|The following morning, girls and mistresses gathered for breakfast in the sunny dining room of their hotel, which was perched high above Lac Léman on one of Lausanne’s many terraces. Vivien Knowles’ eyes found it hard to drag themselves away from the beautiful view and focus on her rolls and coffee. The blue waters of that huge inland lake were glittering and dancing in the bright morning sunshine, and across the lake she could see the white-capped Savoy Alps, glistening in that same sunlight.|
“What a stunning view!”
Hilda laughed gently at Vivien’s awe-struck face. “Miss Knowles, the view will still be there when you’ve finished eating, but the boat may well be long gone!” she teased. Vivien glanced round, saw that the others had mostly finished and were waiting for her. Muttering a meek apology, she set to work.
Hilda looked round at the girls. “While Miss Knowles eats, who's going to be brave enough to recite Victor Hugo’s words about this most beautiful of towns?”
She was looking at Tessa as she spoke, for the Head Girl was studying French as well as English Literature, but even as Tessa was opening her mouth, another voice spoke in a flawless French accent.
“From the terrace of the cathedral, I saw the lake above the roofs, the mountains above the lake, the clouds above the mountains, and the stars above the clouds. It was like a staircase where my thoughts climbed up step by step and broadened at each new height.”
All eyes were glued to Miss Knowles’ face. The mistress laughed at their dumb-founded faces. Even Hilda’s eyes had opened wide in appreciation. “You’re a creature of surprises, Miss Knowles,” she chuckled, pleased to note the dawning respect in the girls’ faces. “How do you know Hugo well enough to quote him, may I be so bold as to ask?”
“Vous avez un bel accent provençal, Mademoiselle Knowles," commented the deputy Head Girl, Mireille Morin, admiration in her voice.
"Merci, Mireille. That’s because my mother is French, from St Raphael in the Midi. I grew up bi-lingual, never dreaming how useful that would be one day.” Her brown eyes swung to Hilda. She grinned cheekily. “I wrote to my old college lecturer and asked her what she could tell me about Lausanne. That quote seemed to hit the spot, so I learned it!” Hilda raised one eyebrow in amusement, and Vivien added shamefacedly, “Of course, I have no idea if it is true!”
Her eyes sparkling, Hilda’s voice was bland in the extreme. “Oh I think when you finally climb up to the Cathedral, you’ll find you haven’t completely wasted your time.”
“You also speak German very well,” put in Miriam, a girl from Form VIB. “Is your dad German?”
Hilda choked on her coffee. Vivien chuckled. “No, but I love languages, Miriam, even if I am a scientist, so I also studied German while at University. I don’t speak it nearly as well as Miss Annersley, mind. One would mistake her for a native.”
Hilda set down her cup, smiled her thanks for the compliment and looked down at her watch. “Well, girls, if we’re to catch that boat, we’d better move. Do remember to wrap up warmly. It is nearly the end of October, and it’s more than my life is worth to take you back to Matron Lloyd with so much as a sniffle.” She rolled her eyes to emphasise her point. The girls laughed, promising to keep her out of trouble with the school dragon.
Forgive me, Gwynneth, for taking your name in vain, she pleaded silently, and with a rueful smile, as she went to collect her own outdoor garments.
They had decided, the night before, that if the first day was fine they would cross the lake in one of the steamers and visit …vian over in France, for it might rain the other days. It was perfect autumn weather, the sky a clear blue, the air crisp and still. It promised to be a very smooth half-hour crossing.
Miss Knowles stood outside on the top deck, captivated by a much better view of the town of Lausanne as they pulled away from the shore. The town spans several hills and developed above the lake in a succession of compact, south facing terraces which were now vibrant with trees and flowers, even on this bright, autumnal day. The leaves glowed red and brown and gold in the sunlight.
She turned to face France, where the Dents du Midi and the Savoy Alps loomed ever nearer, sweeping down to the lake steeply in places, their summits already covered with a thick mantle of snow. She breathed in the clear, crisp air. How glad she was, despite her initial difficulties, to have found a teaching post amid such dramatic beauty. Hilda had been watching her surreptitiously from her post further down the rail, but now smiled with relief at Vivien’s rapt face, and was content.
