Christmas Eve in Austria was traditionally a time for feasting and family get-togethers, but Madge and Jem Russell tried to keep their Christmases as traditionally British as was possible for a household in the heart of the North Tyrol and so the greater part of their seasonal celebrations would be taking place on Christmas Day itself. Even so, there had been a festive mood at Die Rosen all day, and the protests from the two Russell children and their five youngest cousins at being packed off to bed at the normal time had only ceased when Madge had pointed out that Father Christmas wouldn’t come round whilst they were awake. But now the little ones were all fast asleep, dreaming of what they hoped to find in their stockings when they awoke on Christmas Day morning; and their elders were sitting down to enjoy their evening meal in a dining room which some of them had spent a substantial part of the day in helping the children to decorate. And very festive it looked too, as indeed did the entire house
This was an informal occasion and no particular protocol was being observed where seating was concerned. It would have been impossible anyway, with only two gentlemen to twelve ladies! Jem was at the head of the table, true; but Madge was sitting next to him; and on her other side was their ward, Robin Humphries, whose face was alight with excitement as she eyed a small covered basket which was sitting on the table in front of her two guardians. Jem caught her eye, winked, and then raised his hand to call for silence.
“All right, everyone!” he announced. “Rob and Madge and I have got a little surprise for you all tonight.” He uncovered the basket to reveal a pile of small white wafers, which bore some resemblance to Communion wafers but were each embossed, to the delight of the younger girls present, with what was instantly recognisable as a Christmas scene. Jem saw that most of those around the table were looking puzzled, and grinned. “I think Robin’s probably the best person to explain this,” he said. “Come on Rob, enlighten them all!”
Robin rose from her seat importantly. “We used to do this at home with Mamma,” she began. “When Mamma and Papa were both alive.” She faltered a little at that point and bit her lip; but Madge immediately stood up and put an arm round her, and she smiled up at the beloved honorary aunt who’d stood in the place of a mother to her ever since she’d first come to the Tiernsee, a frightened six-year-old away from everyone and everywhere she knew and loved; and, comforted, continued with her story.
“This is what they do in Poland on Christmas Eve,” she told her audience. “And in Lithuania and in parts of Czechoslovakia as well. The wafers are called oplatki, and what happens is that you break off a piece of the wafer and pass it to someone else, and give them a blessing as you do so. And Tante Madge and Oncle Jem and I have decided that what we’re going to do tonight is pass the basket round the table, and each person will give a piece of wafer and a blessing to the next person along.” She looked anxiously at Madge. “Did I explain that all right, Tante Madge? Did it make sense?”
“It made perfect sense, darling,” Madge assured her. “You explained it all very well indeed.” Robin beamed at her; and Madge, as she looked at the wide smile, the bright eyes and the rosy cheeks, gave silent but fervent thanks for her ward’s present state of good health and happiness. Robin had been motherless since an early age; her medical well-being was a continual cause for concern for those who loved her; and earlier that year she’d suffered a devastating blow with the death of her beloved father in a climbing accident. It was a great deal for someone so young to have had to bear, and Madge would be eternally grateful that Robin had coped with it all as well as she had done.
“Why don’t you start us off, then, Madge?” Jem’s voice broke into her thoughts. His tone was hearty, but she knew very well that that was just his way of concealing his emotions in public: catching his eye, she could see that he was thinking exactly the same as she was. He smiled at her. “Break off a piece of one of the wafers, and give it to Robin. That’s right, isn’t it, Rob, old girl?”
Robin nodded enthusiastically and Madge followed her husband’s bidding, feeling tears in her eyes as she did so. “There you go, Robin darling,” she whispered. “And my blessing for you is for good health and happiness always. Be happy, Robin. And be well. You deserve that.” The words “and may you always be as brave as you’ve been during this year,” were on the tip of her tongue but, not wanting to risk upsetting the child, she didn’t speak them out loud. But she thought them. And she knew that everyone else around the table was thinking them too.
Robin, thanking her gravely and bestowing a kiss upon her cheek accepted the piece of wafer gravely, and then broke off a second piece, and turned to the person on her other side, a smile lighting up her face from ear to ear. If Madge had long stood in the place of a mother to her and Jem was the closest thing she now had to a father-figure, Joey was her beloved elder sister: they might not be related by blood but they regarded themselves as being sisters in each and every other way.
