|Tuesday, first day of term|
Seated in her great William and Mary chair on the dais on the first evening of the new term, Hilda watched the Catholics settle into their places after Prayers. Mireille had been very nervous reading the Parable of the Talents, and Hilda knew there was a lot to do there. But Mireille had finally agreed to be Head Girl, and turned to helping everyone on her return, especially the little ones, so Hilda allowed herself to hope.
The rustling died away and Hilda rose to her feet, approached the lectern and smiled down on them all, catching Ellie’s eye from her place at the back with the rest of the Sixth form. Ellie gave her the suspicion of a wink. She was perfectly happy to be there, seeing her beloved guardian in a totally new light. Hilda, herself, as she smiled round, was filled with such affection for everyone there that it scalded her throat, making it impossible to speak. Her eyes grew misty. She had only five terms remaining, and she must make every moment of them count, not just for herself but for Nell, who had invested so much of herself in the school.
She had missed them all, both girls and mistresses, and she had not expected that. There was no sense of the dislocation she had feared, no longing to return to the peace of the convent. So emotional had been her time there, so at home was she there, so great was her love for Mother Abbess and the community, that she had worried her grief would return in full measure once back in her usual haunts. Instead, her heart reminded her how much she still belonged here at the school. This was who she was and what she did. The convent was still the dream. This was the reality, here on the Platz. It was no longer home, but there was still much for her to do, much of herself to give. Her place was here with her girls, just as Nell had requested.
Flashing an apologetic smile at her mistresses, who were becoming worried at her continued silence, she leaned on the lectern. Her beautiful voice reached out to all. “I shan’t keep you long, girls. I know you must be weary after your long journeys, but I have some rather bad news to give you, which I felt couldn’t wait. You will have noticed that Tessa, our Head Girl, is missing, as is Katy, her sister.”
She swallowed. This was harder than she thought. “I’m sorry to say that Tessa will not be with us for the rest of the school year. She and Katy were out shopping in Boston two days after Christmas, when it began to snow heavily. As they were crossing the road, a bus lost control on the slippery roads and skidded towards them. Tessa saw it and managed to push Katy out of the way, but couldn't save herself. She has been gravely injured, so gravely that they feared for her life at first.”
There was gasps of horror all round the Hall and she paused, well aware of the affection and respect they felt for Tessa. “Once the doctors knew she would survive, there was then fear that she would never walk again. Fortunately, she was far too ill to realise all this. It was her family who suffered the most in those early days. She seems to have turned a corner now and is showing a little improvement, but she will be in hospital for at least the next two months, and it will be many more months before she reaches full recovery. She needs your prayers, girls, as do her family.”
Many of the girls were now looking at Mireille, who was gazing down at her hands, obviously uncomfortable. Hilda took a deep breath, a prayer in her heart. “You can see what this means for us here, can’t you? We’ve lost our Head Girl, and a very much loved one. Mireille has bravely stepped into the breach and promises to do her best for us all. Jean Abbot will be her Deputy. Jean herself is not returning to school until tomorrow, but if you'll step forward, Mireille, I’ll pin on your brooch.”
Mireille rose and moved to her Headmistress, but the latter could feel the girl shaking as the brooch was pinned. Under cover of the applause, she spoke quietly. “Relax, cherie. It will be alright. For now, I want you to turn and give them one of your lovely smiles.”
Mireille obeyed, somewhat tentatively, before returning to her seat. Hilda, however, had not missed the looks exchanged by some of the girls in the centre rows. It would be the Middles! She was going to have to keep a keener eye than usual on events, without appearing to interfere in any way.
She leaned on the lectern again, and there was sudden steel in her voice. “I know I can rely on you to give Mireille and Jean all the respect you gave to Tessa and, indeed, to Mireille herself last term. Tessa was a wonderful Head Girl, and so will Mireille be. It’s been a big shock to her, for Tessa is one of her closest friends, but she’ll do her very best for you. In return, I expect you to do your very best for her. Tessa would be disappointed if you were to let her friend down. I myself would be very disappointed.”