When they trooped off the boat at …vian-les-Bains, known by poets as ‘the pearl of Lake Geneva’, Vivien remarked how attractive it was on the lakefront.
“You’ll notice there are still some late summer flowers blooming,” said Hilda quietly, pointing out the vivid flower beds. “They’re between the lake and the foothills of the mountains here and enjoy a much milder climate than the rest of the lake.”
“And you warned the girls to wrap up warm!” giggled Vivien, loosening her coat.
Hilda shrugged. “Once a Headmistress always a Headmistress! I just can’t help being bossy.” She laughed at Vivien, who had stuck her tongue out at her. “Very ladylike, Miss Knowles! It’s a good job the girls are well ahead.” Her eyes danced, looking down at the smaller woman. “Of course, I could tell Matron to dose you with cod liver oil on our return, just to be on the safe side, opening your coat to the breeze like that, and tempting fate.”
Vivien’s mouth opened for a riposte, but the girls came flocking round them and the moment was lost. Hilda gave her a wicked grin and turned to answer the girls’ eager questions. It had been decided they would introduce Vivien, to the …tablissement Thermale. As they walked along, Hilda told her that the medicinal properties of …vian water were discovered in 1789, and many people now visited this building to take the waters for the treatment of kidney or digestive troubles. She explained that the water, filtered in its natural state by sand, was very cold, and low in minerals, and so also used for drinking and bathing, though Vivien, when tasting it, grimaced and said she would rather drink ditch water, and was sure the latter was better for one’s health. Hilda quickly turned away and blew her nose to smother her laughter.
They followed the guide as he led them through the Art Nouveau pump house with its tiled cupola, the girls glancing into the small rooms where the different treatments were taking place. Hilda was on the qui vive for any more of Vivien’s flights of fancy, but she seemed to be on her best behaviour for the moment, having been thoroughly frowned on by the taciturn guide, who had heard her comments about his beloved water.
When they came out into the fresh air again, the girls decided they would give the bottling factory a miss, having had enough of water for one day. Hilda refused to meet Vivien’s eye at that point, not wanting to completely lose her composure. What had she let herself in for, she wondered rather breathlessly. Even Nell had never been this brazen in her humour!
She led them for lunch to a restaurant in the port, La Bernolande, where they tucked into the delicious rustic cuisine and watched the larger boats ploughing their furrows across the lake, while some of the smaller yachts made the most of this end of season fine weather. In the afternoon, they walked along the shady lakeside promenade with its giant Italian poplar trees and fed the large number of swans there, while watching the giant cormorants dive into the lake for fish. The elegant shops opened up again after the long lunch break, and Vivien treated them all to some French chocolates.
Looking around at the girls as they accepted this munificence, she remarked roguishly, “They won’t do any of us any harm. We all seem to be somewhat streamlined.” She cast a glance Hilda’s way. The latter braced herself. “Although, Miss Annersley is clearly on a diet, with that slim figure of hers, so maybe we should keep them away from her.”
“Have you not heard of my penchant for cream cakes, Miss Knowles?” Hilda smirked. “I thought everyone knew. The creamier the better.”
Without a word, Vivien paced all the way round Hilda’s tall, slender gracefulness, looking her up and down. Hilda forced herself to remain still under this scrutiny, although her face was alight with laughter. “Then where do you keep all your excess baggage, Miss Annersley?” asked Vivien naughtily. “In your handbag? Up your sleeve?”
“Oh no, I expend it all controlling incorrigible little monkeys like you, Miss Knowles," Hilda riposted quickly. "I thought they were only to be found amongst the Middles, but apparently not!” Swinging round with a broad grin on her face, she added, “En avant, mes braves. Le bateau nous attend."
The girls moved off after her, giggling at this exchange, while Tessa moved over to Vivien. “Don’t worry, Miss Knowles. None of us has ever got the better of her. Even Miss Wilson had trouble, and she had a very sarcastic tongue.”
Vivien eyes rested on Hilda’s back with a very thoughtful look in them. “Oh, I haven’t finished with you yet, my dear,” she muttered, her eyes glinting.
