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Author's Chapter Notes:
I’m sorry to have kept you waiting for Volume 6 but RL has seemed out to get me again this past week. I do hope new readers are still enjoying it and others are enjoying the re-read…

Don’t forget to favourite this new volume if you want alerts about updates.

As the three girls mounted the front stairs, Ellie regaled the other two with tales of Marianne’s mimicry. Clearly she had been much impressed, and Erica and Mireille thought to themselves they had never seen the Abbess’s ward quite so animated. She was a different girl from the self-contained creature they had known so far, although they both had to admit she had shown yet another side of herself during her performance the night before.

Entering the dormitory, Ellie went over to her cubicle. “If you could pull my curtains closed, Erica, I will find my stockings, non?” she leaned down to pull out a drawer.

“I’ll get your velveteen out of the wardrobe, shall I?” Mireille headed across the room, only to spin round and sprint back when she heard a cry of horror from Ellie.

She pulled back the curtain Erica had just drawn. Ellie was staring at the top of her bureau. “Mes photos!” she whispered. “Elles sont toutes disparues! Mes photos de Maman… et de Madame…”

Mireille looked. It was true! The top of the bureau, which she remembered as holding several framed photographs, was bare. Every last photo had gone! She walked round the dormotory and scanned the other bureaux, but none of the photos and knick-knacks there resembled Ellie’s. She heard a drawer being pulled open, and another cry from Ellie.

“But, the photos I had in here, they have gone, too…” She scrabbled through all her drawers, then stood up, her face white as the sheets on her bed. “But they are the only ones I have of Maman…. Who could have…?” She frowned and hissed angrily. “Meg!”

Mireille eyed her anxiously. Ellie’s face was ashen, but her eyes were now blazing blue fires. Her good hand was balled into a fist. All at once, she brought it down hard on the bureau, making the other two girls jump. “Meg has taken them. She warned me… She said….”

She stopped, her face changed and she turned and moved swiftly towards the door. Mireille guessed her intention and reached out to grasp her arm.

“Ellie! No! Not this way!” she cried, wondering what to do for the best.

Ellie’s arm was rigid, her whole body shaking with rage. Mireille realised there would be murder done if she allowed her through the door. Ellie tried to tug her arm away, but Mireille was strong and held on to her, being mindful of the injured arm. Ellie struggled more fiercely against the restraint.

“Let – me – go!” she hissed, and Mireille caught her breath at the malevolence in the sapphire eyes.

Ellie continued to fight against Mireille. She opened her mouth to hurl angry words at her but, all at once, her resistance melted away, and she stood as though turned to stone. She recalled another time, another place, when rage had overtaken her and she had physically hurt the one she loved. She heard Madame’s voice in her head, teaching her that anger was not the way. She stood irresolute, pulled every which way by her emotions. Her face hardened. No! She was the injured party here. She refused to rein in her anger any longer. Meg had finally gone too far. It was time to stand up to her, to strike back at her persecutor.

She tried once more to free herself, but that moment of stillness had given Mireille time to think. She took Ellie by the shoulders, looked her straight in the eye.

“Ellie, I know some of it,” she said in rapid French. “Erica has told me what she’s heard. Leave it to me. I’m the Head Girl. I can say and do things you can’t.” Ellie struggled half-heartedly, but Mireille’s steady gaze was penetrating the coruscating anger boiling inside. “Sit down on the bed with Erica. I’ll go and get you some water…”

She ran to the bathroom, and returned with a glass of water but Ellie was shaking now and the water would have gone everywhere if she had taken it, so Mireille held it to her lips. Ellie’s teeth chattered against the glass, but gradually she calmed down enough to swallow some of the liquid. Mireille looked at Erica, who had been silent through it all, and saw there the same incandesecent fire she had seen in Ellie’s eyes. Erica was as ready to demolish Meg as Ellie had been, and yet she was normally a fairly placid girl.

“No, Erica, you must leave it to me. After all, it may not be Meg.” Erica glared at the Head Girl. “I know her reputation goes before her, but there’s a big difference between saying nasty things to someone and stealing from them like this.” Mireille looked down at Ellie, whose eyes were filled with misery, now the anger had gone underground. “Erica will stay with you, Ellie. Trust me, I’m ging to have strong words with Meg Lyall.”