The girls heard the stark warning in the beautiful voice and some of them shifted uncomfortably. Having made her point, her voice softened, her face grew sad. “Girls, please pray for Tessa. She is not completely out of the woods, and, even when she's stronger, there will be long months of pain and discouragement in front of her. She's a very courageous girl, but it will be a hard slog for her and her family. You might think praying is not doing much to help, but, believe me, it's the best thing you could possibly do. By the way, should any of you wish to write to her or Katy, who will not be returning for a while, do try to keep your letters light and entertaining. We want to cheer them up, so please don’t be too maudlin.”
There were a few smiles at this, but most of them were too upset. She contemplated them for a moment. “Perhaps it would help if we were all to pray now. Praying together can often bring great solace.” When the shuffling had stilled, and everyone’s head was bowed, Hilda added quietly, “For a moment or two, just hold Tessa and her family in your hearts, asking God to take good care of them.”
Hilda found herself also asking for help for Mireille. The girl seemed overwhelmed by the task before her. The school will sense that fear, thought Hilda in dismay, and when they do there is going to be trouble. She had to find the right words to strengthen the girl before it was too late. There had not been time for a great deal of talk since Mireille’s arrival, but it seemed that more bolstering was needed. Keep her close, Lord.
Hilda's rich voice led the school in prayer. “O God, our Father, we come to Thee at the end of the day to ask Thee to forgive us all our wrongdoings and to guard us with Thy Fatherly love through the night. Bid our guardian angels watch over us – and over Tessa and Katy and their parents - and grant us, and them, a sweet sleep and a joyous awakening, ready for the tasks of the new day. For the sake of Thy Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.”
Hilda had invited the Staff for coffee in her Salon after Prayers, but most of them were very tired, especially those who had been on escort duty, so she was soon free to make her way back to her study and her on-going administrative work. As she sat down rather wearily in her chair, her thoughts returned to the last few days. It had not been an easy journey back to Switzerland, for Ellie had been overtaken by hesitation and doubt, but her fears had seemed to ease a little after a long and reassuring conversation on the plane, one in which Hilda had learned just how much her ward was maturing. Since disembarking from the plane, Ellie had glowed with all her new experiences – or most of them, anyway!
The Saturday Before
Jack Maynard greeted them in Berne, having been alerted by Hilda before she left the convent. She had informed him there would also be a new girl with her, but had said nothing else. Now, after returning his greetings, she made the introductions. “Jack, I would like you to meet Ellie Drake, my ward, who has come to join the school. Ellie, this is my good friend, Dr Maynard.”
She watched in some amusement as Jack’e eyebrows climbed towards his hair. His eyes focused intently on Hilda, and then he held out his hand. “Welcome to Switzerland, Miss Ellie Drake,” he said with old-fashioned courtesy. “And welcome to the Chalet School.”
“Enchantée de vous connaître, Monsieur le Docteur.” So, she was French, thought Jack, despite the Englishness of her name. He realised something else. Ellie’s tones held something of the sweetness of Hilda’s voice in them, though not yet the mature richness. He examined her face but could see nothing of Hilda there. The latter could see his many unspoken questions and grinned inwardly. He and Jo would get some explanation, but not all. That was between Ellie, her guardian and the convent. No one else needed to know more than the bare minimum.
They kept to mundane topics on the journey to school, Jack talking about Christmas at Freudesheim, and both of the adults pointing out the sights to Ellie. Even though dusk was falling, she was awed by the beauty of Lake Thun and the majesty of the surrounding mountains. They reminded her of home, and were certainly more appealing than the flat landscape of Norfolk. It would lift her heart to see this exquisite beauty every day.
When they reached the school,Hilda inserted her key in the lock.
“There’s no one else here yet, did you know?” asked Jack. “We’ve started the heating and aired your beds, and there’s milk in the fridge, but…”
“Don’t worry, Jack.” Hilda ushered Ellie into the large entrance hall, Jack following behind with the cases. “I told Karen they didn’t need to return until tomorrow or Monday. We can forage for ourselves until then, n’est-ce pas, Ellie?”
“Perhaps you’d come to supper later. I know Jo would like to see you again and meet Ellie.”
Hilda surveyed Ellie’s shadowed face. Peace was needed tonight. “Thank you, Jack, but we’ll manage here. Ellie’s too weary for company right now.”