Boarding the paddle steamer, Hilda wondered if she was letting Vivien get away with too much, but reflected that they were with Sixth form girls who were not likely to take advantage. She herself had opened up to them pretty comprehensively high on the Rösleinalpe at the beginning of term. This gentle teasing was, in a way, only adding to her words there, showing them there was a way through one’s grief, even if she was still finding it extremely difficult at times. Still pondering, she followed the girls up to the higher deck. It was such a mild day, even though dusk was approaching, that no one would take cold. They stood at the rail and absorbed the scene as Lausanne draw ever nearer.
They were closing in on the little port when Hilda grew aware of a young boy of eleven or twelve standing against the rail further down the boat, his arm round a toddler of eighteen months or so, whom he had hoisted on to the rail so she could get a better view. A dangerous occupation, to Hilda’s mind. She glanced around, but could see no sign of their parents. Moving very slowly, with no particular aim in mind, except to be on hand if necessary, she was edging nearer when disaster struck.The steamer’s funnel gave a short, sharp blast. The boy jumped in shock, and his grip loosened. The little girl toppled backwards out of sight with a yell. The boy screamed in fear. Hilda now moved fast, shedding her coat and shoes. She wondered, with a calm detachment, if she had the necessary strength, even as she grasped the rail, preparatory to hoisting herself up.
Without warning, her arm was seized. “I’ve got her, Hilda!”
Shedding her own coat and shoes, Vivien hopped up onto the rail and dived cleanly into the water, leaving scarcely a ripple. Sick with anxiety, Hilda moved to the frightened boy and put her arm round his shaking body. They leaned over the rail to watch. She would never forgive herself if Vivien lost her life because she herself had been too slow. Vivien reached the little girl, but, as the mistress grasped her, the terrified toddler hit out with her little fists and they both sank beneath the water. Hilda’s arm tightened round the boy, who had let out another shrill cry of alarm. She watched fearfully, aware now of all the girls hanging over the rail, some shouting out Vivien’s name. People on the landing stage, and others on the lakefront, were also standing watching. One of the shipping company’s workers had a rope in his hand with a lifebuoy attached to it, ready to throw. Vivien and the little girl suddenly popped up, but the little girl fought her hysterically. Again they went under. Hilda heard a splash, saw a man swimming fast to where Vivien and the child had disappeared.
“Come on, Vivien. You can do it! Dear God, help her!” Hilda pleaded silently, her face bone white, her eyes searching the empty lake...
Even as she prayed, the woman and girl popped up once more. This time, Vivien had one arm tight around the little girl to stop her struggles. Shaking the water from her eyes, Vivien looked up, saw Hilda, and indicated the quayside. She swam strongly in that direction with one arm, the girl tucked in tight against her side, and the man swimming close behind in case of further difficulties. Feeling overwhelming relief, Hilda turned to the girls and told them they should go below, ready to disembark. She turned back to the boy, who was now white to the lips and shaking.
“Shall we go and find your parents? Would you tell me your name?” He looked at her blankly. Cursing her own stupidity, she repeated the questions in French.
“Laurent,” he stuttered.
She turned him towards the stairs and managed to get him below, where they found his parents finishing a cup of coffee on the other side of the boat, totally unaware of any panic or disaster. Quickly, Hilda related what had happened, doing her best to exonerate the boy, for she could see he was still in shock. The parents exclaimed over him, appalled and terrified, bombarding him with questions. Hilda went in search of a glass of water for Laurent, feeling she herself could do with a strong brandy. He drank the water, the boat docked, and Hilda watched as he was hustled off by his anxious parents.
Hilda went back to her own shaken girls and quickly reassured them. It had been quite clear that Vivien was a strong swimmer, so Hilda remained calm and patient in front of the girls, some of whom babbled incoherently in their relief. Inwardly, she was quaking at the thought of what could have happened. She realised that, if she herself had gone in the water, she would never have had the strength to cope with that terrified little girl. Thank God Vivien had been there! This had surely not been part of her scenario, when she had arranged this trip to help Vivien but, as she was to reflect later, God knew what He was about!
By the time Hilda and the girls disembarked at the Quai des Rives, neither Vivien nor the child was to be seen, nor indeed the young boy and his parents. A man in the uniform of La Compagnie Générale de Navigation approached, however, and guided them over to the embarkation building. Leaving the girls outside, Hilda entered a small, cramped office which seemed to be full of people. A tall and rather self-important looking man in the Compagnie’s uniform spoke volubly and rather loudly to the parents. Vivien herself was sitting shivering in a corner, water still dripping down her face, a blanket round her shoulders and a look of total bemusement on her face. She looked up with relief at the sight of Hilda.