Mireille’s quiet words had worked their magic on Erica, but the last words roused her anxiety and she said hesitantly, “Mireille, shouldn’t we go to Miss Annersely?”

She yearned for the Abbess’s calm certainty, her utter determination and implacability when there was a problem to be sorted out.

Ellie shook her head vehemently, and Mireille spoke sharply. “Not yet, Erica! Let me see Meg first, try to sort it out. I don’t want a major row if I can help it.”

She turned and left the dormitory, leaving Erica wondering fearfully if her Head Girl was doing the right thing. Ellie sat with her eyes closed, her heart longing for the comfort only Madame could give, yet not wanting that beloved person to find out what was happening. Suppose Madame blamed her, despite the kind words earlier in the term.

Mireille was to find that being Head Girl was no sinecure. Anger and determination propelled her down the stairs and along to the Senior Common Room, but, once there, doubts began to assail her. Had Erica been right? Should she go to the Abbess? No, Miss Annersley expected her Head Girl to act on her own initiative. Tessa always had! Tessa had never seemed to question herself, just got on with the difficulties of her job with that imperturbable steadiness and confidence of hers.

Steeling herself, Mireille opened the door, glanced round and saw Meg seated by herself in a corner with a book. Ignoring all the joking remarks coming her way about nonsense rhymes and lovelorn cats, Mireille went to stand beside Meg, only to find herself completely ignored as the girl turned over a page, as though absorbed.

“May I speak with you alone for a moment, please, Meg?” she asked, in an undertone.

Meg raised her head. “What could the Head Girl possibly have to say to a lowly Lower Sixth?” she asked, her manner bordering on insolence.

Mireille held on to her temper. “I would like to speak to you in private, but, if you can’t be bothered to move, I’ll say it here – and won’t answer for the consequences.”

“Dearie me, you are fired up about something” Meg taunted her and rose to her feet, clutching her book close to her. “Where shall we have this interesting conversation?”

“We can go to my Study, or simply stand outside the door here. Up to you!” replied Mireille, and stalked off, praying that Meg would follow.

Once outside, she turned and looked hard at Meg, hoping against hope that something would give, but Meg was made of sterner stuff than that. She merely raised one eyebrow, leaned against the wall and folded her arms round her book.

“Here will do nicely, I think. Are you just going to stand there staring at me - or give me a clue? I’m not good at reading minds, unlike our esteemed Abbess.”

“When did you learn to be so nasty, Meg?” Mireille asked quietly. “It seems to be something new you’ve acquired since you entered the Sixth form.” Meg shrugged, and Mireille could feel her own temper rising. “What have you done with Ellie Drake’s photos?”

Meg’s eyes were unfathomable, that ironic twist still adorning her lips. “Why should I have done anything with her photos? What’s happened to them, anyway?”

“They’ve gone missing from her bureau,” replied Mireille through clenched teeth. “All her photos, those in frames on the top and those put away in her drawers.”

“And you think I took them? Why me, when there are however many other girls in this school?” Meg’s manner changed. She moved away from the wall, her smile died and she flung back her head, like a horse shying. Her eyes burned into Mireille’s. “What gives you the right, Mireille Morin, to march into the Common room and drag me out like a common criminal? What gives you the right, even if you are the Head Girl, to accuse me of taking those photos, just because….”

She stopped. Her spurt of temper had taken her further than she had intended.

“Just because you’ve been bullying her all term, were you going to say?” asked Mireille, relieved to have achieved a reaction. Meg’s face flamed, her eyes dropped. “Oh yes, I know about your nastiness, Meg. Erica caught you at it and gave you a piece of her mind, didn’t she? She’s been watching you ever since. She tells me that, on Friday afternoon, Ellie was very upset. Was it your fault, I wonder? Is that why she cut herself? Is stealing her photos yet another way to get at her?”