“This piece is for Joey,” she announced. “And for you, Joey, for the coming year, I wish that you might have lots of books published and become a famous author!”
Everyone laughed at that, but Robin knew that they were laughing with her and not at her and so, rather than being offended, she laughed too. “I mean it, though!” she protested. “Joey’s stories are splendid! She’s going to be very famous soon!”
“Chance’d be a fine thing,” Joey remarked. “But thank you, Robin – and if I do get another book published then I’ll dedicate it to you!” She smiled. “To my younger sister. Like I dedicated my first book to my elder sister.” She looked across at Madge. The two of them and their brother Dick had also, like Robin, lost both their parents at an early age, before Joey herself had ever even had chance to know either of them. Madge, twelve years older than she was, had always been not only a dearly-loved sister to her but also the only mother she’d ever known; and, when Madge had married Jem Russell, he had welcomed Joey and later Dick’s four children too into his home, where Joey had been a full-time resident since leaving school. Hers might not be a conventional family life, but, whilst she might not always say so, she was very lucky to have Madge and Jem and she knew it.
Now Joey broke off a piece of wafer herself and turned to the girl on her left, who was no actual kin to anyone else present but had been taken into Madge and Jem’s loving home some time ago and never treated by them as anything less than a member of their family. It was hoped that Stacie Benson would be well enough to travel to her aunt’s house in Taverton for the summer holidays; but the recent poor weather hadn’t done much good for the back that she’d badly damaged in an accident during her first term at the Chalet School and the doctors at the San had agreed that for her to try to make the long journey to England and back over the Christmas break wouldn’t be advisable. So, as she’d done ever since suffering her injury, she was spending the festive season at Die Rosen.
Joey and she hadn’t got off to the best of starts. Stacie knew that her difficult behaviour during her early days in Tyrol hadn’t endeared her to anyone; and Joey was well aware that her reaction to it hadn’t helped, and guiltily aware too that she’d unfairly blamed Stacie when it had been feared that Robin might have contracted tuberculosis. But they’d put all that behind them now; and Joey, by suggesting that Stacie take over from her as editress of the school magazine, had done much to encourage everyone else at the Chalet School to forget their past differences with the fair-haired girl seated beside her as well.
“Merry Christmas, Stacie old thing, and all the best to you,” she said, meaning every word of it sincerely. “And may your back give you no more trouble in the year to come, so that you can get on with working your way towards Oxford and becoming that classics professor that we all know you’re destined to be!”
“I don’t know about the professor bit,” Stacie laughed. “But thank you, Joey – it would be wonderful to think that I could make it through the next year without too many problems with my back. And, if I do, then it’ll all be thanks to Dr Jem here – and to Madame too, for looking after me.” She flashed a grateful look at the two people she’d just mentioned. Like Robin, Joey and indeed Madge herself, she had neither father nor mother living, and the aunt who was her guardian had five children of her own and had had very little opportunity to visit her during her long period of recuperation. Without Dr and Mrs Russell, she would have been very much alone in the world during the past few years; and she would be grateful to them always for everything that they’d done for her.
She would be grateful always too to the young woman sitting on her other side - the Head of the Chalet School Annexe, who’d done so much to help her start to make up the work that she’d missed as a result of her accident. In addition to that, it had been to her, Juliet Carrick, that she’d confessed how guilty she felt, accepting the Russells’ kindness when she felt that she’d done very little to deserve it; and Juliet had helped her to see that the Russells would never view it in that manner, beginning by explaining how she’d felt that same way herself when, after her parents had effectively abandoned her, Madge had immediately agreed to take responsibility for her despite the appalling way that she’d behaved during at her time as the then Miss Bettany’s pupil before then.
“This one’s easy, anyway.” She grinned wickedly in a way that the Eustacia Benson of a few years earlier would never have done. “A safe journey to Ireland for New Year – and may you and Donal finally make it up the aisle some time before next Christmas! We’re all eagerly looking forward to receiving our invitations!”