Hilda bent down. “That was a very brave thing to do, my dear, but I think we need to get you back.” She could hear Vivien’s teeth chattering with cold. Standing tall and stately, her hand on Vivien’s shaking shoulder, Hilda’s quiet voice cut cleanly through the volubility of the others present. “If it is all right with you, Monsieur, I would like to take my colleague back to our hotel so she can find some dry clothes and get warm.” She raised an eyebrow.
Responding instinctively to that raised eyebrow, the officer turned offered his hand. “Monsieur Duzelier, à votre service, Madame,” he said unctuously. “May I offer the Compagnie’s gratitude to your colleague? She is a very brave lady.”
“Yes, she is, Monsieur Duzelier, but I wonder if I might trouble you to order a taxi. It is far too cold for her to be out in the street in those wet clothes.”
His air of importance punctured, he picked up the phone to do her bidding. The parents turned to Vivien. The mother held the little girl close to her. The father had an arm round Laurent, whose cheeks now had a little colour in them. They offered their heartfelt thanks to Vivien, but Hilda saw the frowning looks bestowed on Laurent by his mother and felt sorry for him.
“Monsieur, Madame, I think Laurent has suffered enough for one day. He was very frightened, and has, I think, learned his lesson. N’est-ce pas, Laurent?” She looked kindly into his solemn brown eyes. He nodded, tears now welling up. Turning to his mother, she added gently, “He didn’t mean what happened, and I suspect he’s rather worried you won’t trust him again with his baby sister.”
The mother’s brown eyes, so much like her son’s, softened. With a nod, she placed the wet toddler in Laurent’s arms. He clutched her to his chest and smiled tremulously at everyone. Glad the mother had not had to watch her little girl struggling in the water, Hilda put an arm round her. The woman clung to her, whispered more thanks. The taxi was announced, so the father quickly shook hands with both women, and Hilda ushered Vivien out into the cold, darkening street, where Vivien shivered even more violently. Putting her into the waiting taxi, Hilda asked Tessa to go with the mistress, while she and the others returned post-haste on foot to the hotel.
The girls were all talking at once about the incident, undisguised admiration for Vivien in their voices. Perhaps the near-tragedy had been a blessing in disguise, thought Hilda, and smiled to herself.
Your handiwork, Nell?
During dinner, she knew she had been right when Mireille turned to Vivien. “Miss Knowles, weren’t you frightened before diving in?”
“There wasn’t time for fear, Mireille. I just reacted instinctively. You should know that Miss Annersley was already there, about to dive in. She had noticed the problem well before the rest of us, and had her shoes and coat off when I caught on.” Se sent a look of undisguised admiration at her Head.
Hilda shook her head. “Being younger than I, you wanted to save my ageing bones, for which I thank you,” she added, her eyes sombre. “I might not have been strong enough. Watching that little girl hitting out at you...”
“No, I just wanted to preserve your dignity,” countered Vivien, seeing the guilt in Hilda's eyes. “Headmistresses shouldn’t be seen with dripping hair and their clothes clinging wetly.”
The girls chuckled at the vision she conjured up. Hilda wrinkled her nose. “Oh, I think my dignity would have survived intact after all these years, Miss Knowles.”
“Do you have your life-saving certificate, Miss Knowles?” asked Maureen Elder, a leading light in VIA, and a Science student. “Miss Wilson did, as Guide Captain.”
“Yes, I decided it was a useful thing to have as a teacher, and I’ve always been a strong swimmer.” She stopped, looked round, then took her courage in both hands and dived in, much as she had that afternoon into the water. “Tell me more about Miss Wilson and the Guides.”
It transpired that she had been a Guider in her youth, but, being new to the school, had held her peace about joining the troop re-started by Nell Wilson just two years earlier. The girls were off, telling her all about Miss Wilson and her prowess as Captain, the legends thay had heard about her, and encouraging Vivien to come and watch them on Saturday morning.
