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Author's Chapter Notes:
Many thanks to the six of you who've posted kindly reviews, and to the many more who've taken the time to read it.

Hilda slipped into Mademoiselle’s room at the San. There were fresh tears in her eyes as she stood at the door and gazed on the fragile figure lying so still in the bed - her Headmistress, her friend, her mentor, the one who had helped her the most to settle at the school and for whom she had developed true affection. She thought of the girls. How they would miss this gentle, kindly woman, for they knew how much she cared for them, and loved her for it. How to tell them?

The Frenchwoman’s eyes lifted wearily as she became aware of a figure approaching the bed. She saw the tears, so rare in her self-contained friend, and held out a hand. Her Senior Mistress took it in her own strong grasp and sank down in the chair by the bed, suddenly unable to articulate one word of comfort. Mademoiselle Lepâttre saw her difficulty and raised herself up a little on her pillows.

Ne pleurez-pas, ma chère Hilda!” she said softly, an affectionate smile lighting up her sallow face. “Please do not cry. All is well, je vous assure. I have lived my life and it has been a good one. It is not over yet, but the baton must pass into new hands, safe hands. Oh, oui, chérie, very safe hands. Fear not. You will do so much for the school with your thoughtful perception and wisdom.”

“But, Thérèse, there is so much that I’m not,” whispered her colleague. “I don’t have your warmth or Madge’s lightness of touch. She draws all to her with her charm and graciousness. Both of you are respected and very much loved by the girls.”

Mademoiselle Lepâttre released her hand and stroked the younger woman’s damp cheek. “As you will be, ma mie. All that you think you lack will come in time. You only have to be patient and gentle with yourself and with the school. Both girls and mistresses have much respect and liking for you. They will do your bidding willingly — and in time they will come to see in you those things that the so dear Madge and I myself already see, and they will love you.”

Hilda Annersley bowed her head to hide her tears. She knew she could do the job, but could she do it as lovingly and wisely as these two had done? She was patient and sensitive, and had a great understanding of the minds of young girls. The steel was also there, deep down, and could flash out when necessary, as many of her pupils could testify. But would she get the delicate balance right between justice and mercy?

The Frenchwoman waited a while, then asked quietly, “Will you do it, chérie?

There was no answer. Hilda’s head remained bowed. Mademoiselle tried again with greater urgency, for she felt an overwhelming desire to see this astute and intelligent woman in the place she herself was vacating.

“Remember, mon enfant, you will need a Senior Mistress -and one supposes that you will ask Nell. If so, she will supply the qualities you feel, at this moment, you do not possess. She will supply that lightness of touch, that je ne sais quoi you say you lack. You and Nell will make the good team, as you and I have done. But it is you the school needs, Hilda – of that there can be no doubt.”

Her friend heard the plea in the quiet voice and raised her head. What she saw had her on her feet, bending over the bed and stroking the clammy forehead.

“You’re exhausted, Thérèse,” she whispered, her voice anxious. “Close your eyes and lie still. I’m so sorry for putting you through this tonight. You don’t need my fears and worries when you’re so ill.”

The Frenchwoman smiled up into the sensitive face. “Du calme, chérie. I have the rest of my life to lie still and quiet. You are a good woman, Hilda, and you have been a so good friend. I have a great love for you, so now will you do this one last thing for me - and relieve Madge and the school of their difficulties?”

Hilda Annersley stared down into the pleading eyes and gave in. “Very well, my dear Thérèse. I will do it, for your sake - on one condition. The staff must be the ones who decide whether I take the position. Only if they say they’re behind me will I accept.”

Thérèse Lepâttre smiled with relief. She knew the staff. They would welcome the Senior Mistress as their new head with open arms. She might have kept her distance a little since her arrival, but they all respected her gifts and listened when she spoke. And there was, after all, no one else, unless they employed an outsider. Nell Wilson was too inexperienced as yet, although her time would come. She would help la chère Hilda as none of the others could, although the new headmistress would see, one day, that she herself had all the necessary gifts.

Despite her deep sorrow, Hilda Annersley gave a wry smile when she saw that look of relief. “You think you’re being very clever, that it’s all a fait accompli, don’t you, mon amie?” she asked ruefully. “We’ll see, and I promise I’ll do my very best if I am accepted by them. But, Thérèse,” she added in some uneasiness, “suppose they don’t agree with you as to my suitability?

“You will have to eat those words, ma chère, for there is nothing to fear.” The Frenchwoman smiled contentedly. “They will approve, je vous le promets, and so will the girls. The school will be safe in your capable hands, and you and it will be in my heart always, wherever I am.”

The younger woman squeezed her Headmistress’s hand, and tried to distract her a little by talking about her visit to Rome. Very soon the heavy eyes closed, and the visitor fell silent, surveying her friend’s wasted face sombrely. She remained at the bedside, a watchful presence, and wondered to herself, with a sinking heart, just what she had taken on.


*****



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