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Author's Chapter Notes:
This first chapter is for all of you, of course, but it's most especaally for Lynne, who wanted to know when Ellie would be making her appearance. Enjoy!

Mother Abbess was waiting at the Convent door when Hilda arrived. She took her by the shoulders and searched her face the instant she stepped inside, and was not reassured! The blue-grey eyes were haunted and looking too large for the pale, gaunt face with its sharply-chiselled cheekbones. Hilda had last a lot of weight and wore the same air of profound sadness she had worn in the summer, only physical pain had now added its own lines.

Hilda made no effort to hide. The nun saw straight through her, so what was the point? She stood there patiently as she was stripped of her defences, and was rewarded by being enveloped in a warm embrace. Tears stung her eyes, but she forced them back. “I’m home!” she whispered.

“Yes, child, you’re home, where you now belong. And, please God, we can repair some of the damage before we send you out into the world again.”

Mother Abbess held Hilda close a few more moments before leading her to her room, appreciating that any more loving words would be her new postulant’s undoing. “You know the routine, but as it’s a while till chapel and dinner, I’ll send some tea along. You must be thirsty. By the way, these arrived for you a day or two ago.” She indicated two boxes, one large and one somewhat smaller, standing in the corner of the room and bearing foreign stamps. Hilda was glad to see they had arrived, but tensed when she heard Mother Abbess’s next words.

“I should also tell you that several large cartons arrived weeks ago from Devon.” She watched the shadows deepen in Hilda’s eyes. “Nell’s things? I know you told me to expect them.”

A huge lump was growing in Hilda’s throat. “Where are they?”

“In the cellars, but don’t worry, it’s nice and dry there.” She took Hilda by the shoulders again. “You don’t have to open them now, sweetheart. They can wait till you’re ready – forever, if need be. There’s plenty of space down there.”

Hilda’s face was bleak. “There is one thing I want, but the rest….” She shook her head and closed her eyes. “Not yet, not just yet.”

Mother Abbess showed her down to the cellar but, at Hilda’s request, left her there alone. Hilda stared at the cartons for long, long moments, wondering how she could prevent herself falling apart when she opened them. Steeling herself, she knelt by the nearest one and fitted the key Mother Abbess had handed her into the padlock. She breathed out a ragged sigh of relief as she lifted the lid. Most of the contents were swathed in newspaper, unrecognisable and therefore rousing no pain. She knew the size of the object she was looking for, so rummaged around. Not finding it, she opened a second box, and a third. Beginning to feel rather desperate she threw open the lid of the forth carton, where she discovered it hiding in plain sight.

She removed it with great care and slammed shut the lid of the carton. Leaning forward, she stretched her arms across it, as though to hug it to her. The next instant, her face was buried in the crook of her elbow, her heart filled with monstrous pain, tears gathering in her eyes, a sob trying to escape. These boxes held all she had left of Nell, apart from the gifts Nell had given her over the years and a few albums of photos, yet somehow she had to learn how to let go of them all, if she was to enter here as a nun…..

When she had regained her poise, she left the cellar at a run, scurried to her room and placed the object on her bedside table. She ran her fingers tenderly over the carved wood, her memory going back thirty years or more. Opening the lid, she gazed wistfully at the contents, but closed it again in haste when tears began to drip onto the silk lining. It would not do to spoil it, after all these years of loving use.

Wiping the tears away with trembling fingers, she took the larger of the two boxes Mother Abbess had indicated and placed it by the door. She would need help with it later. The contents of the smaller box she emptied onto the bed, checking everything over, then poured herself a cup of tea and unpacked her suitcase, putting everything away except for the tissue paper and wrapping paper from the very bottom of the case and a small, flat, gift-wrapped package. She sat on the bed with the paper and proceeded to make a neat parcel of each item she had taken from the cardboard box. Satisfied, she laid them all carefully back inside the box, and parcelled that up as well, finishing it off with shiny ribbon and a bow. She set it beside the larger box at the door and laid the flat package on the chest of drawers.