“Donal and I are saving up, as well you know!” Juliet retorted, blushing furiously as she accepted the piece of wafer which Stacie was holding out to her. “But we do hope that it’s not going to be very much longer. And … and we’ve decided that, when we do get married, it’s going to be here, at the Anglican chapel at the San. Because the Sonnalpe’s where I think of as home.”
She looked at Madge Russell. “It is my home,” she said simply. It was. When her parents had been killed by a car crash shortly afterwards, Madge had become her legal guardian, and the Russells and Joey and Robin had been more of a true family to her than her own relatives had ever been. And, when her wedding day came, it would be Jem Russell who’d give her away and Madge Russell who would stand in the place of a mother, and her bridesmaids would also be chosen from amongst those who were at Die Rosen this night. She could so easily have been totally, utterly alone in the world; but Madge Bettany, now Madge Russell, had ensured that she never had been.
Stifling a few tears, she turned, and smiled at the quiet girl sitting on her other side - Jem Russell’s secretary, a fellow Old Girl of the Chalet School, and a friend of Madge and Joey’s of many years standing. “Merry Christmas, Rosalie,” she said. “And may the coming year bring you everything you wish for!” She handed Rosalie Dene the piece of wafer that she’d just broken off and taken from the basket, and Rosalie took it and smiled back.
For the first fourteen years of her life, Rosalie had lived a happy and settled existence in the small town of Taverton, the daughter of a curate, surrounded by her Burnett cousins and many family friends. But then, all of a sudden, everything had turned upside down for her. Her father had taken a position in the West Indies and her parents had packed up their lives and moved out there and she’d been sent away, to the Chalet School. Then, not long afterwards, her beloved mother had died. Her father had since returned to England and she could have looked for a position close to his new home and moved back in with him, but as he’d remarried and started a second family she’d felt that that would have been inappropriate. The Sonnalpe was her home now, and, in allowing her to have a room at Die Rosen and treating her like one of the family, Madge and Jem Russell had ensured that she felt that she truly belonged there. She felt that she’d never be able to thank them enough for their kindness, and she just hoped that they knew how very much she appreciated everything that they’d done for her.
She could have wished that the task that followed hadn’t fallen to her lot, though. Breaking a piece from one of the wafers in the basket which Juliet had passed to her, she looked at the person on her other side and tried to think of what best to say. She’d known Grizel Cochrane since the two of them had been young children; but it was only after they’d both left Taverton and become pupils at the Chalet School that she’d realised how unhappy Grizel had been at home, with the stepmother who’d never truly wanted her and the father who seemed largely indifferent to her and yet had considered it his right to push her into pursuing a career which wasn’t the one that she’d have chosen. Yet Grizel was smiling now, and seemed very much at home here at Die Rosen, surrounded by some of her closest friends; and Rosalie was glad to see it.
“Merry Christmas, Grizel!” she said simply, in the end. “And all the best for the year ahead.” She smiled and clinked her glass against the older girl’s. “To a very old friend,” she pronounced. “In the best sense of the word “old”, that is!”
They both laughed, but Grizel was touched by what Rosalie had said. She knew very well that she wasn’t always an easy person for anyone to regard as a friend, not like Rosalie who was quiet and always pleasant or Joey who seemed to have the knack of getting on with everybody. But during the years she’d spent in Tyrol she’d been the happiest she’d been ever since she’d been taken away from her much-loved grandmother’s home to live with her father and stepmother; and even back in Taverton Madge Bettany, as she’d been then, had always been kind to her. She might never say so out loud, but the Bettany-Russell family were the most important people in her lives and the Sonnalpe was more of a home to her than Taverton had ever had been; and she was fiercely glad that she’d decided to accept Madge and Jem’s tactfully-worded invitation to spend Christmas with them if she so chose, rather than returning to England, and very grateful indeed that the invitation had been offered.