Meg lifted her head and Mireille caught a gleam of triumph light up her eyes before it was swiftly extinguished. “Why would I want to get at her?” laughed Meg. “All I did was point out that her behaviour is not consistent with the way we do things here, that we don’t try to make ourselves the centre of attention, even if we are the Head’s pampered ward. Look at her behaviour last night in the concert… Showing off to everyone….”

“Not consistent with the way we do things here?” echoed Mireille. She gaped at Meg in disbelief. “Mais quelle blague! Ellie’s behaviour has been impeccable, whereas yours seems to have been anything but….”

“Goodness, what on earth has she been saying about me?” asked Meg, shaking her head sadly. “Trying to make herself the centre of attention again? Erica overheard me speaking to Ellie just once! Now suddenly I’m the villain of the piece. According to whom? Ellie?”

Mireille held on to her temper and spoke softly. “Actually, Erica heard you attacking Ellie twice! She just didn’t confront you the first time! Ellie herself has said nothing about it - or you! She’s been a model of reticence about anything you might have said or done to her. That’s the problem, I suspect. You knew you could get away with it. But when a person has been overheard bullying a girl, and then some o that girl's treasured belongings disappear, one tends to make the obvious connection. What have you done with them, Meg? If you return them now, I won’t have to take this any further.”

Meg drew herself up to her full height and looked scornfully at Mireille. “Take it as far as you like. You won’t find any photos in my possession that don’t belong to me. You know, if Tessa had been here, and had asked me the same question in her reasonable way, I might have been willing to discuss my education of Ellie in the ways of her new school. But you’re nothing compared to her and should never have been made Head Girl.”

Her tone of voice would have curdled cream, but Mireille returned her gaze steadily, refusing to back down or to demonstrate any anger at the gratuitous insult. “Putting aside my abilities or otherwise as Head Girl, do you still refuse to answer my question?”

“You have no right to ask me such a question, so I certainly have no need to answer it. Go look elsewhere for Ellie’s precious photos. You won’t find them anywhere near me.” Meg turned her back on Mireille and moved to the door.

“You leave me no choice, Meg. I must report this to the Abbess. Stealing is not something I can deal with myself, if the person doing it won’t own up.”

For answer, Meg opened the door. “Do your worst!” she said airily, and slipped through the door, closing it firmly behind her.

Mireille stared at the door, beginning to realise that she may have done more harm than good. Perhaps she should have listened to Erica. With a groan she re-traced her steps to the dorm. Meg was right in one thing. Miss Annersley should never have promoted her.

Tessa, ma très chère amie, why did you have to dive under that bus? We need you. I need you, more than I have ever done. I’m making such a hash of this job of yours. Gillian and I, we miss our partner in crime so much.

She climbed the stairs and re-entered the dormitory. Two white faces stared at her, Ellie’s a mask of distress. Mireille ran an agitated hand through her hair. “I’m going to Miss Annersley,” she stated baldly.

Ellie sprang to her feet and clutched Mireille’s arm. “Mais, non, je t’en prie, Mireille! Madame, she must not know…. She will blame me for losing them…. My aunt, she went to so much trouble… and now they have gone! She will blame me, as well….. Vraiment, c’est un cauchemar…. A nightmare….”

Erica got up and put an arm round Ellie. Mireille took a cold hand in hers. “It’s not your fault, Ellie! Never your fault! In a way, you could say it’s mine, for not reporting this sooner. But, really, it’s the fault of whoever took the photos. Stealing is a crime. It’s too big for me to handle on my own. Maybe Tessa could have done it, but I can’t,” she added hopelessly.

Tears flooded Ellie’s eyes as she stared at Mireille. A sob escaped her and she sank back on the bed, hiding her face in her good hand. “It is my fault…. I should have stood up to her…. But she frightened me… and I have a temper. She threatened to do… things if I told Madame. So I didn’t… and even when Madame asked me, I wouldn’t say…. Now this! What am I going to do? I am so weak…..”

She began to weep bitterly. Erica held her and looked up anxiously at her Head Girl. The latter stood there indecisively, wondering how to comfort Ellie, but had the sense to realise that was impossible. Ellie needed someone older and far wiser.