So are you, thought Jack, surveying her face with a practised eye. She was white with exhaustion, her eyes heavy, although without the look of anguish he had seen there before Christmas. He was also thankful to see she’d lost that air of tension and grief, although not the fragility. That seemed to have become a fixture, and he was not happy about it.
“Then come for Mittagessen after church tomorrow, and I’ll take a proper look at you.”
Realising what he meant, she gazed back at him impassively, then smiled. He was her doctor, after all, and presumably wanted to make sure there were no lingering effects from the accident. Submitting to his request now would make things easier later on.
“They took very good care of me, Jack,” she replied, as she went to see him off the premises. “They’re even bossier than Gwynneth, believe me.”
“I’m delighted to hear it.” Jack took his leave.
Hilda had decided the spare room in the Annexe would do for Ellie until the rest of the school returned. It would mean they could be close together. She helped Ellie unpack her little case there, before taking her off to her own pretty bedroom, where the girl exclaimed in delight at the snowflake mobile hanging over the bed. Hilda smiled. The day they appeared had not been a good day, but they had sweetened the pain a little. While she unpacked, Ellie prowled her guardian’s enclave, admiring the pictures on the walls and smiling at the overflowing bookshelves. Hilda’s hopeless addiction to the written word was by now well known to her ward, an addiction they shared.
She watched Hilda unwrap the Guardian statue and stand it on the bedside table, close to Nell’s photo. The crucifix she had taken to the convent was set on the little shelf over her bed, along with her origami angels, whose wings sparkled as the overhead light shone down on them. She picked up the interlinked wooden hearts given by Vivien.
“What do you think, petite?” Hilda asked. Ellie glanced round, unsure. “No, I think I’ll hang them in my study. It will give me a great deal of pleasure to look at them during the day and remind myself of their message.” Hilda’s eyes went to the statue and the origami. “These are too intimate and private to be on general view.” She led the way through the silent corridors to her study. “I’ll show you round tomorrow, petite. It will all look better in daylight. For now, why don’t you snuggle down and I’ll go and make us something to eat?”
“Mais, Madame,” stuttered Ellie, pointing with delight into the corner of the study. “Les papillons… ils sont ravissants. Did Miss Knowles make those for you, as well?”
Hilda gazed over at the butterflies twirling lazily in the heat rising from the stove. She remembered the day Vivien had secretly hung them there to cheer her Headmistress up. “Oui, mon enfant, Miss Knowles did indeed make them, with the help of some of the girls. There are more in my Salon, along with great cats and all sorts of creatures. They lift my heart every time I see them. You shall feast on them tomorrow,” she promised.
They had left the Annexe by way of the spare room so Ellie hadn’t visited the Salon yet.
Those exquisite butterflies tempted Ellie to stay and explore more of this large and airy room, for it seemed far too feminine to be the seat of power, but in the end she decided she would rather be with her guardian. They went along to the kitchen, made some scrambled eggs and a pot of tea and took them back to the study, where they sat and ate in comfort. Now that she was here, Ellie had a new fund of questions and Hilda found herself under siege. After a while, however, the girl’s eyes gew heavy, so Hilda settled her on the couch with a book while she herself glanced though her accumulated post. How much of it there was! And little time to deal with it all! Still, she knew she had made the right decision. The convent had restored her, and she felt much readier for the new term than if she had returned earlier.
Absorbed as she was in a letter, she became aware of a deepening silence in the room and looked up. Ellie was nodding off over her book. Hilda removed the book and covered the girl with a blanket ready to hand for just that purpose. She smoothed the black hair.
“Still scared, child?”
Ellie smiled up at her. “Not at all, now we’ve arrived. I know you’ll be there…” Her voice faded and she slept.
“I’ll be here, chérie, for as long as I'm able,” whispered Hilda. She stared down at the lovely face with a strange pang. Thanks to Elllie, thoughts of Nell had not besieged her on this return. Her friend was an ever-present and gentle presence, but not intruding… Would that change, when Hilda lay looking into the darkness later?
She was surprised, when she awoke the next morning to find she had slept the night through. There had indeed been a moment or two in the darkness when her heart had been homesick for the peace of the convent. After all, there would be precious little peace between now and Easter. There had been longer moments when she had yearned for Nell, But she knew Nell was watching over her, just as she knew the good Sisters were praying for her and Ellie, and those thoughts were comforting enough to allow her to roll over and drift off to sleep with a smile on her lips. She and Ellie were not alone.