The girl on her other side had no family in England to return to. Joyce Linton’s mother was being treated for tuberculosis at the Sanatorium, and Joyce and her sister Gillian didn’t have any other close relatives. Gillian was no longer a schoolgirl, and had tentatively suggested that maybe she should look for somewhere on the Sonnalpe or maybe in Briesau to rent so that she and Joyce would be able to be close to their mother without being in anybody else’s way; but the Russells, who’d welcomed the two girls into their home when they’d first arrived in Tyrol some years before, exhausted and travel-stained, had refused to hear of the two girls being on their own unless that was what they really wanted. Joyce and Gillian were both to regard Die Rosen for their home for as long as they chose to, they’d declared; and it had been an offer which the Lintons had been both relieved and delighted to accept.
Joyce wasn’t always the most thoughtful or the most sensitive of people, even now when she was so more mature than she’d been at the start of her mother’s illness, but she genuinely appreciated what Jem and Madge Russell had done for her and her sister, and what Jem Russell and his team were trying to do for her mother; and she thought a great deal of them. And Grizel wasn’t always the most thoughtful or the most sensitive of people either, but she had some memories of her own mother’s illness and well remembered that of her adored grandmother, and so she understood something of what Joyce and Gillian must be feeling every day.
“If I may, I’ll … well, I’ll just say how much I hope to see your mother fully recovered, Joyce,” she said quietly. “And that goes for you too, Gillian.” She handed Joyce the piece of wafer that she was holding. “All the best, Joyce. A merry Christmas and a very happy new year.”
Joyce’s face was full of emotion as she looked first at Grizel, thanking her, and then at Gillian. “I haven’t got anything to add to that, Gill,” she said simply, breaking off a piece of wafer and holding it out to her sister. “It’s all that I want and I know that it’s all that you want too. For Mummy to get well again. And, Dr Jem, I just wanted to say how much Gill and I appreciate everything you’re doing for Mummy, and how grateful we are to you and to Madame for letting us stay at Die Rosen.”
Gillian nodded as her sister spoke. “Joyce has said exactly what I wanted to say. And we’ll never be able to thank you two enough, either of you.”
“There’s nothing to thank us for,” Madge said softly. “Truly, there isn’t. Especially not at this time of year, when of all times family and friends should be together.” She would have said more about how much it meant to her that everyone around the table was together on Christmas Eve, but, sensing that the mood around the table was becoming rather emotional and not wanting to dampen the fun of the proceedings for the children present, she smiled broadly instead. “Now, Gillian, you must give a piece of wafer to Jack, and think of a blessing for him! Although I think he must feel that all his Christmases have come at once anyway, getting to sit between two such lovely young ladies!”
Gillian was a perceptive young woman, and she had a feeling that she knew exactly what would make Jack Maynard happiest in all the world, and that there was a certain young lady present next to whom he’d far rather be sitting than her. However, as she couldn’t very well say that out loud, she just handed the young doctor a piece of wafer with the words “I wish you everything that you wish for yourself, Dr Jack,” and ended by saying that she hoped he’d have a very happy Christmas. As she did so, she saw his eyes turning briefly in Joey’s direction and knew that her instinct had been right. Joey, sadly, appeared at present neither to be aware of Jack’s feelings nor consciously to return them; but Gillian, who was fond of them both and thought that they’d be very well-suited, hoped with all her heart that in time that might change and that Jack Maynard would have the patience to wait until the day when it did.
She was pretty sure that he would. And she was right. Jack had often heard Joey declare that she had no intention of ever marrying, and he certainly didn’t flatter himself that if she were to change her mind it would necessarily be for him; but that didn’t stop him from wishing, and hoping. And hoped at least that these days she saw him as a friend, rather than just as her brother-in-law’s colleague. Come to that, he hoped that Jem, and Madge too, viewed him as a friend as well as as a junior doctor at the San. He’d had some qualms about coming out to work in a foreign country, especially knowing that before long Mollie would be leaving to move to New Zealand, but the Russells had made him so welcome that being at the Sonnalpe felt completely natural to him now. And maybe one day, he thought - he hoped, his eyes straying towards Joey again – he’d have a busy, happy house like Die Rosen as a home of his own.
