Joey loved her children dearly, but on days like today she could cheerfully strangle them all. Stephen had been grizzling since dawn - a stomach ache, she suspected - and with the elder girls at school, and Anna on her day off, this meant trying to keep him pacified and keep her eyes on her triplet daughters by herself.
And even that she would have ordinarily managed, but Margot had somehow got it into her head that the extra attention she was paying to Stephen meant that Joey didn't love her daughters any more. Connie, scared and worried by this announcement, had dissolved into tears, setting off Stephen again, and while Joey tried to calm the both of them down, little Len had for some reason taken it upon herself to tackle Margot like a rugger-player, knocking her over and knocking her own head against an armchair in the bargain. Finally, the exasperated Joey had threatened all three girls with early bed and had told them stay in the nursery and stay quiet until her youngest had calmed down.
Stephen was asleep, now, with a look on his face that Joey fancied was almost triumphant. "Yes, I expect you're very pleased with yourself," she murmured to him tenderly, "upsetting the whole household with your aches and pains." She kissed his forehead and placed him gently in his crib, hoping that he would sleep off whatever what was wrong.
She'd had some time to think on what she should say to her girls. She'd obviously been wrong never to consider that they would be prone to the same jealous urges that other children were. She'd assumed, since they were used to sharing her, that sharing her with one more child would not be a problem, but after Margot's outburst today she knew they needed reassurance. The identical worried looks on their faces as she entered the nursery almost broke her heart.
"Oh, my darlings," Joey sighed, kneeling down and opening her arms wide enough to fit all three of them in a hug. "You've all been very silly today."
"But you do love us less, don't you Mama?" That was Connie, her voice small and muffled by Joey's blouse.
"No!" Joey said, as vehemently as she could. "No matter what happens, I will always love you just as much as I always have."
"Then why don't you want to play wiv us any more?" Margot chimed in.
"It's not that I don't want to, darling, it's that Stephen is very little and he needs to be with Mama as much as possible. He can't talk yet, and he can't walk, and the world is still so new to him that it's quite a scary place. When he's a little older, I'll be able to spend more time with you - and then one day all five of us will be able to play together! Would you like that?" Connie's face brightened immediately, and Len nodded happily. Margot, after a moment's consideration, agreed that she would, too.
"Now Len," quoth Joey, turning to her eldest daughter, "whatever did you mean by attacking Margot in such a manner?"
"When we were at Auntie Madge's, Aunt Daisy told Primula that you slap people, when vey're historical," Len explained a little unwillingly. Joey choked back a sudden need to laugh, and made a mental note to remind the heedless Daisy to watch what she said in front of the little ones.
"I see. Well, Aunt Daisy was talking about something that a grown-up should do, not something that a little girl should do. Have you told Margot you're sorry for hurting her yet?"
"Yes," declared Len, and Margot assented.
"And I forgave her," Margot added, grandly.
"That's my good girls. Now then - how about I tell you three a story? A new story, just for you three and no one else. I'll tell you a story today, until Stephen wakes up and needs Mama, and then tomorrow after lunch when he's sleeping again I'll tell you some more."
"But what about Stephen?" asked Len, who at age four already had a decided interest in everything being fair.
"When he's your age, I'll start telling him his own story. Now," and Joey's voice forbade further arguments, "what kind of story would you like?"
"A fairy story!"
"A true story."
"A story about you!"
The three exclamations came at once, and Joey smiled. She had just the story in mind.
Once upon a time, said Joey, there was a man who lived in a blue box.
"How did he fit in a box?" Margot demanded.
-who lived in a magic blue box. The magic meant that from the outside it looked small, but from the inside it was just as big as Plas Gwyn. His box could do all sorts of amazing things - it could even fly through the air like an airplane! I don't think there are many people who would like to live in a home that flew, but it suited the man just fine, since he had to travel all over the world. His job, you see, was to make sure all the witches, wizards and warlocks, and all the sorcerors and sorceresses, were obeying the laws of magic.
"Why did he need to do that?" Len asked.
If you or I break a law, if it's only a little law, maybe a policeman will come and tell us off for being a naughty. If we break a big law, someone could get very badly hurt. But if a magical law got broken, hundreds of people could get very badly hurt.
"In Sleeping Beauty, everyone falls asleep for a hundred years." This time it was Connie who interrupted. Joey smiled.
Right. And it wouldn't be very nice to fall asleep for that long, would it? So the man in the magic blue box had to make sure that magic was only being used the right way.
One day, he was chasing some magical wild animals across the Austrian mountains, when he came to a very narrow pathway. Now, the man's biggest fault was that he never stopped to think about things before he did them. So instead of stopping to make sure the path was safe, he started to run across it.