Looking at her watch, she realised it was almost time for the small service in chapel, the service at which she had broken down on the very first day she set foot in the convent. Little had she known, then, what a friend was waiting for her or what new dream God had in store for her. That friend and that dream were the only things keeping her afloat. The school could no longer uphold her, despite her sense of responsibility for all within it and her profound love for the girls in her care.

With a huge sigh, she tidied her hair, washed her face, and made her way to the chapel. On the way, she stopped off at the Portresses’s little room to ask a favour. Once inside the chapel, she settled at the back. The flickering flames of the tall candles placed on the altar cast dancing shadows on the wood-panelled walls. The candles were the only decoration, since no flowers were allowed in the chapel or on the alter during Advent. The wall behind the altar was not panelled, but painted a beautiful, rich, deep, blue. Into this blue wall were cut three long, narrow, stained-glass windows, which drenched the chapel with colour when the sun shone through them. Tonight, though, she drew the sweet-smelling dimness around her like a blanket and felt cocooned in quietude. The nuns’ quiet prayers and gentle singing flowed around her. Peace crept into her soul, love wrapped her round. In no other place now would she find what she had discovered here since Nell’s death.

It came to her that it was love, not time, which would heal her wounds. Not yet, for the searing ache that had eased for a while had returned in full force since the accident. Not yet, but one day, God willing….

Nell, a few weeks ago you promised to trace the rainbow through the rain for me when I couldn’t do it myself, in spite of my solemn vow. I need you to do that for me, dear heart, for I am so weak and lonely. And I still need that memory whispering in my ear, something to ease the pain..…

******

From her seat in the the dining room later, Mother Abbess watched Hilda closely and guessed at some new battle fought and won since she had arrived. Hilda’s smile had a heartbreaking quality about it as she talked to the others at her table, and Mother Abbess was alarmed by her appearance. The pallor, the huge shadowed eyes, the hollows at her temples all spoke of exhaustion, of barely-concealed emotion, of sleepless nights and physical pain. Her whole demeanour revealed her tension, and the deep reserve in her face warned Mother Abbess that the walls were up. Not only up, but barricaded from within. Hilda was isolating herself again. How adept at it she was!

The nun had never met anyone, in all her years of counselling, with such deep reserve and such wells of courage as Hilda – the fruit of her mother’s early death and her own lonely existence after that. The subsequent death of her fiancé had only added to her ability to shut it all behind locked doors and smile and smile. The wonder of it was that she had not withered away emotionally behind that barricade. Instead, she had found it within her to be ready always to help others, a gracious and graceful presence, with a most profound love of her Maker. She had overcome her deep fear of more loss and opened herself up to Nell, and was now suffering the consequences.

One day, Mother Abbess knew, Hilda would be grateful for the many happy years she had had with Nell, would glory in wonderful memories of the deep and tender love that had enriched both their lives. One day! But not yet, when that wound was so deep and lacerating. She could see how much Hilda’s grief was once more swamping her. That was the trouble with grief. Its unpredictability! It ebbed and flowed, knew no time table. Just when you thought you might have vanquished it and could relax, as Hilda had started to relax in the autumn, it sneaked up on you and grabbed you from behind, taking your breath away all over again, annihilating you.

She had heard from Gwynneth just how Hilda was trying to fight it. By hiding, instead of opening up and giving in to it; by standing firm, instead of swaying with the harshness of it. Like trees, unless you bent and swayed into the wind, you snapped! Mother Abbess’s lips set firm. She intended to break through that isolating reserve, and she intended to do so before Christmas, or the festival would destroy Hilda. The nun would smash down that mighty barricade if it killed her – and knowing her friend, it probably would! Strong, stubborn, iron-controlled Hilda would fight her every step of the way.