Stopping himself from drifting too far away into his dreams for the future, he turned to the young friend sitting who was on his left hand side. Biddy O’Ryan had been waiting for her turn to come, and was almost bouncing with excitement. She beamed up at “Dr Jack”. The only Catholic adult at the table, Jack had offered to take Biddy and also Robin to Midnight Mass at the local church if they wished to go – Madge having agreed that she’d give permission for them to stay up late on condition that they both have a lie-down in the afternoon -, declaring gallantly that it would be his privilege to escort them; and the thought of attending the most special service of the year, walking to the little church and back through the snow by torchlight, was making Biddy even happier than she’d have been on Christmas Eve anyway.
Jack smiled back at her. Biddy was an intelligent, lively, happy child, and the fact that she was almost always so cheerful despite all that she’d been through said a lot about her strength of personality. Like many of the others present, she’d been orphaned at an early age, and she had lost not only her father and then her mother but had later her stepfather too, and, following his death, had separated from her little half-brother perhaps for ever. And there’d been no sister, aunt, family friend or headmistress ready to take care of Biddy as there’d been for Joey, Eustacia, Robin and Juliet: instead, she’d been found wandering alone by a group of Chalet School girls … and had then, rather bizarrely to Jack’s mind, been “adopted” by the Guide companies of the school and of St Scholastika’s, then a separate establishment.
That idea had inevitably proved not to be very workable and it had ended up being the Russells who’d largely assumed responsibility for her, especially outside term-time. It was with them that she, like so many others, spent her Christmases, and with them too that she spent the rest of her holidays. And she seemed happy with them, and at the Chalet School where she was now a pupil, he thought gladly. He took the basket, took a piece of wafer, and handed it to her. “Be happy, Biddy,” he said. “Just like you are now. Work hard and play hard – and, above all, always be happy!”
“I’ll try,” Biddy said solemnly. “Thank you, Dr Jack. And thank you too, Madame and Dr Jem: I love Christmas at Die Rosen. I love being at Die Rosen whatever time of year it is! Sure, it must have been some sort of Christmas angel who led me to the Tiernsee when I ran away from Hall, I think.” She blessed the day when, with no idea where she was going or what she planned to do, she’d been crying near the lakeside and a group of Chalet School girls had found her there. “Except that it was in the summer!” she added as an afterthought. Then she turned to her left, and her tone changed from one of solemnity to one of enthusiasm so immediately that the adults had to try very hard not to laugh. “Oh goody, it’s my go now, isn’t it! I get to give a wafer to Daisy!”
She looked round at her friend, the youngest person present, broke off a piece of wafer and handed it to her. “Merry Christmas, Daisy! And what I want to say is that you should ignore all those silly people who say that girls can’t be doctors and that you should try to be whatever you want to be. You’re really clever and I know you can do it!”
Daisy blushed at this last bit, but she was quite serious about wanting to be a doctor. Admittedly, she was only very young yet, but she was older than Rix and David and no-one laughed when they said that they wanted to be doctors. Like Uncle Jem. She adored her Uncle Jem. And she adored her Auntie Madge as well. And her Auntie Joey, and Robin, and everyone else at Die Rosen as well. Especially because she knew it was down to them that Mummy was well again.
Primula didn’t remember very much about Australia, but she was old enough to remember the terrible times that they’d had there. She remembered her three brothers, and how one by one they’d all gone away to heaven. She hadn’t understood at first that they’d never be coming back, and even when she had done she’d struggled for months afterwards to accept that she’d never see them again in this world. She remembered all those times when Daddy had come in late, shouting and smelling of beer – and, worst of all, she remembered the day when he’d been bitten by a snake and been dead within hours. Mummy had cried and cried and said over and over again that she didn’t know what they were going to do, but then eventually she’d stopped crying and she’d sorted them all out and they’d gone to live with Nurse Rickards. But then Nurse Rickards had died as well.
She’d been so frightened. And she’d thought that maybe Mummy and Primula were both going to die as well. But then they’d come to Austria to live with Uncle Jem and Auntie Madge and since then everything had been all right, and now she didn’t worry any more. She’d heard Nurse Rickards, just before she’d died, tell Mummy that she had to go to Austria and find her brother, and that she and Daisy and Primula would be fine then. And Nurse Rickards had been right. They were all right now, the three of them. Now that they were with Uncle Jem and Auntie Madge.