But on the other side of that pathway, continued Joey, there were two girls out for a walk with their dog, Rufus...
"Jo! Where are you going?" Joyce closed the book she was reluctantly reading and looked up at the elder girl imploringly. "I thought you were trying to get your book finished before you and Robin leave?" Jo looked at her in surprise.
"Hello, Joyce! Weren't you and Gillian going up to the San today?" There was note of worry in Jo's voice. Joyce's mother was still far from being healthy, and Jo had seen the tightness around her brother-in-law's mouth when the two sisters had been speaking of Mrs Linton at breakfast, and she suspected that there was something that he wasn't telling them.
"Oh, Gill's gone all right, but after breakfast - after you went upstairs, I mean - Madame said that maybe Gill could go today, and I could go tomorrow, so that we both get some time to ourselves with her! Wasn't that awfully nice?"
Jo smiled and agreed it was, although inwardly she wondered if they were trying to keep Mrs Linton as unexcited as possible. "And now you're rather at a loose end?" she asked. "I've been trying all morning, but I can't write a thing - worst luck! I was going to take Rufus for a stroll to clear my head. Would you like to come? We'll be back in time for Mittagessen."
Joyce quickly fell in with the suggestion, so Jo sent her off to find her out-door things and Rufus' lead, her own face settling in to a worried frown. Her brother-in-law didn't make a practice of talking about his patients, but Joey was a sensitive girl and had spent most of her formative years near the big Sanatorium on the Sonnalpe, and she had gathered enough to know that Mrs Linton was not making the progress the doctors had expected. "Gillian probably knows," she thought, casting her mind to Joyce's elder sister, "but I wonder how long they mean to keep it from Joyce? She's bright enough; it won't be that long until she figures things out for herself." At any rate, she could try and keep Joyce's mind on other things for the rest of the morning.
Joyce had her own ideas. "Jo," she began as the two girls and Rufus set off from Die Rosen, "do you think I'm a terribly selfish person?"
Jo regarded the younger girl thoughtfully. Joyce was a very pretty girl, and until coming to the Chalet School she had been rather spoilt. Now, with her term-times spent down at the school, and her holidays spent as part of the large Russell household, there was not much chance of her being indulged; yet she did still hanker to be at the centre of attention. She did fairly well at her lessons when she put her mind to it, but self-reflection was unlike her.
"I think everyone acts selfishly sometimes," Jo said at last, choosing her words carefully.
"But you don't," Joyce said, "and neither does Gill. But I'm - I always think about myself first, and then about everyone else."
"I can't speak for Gillian," Jo said - although she privately agreed with Joyce that Gillian was an incredibly selfless creature! - "but when Sybil was first born, I was awfully jealous. Suddenly it felt like there was another girl in my sister's life who was a lot more important to her than I was - I good deal prettier than me, too," Jo added, with characteristic frankness. "I wanted to have Madge all to myself, and if that's not selfish, than I don't know what is!" Jo looked at Joyce's eager face and wondered what had brought this on.
"But that was only once," Joyce argued. "I feel like that all the time. Gill's going to be Head Girl this term, and she's going to be a smash- a jolly good one, but even though I should be happy for her, I keep feeling sorry for myself. I'm never going to make prefect, not after everything that happened with-"
The rest of what Joyce said was lost as Rufus suddenly leapt forward, almost pulling Jo over with him, and let out a volley of short, loud barks.
"Why was Rufus barking?" Margot interrupted suddenly.
"Well, Auntie Joyce and I were talking about very important things, and hadn't noticed anything strange going on. But dogs are very clever, you know, almost as clever as humans, and Rufus could tell that there was something wrong. He didn't tak any notice when I tried to quieten him down, and he pulled so hard on his lead that I dropped it and had to run after him. If he had been my son or daughter it would have meant no sweets for a week."
"But why did he run away?" Margot demanded.
"Margot, Mama will tell us!" Len scolded.
"Girls, if you keep interrupting me the I'll have to stop telling you the story. Is that what you want?" Margot and Len wriggled uncomfortably and scowled at each other. Con said nothing, her eyes round as she waited to hear the rest of the tale.
"Rufus ran, and Aunt Joyce and I had to chase after him. It was lucky that we knew the area well, or we would have been very lost! Rufus was running very fast, almost as though he was chasing something that we couldn't see. But he stopped, eventually, beside a very narrow path, and your Aunt Joyce and I caught up to him..."
"What was all that about, old man?" Worried, Jo crouched next to her beloved pet and grabbed his lead in case he took off again, but he simply sat on his haunches, panting. Jo scratched his head, glad that he seemed to have regained his senses.