Her dark thoughts were interrupted by one of the lay sisters entering and setting a large box down on the floor beside the nun. Startled, Mother Abbess recognised the larger of the two boxes from Hilda’s room and her eyes flew to her friend. She indicated that Hilda should join her, but she shook her head. Knowing how her friend hated the limelight, Mother Abbess gave up. Leaning down, she folded back the flaps of the box, reached in and pulled out a hard object wrapped in newspaper. Carefully peeling back the paper, the nun gasped at what she saw. Again, her eyes sought Hilda’s, but Hilda merely smiled.

Mother Abbess turned the object slowly in her hand, then rose to her feet and held it out for all to see. Murmurs of astonishment and admiration came from all corners of the room. The object was a shepherd, beautifully crafted in dark polished wood. He was roughly eighteen inches high, holding a lamb in his arms, and his face had been expertly carved to reveal the rough features and thick curly beard of one who worked outdoors in all seasons. Laying it down on the table, Mother Abbess invited one of the guests to delve into the box. When the next item was unwrapped, there stood on the table a king, grave and dignified, a turban on his head, a finely carved box in his hands. One could almost feel the solemn purpose of his journey.

Another guest reached in and revealed Mary, the Mother of Jesus. At the sight of it, Mother Abbess’s eyes widened. Where had Hilda found these wondrous objects? Mary’s face was delicately delineated to reveal unfathomable depths of tenderness; her robes flowed gracefully around her, her arms outstretched to gather up her infant son. How had the artist brought such grace and beauty out of an unfeeling block of wood? It was a miracle of craftsmanship. For a fleeting moment, the nun’s mind touched on Vivien Knowles’ superb gifts with another unfeeling material…..

By the time the box was empty, there stood on the table a complete crèche: Mary, a Joseph whose face was serious and guarded, an adorable baby, three splendid and very different Kings, but all dignified and rather solemn, another large shepherd and a young and gentle-looking shepherd boy. There were a couple of lambs, their curly wool so lifelike as to make one want to stroke it, and also a little donkey and a strong and sturdy ox. They were masterpieces of carving, a truly precious and perfect gift. A reverent silence descended on the dining room at the grace and serenity of the figures.

Mother Abbess looked across at Hilda and beckoned her over. Hilda shook her head again, but the nun was having none of it this time. She looked round and her sweet voice would not be gainsaid. “Ladies and gentlemen, may I ask you to give a big hand to the very generous donor of this beautiful Christmas gift?”

There was immediate and loud applause, so a very reluctant Hilda accepted her fate and crawled forward, obedient to her future Superior.

“You should know me better, child,” murmured the nun. “You didn’t really think I'd let you escape so easily!” She raised her voice slightly. “I know everyone here would agree these are exquisite creations, but where on earth did you find them?”

Hilda picked up the figure of Mary and stroked the shining wood of the face, then spoke in that rich, quiet voice of hers that yet reached the corners of the room. “They come from Oberammergau in Bavaria.”

“Where they hold the Passion Play?” asked Mother Abbess in surprise.

Hilda looked around the room, the teacher in her coming to the fore. “Does anyone know much about the play?” When most of those present shook their heads, she indicated they should sit down again, and explained how the villagers in Oberammergau had produced the Play once every ten years in gratitude to God for their escape from the plague that had been prevalent in 1663, almost exactly three hundred years ago.

What an enthralling teacher she must be, thought Mother Abbess, hearing that low, mellow voice and watching the light in Hilda’s eyes as she talked. How gracious and compelling she is. She makes you want to listen. Lucky, lucky children! Mother Abbess exchanged speaking glances with a newcomer to the convent, who was seated at a table near the kitchen. She seemed just an ordinary-looking, middle-aged nun, until one looked into her eyes and noted the cool, dispassionate gaze. This woman would not miss one single, solitary thing. Hilda, another individual who normally missed nothing, remained completely unaware of this exchange of looks as she finished her tale.

She turned and spoke with great simplicity to the Mother Abbess. “The villagers produce these beautiful carvings in great quantities, and I thought a set might express my gratitude for all you've done for me and for others.” She smiled round at the other guests, who all nodded their heads in agreement. Mother Abbess opened her mouth to argue, but Hilda added, with a twinkle, “I remembered that, when I was here in the summer, one of the guests inadvertently left the bathwater running, flooding your storerooms and ruining your crib figures.”