Thanking Biddy, she took the basket from her, took a piece of wafer, and handed it to the oldest person present, the person on her other side. “Merry Christmas, Mummy,” she said. “And my Christmas wish is for both you and Prim to carry on being well. That’d be the best Christmas present I could ever have. That and all of us being here with Uncle Jem and Auntie Madge and everyone else. Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas everybody!”
“Merry Christmas, everybody,” Margot echoed, taking the piece of wafer and kissing her eldest daughter warmly. And then took the basket, broke off another piece of wafer, and turned to her brother. “Jem … oh Jem, where would Daisy and Primula and I be without you and Madge?” Tears filled her eyes. She’d been on the verge of the collapse that day when she’d lost her way in Innsbruck … but then Daisy had asked two girls for directions and one of the girls had turned out to be Jem’s wife’s sister, and she’d known from that moment that it would only be a short time before she and her daughters would be safe.
A smile touched her lips as she recalled what Joey had said to her later that day - that she’d never seen Jem like that before, so desperate to see his sister again that he’d virtually run through the streets of Innsbruck to the hotel where she’d been staying. And what was it that Daisy had said? Something about Uncle Jem cuddling Mummy as if she were Primula – quite an accurate description of events, really! Dear Jem: he might play the part of the stiff-upper-lipped English gentleman amongst strangers but she’d known him since the day he’d been born and she knew what a caring, compassionate man he was really. And what a lovely person Madge was too: not all women in her position would have welcomed a sister-in-law and two nieces whom she’d never met before into her home, but Madge had done just that and couldn’t have made her and the girls feel any more welcome. As indeed Madge and Jem had done with every person here tonight.
“This is for you, Jem,” she said, her voice faltering a little as she gave the piece of wafer to her brother. “And what I’ve got to say, my blessing for you … well, it’s for both you and Madge, really; and it’s not so much a good wish as a thank you. Thank you, thank you to both of you, for welcoming us - all of us, everyone who’s sitting round this table, and Primula and the little Bettanys asleep in the nursery as well -, into your home. Thank you; thank you. Without you two I’m not sure where any of us’d be tonight. God bless you both. And God bless Die Rosen. And thank you.”
Everyone apart from Madge and Jem was nodding in agreement, but Jem was shaking his head. He spoke, his voice almost as full of emotion as his sister’s had just been. “There’s no need, no need at all … Margot, you’re my sister … all of us here this evening are family and friends … and even if anyone here were a stranger, none of us, not any of us, would ever see anyone alone, not ever and especially not at Christmas. But thank you, all the same. Thank you, all of you, for everything that you’ve said, and thank you for being here and sharing Christmas Eve with us.”
He took a piece of wafer from the basket, and turned to his wife. Fate had truly been smiling on him that day not long after another Christmas, he thought gratefully, when Joey had managed to slip on the ice right in his path … and led him to Madge, whom he hadn’t been able to get out of his mind ever since he’d encountered her and Joey and Grizel and Juliet, all of them here tonight, after their train crash the preceding summer. He’d been pretty much alone in the world then – and look where he was now.
He held out the wafer to Madge, who took it from him and held his hand for a moment as she did so. She was remembering the day of the accident at the ice carnival too. Delighted though she’d been at the news of Dick’s engagement, which she’d received earlier that day, it had made her think long and hard about her own situation and that had saddened her. With her time taken up with her school and with caring for Joey and Robin and Juliet, she’d thought that she’d never meet the right man, never marry, never have children, never have a proper home of her own. How wrong she’d been. And how happy she was now.
She took the wafer from Jem, and shared a smile with him before they both looked round the table at the faces of the many family and friends seated there. And then their eyes turned to each other again, and Jem spoke.
“This is the final blessing of the evening – and so it’s fitting that it should be for Madge - wife, mother, sister, aunt, friend, headmistress … the heart of the house and the person who makes this house a home and every one of us part of a family. I can’t say any more except God bless you, my love – and Merry Christmas. And Merry Christmas to all of you as well.”
He raised his glass. “If I may, I’ll just borrow a few lines from Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol. Here's to us all, God bless us every one! Merry Christmas everyone. May God’s blessings be with us all.”