“I’m going to find Matron or Miss Knowles,” she whispered to Erica. “I can’t leave her like this. Perhaps I should just take her to the study.”

“No…ooo,” Ellie sobbed, beside herself with despair.

“No, report it first,” murmured Erica. “Tell Miss Annersley what you know, what you said to Meg, whatever it was. I can see it didn’t go too well. I’ll come with you, if you like, and tell her what I know.”

Mireille walked out again and Erica applied herself to soothing Ellie, to no avail. Minutes later, however, to her vast relief, the Science Mistress walked in. She smiled kindly at Erica and sat down on Ellie’s other side.

“I’ll see to her now, Erica,” she murmured. “Go with Mireille and try to help her explain to Miss Annersley why she didn’t report all this earlier. She’s outside waiting for you. Thank you for looking after Ellie.”

Erica realised that Mireille had told Miss Knowles everything, sparing herself not at all. With a word of thanks, she rose and left the room to join Mireille, who was looking terrified. They walked away down the corridor while Vivien applied herself to soothing the sobbing girl. There were prayers in her heart for Hilda, who had to sort out the whole sorry mess.

“Petite, you have been so brave,” she whispered, drawing Ellie close. “But I think it’s about time you told someone the whole of it. I’m so, so sorry I never realised you were having trouble. Can you forgive me and tell me about it?”

Her voice was very tender and Ellie laid her head on Vivien’s shoulder and sobbed out her misery. “Madame wanted me to tell her why I was unhappy…. but I could not do this thing, you know. It would have hurt her, but so much… She asked Mr Stuart to talk to me yesterday…. I told to him all about it and he begged me to tell to Madame, but how could I? Meg said such horrid things about her… I did not want to hurt her. Anyway… It is…. m… my fault for not standing up to Meg. Now…. it is too late…. and Madame will… b…b…. blame me for losing the ph….photos.” She sobbed out loud and clung to Vivien. “Even Madame’s photo is gone, the one you gave to me….”

She broke down completely, sobbing as though her heart would break. Vivien rocked her gently, and wondered if that particular photo was the key to it all. “Ellie, I can always develop another copy of the photo. I assure you, your guardian will find out the truth, as she always does. You will have your photos back. I trust her implicitly and I know you do, too.”

How she prayed that was so, that the photos hadn’t already been destroyed. She recalled Ellie’s touching pleasure at seeing the photos of her mother for the first time. Wanton cruelty lay at the base of this crime and Vivien herself could see no mitigating circumstances for any girl who would do such a thing.

She held Ellie closer still. “Madame would never blame you. She loves you far too much to do that. She understands why you wouldn’t tell her. I’m sure all she wished was that you trusted her enough. Bullies twist things, Ellie, so you no longer know what is true. But Madame knows what is true. She knows what a beautiful person you are. Let’s pray quietly for her, and for Mireille and for whoever has done this terrible thing.”

However, the sobbing grew wilder and Vivien could only hold the desperate child tightly and try to instil some comfort until Hilda herself could come to her. Poor, poor Ellie, she thought sadly. Her new dreams had become malevolent nightmares. All her hopes had turned into ashes, tossed in the wind and blown to the four corners of the earth.

Hilda, meanwhile, was standing at her desk, tidying up her letters and papers, having finally finished the letter she had been writing when the impromptu concert began. Matey was pouring out the tea she had made, after trying in vain to disperse her friend’s seemingly irrational fears. They jumped when a sudden and violent knocking came at the door. Hilda caught Matey’s eye in alarm and called “Enter.” Instantly the door flew open and their Head Girl fell into the room, followed rather more sedately by a second girl.

“Mireille? Erica?” cried Hilda, in total astonishment. “What on earth….?”

“It’s Ellie!” gasped Mireille.

“What about Ellie?” whispered Hilda, all her forebodings rising up anew and rendering her incapable of movement. Matey set down the teapot and moved to her side.

Mireille gulped. “When we reached her cubicle, she discovered all her photos were missing.”

“Her photos?” echoed Hilda, wondering if grief had softened her brain.