Now, they sat in the kitchen, eating their breakfast toast and drinking coffee the like of which Ellie had not tasted since leaving her homeland. She had obviously slept well herself. Her colour was fresh and she looked ready for anything, keyed up by all that was happening.
“What would you like to see first, ma mie?” Hilda drank the last of her coffee.
“But, me, I do not know what there is to see, Madame. I suppose it is not so very different from my old school, after all.”
Hilda choked. “How very chic and sophisticated! You’ve seen it all before, and there's nothing new under the sun.”
Ellie stuck out her tongue. “But, Madame, that is not my meaning,” she exclaimed, then saw the twinkle in Hilda’s eyes. “Bah! You pull all the legs so much, you English!”
“Why, how many have you got?” asked Hilda in alarm, and dived under the table. Ellie gurgled with laughter and dived down after her to pull gargoyle faces. Hilda sat up again and wiped her brow. “Phew, only two, like everyone else. You had me worried there for a moment, petite.”
“Madame, I shall never learn these so terrible English proverbs,” moaned Ellie dramatically, thoroughly enjoying this gentle teasing.
“Oh, yes, you will, chérie. As your English mistress, I will make sure of that. I’m very fierce, so be ready to duck if you get them wrong. Oh, by the way, we only pull one leg at a time.”
“But then I would have one leg more long than the other,” said Ellie, tongue very much in cheek. “Better to pull all the two of them, it seems to me, ma très chère Madame.”
They giggled together, and Hilda was reminded of all the teasing she had received from Nell, and how much she had pined for it. Well, here it was, freely offered to her the very first day back at school.
Tracing a memory for me, Nell?
Still chuckling to herself, she rose from the table. “Dishes first, my girl, and then we explore. We’ll have to be fairly quick, as there’s the Eucharist Service to attend at eleven. After all, you’ll soon know all there is to see.”
A little later found them in the dormitories, where Ellie cried out in delight at the flower-strewn curtains and bedding. “We had no curtains to give to us a private space. It will be wonderful to sleep in a little room such as this, almost like a secret cave.”
She stared out of one of the windows, her eyes soft, for the views were heart-stoppingly lovely. Although there was only a light covering of snow on the ground, the mountain summits were heavily laden, the snow sparkling like so many crystals in the sunshine. Hilda remembered how affected Ellie had been by the mobiles. It was growing ever clearer that Ellie was deeply sensitive to beauty. Her aunt’s artistic temperament was lurking there somewhere, just waiting to be brought out into the open and channelled in some way.
They left the dormitories and toured the classrooms, the laboratories, the art rooms, the common rooms, the Speisesaal, long and narrow, and the sunny library. Hilda then took her to the Hall, with Boards of Honour and paintings decorating the walls, while cups and trophies were displayed on shelves and cupboards. They were still in the Hall, chatting about the sports Ellie liked, when they heard a door bang and someone shout Hilda’s name.
She should have expected it, but Hilda was sad, for she’d been enjoying having Ellie to herself for a while longer. Once school began, their time together would be short. It had been fun seeing the school through a stranger’s eyes, especially this stranger. Most new girls were on their best behaviour with their Headmistress, whereas Ellie felt relaxed enough to be honest, which was very refreshing to Hilda. However, there was no escaping Joey. Clearly she had heard Jack’s news, and decided she simply couldn’t wait until Mittagessen to view the new girl. Hilda could make an educated guess at their musings. She guided Ellie out of the Hall, and saw Joey approaching. The latter held out her arms and embraced Hilda.
“Hilda, how are you? Jack said you looked so much better,” she cried, her golden tones loud in the peaceful corridor. Much to Hilda’s amusement, Joey did not wait for an answer but turned to Ellie. “And this is your ward. Jack told me all about her last night.” She examined the lovely face for any resemblance to Hilda, just as Jack had done. “How do you do, Ellie? I’m Mrs Maynard. I live next door and my girls attend the school. You must come over for afternoon tea one Saturday with the other new girls.”