Tessa Lewis, remembering her conversation with Hilda, added quietly, “After all, Miss Knowles, you’re following in Miss Wilson’s footsteps in the form room, so you might as well follow them out of it, as well.”
Vivien scrutinised Tessa. This girl saw far beyond her years! “Well, I have heard Miss Wilson had a very strong sense of humour, Tessa. Was she in the habit of employing it in the classroom, as well as out of it?”
There was a moment of awful, silent suspense. Hilda held her breath. Moments later, they were all talking at once, trying to convey what the Head of St Mildred’s had been like, both as mistress and friend. Vivien asked enough quiet questions to keep the ball rolling, and learned just what there was to live up to where Nell Wilson was concerned. Rather surprisingly, she also learned just what she was doing right, for the girls were not averse to voicing their thoughts.
Hilda leaned back, watching and listening, her eyes on Vivien’s vivid face, her quick ears picking up all the details the excited girls were pouring out. She had a feeling it was going to be a very long evening. She also had a feeling that all resentment against Miss Knowles was gone, and that her brave exploit was about to become yet another Chalet School legend, encouraging those not there to accept this new member of staff more than they had done so far.
Hilda heard Nell’s name mentioned again, and her eyes met Tessa’s. Tessa winked. Hilda smiled back gently although, if anyone had looked hard enough, they would have seen the unshed tears. Her memory had gone back to that awful day less than two weeks ago when she had so very nearly lost herself.
Your ears burning, Nell, dear heart?
Was that a quiet, familiar laugh she heard underneath all the excited chatter going on around her?
When Hilda entered the dining room the next morning, the others were already there, the girls hanging onto Miss Knowles’ every word. Vivien, however, saw Hilda and rose from the table. “Miss Annersley and I are going to have our breakfast in peace this morning. Bon appétit, mes filles!”
Without further ado, she marched Hilda over to a table for two in a quiet corner, leaving the girls gaping after her. Hilda’s eyes twinkled across the table.
“They only wanted to continue worshipping at your feet,” she teased, opening out her serviette.
“And I wanted some peace and quiet!” sighed Vivien. She watched Hilda pouring out the coffee, which had just been delivered to their table. “You arranged all this deliberately, didn’t you?” Her voice was abrupt.
For a moment the coffee pot wobbled dangerously in Hilda’s hand, but she controlled herself and continued pouring. “Oh, yes, I planned it all, down to the little girl falling in the water and you ending up looking like a drowned rat.”
She grinned unrepentantly when Vivien sighed again, this time with exasperation. “You’re a very slippery customer, did you know that?” she retorted. “You arranged this holiday with the Sixth form in the hope that it would help matters. I cottoned on last night, when Tessa made her comment about Miss Wilson. You did, didn’t you?” Hilda set down the coffee pot and gazed across at this woman for whom she was developing a very healthy respect. “Didn’t you?” Vivien insisted.
Hilda nodded, reluctantly yielding up her secret. “It seems to have worked better than I anticipated. I don’t think you’ll have any more problems. It’s all down to you now. You’ve got them smack in the palm of your hand.”
Vivien shook her head at the gentle, dignified woman opposite her. “Oh no! It’s you who has them in the palm of your hand. I've never seen such love for a Head as I see in their eyes.” Hilda made to deny it, but Vivien persisted. “You deserve that love and so much more. I can’t believe all you've done for me this term. I don’t think there's another Head anywhere on this earth who does as much for others as you do.” Hilda tried to deny that, as well, but Vivien spoke first. “You would have gone into that water if I hadn’t beaten you to it, wouldn’t you?”
Hilda hesitated then nodded, her eyes steadfast. Vivien shook her head. “And yet, seriously, you must know that you’re not strong enough for such activities.” Hilda raised an eyebrow. “When I first met you, at my interview, you were thin, too thin, but you looked healthy and fit, though there was a great sadness in your eyes, and you were very grave. When I saw you at the beginning of this term, you'd changed...”
Hilda’s hand went to the arm with the bullet hole. “I was shot just after I met you.”