Mireille walked over to the desk. “The ones that sat on her bureau, the photo of you, Miss Annersley, and the ones of her parents… She showed them to me when she received them. She was so proud of them. They’ve all gone, even the ones she had stored in her drawers.”

Hilda sank back into her chair, her legs grown weak. “Have you searched for them at all?”

“We searched the whole dormitory, but there’s no sign of them. Ellie…. Ellie said she knew who had taken them, and wanted to go and confront this girl, but I told her it was my job as Head Girl, that I knew something about the bullying she had suffered. She thought it was the same girl. So I went to find the girl, see if I could…”

She ran down when she caught the grey glint in the Abbess’s eyes. She knew, then! She knew just how wrong-headed she had been. She stood stock still, waited for the blow to fall.

Hilda simply sat and stared at her, unable to believe all she was hearing. She was also unable to subdue the powerful surge of pure rage that engulfed her like fire and shook her to her core. She wanted to fly to Ellie. She wanted to flay her Head Girl alive. As for what she wanted to do to Meg Lyall….! It was rare in her life that such fires were lit inside Hilda Annersley. Indeed, it was years since the last time, although there had been the night, less than six months before, when she had thrown a teacup at the wall in anguished fury at Nell Wilson for daring to die and leave her all alone.

A red haze floated before her eyes. Fire and brimstone were heaped on her tongue, ready to be unleashed on Mireille. Then, like a douche of cold water, a hand grasped her shoulder – a stark warning, a reminder of where, and who, she was. The red haze retreated, the unforgiving words died away. Matey’s hand tightened on her Headmistress’s shoulder, her crisp voice breaking through the bitter shock.

“Miss Annersley, are you alright?”

A convulsive shudder ran through Hilda, and the hand gripped her shoulder harder, bracing yet comforting. Within seconds, the shutters came down, the shudders were controlled, icy cold replaced the fire. Hilda straightened up, her eyes direct, uncompromising.

“Are you telling me, Mireille, that you knew all about the bullying of my ward – and kept quiet?” Her voice was soft, full of menace, and Erica wondered where its beauty had gone. “Are you also telling me that you’ve accused another girl of the serious crimes of bullying and theft – without first referring to me, your Headmistress?”

Everyone in the study shivered, even Matey, and her hand remained firm on Hilda’s shoulder. She was unaware of how grateful her Headmistress was for that link to sanity. Hilda knew, even in the eye of this storm, that her strangely emotional reactions were due in part to her own inability to draw anything out of Ellie. What had happened was all the result of her own failure. Guilt as well as anger comsumed her, and had so nearly overturned her.

Mireille’s face was now bleached white, a mask of misery and self-blame, her eyes haunted. “Erica told me about the bullying last week. She came to me, not quite sure what she had heard. She hoped that I would bring it all to you….”

Hilda held up her hand for silence, her eyes moving to Erica, who was still standing by the door, terrified out of her wits by the Abbess’s voice and demeanour. “Perhaps Erica herself should tell me what she knows, rather than my hearing it second-hand. But first, tell me, Mireille, have you left Ellie all alone up there?”

Ice had crept in to join the menace and Mireille shivered once more. “N… no, Miss Annersley. I went to find Miss Knowles. You told us to do that if we couldn’t find you or Matron. She’s with her now.”

“That’s the first sensible thing I’ve heard from you since you walked in the room,” stated Matey coldly.

Hilda looked up at her. “Would you…?”

“On my way,” Matey said briefly, and, with one final squeeze of the slender shoulder, she left the room. Hilda had recovered from that first sharp shock and no longer needed her presence. What she needed now from her friend was comfort and support for Ellie, and reassurance that her guardian would be with her as soon as was possible.

Hilda looked questioningly at Erica, who came forward to stand by Mireille and pour out the story of what she had overheard and what she herself had done. She mentioned no names and Hilda asked for none, but the Abbess’s silence unnerved her and she found it hard to string her words together. “I p..promised Mireille I would keep an eye out – but I n…never caught anything again. Only….” She stopped, swallowed, shuffled her feet.