“That’s right! And we couldn’t afford to replace them. It wasn’t the only thing we lost, either,” the nun said, casting a somewhat baleful eye over the assembled company. Sometimes, people seemed unable to understand that money was permanently short in a convent and that they must not waste resources! One or two of the guests shifted uncomfortably under that withering glare. Hilda grinned to herself. Mother Abbess was nothing if not forthright!

Hilda spoke hastily, trying to restore the peace. “I thought you might like these as a replacement, and I’m sure we'll all try to be more careful.” Her eyes glowed with her love.

“Hilda, my dear, we'll treasure them, and be the envy of all the other convents in the area. They'll go into the chapel straightaway. They’re just the right size for the steps to the altar. But, first…” She leaned over and picked up the baby from its cattle trough. Reaching into the box, she pulled out some newspaper, wrapped it round the tiny figure and handed it to Hilda. “You shall be the one to place the bambino in His crib on Christmas night. Keep Him safe for us until then.”

Hilda took the parcel, but her eyes drifted towards a young girl, aged about sixteen, who had been seated next to Sister Patricia during the meal. Hilda had noticed her, at first, because she was by far the youngest person there. Then, as she watched her unobtrusively, she had remarked the intense sadness in the girl’s eyes, a sorrow far too great for one so young. Now, she walked across to the girl, who gazed at her broodingly from her seat in the corner. Hilda placed the parcel by the girl’s hand.

Her voice was very gentle. “I don’t know your name, dear, but I think the Christ child would count it an honour to be put in place by the youngest person here. He loved the children to come to Him.”

The girl’s face did not alter as she stared up at Hilda, but the sombre blue eyes lightened a fraction. The girl’s hand reached out and touched the parcel, drew it close to her. No more needed to be said. Hilda smiled down at her, compassion in her face, and returned to Mother Abbess.

“God bless you, love,” the nun whispered. “You see what no one else sees and, as always, you give with such love and tenderness.”

*****

Hilda tapped on Mother Abbess’s door, balancing her packages as she did so. When they were placing the crib figures in the chapel after dinner, the nun had agreed to see her later. Now here she was. She knew she was being spoiled, knew she was being given access denied to many; knew, also, that she would not be treated like this once she entered. But, just now she needed this spoiling, this leniency. Besides, she loved this woman, as a friend but also increasingly as a mother. Mother Abbess did not, could not replace Nell, but she was the only one who helped when things got really bad, the only one who saw and understood her as none other now did. She so wanted to repay her a little for all she did and for all she was. The fact that Mother Abbess already felt more rewarded than she deserved was unknown to Hilda, although the nun had tried to tell her often enough.

She found the wood-panelled room lit only by the flickering flames in the hearth, and by one small lamp on the desk, where Mother Abbess was sitting writing. The nun’s eyebrows disappeared into her wimple when she caught sight of the parcels in Hilda’s arms.

“Haven’t you already spoiled us enough already with that magnificent crèche, young lady? Not to mention the money which arrives every month, and which my bank manager informs me has mysteriously increased in value recently?” Her lips quivered on the edge of laughter when she saw Hilda’s abashed face. Clearly they were not supposed to know that fact just yet! “Hilda, love, these really aren’t necessary.”

“Who said anything about necessity?” asked Hilda, her eyes and voice soft as she laid her gifts on the desk. “One usually offers gifts out of love, and these are no exception.”

“But, Hilda, I can’t…”

Hilda held up her hand. “I know. You’re a nun. You’re not allowed to own things personally. They must be for the whole community. Well, the larger package can be enjoyed by all who come in here to see you, or anywhere else you choose to place it.” She stopped and touched the curling ribbons on the flat present. “This one, you must decide what you want to do with it. You’ll have guessed it’s a book. It could join all your others….” She indicated the well-stocked shelves set round the room.

