|She wandered slowly back to her pensione through the crowded streets of Rome, her quiet eyes taking in her surroundings, now night had fallen and lights had sprung up everywhere, transforming a beautiful city into a very romantic one. It should have made her feel lonely, but she was perfectly happy sight-seeing on her own. She had spent several very pleasant, relaxing days exploring little out-of-the-way churches, quiet flower-filled squares and dusty old bookshops. It felt good to be answerable to no one but herself for a while.|
She had attended the Vigil Mass of Easter in the great basilica two nights ago; had stood in St Peter’s Square the following morning to hear Pope Pius XI give his Urbi et Orbi Easter message. This evening she had eaten her solitary dinner in a restaurant overlooking the Trevi fountain, then decided to call it a day. Reaching the door of the pensione, she cast one last, lingering look around before entering and going to the desk to collect her key.
The concierge had a surprise for her. “Un telegramma, Signorina. It arrived this morning but you never returned until now, so …”
She shrugged her shoulders with a smile. The guest took the telegram with some foreboding, for only one person knew of her whereabouts.
“Grazie, Signora,” she said quietly, as was her wont, and made her way quickly upstairs to her room, where she could read it in peace.
Tearing open the slip of paper, she held it under the light. Return immediately. Mademoiselle Lepâttre gravely ill. Madge Russell.
She had to read it twice before taking in what this might mean. But … Thérèse was supposed to be on the mend at long last! Laying the slip of paper down, she stood at the window staring out at the colourful lights in the pretty garden of the pensione. There was nothing she could do until morning. It was far too late to disturb the Russells now, but that did not stop her sombre thoughts.
Thérèse Lepâttre, the Headmistress of the Chalet School, had been taken very ill in the middle of the autumn term, but an operation had seemed to put an end to her troubles, although her recovery, even now, several months later, was still very slow. Jem Russell had warned it might be September before she returned. Hilda Annersley sighed. She had been Acting Headmistress since the operation, and it had been difficult and nerve-racking at times, despite her apparent calm. Not only had she had all the Headmistress’s responsibilities on her slender shoulders, she also still had her English and Scripture classes. Now it looked as though the pattern was set to continue, at least for a while longer. But why had they sent for her? There was nothing she could do for Thérèse, surely, except be with her as a friend.
Hilda Annersley’s eyes were sad. When she had come to the Chalet School a few years ago, she had been slightly older and much more experienced than the other mistresses. That, allied to her quiet and very private nature, distanced her a little from the rest of the staff. Meanwhile, Mademoiselle Lepâttre had found herself beset by loneliness after Madge Bettany, founder of the school, married Dr Russell and moved up to the Sonnalpe. Almost despite themselves, the new mistress and her Headmistress felt drawn to each other, each recognising the other’s fine qualities. Miss Annersley was appointed Senior Mistress on Mollie Maynard’s departure, and their friendship and trust grew ever stronger as they shared the day-to-day management of the school. The Senior Mistress had been extremely upset at the gravity of her friend’s illness.
Now, who knew?
She grimaced. This was getting her nowhere. Borrowing trouble never helped anyone. Turning from the window she prepared for bed, packed what she could of her belongings and knelt down, burying her face in her hands. Her prayer was brief but heartfelt.
Lord, she’s safer in Your hands than anywhere else. Take good care of her for us.
Then, knowing she had a long day in front of her the next day, and being an eminently sensible woman, she settled herself to sleep—although sleep was a long time coming.
Now here she was, in the little mountain train, on the final stage of her long journey. She had cabled Madge Russell early that morning to warn of her arrival, having discarded her rail ticket in favour of a seat on the next flight back to Innsbruck. All that remained to do was to leave her case at the school and take the long and weary road up to the Sonnalpe. However, relief was at hand. Dr Jem Russell was awaiting her at the little station.
“It was good of you to return so promptly, Hilda,” he said warmly, helping her out of the carriage and relieving her of her case.
“Jem, how is she?” There was urgency in the mellow voice.
He shook his head. “As bad as ever she was. We’ve had surgeons from Innsbruck and Vienna to look at her, but …” He eyed her white, exhausted face and changed the subject. “Tell me, how was your stay in Rome?”
Seeing he was going to tell her nothing more for the time being, she kept to safe topics until shown into the Saal at Die Rosen, where Madge Russell rose to greet her.