“Only?” prompted Hilda.

“The day Ellie cut herself… she came to Mittagessen looking very upset. She was white and very angry, but wouldn’t say anything. I could see something had happened so I tried to stay near her in the dommy science room, but then Frau Mieders asked me to give out the onions and….”

“And we know what transpired,” finished Hilda. Her eyes, grey as flint until now, grew warmer as they dwelt on Erica. “I can’t thank you enough for the way you’ve behaved, Erica. I’m proud to think we raise such thoughtful and caring girls.” Erica blushed. “You will make an excellent prefect next year and I’m delighted I made you a sub this term. You’ve proved your worth, my dear, and been a good friend to Ellie. Be sure I shall make sure your Auntie Joey knows how well you’ve done. That’s all I need from you for now, but please don’t say anything to anyone when you leave here.”

“Thank you, Miss Annersley,” murmured Erica. After a quick glance at Mireille’s white, downcast face, she crept with relief from the study to find some quiet and isolated corner in which to recover her equilibrium. Being a prefect was so much more onerous than she had realised and required difficult decisions, decisions she feared she would never have the courage to make.

Hilda watched the door close behind Erica and let her eyes drift back to Mireille. She gazed at her as though she were a species she had never seen before and couldn’t quite understand. The silence in the room grew heavy with the weight of all the emotions being suppressed. Mireille wanted nothing so much as to sink to the floor and weep it all away. Even better, she wanted to be a child again, safe in her mother’s arms.

Hilda herself was once more aware of the rage welling up within – only this time it was ice cold and deadly – and she closed her eyes against it.

No, Nell! No more! Anger will get me precisely nowhere. If ever I needed patience and compassion, it’s now. Mireille’s only a child, a poor, untried child, doing the best she can.

She came straight to the point. “Mireille, why didn’t you tell me last week about the bullying? Why didn’t you listen to Erica?”

Mireille raised her head. The eyes she fixed Hilda were distended with fear, and all at once the latter longed to reach out and hold the girl close and soothe her.

Thank you, dear heart. But she needs a lesson, so….. no mercy just yet, I’m afraid.

“I thought it was something I should be able to deal with as Head Girl.” Mireille’s throat was so tight she found it hard to speak. “I wasn’t sure if Ellie had told you. I didn’t know if she would want you to know….”

“She hadn’t told me, and she didn’t want me to know. Would you have done, if someone was saying to you the things Erica overheard? Ellie was very scared and very ashamed, as most people are when they’re being bullied. You, as Head Girl, should have given her some help, by acknowledging that what you had been told by Erica was something you couldn’t handle yourself, any more than Ellie could.” Hilda's voice trembled, and she waited a beat before adding, “Bullying should always be reported, Mireille, especially bullying as nasty as this seems to have been. It needs an experienced adult’s intervention. A formal report should have been made. I should have been allowed to do the job I am paid to do. Erica trusted you to do the right thing. I trusted you to do the right thing, when I made you Head Girl.”

The lovely voice was once more soft, but inexorable. There was no escaping it. Hilda might be merciful beyond the norm, but she was also there to see justice was done for each and every one of her girls. And justice played no favourites.

“I thought that if I told you, it would make things worse for Ellie,” whispered Mireille miserably, and Hilda’s eyebrows shot up. “I thought this person might think Ellie had complained to you and would be even crueller to her.”

“Which she seems to have been, anyway,” said Hilda, her voice dry. “Didn’t you trust me, Mireille?” The girl gaped at her and nodded. “Then didn’t you think that perhaps I may have enough experience to be able to put a stop to this, without it rebounding on Ellie? What is the point of having a Headmistress, if you don’t trust her to know what she’s doing, if you can’t trust her to protect her pupils?”

Mireille’s eyes were glued to Hilda’s, but failed to notice the sadness and regret there. All she could see was the sharp keenness in the grey eyes, a keenness that cut like a knife. This was worse than anything she had ever experienced in her whole life. That it was emanating from someone she respected and even loved, someone who had tried so hard to help her relax into her new position, only made it so very much more dreadful. The Abbess had shown that she trusted her – and her Head Girl had not returned the compliment!