Although Joey was talking in French, having been warned by Jack, Ellie looked in bewilderment at Hilda. She felt overpowered by this super-abundance of energy. Hilda herself no longer felt at all amused. She could have shaken her friend for her lack of sensitivity. Did she have no idea what it might mean to be new and scared? Could she not have waited until Mitagessen? The trouble is, we so often do turn new girls over to her. She has more time to spend with them, and can relax with them more than I’m allowed to do as Headmistress.
She stepped in to help Ellie. “Mrs Maynard is Dr Maynard’s wife, chérie,” she offered, and saw Joey’s eyebrows shoot up at the endearment. “She was also the school’s very first pupil, and keeps in very close contact with us all. On top of that she is a famous authoress. I’ll lend you some of her books later on.”
“Not at all, Hilda. I shall naturally let her have signed copies. I have plenty to spare.” Hilda’s lips twitched at this generosity.“After all, she’s one of the family now, since she’s your ward. If you need any hints and tips about being a guardian – well, you know where to…
Her words trailed away as she met Hilda’s impassive gaze. She blushed fierily, but, before she could make amends to her old friend and former teacher, Ellie rushed into the fray. She recalled her argument with Sister Pauline, so reined in her anger and was haughtily polite, instead.
“Madame has no need, but no need at all, of any help, Madame Maynard. She is the most wonderful guardian. She has been so very good to me and I love her so much. Please not to worry about us. We are very happy together, you know.”
Hilda’s lips twitched at Joey’s mortification. Well, Ellie had vowed to be her champion. It seemed the girl had meant it. However, her enthusiasm needed curbing, or she would lose all credibility with her schoolfellows. It wasn’t done to champion the Headmistress!
“Thank you for jumping to my defence, child, but there's no need.” Hilda laid a gentle, restraining hand on Ellie, who was glaring ferociously at Joey. “Mrs Maynard has eleven children and several wards, so has considerable experience. She meant well, didn’t you, Joey?”
Joey blushed again. She might have a yard or two of children and wards, but Hilda had been guiding young girls for many a long day and knew all there was to know about them. This young girl was correct. Hilda needed no help from anyone. Joey had been observing them closely and wondered about the loving bond she could see between them. It was almost tangible. How long had Hilda known Ellie? There seemed to be some deep mystery here.
She flashed an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry, Hilda. That was unforgiveable of me. Ellie is quite right. You’ve helped more young girls than I’ve had hot dinners. You will be a perfect guardian. Ellie’s a very lucky girl. I remember how you helped me through a thing or two when I was Ellie’s age.” She glanced at her watch. “I’ll leave you to it. Lunch at half past twelve, don’t forget.” She flashed another smile and walked jauntily away down the corridor.
Hilda put an arm round Ellie’s shoulders and was surprised to feel her trembling with anger. “Calme-toi, petite. Mrs Maynard was only trying to make you feel welcome. She could help you a great deal once you get to know her. Indeed, one of her own wards is in your form.”
“Me, I do not think I like her, Madame.” Ellie spoke through clenched teeth. “She seems to be a person who thinks she knows more than anyone else.”
Hilda groaned inwardly. What a start! “She’s not really like that, Ellie. She’s very loving and giving, and gets on well with the girls here. You will grow to like her, I promise.”
Jamais, thought Ellie savagely to herself. Never! Madame Maynard had dared to imply her guardian was not good enough, when she had done so much for her and loved her so much. Why, she had even given her Persephone, now sadly languishing on her own back in Norfolk! To Ellie, her guardian was perfection itself.
Leading her back to the study to collect their coats for church, Hilda sighed, both at Ellie’s intransigeance and the hero worship. She understood why Ellie felt that way, but there was going to be trouble one day, unless she could change the girl’s attitude. For she knew well she was no plaster saint, was as flawed as the next person. That pedestal! How she hated it! Not only was it a lonely place, it was a dangerous one, when there was an emotional adolescent in the mix.
Outside the chapel after the Service, Hilda was engulfed in a warm hug from Ian, and returned it wholeheartedly before standing back to search his face. The colour had returned to his cheeks; the pain and distress gone from his green eyes. “You look so much better, Ian.”
“So do you,” he replied, although he could see clear evidence of continuing frailty in her clear-cut face. He knew from his sister how ill Hilda had been in the convent. “Although I would like to see a little more pink in those white cheeks, and the hollows filled out some.”