“Hilda!” She cried, taking the cold hands. “You’re worn out. Come and rest by the fire.”
Her guest remained standing. “May I see her, Madge? Or is she too ill?”
“I think it might be better if you hear what happened first,” Madge said quietly. “I know how much you care for her, so you need to understand before you see her.”
Miss Annersley gazed at her with anxious eyes, saw the sorrow in the gentle face and gave in graciously. She sat down and accepted a cup of coffee, warming her hands round it.
“I don’t understand, Madge. She was well on the way to recovery when I left. We looked for her return - certainly by September.”
Madge Russell sighed and the other woman listened attentively as her friend spoke of the self-effacing Frenchwoman who had replaced her as Headmistress. “Yes, we were all so pleased with her progress, slow though it was.” Madge paused, her lips trembling. She turned to look into the flames dancing in the hearth. “Just after you left, there was a return of her symptoms quite suddenly and with no warning. They got her over it, but only for a day or two before it all happened once more. Jem has had doctors here from …”
“He told me,” whispered Hilda Annersley. “Is it … can they …?” All at once, she found herself unable to frame a coherent sentence.
“If they could operate again, they think she would recover in time.”
“If? You mean they can’t?” The older woman was appalled by what she was hearing.
“Her heart is too frail. They say she wouldn’t survive. There are other doctors coming in the next day or so, but Jem has given up hoping.” Madge turned to face the watchful blue-grey eyes. “She will always be an invalid now, dear.”
Silence fell, a silence filled with broken hopes and enormous sorrow. Hilda Annersley’s throat was too tight for words, her keen eyes stark with sadness and regret. She became aware of her cup rattling on its saucer and quickly placed both on the table in front of her.
She wet her dry lips. “How has she taken it? Or does she not know?”
“Oh, she knows,” breathed Madge, “and accepts, with her usual grace and lack of fuss. You will never hear a word of complaint from Thérèse’s lips at this further blow.”
Miss Annersley rose to her feet and walked over to the window, staring out into the gathering darkness through a mist of tears. Thérèse’s honest face and warm, loving smile consumed her mind. How do you accept such news? What do you do when you suddenly come face to face with how mortal you are? How do you go on?
Madge, her eyes damp with her own sorrow for her great friend lying so gravely ill, watched the tall, slender figure at the window. She understood what this news was doing to her. She knew what trust and love lay between the two women. Hilda Annersley would grieve deeply for her Headmistress, but did she understand just why she had been re-called to the school? Had she realised what must now follow?
Madge shattered the painful silence. “Hilda, have you thought what this means for the school — and for you?”
The slender woman spun round. “What … what do you mean?”
Madge spelled it out in words of one syllable. “The school will need a new Head.” She heard her friend catch her breath, saw her blink in shock. “You hadn’t travelled that far, had you?”
She rose to her feet and walked over to the Senior Mistress, taking her cold hands. She searched the uncertain eyes of this gentle woman whom she deeply respected, and spoke quietly but firmly.
“Thérèse and I are both as one on this, Hilda. Would you do us the very great honour of becoming the third headmistress of the Chalet School?” She felt her hands being squeezed as though in a vice. She watched the words sinking in. “We mean it, Hilda. Thérèse was adamant she wanted you and none other. You’re eminently capable and will do a splendid job, especially now the numbers are expanding so rapidly. We need a firm, as well as a perceptive, hand at the helm, and you have both qualities in abundance.” Miss Annersley still stared at her speechlessly. “Come and sit down before you fall down.”
Madge led her back to the couch. The shaken woman picked up her coffee in trembling hands and took a sip, then sighed. She looked over at Madge and opened her lips to speak, but such was the expression on her face that Madge knew it was up to her to speak first.
Her voice was gentle and encouraging. “Hilda, you’ve been acting Head since last November. I know it’s been hard work, combining teaching with all the other responsibilities, but you’ve risen to the occasion magnificently and managed it all with your usual calm competence. Indeed, I would have expected no less, knowing you as I do. The post of Headmistress has been waiting for you from the day you walked into the school, to be honest. You have the experience, yes, but more than that, you have all the necessary qualities.”
“I never wanted it like this, Madge” whispered the woman seated opposite, closing her eyes over her tears…