Hilda perched herself on the corner of the desk. Mother Abbess, her eyes on the thin, shadowed face, drew the larger gift towards her. She undid the gold ribbon and peeled back the star-studded paper with care, then stared at the sight of the smaller of the two boxes that had been placed earlier in Hilda’s room. What a great deal of planning Hilda had put into these presents! She folded back the flaps and peered in the box. When she saw all the smaller, beribboned parcels her eyes flew once more to Hilda, but the latter merely smiled. With trembling hands, Mother Abbess unwrapped the first parcel, and discovered the figure of a King, about nine inches high, half the size of the crèche figures for the chapel. It was a perfect replica of the larger one, and it was exquisite, the carving of the face sheer perfection.

“Hilda…” she breathed, lost for words. She stroked the smooth, glossy wood in wonder, before diving back into the box. After many such excursions, another beautiful set of carved wooden figures was gathered on the desk. To the nun’s joy, this crèche had the addition of two angels, carved with consummate artistry to reveal huge curving wings of infinite majesty and beauty, and faces of matchless tranquillity. “Oh Hilda, you do love to spoil people!”

“I have no one else to spoil, now Nell's dead,” whispered Hilda, her eyes looking with sorrow into the nun’s. “So, as my new family, you'll have to suffer, I’m afraid.”

Thinking of all the love and compassion inside Hilda, her great need to give to others, Mother Abbess wanted to cry out at the injustice of it all. She knew Hilda was not looking for sympathy, merely stating a fact, and it grieved her mightily. Hilda picked up the little bambino in his swaddling clothes. “I've had a very small crèche of my own for years. Seeing these two sets here when I enter will be a little reminder of my former life.”

“What will you do with yours?”

“I have no idea, any more than I know what to do with all my books…” Her voice trailed away. There was something stark in her face and the nun recalled that Hilda had been down in the cellar with Nell’s belongings. Was that where the battle had taken place?

“Will you find it hard to give them up, your possessions?” Mother Abbess watched Hilda carefully, but the latter neither flinched nor turned away.

“Nell and I never set much store by possessions, but yes…some of them,” Hilda whispered, licking suddenly dry lips. “Presents from Nell over the years, some of the things in those boxes, photos…..” She looked down at her hands and the nun’s eyes followed. The seal rings! Hilda touched the one on her left hand. “And this, which you already know about! How will I do it, Mother? How?”

Her voice was a despairing whisper and Mother Abbess’s hand reached out to squeeze hers. “Don’t worry about it, sweetheart. Strength will be given. Anything you find too hard to give up – like the ring - you bring with you and we work on it together. We all know how difficult it is. We all had something that was too precious to offer.”

Hilda’s face was sombre, her throat tight, and silence settled as she fought her emotions. “I've been thinking about this recently. There are two things I want to give you this Christmas. It will be hard, so hard, but if I do it now, I may have learned to be without them by the time I enter. They’re two of my most treasured possessions...” She faltered. When she continued, Mother Abbess heard the suppressed tears. “But you may have to wait awhile… until I've plucked up the courage to hand them over. In fact, I may well need your help to do it.”

She looked so vulnerable as she perched there, so alone, so defeated, that Mother Abbess stood up and wrapped her strong arms round her, holding her close. Hilda melted into that embrace. She had fled here to the convent like a chick to its nest. Now, the chick could relax and let go for a while. It was safe! It would grow strong again in the shelter of its mother’s wings.

After a few moments, however, Hilda moved out of that warm embrace, knowing she must not learn to depend too much on this woman, for she would soon be her Superior. She slid the other package over and Mother Abbess, recognising courage and dignity when she saw them, said nothing. Instead, she returned to her seat, peeled off the gold ribbon and star-strewn paper to find a green, leather-bound book without a title. Curious, Mother Abbess flicked through the crisp, cream pages and saw they were filled with Hilda’s elegant, flowing handwriting. Startled, she stopped at one page, read it, then turned to another and another. Each and every page held quotations from novels, poems, prayers, biographies, the Bible, and many other places.