Unbidden, a tear welled up and rolled down Mireille’s cheek, to be closely followed by another and another. Hilda sighed. She knew she could no longer keep the girl on the rack, but there were still hard things that needed saying. Hoping her legs would now support her, she stood up and walked slowly round the desk. She placed an arm round Mireille and guided her over to the couch, then poured out a cup of tea and ladled several spoonfuls of sugar into it before handing it to Mireille.

“Drink, child. You’ll feel better.”

Mireille took the cup in trembling hands and put it to her lips. Hilda poured out another for herself and drank it down in one. Her thoughts flew to Ellie. What sort of state was she in? Would Matey and Vivien be able to keep her going until her guardian could be with her?

Hilda leaned back in the armchair opposite Mireille, and watched her place the empty cup on the low table before her. “Let’s call a spade a spade, shall we, Mireille? We both know we’re talking about Meg Lyall. You tell me you’ve tackled her this evening. Relate what happened, please.”

Mireille took a deep breath, and Hilda writhed inwardly as the tale poured forth. It couldn’t get much worse, surely. She felt an overwhelming weariness and her lips pursed as Mireille drew to a close. The keen eyes narrowed, the broad brow furrowed, but their owner remained silent, searching for some steely self-control to be able to continue this interview.

She leaned forward, forcing herself to speak gently. “You do realise you’ve tied my hands. Meg’s answered your questions – or, rather, she’s refused to answer them, and I’m inclined to believe she had right on her side. You had no proof it was she who took the photos. She’s been undeniably cruel to Ellie, but that means nothing. You might have been accusing an innocent girl. We’re all innocent until proven guilty.” Mireille tried to look away but Hilda’s intense gaze made that impossible. “If you had come straight to me, ma fille, I could have gone to her and had a quiet talk, perhaps drawn the truth out of her, once I was in possession of all the facts about the bullying. If I do so now, I would be harassing her, and that I will not do. Ellie may have rights, but so, also, does Meg.”

Once more a tear trickled down Mireille’s white cheek as she heard the Abbess take her apart and show her how very wrong she had been all the way through. Her actions had made everything so much worse, and her Headmistress now had to sort out the resultant mess.

“Yes, Mireille. You’ve left me very little room for manoeuvre. Three very unhappy girls now look to me for help, one of them being yourself.”

A sob escaped Mireille. She buried her face in her hands, her head shaking non-stop. Hilda quickly moved to sit beside her.

“Mireille, look at me.” Mireille raised drowned eyes. “I’m not angry with you any more. I’ll confess I was very, very angry when you first came in, but I promise I do understand why you did WHAT you did. I understand, but I don’t condone. There are some things that are just too important to do on your own, and your job as Head Girl is to learn what those things are. Some things only the Headmistress can deal with. Do you see?”

Her eyes were kind but distant, and left Mireille without much comfort. “I failed you. Tessa wouldn’t have behaved like this. W..will you forgive me?”

Hilda took the cold hands. “You didn’t fail me, so much. You failed Ellie, and Meg, and whoever took the photos. Worse than that, because you failed Ellie, she doubted me, which made her even unhappier. But you did what you thought was best, and you and Erica watched over Ellie very carefully.” She saw Mireille’s guilt. “We don’t know what Tessa would have done, but she did have enough wisdom and humility to appreciate when to hand over to me. She didn’t think she had to do it all herself. Could you learn to think likewise?”

Mireille nodded. “Could you also learn to come to me and discuss informally anything about which you’re unsure, anything at all, so that we need only make it official if we must? Not everything my Head Girl and I discuss needs action, you know. I don’t bite, Mireille, and will always listen to your concerns. You and I need to work together, talk together, be a team, so we both know what is going on in the school.”

She lifted her hands to cup Mireille’s face and wipe away the tears with her thumbs. The girl’s eyes grew brighter.