"Maybe he was after a rabbit," Joyce suggested. Then, suddenly - "Jo, look!"
Jo looked. The path was narrow here, and fell away suddenly, promising a fatal fall to anyone who ventured too close to the edge. And racing towards them, apparently too busy staring at his feet to notice his surroundings, was a man. Even as Jo watched, he put his foot too close to the edge and lost his balance. Jo jumped to her feet, but Joyce was faster. The younger girl was there in a flash, her hand out-stretched, reaching for the falling man.
With one eye on the other pedestrians as she made her way down the busy city street, Con reread the final passage in the letter from one of her many brevet-aunts. Con had written to her Aunt Veta on a whim, asking for details on her life in Court for a story she was just about to give in and write. She hadn't entirely expected all of the reply.
Sometimes I wonder if things would have turned out differently if Jo hadn't insisted she stay with Madame to look after the babies - your cousins, that is - instead of coming to be my Lady-In-Waiting. Joey became something of a mythical figure after she rescued me from Cosimo; if anyone could have turned the revolution on its head, it would have been her!
Con had enough sense to realise that the former Crown Princess of Belsornia was joking, for the most part, but the knowledge that her mother hadn't always been planning to stay with her Aunt Madge was new to her. "I wonder why Mum never told us that?" she thought. "It must have been a hard decision choose staying at home to help out over going to Belsornia and getting to live a much more, well, glamorous life! But I suppose Mama's never wanted to live the high life, really. And if she had left Austria, she wouldn't have married Dad, and then we three would never have been!"
"Earth to Con! This is your sister calling!" Con looked up, startled, and found herself face to face with Margot, an amused look on her triplet's face. "I've only been yelling at you for the past five minutes," Margot said in mock exasperation. "How you walk and read at the same time is beyond me! I suppose you were lost in a story again."
Con opened her mouth to explain, and then, thinking better of it, folded the letter in half and shoved it into her pocket. "Something like that," she agreed. "Are you coming for tea, too?"
Margot laughed. "And miss spending time with you? Never! Besides, Len offered to treat, and as I've already spent all of my allowance for this week, I rather thought I'd accept - no, never mind on what! One of my friends was in a bit of a fix and I helped him out of it, but that's all I can say."
Con took the hint, and changed the subject. "Did Len tell you what this was in aid of? She sounded rather - mysterious - on the phone, but she wouldn't say anything beyond telling me where and when to meet her."
"Perhaps she's decided to chuck in her studies and join in a circus," Margot suggested. "Or - maybe Reg has decided he wants to forego the whole big wedding and just elope!"
"And everyone always accused me of having too much imagination!" Con said scathingly. "Talk sense, Margot!"
"Sorry," Margot replied, not sounding particularly contrite. "I'm a bit revved up - we're having a test in class first thing tomorrow morning, and I've been stuck in my room studying for the past couple of days. Isn't this where Len wanted to meet us?"
Con saw that they had reached the big department store at which Len had chosen to meet them. The two sisters went inside, taking several escalators to reach the top floor, where they found Len waiting for them in the tea room. Len was flipping through a copy of Vogue which seemed to be focussed on bridal wear. She hurriedly put it away when she spotted her triplets. "I'm glad you're here," she said earnestly. Con and Margot each took at seat at her table, and exchanged a glance.
"So there is something up," Con stated.
Len nodded, but all she said was, "I've ordered a Devonshire tea - I hope that's OK? Well, it's too late to say it isn't, anyway, as here it comes." And she steadfastly refused to answer any questions until the teapot was emptied and the three of them had devoured their scones. "Now," she started when their plates had been cleared away, "it's about - our Baptismal present."
"Our present for who?" Con asked, trying to think who in their large collection of friends and family had recently celebrated a new arrival.
"No, she means the one given to us," said Margot, her voice unexpectedly serious. "The one from the Doctor, Len - isn't that right?" Her two sister turned to her, surprised, and her mouth twitched. "It was more important to me, in some ways, than to either of you," she said quietly. "But no, Len. Before you ask I still have no idea what this is all about."
Len didn't reply immediately, but reached into her bag and pulled the Doctor's present out. Con had it fixed in her mind, exactly what it looked like. A round globe of almost solid bronze, that had never yet needed polishing; around the bottom, too tiny to read without a magnifying glass, were etched the names "Mary Helena Maynard" "Mary Constance Maynard" and "Mary Margaret Maynard". But, she thought, as she watched Len place it on their table, she didn't remember it glowing. Beside her, Margot gave a gasp, and Con looked up to see a look of pure relief on Len's face.
"Oh good," her eldest sister said. "You two see it too. I was beginning to think I was going mad."