She looked up at Hilda, her eyes wide. “Hilda, you’ve taken my breath away, yet again! I dread to think how long you spent copying all these out, especially considering how ill you’ve been. Wondrous is the only word that springs to mind.” Her eyes dropped to the last page. “Always take an emergency leisurely.” She looked at Hilda and smiled admiringly. “You should take that Chinese proverb as your motto, love. I remember how calmly and quietly you spoke to that young man who broke in here. You almost hypnotised him. It was as though you made time slow down, to give yourself room to manoeuvre.”

Her eyes eagerly sought the book once more, finding new delights on each page, all the time knowing there were more to discover. She began to read out loud, chuckling now and then to herself.

Victor Hugo: Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face.

Life is but a day;
a fragile dewdrop on its perilous way
from a tree’s summit.

Keats

Groucho Marx: I didn’t like the play. But then I saw it under adverse conditions. The curtain was up.

Churchill: Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of the time he will pick himself up and continue on.

Oswald Chambers: You might as well be useful where you are, because you certainly can be of no use where you are not.

St Francis of Assisi: Preach the gospel all the time. If necessary, use words.

“Oh, didn’t he get that right?” chuckled Mother Abbess, her eyes shining with her delight at this most unusual gift.

Josh Billings: Consider the postage stamp. Its usefulness consists in the ability to stick to one thing until it gets there.

Margaret Fuller: If you have faith, and an appreciation of the simple things of life, let others light their candles from it.

GK Chesterton: Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.

Blake: No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.

“Which is what we try to teach the novices here,” whispered Mother Abbess. “They must be themselves, only themselves. Why do people think being a nun means to conform? Conform to what? No, being a nun is to find freedom to truly be what God made you.”

Pasternack: When a great moment knocks on the door of your life, it is often no louder than the beating of your heart, and it is very easy to miss it.

Tagore: Let your life lightly dance on the edges of time like a drop of dew on the tip of a leaf.

Alas for those who never sing.
But die with all their music in them.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

GB Shaw: I often quote myself: it adds spice to the conversation.

Walpole: It isn’t life that matters; it’s the courage you bring to it.

Henry Ward Beecher: God asks no man whether he will accept life. This is not the choice. You must take it. The only question is how.

The nun looked up at Hilda, her eyes saying all she thought. Those last two quotations could have been written just for this slender woman before her, as could the next one she saw when she lowered her eyes again.

Victor Hugo: Have courage in the greatest sorrows of life and patience for the small ones, and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily tasks, go to sleep in peace. God is awake.

RL Stevenson: Sit loosely in the saddle of life.

Proust: Life is strewn with miracles for which people who love can always hope.

Meister Eckhart: Whatever God does, the first outburst is always compassion.

Teach me your mood, O patient stars,
Who climb each night the ancient sky,
Leaving on space no shade, no scars,
No trace of age, no fear to die.

Emerson

Mother Abbess looked up at Hilda. “No fear to die?” she queried.

Hilda shook her head. She had never been afraid of death, not for herself. The nun squeezed her hand and dove back into this treasure trove of a book. What a gift!

e e cummings: To be nobody but yourself – in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you like everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.

Camus: Nostalgia for other people’s lives. This is because, seen from the outside, they form a whole, while our life, seen from the inside, is all bits and pieces. Once again, we run after an illusion of unity.

That shining moon – watched by that one faint star:
Sure now am I, beyond the fear of change,
The lovely in life is the familiar,
And only the lovelier for continuing strange.

Walter de la Mare

CS Lewis: In God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give.

Samuel Rutherford: Whenever I find myself in the cellar of affliction, I always look about for the wine.

Mother Abbess chuckled out loud. “Oh, that’s wonderful. Would that we could all find the good!” She placed the book back on the desk and reached out to grasp Hilda’s hand. “Sweetheart, this is one of the most beautiful things anyone has ever done for me.”

Her voice broke at the wealth of love Hilda was pouring out on them all, even in the midst of her bitter pain and confusion. Hilda leaned over to kiss the nun’s soft cheek. “Then I’m glad I found the time, for there is so little I can do for you.”

