruising as best she could. Certainly Matron’s sturdy grasp had saved her – and Pamela – from worse injury, but it was not a blessing she was ready to be very grateful for just now.
“Bloody Eustacia.” Con remarked in sudden reminiscence, and blushed as soon as she’d said it. She stepped nearer, reached out a gentle hand to touch the purplish discolouration spreading across the exposed skin.
Nell was startled at Con’s vehemence, all this time later, and laughed, both at the original sentiment and her evident embarrassment. “You don’t really still think that, surely? Poor silly girl. It could have been anyone, and it could have been any time. I’ll grant you it’s a pity it was then and there –”
“Oh, I know that really. And if it had been my foot, I’d have put it completely out of mind years ago.”
“But it was mine,” Nell supplied with a sudden smile. There was great contentment to be had in Con’s rueful possessiveness. She hadn’t known until now that she had missed that, being wanted for someone else’s own. She remembered the Heidenroslein of the song. I will prick you, and I won't stand it, and you won't forget me. It was Con, without doubt; Con of old, mellowed but still fierce beneath. She remembered Con describing her daughter's own ferocious love, wondered whether she recognised it as an inherited trait.
Con nodded, saying nothing – for nothing needed to be said. “Shall I go and find you some ointment? It looks nasty.”
“It’ll do. It probably looks worse than it is.”
“You always say that,” Con retorted, but she shrugged and began to get herself changed for bed. She seemed thoughtful tonight too. Nell wondered, but did not ask, whether her heart had also fallen foolish victim to the concert programme. She would talk when she was ready.
And talk she did: “This all seems almost too good to be true.” She remarked now, still in the reminiscent vein she had begun with her mention of Eustacia. “This small new house, I mean, and this very room at the far side of it. Do you remember creeping around the old chalet before, where every floorboard seemed to creak and every whisper risked discovery?”
“Only too well! I suppose, in retrospect, it’s fortunate I was so young and foolish," Nell laughed now, with an unusual affection for her past self as well as her companion – now and then. It was true: hard to imagine she had taken the risks she had then – perhaps she, too, was more changed than she’d noticed. That Con had taken such risks required little imagination; undoubtedly she would do the same today. Perhaps Nell had been wrong to disown that part of herself so readily; perhaps taking those risks had been the only thing to do, in the circumstances.
"And what are you now?" Con teased.
"Old and reckless!" Flippant, but likely also true. Reality bit once more. This worked for now, for who would challenge her? But it was not a state of affairs which could persist indefinitely.
They climbed into the bed now, and the heavy cloud of practicalities did not hang over her for long.
“I seem to have resolved my Christmas holiday conundrum,” Con murmured brightly. “Did you recognise that passenger from Mahlhausen?”
“I can’t say that I did.” Nell answered, frowning to remember and curious about where this was leading.
“I suppose you wouldn’t. She’s Lady Aldis, you know – the wife of that M.P. who had to retire on grounds of ill-health. That’s how they came to be here, of course. I’ve met her two or three times before – she’s a cousin of Nancy’s – my sister’s – husband. We had rather a good chat on the train – she’s petrified of the dark, poor thing, so naturally I babbled at her to calm her nerves. I’d already recognised her before that, though.” Con paused. “I’m never too certain how well known these things are, outside of those sorts of circles, so do forgive me if I’m telling you things you already know inside out. But Lady Aldis’ sister, she got herself into rather a difficult situation some years back, and it struck me that she might be just the sort of person to make friends with. That business with the lights and the train rolling backwards was simply a gift to my purpose.
“She was divorced, you see. Abandoned by some awful drunkard of a baronet, or something like that. The Aldises took her in. It could have cost his career dearly, of course – this is long enough ago that they didn’t yet know how bad his health would become – but they did it anyway. Lady Aldis has since become something of an advocate on the subject. She’s been involved with the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce, I think.”
“So she’s your new patron of ill-treated women?” Nell teased gently, as Con’s musing seemed to fade away.
“She’s my new local friend who would simply love to have me as her visitor, and if I can provide her with a festive houseful of youngsters then so much the better,” Con retorted, her tone suggesting she was still greatly tickled by this stroke of good fortune.
“Did she outright invite you?” Nell asked, holding her breath slightly, wondering whether the confidence of Con’s youth or the desperation of her present circumstance had finagled the invitation, so very much welcome.
“We-ell. She outright invited me to come for a visit – quite early on in our conversation, between you and me I think she’s rather stuck for company up there – and lamented that I probably wouldn’t be able to find the time until after Christmas. I might have answered that I found myself unusually available over Christmas, although I was quite sure she’d have plans already and so on. Turns out not!” She wriggled happily.
Nell exhaled, relaxed into the pillow once more. “Gracious. What a fortuitous train journey!”
“I’ll say! Just imagine – Christmas in the alps for my brats! After all those poor peculiar Christmases at the beach.” Clear blue eyes held hers now, open, honest. “I presumed you really wouldn’t want us under your feet. Not this year, anyhow.” She paused. “I realise I don’t even know what you generally do about Christmas.” Another pause. “Hilda..?”
Unbidden, Nell’s defences went up and she shifted until she was sitting up in the bed. “Some years,” she answered, hearing the caginess in her voice as if it were somebody else who spoke. She was irritated with herself. Con’s frankness deserved greater expansion than this, but where to begin? It was not an easy thing to acknowledge to herself, much less aloud. She had spent some precious, affirming holidays with Hilda; had every reason to expect more of the same yet to come. She had also spent a great number alone – not exactly lonely – but the fact remained that Hilda had always had other people too, where Nell herself had had no one, and besides which –
“You weren’t, were you?” In four short words, Con’s voice shifted from confident to self-doubting. “I always thought...”
“Hilda is as dear as a sister to me.” Nell interrupted, thankful for words which were at least truthful and unambiguous. To how much more detail should Con be privy? She looked away; the rest was hard. “Hilda has never been in love with me.” Is that what you always thought?
“But you were in love with her?” Nell braced for jealousy, recognising this topic from days long gone; but looking up, saw only the softness of sympathy on Con’s face.
Not as I was you. Not with the same gut-churning head-spinning pain and joy and foolishness as I always was with you. She held her head up high. “I don’t know. I thought I was, once upon a time.”
“I’m sorry.” The simplicity of the sentiment, and the respectful silence Con allowed to sit around it, said all that needed to be said.
“I’m not.” Nell spread her hands, finding the expansive honesty she had struggled for moments earlier. “I don’t regret the place Hilda has held in my life, or in my heart. How could I? She owes me nothing, and has given me much.” She was relieved by Con’s patient silence, her lack of unnecessary emotional involvement. It did not resolve the question of how her reappearance would sit alongside Nell’s own treasured friendship with Hilda, but at least it did not make matters worse.
“Are you planning to spend Christmas with her this year?” Her voice was carefully bland now, and Nell tensed again, gave a tight nod. “Give her my love, won’t you?”
“Thank you.” She was trying so very hard; and where once she would have given free rein to her tumult of feelings, instead she squeezed Nell’s weary hand tight in her own. Nell held it close, fervent, appreciative.
“It will be all right.” Con soothed her, promised her; and she trusted in it enough to succumb to sleep. It had been a very, very long day.
Author's Chapter Notes:
Thanks for all the comments! Much appreciated.