“You do realise what my last words mean, don’t you, child? You're still Head Girl – but a much humbler and wiser Head Girl, I think. You acted well in some ways. You calmed Ellie down and probably prevented her from scratching out Meg’s eyes. I know my ward’s temper,” she added wryly. “You brought Miss Knowles in for her, the best person you could have found, and you made sure I wouldn’t blame Erica, made sure I knew she had wanted you to come to me. You hid nothing from me. I’m only sorry I have had to be so very hard on you, but it mattered – to you as Head Girl, to me as Headmistress, to all those who are bullied in this school, and to all those doing the bullying.”

“I understand,” Mireille whispered. “And I’ll try to be more like Tessa.”

“No, child, just be more like yourself, because you have so much that is good inside you,” murmured Hilda. “Don’t compare yourself to Tessa, or to anyone. Remember that Tessa is no more perfect than you or I! All leaders fail, Mireille, but the effective ones learn from their mistakes. I suspect this one is engraved on your heart for all time. Leaders must never stop learning, must never think they know it all. For all my own great age and experience, I myself am still a work in progress, and will go on being so till my dying moments.”

She saw Mireille shake her head at such an idea. “It’s true, Mireille. Being an adult is not to be perfect. We still face challenges and still make mistakes. If the day ever comes when I think that being a Headmistress means I know it all and have nothing new to learn, that would be the day I give up my job. There is always some challenge I haven’t met before, some new facet of my own or other people’s behaviour to understand.”

She patted Mireille’s hand. Enough was enough. She rose and walked over to her desk, staring down at it for long moments, lost in thought. Finally, she raised her head, looked over at Mireille.

“Tell me, dear, are you willing to help me sort matters out?” Mireille jumped to her feet and joined Hilda at her desk. “Good girl! First of all, I want you to go and gather the prefects together, warn them their freedom is over for the day and that they must be ready to act as soon as I give the sign, whatever it is. Then I want you to return here and wait for me while I go to Ellie. I won’t be long, but while I’m gone I want you to reflect carefully on my words, not in a morbid fashion but trying to work out what they mean for you, both as a girl nearing adulthood and as a Head Girl. I don’t want guilt from you, I want positive thought and action. I want you to work out how you move on from here.” Her eyes were steady on Mireille. “Are you willing to do that, both for me and for yourself, chérie?”

Mireille’s gaze was now as steady as Hilda’s and she drew herself up to her full height. “Yes, Miss Annersley. To be quite honest, I need some time alone, I think.”

“You hurt,” stated Hilda quietly. “But you’ll find it’s a good hurt, child, if taken in the right way. You’ve admitted your faults, taken all my anger and my harsh words and made no excuses. You’re brave enough to move forward, after careful reflection, and sensible enough not to saddle yourself with undue guilt. The way you’ve behaved in here today makes me as proud of you as anything you’ve achieved since term began – and you’ve achieved a great deal, you and the prefects. You’ve worked as a good team. So now, go and find them and warn them to be ready.”

Hilda didn’t immediately leave the room once she was alone. She forced herself to sit and think through what she planned to do. It would not be pleasant and she shivered, gazing sightlessly before her. With a weary sigh, she rose and walked over to Vivien’s wooden hearts hanging on the wall near Rosalie’s door.

She read down the words painted on each creamy heart: peace, patience, love, kindness, self-control….. She would need to be in possession of each and every one of these fruits of the Holy Spirit in the hours ahead of her, although one of them, self-control, she had lost very badly just now. Loneliness swamped her. She yearned for Nell’s bolstering love.

Lord, please don’t let my anger get the better of me again in the hours ahead. Let me be free of bitterness. Give me the right words to help Ellie, the right words for the school and for the culprit - be it Meg or another. Nell, dear heart, I need your strength and courage as never before. The school you loved has great need of your wisdom. Be there for all of us tonight.

Chapter End Notes:
Some of you may be thinking that the above chapter seems very similar to an incident in another drabble, where a girl has had her photos stolen from her bedside cabinet. Not only is the incident the same, the details are also the same – the girl’s parents are dead and there is no possibility of any more photos. Even the description of what is in the photos is exactly the same. But – I wrote and posted this particular incident, and the description of the photos, on the board 3 years ago in 2005, and it is all in the archives…..

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