“Except the money, which you almost forced on us months ago,” muttered Mother Abbess.

“But that’s not really for you, is it? It’s to help others.” Hilda indicated the book, the crib figures. “The book and the crèche are for you. I needed to repay a little of my debt, for debt there surely is.” Mother Abbess smiled, knowing words would be a waste of time. “There’s a quote in there just for you: Do give books for Christmas. They’re never fattening, seldom sinful and permanently personal. (Lenore Hershey

“This is certainly personal, very personal – but most definitely not sinful, just overwhelmingly wonderful” whispered the nun, stroking the green cover.

“I have at least twelve of these of my own. I keep one to hand when I read. It saves endless time later searching for just the piece I may want.”

Mother Abbess raised her eyes. “Then will you do something for me? If you won't mind sharing them with others, will you bring them with you when you enter? They may be of immense value, not just to the community, but to the people who come to us. Who knows when a few well-chosen words may leap off the page and help someone?”

Hilda’s eyes grew bleak and she looked over at the fire. Mother Abbess waited, guessing she was thinking of Nell. When Hilda spoke, her voice was distant. “You asked would I find it hard to give up my belongings. I may have trouble with my books. I don’t know what I would have done without them these last months. On some days, they were the only light in the dark places.” She turned to look at the nun. “Along with you, they comforted me, gave me fresh insights. Some of those words are written in that book. I know my books and poetry will help me in the months yet to come, for I'm not over Nell and there will still be hard days.”

Mother Abbess rose to her feet. Time to distract her a little. Her first night here was not the time to take a sledgehammer to those walls. “Are you going to help me decide the best place for these magnificent creations?”

They both considered the lofty, wood-panelled room with its immense, overflowing bookshelves, large bay windows and carved over-mantle. Comfortable armchairs and a soft leather couch were grouped round the fire, and in front of the couch was a low glass table set on carved wooden legs. Mother Abbess and Hilda smiled at each other. The perfect place! A focal point during emotional and difficult conversations, and backlit by the dancing flames in the wide hearth. They set the figures out on the glass: the two shepherds and their sweet-faced sheep, the three kings, so majestic in their bearing, a bearded Joseph hovering protectively over Mary in her flowing robes, she in her turn kneeling to worship. Mother Abbess held the Babe in her hands and looked at Hilda, crouched on the floor setting the figures straight.

“You gave the other bambino to Ellie, and that was fitting, for she has suffered. This one is yours to place, daughter, because of all you've done for us, because of all you are.” Hilda blinked back tears at the affection in the nun’s voice. The latter went over to her desk, wrapped the figure in some discarded tissue paper and returned to place it in Hilda’s hand. “Advent is a time for waiting, for just sitting quietly with Jesus. Hold Him close to your heart, sweetheart. Wait patiently and He will wipe away all your tears.”

Hilda looked down at the parcel in her hand. Her lips trembled: "Paul Scherer wrote: God walked down the stairs of Heaven with a Baby in His arms.

Mother Abbess smiled gently. “That’s beautiful, child. I do hope you included it in the book.” She picked up the two remaining figures. “My favourites, two serene and watchful angels.” She placed one each side of the crèche, as though to keep guard.

Peace enfolded them, but after a while Hilda stirred. “Perhaps I should give you more than this, more than my notebooks. I’ll make you a gift of my whole library.”

“No one else who would appreciate them?”

“I may give one or two as parting gifts, but no….” Hilda’s face was intensely sad. “I’m singularly lacking in family or close friends, Mother. After James’ death and I left the country, I’m afraid I shut the door on my friends, as well as on my grief. As for the school, I can’t make friends of one or two. It has to be all or none.”

The loneliness of leadership, reflected the nun. “Hilda, sweetheart, there are many people who love you dearly, to whom you mean a very great deal and who will be extremely sad to lose you.” She spoke with great tenderness, her face alight with her own deep love for this gentle, gracious woman who had such a talent for friendship, yet knew notjust how rare and special she was.

******



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