“I’m fine, Ian,” she said firmly. “Your sister and Pauline made very sure of that.” She turned the conversation away from herself by putting her arm round Ellie and drawing her forward. “Ian, I would like you to meet my ward Ellie. Ma chérie, this is Mr Stuart, the brother of Mother Abbess.
Ian heard the love in the beautiful voice and saw it shining in the keen eyes, but it came as no surprise for he had heard all about it from his sister. Ellie, meanwhile, had been watching Ian and had taken note of the remarkable green eyes he shared with his sister. When she shook hands, however, she realised something. Whereas the nun’s eyes seemed to probe and plumb the depths of one’s very soul, this man’s regard was gentle, resting on one with great kindness.
She felt instantly drawn to him, which made her more open than usual. “Mère told to me all about your accident, Monsieur Stuart,” she blurted out. “How Madame was so very brave and saved your life and nearly lost her own.”
“Ellie,” Hilda gasped in horror. “That’s not true, child. I didn’t…”
Ian laid a quieting hand on her arm. “Sh, Hilda, the child is right. My sister told you nothing but the truth, Ellie. Without your guardian I would not be standing here now, talking to you. She is a very courageous lady.”
Hilda tried to speak but Ellie got in first. “I know this. She is brave and generous and so many other things. Moi aussi, elle m’a sauvée la vie – she has saved my own life.” Her vivid face was suffused with love.
Tears sprang into Hilda eyes at what she saw as Ellie’s exaggeration, but Ian had found a like-minded soul. “We should form a society, Ellie. The Adore Miss Annersley Society. You and I can be the founder members.”
Ellie’s eyes shone like blue stars at this initiative, while Hilda drew herself up and spoke in her most freezing tones, “Do that, and I put you both on Head’s Reports. And that, Ellie, is no laughing matter.”
Ian winked at Hilda and leaned to whisper in Ellie’s ear. “I can see it will have to be a secret society, infant.”
Ellie giggled. A thought struck her. “It could be shortened to… AMAS! That seems like a good name for such a society, Monsieur, if you remember your Latin.”
Ian realised with embarrassment what she meant. He risked a look at Hilda, but all he saw in her eyes was hidden laughter, and he relaxed. “Amo, amas, amat…. Mmm! It does, indeed; seem like a good name, Ellie – amas, you love. After all, what is an adoration society for, tell me, but to express one’s love for the person so adored?” He paused. “Do you think my sister would join?”
“Me, I think they would all join, Monsieur. They are so very fond of her, you know.”
Hilda was longing to laugh out loud at such childish idiocy, but something gave her pause. Ian had been instantly accepted by Ellie, yet she trusted so few people. He seemed to have known instinctively what would appeal to a nervous, untrusting girl, and she was as animated as Hilda had ever seen her. Here was the father she had never had! Here was someone to be teased, to have secrets with; someone in whose presence she could relax and be comfortable. Ian would make no demands, nor would he freeze her out as her father had done, for he was an uncomplicated man and imbued with great kindliness and understanding. It was something Hilda had not foreseen and she felt a great rush of warmth towards Ian. Yet again, God’s hand was hovering over them all.
“Are you free this afternoon, Ian? Well, we’re due at Freudesheim for Mittagessen, but why not come over for Kaffee ünd Küchen about sixteen o’clock and you can get to know Ellie a little better?”
“I’ll bring the Küchen,” he offered with a delighted laugh, “and you provide the Kaffee.”
“Done!” she agreed and they went their separate ways, Hilda with intense gratitude for Ian’s gentle nature, Ian with a quiet and peaceful love in his heart for Hilda. He hoped he would be given the chance to help her with the girl. He was still aware of a deep sadness that this generous and gracious woman could not love him, but he had more than most. He had her friendship, her trust. And he had a feeling that her ward was going to draw them all even closer together.
He, Kate, Hilda and Ellie - a quartet knit together by bonds of deep affection, and three of them would be founder members of AMAS! He laughed out loud as he walked along, a wicked smile lighting up those startling green eyes.
Author's Chapter Notes:
Thank you for all the encouragement up to now, which has been greatly appreciated. Enjoy the new volume - and don't forget to favourite if, you want those all-important alerts!