“You mean you were a heroine.” Vivien flashed back. “Yes, you’d been shot and were still recovering, and had an air of fragility about you that was to be expected, but it hasn’t disappeared. Not yet, anyway! Perhaps the physical shock and the infection, added to your grieving...” Again an eyebrow was raised. “Yes, I know all about that, now. Joey filled me in. I’m sorry you've lost a very dear friend, but something in you has not recovered from the shooting, so for you to jump into that water would have been either an act of supreme courage, or of supreme folly. Probably both! When I reflect on that, and on all you’ve done for me, it’s no wonder the girls reverence you.”
Hilda kept her face impassive, gazing with keen eyes at this perceptive woman seated opposite, a woman mature enough in years and character to be totally at ease with her new Headmistress. Hilda was not to know it, but Madge Russell and Jack Maynard were very concerned about that same frailty.
“Vivien, I assure you, my health is fine. I get enough skiing in the winter and walking in the summer to keep me fit.” She realised, even as she spoke, that that was not quite true. She no longer felt like taking the walks she used to take with Nell. “Let’s just say I’m glad you were there, and a strong swimmer.”
Before Hilda could continue, Vivien spoke again. “You’ve looked even frailer these last few days, with dark shadows under those fine eyes, although your smile's as ready as ever and your eyes hold a light that wasn’t there before. It wasn’t a simple headache that kept you out of school one day last week, was it?”
There was something in Vivien’s eyes that made Hilda admit the truth. She shook her head, thinking ruefully how Mother Abbess would smile approvingly at her for being so open! “No, my grief got the better of me. It happens from time to time. I have good friends, very special friends, and I received many unexpected blessings that day, far more than I deserve.” She took herself in hand and her voice grew stronger. “As for helping you, you weren’t happy, dear, and that was mostly my fault. This holiday is one way of making amends. I should have known better, after all my years at the helm.”
“How long is it exactly you’ve been at the helm?” Vivien tried to deflect Hilda’s guilt.
Hilda’s eyes left Vivien, to stare across the dancing waters of the lake. She reflected on all the years, and all the changes, some great, some small, that had taken place in those years. “I became Head in 1937.”
“So that means you’re celebrating twenty-five years next year,” mused Vivien, and Hilda heard the excitement in her voice.
Guessing, with her usual prescience, what was going on in Vivien’s mind, her eyes swung back sharply to her colleague. Vivien gasped at the overwhelming pain she could see there. “Don’t go there, Vivien. Please, I beg you, do not go there. Don’t remind Nancy, either,” Hilda pleaded, a quiver in that beautiful voice. “I was appointed Head at Easter, and next Easter will be the first anniversary of Nell’s death. Celebrating will be the very last thing...”
Her voice broke. Tears shone in her eyes. Repenting of her thoughtlessness, Vivien laid a hand on Hilda’s where it lay clenched on the table. She was beginning to appreciate just what this lovely woman had lost, what anguish was still hers, despite her smiles, her serenity.
“I’m sorry, Hilda, that was unforgivable of me. My dratted sense of humour got the better of me. I’m old enough to know better.”
Hilda controlled herself with a great effort and squeezed Vivien’s hand. She blew her nose, picked up her cup and drank the coffee gratefully.
Into her mind leapt images of the festivities Nell had organised to celebrate Hilda's twenty-one years as Head. Nell had been so tender and loving that day, something that would always remain with her. As would the world cruise she and Nell had been offered by Joey, Madge and their brother, Dick. Neither of them knew how, but their affection for each other had been enhanced and deepened by that time together, away from their many responsibilities. It had been a time out of time, a very special gift from above. There had been laughter and fun, gentleness and beauty, and so many memories to warm her when her heart felt cold and empty, as it still did too often.
Thank you, for that special memory, dear heart, just as you promised.
Her voice was very soft when she spoke again. “Vivien, I’m sorry I spoiled the fun I could see building in your eyes. You’re going to be a remarkable asset to the school in the years ahead, even with that dratted sense of humour!” Vivien laughed sheepishly. Perhaps we’d better eat, or the girls will be champing at the bit,” Hilda added briskly, effectively closing the door on any more personal conversation, though it was to return later in the day.
Author's Chapter Notes:
Since Vol 1 was getting rather long, I thought the trip to Lausanne would be a good place to begin Vol 2. I may well post again later on today - anything to take my mind off Abby, left behind in the animal hospital on the Wirral for the immediate future. Many thanks for the caring emails about her and for the kindly reviews on here.