Miriam Ashley had had her suspicions right from the start. She wasn't sure what had brought the possibility to mind; something in the way they looked at each other, perhaps; the way they moved around each other; the ease with which each followed the other's train of thought. Whatever the initial cause, it had been borne in upon Miriam that Nancy Wilmot and Kathie Ferrars would bear watching, and now, after weeks of observations, she was sure.
Everything was working out according to plan. This was her big chance to take over and really run St Hilda's properly. They'd be much better off as a separate school in premises of their own, and now, with Nancy Wilmot's help, Miriam believed she was finally going to attain that cherished ambition.
She had decided to confront Nancy rather than Kathie. For one thing, Nancy was far more senior in standing within the Chalet School, and consequently more likely to have sufficient influence with the Heads to get Miriam what she wanted. For another thing, the St Hilda's mistress was rather nervous of the more volatile Kathie. Having a hasty temper of her own, she knew how easy it would be to push Kathie Ferrars into forsaking her own best interests merely for the satisfaction of defying her attacker, and Miriam was not interested in any outcome that did not include getting what she wanted. No, better to tackle placid Nancy Wilmot; once Miriam had reasoned with her, she felt sure that Nancy would see things her way.
Catching Nancy alone proved to be the first obstacle to Miriam's success. Kathie Ferrars was almost constantly at hand, and on the odd occasion she happened to be absent, Nancy's company was joyfully claimed by anyone who happened to be in the offing. In the end, Miriam found herself with no option but to ask Nancy, in full view of the staff room, if they might have a private word.
Several eyebrows were raised at this unusual request, but Nancy made no demur, and Miriam inwardly rejoiced at having almost attained her goal. However, standing in a deserted classroom, face to face with Nancy Wilmot, she found the subject rather more difficult to broach than she had anticipated.
"It's about St Hilda's," she began, as Nancy smiled at her encouragingly. "I really do think we need our own space. We're still a separate school, we shouldn't have to fit in with your rules and traditions. It's not fair - you must see that. I thought you might be able to do something about it."
"But, my dear," Nancy said, in answer to this appeal, "I don't see how you think I can help. In the first place, there simply aren't any buildings available. And even if there were, it's Miss Annersley and Miss Wilson you'd need to speak to, not me."
Though the response was friendly enough, both the words and the tone indicated that there was no more to be said on the subject, but having worked up her nerve sufficient to get herself to this point, Miriam had no intention of backing down now.
"Let me speak a little more plainly." And she proceeded to spell out her meaning in such terms as could not possibly be misunderstood. Even as she spoke, she was revelling in her victory - but she had congratulated herself too soon.
On hearing what Miriam had to say, Nancy's lips thinned and her expression grew icy. She waited in silence for the younger woman to finish speaking, the unmistakable note of triumph in Miriam's tone fanning her fury, and then delivered her decision.
"If that is how you feel, I suggest you tell whoever it is you think you ought to tell. But I will have no hand in delivering St Hilda's pupils into the sole charge of someone whose activities include eavesdropping, spying, and blackmail. I don't think there's anything further to be said. Good day, Miss Ashley."
Stunned and seething, Miriam Ashley could only watch in impotent rage as Nancy Wilmot turned her back and walked away.
Naturally, Nancy's first action was to go in search of Kathie.
"She did what?" Kathie could hardly believe what she was hearing. She had never seen Nancy so angry - the elder woman was actually trembling with the force of her emotions.
"Threatened to report us for 'immoral behaviour' if I didn't do something to ensure that St Hilda's gets premises of their own. Apparently, she's been spying on us. I don't know what exactly she's seen, but she evidently feels it's enough to take to Hilda."
"What a charming person she sounds," Kathie said with distaste. "It's nothing more than blackmail, doesn't she realise that?"
"I don't think she cares any longer." Nancy dropped into a chair, feeling somewhat shaky now the adrenaline of the confrontation had begun to dissipate. "She's so wrapped up in the idea of running St Hilda's as a separate school that nothing else seems to register with her. And, of course," she added wryly, "she obviously thought we wouldn't dare refuse her."
Sitting down on the arm of the chair, Kathie gave her partner a faint grin. "She doesn't know us very well then, however much time she may have spent spying on us. What did you say to her, Nance?"
Nancy's words were somewhat muffled, as she nestled against Kathie's side, craving the contact. "In summary? Publish and be damned."
Looking down at her partner's bowed head, Kathie came to a decision. "Good."
"Even though we may find ourselves looking for new jobs before the day's out?"
"Even then." Her voice was firm. "I know we both love it here, Nance, but when it comes down to it, there are other schools. In the absolute worst case scenario, there are even jobs other than teaching."
Nancy looked as though such an option had never occurred to her. Despite the precarious nature of their position, Kathie knew that her incurably optimistic partner had never really been able to bring herself to believe that their happy little world could betray them in such a fashion.
Kathie herself, seeing the school from a perspective unclouded by old friendships and childhood memories, had always been more aware of the possibility that prejudice lurked nearby, but coming up against it so starkly was still a very definite shock.
Smiling fondly down at her partner, Kathie attempted to soften the blow. "But you never know, maybe we're being overly pessimistic. Now that Ashley woman knows she's not going to get what she wants, maybe she'll realise that she wouldn't come out of it too well herself if she has to own up to blackmail and spying. She might decide to keep quiet after all."
"Not much chance of that, I think." Nancy mentally reviewed her encounter with Miriam. "She was furious with my response. I think at this point she's likely to tell out of pure spite if nothing else."
"Maybe," Kathie said thoughtfully, "that's for the best."
"What?" Nancy's head shot up.
"I mean it, Nance. If she's the type to try blackmail once, she'll try it again. And I know neither of us would ever give in to that sort of thing, but equally, do we want the threat of it hanging over our heads for the rest of our lives?" Slipping off the arm of the chair to kneel in front of Nancy, she took her partner's hands in her own. "I think we have to face the fact that this is it now, my love. If Miriam Ashley doesn't tell, I say we do it ourselves."
Walking into the staff room together some ten minutes later, however, they found that their first judgement of the St Hilda's mistress had been correct and they weren't going to be given any choice in the matter. On seeing the couple enter the room, Miriam Ashley rose to her feet, her eyes glittering with malice. Clapping her hands for attention, she made her announcement.
In the short silence that followed, Kathie reached for Nancy's hand, the first time they'd ever allowed themselves such a gesture in the staff room, and the pair faced their colleagues, heads held high.
It was Peggy Burnett who broke the silence, with a remark addressed to Miriam Ashley. "Is that the best you can come up with? Tell us something we don't know. That's old news, we've known that for ages."
This calm response took the wind out of Miriam's sails, but its effect on Nancy and Kathie was even more profound. While Kathie gaped at the games mistress, mouth open wide in a reasonable imitation of a goldfish, Nancy uttered a peculiar sound somewhere between a sob and a giggle, and had to turn her back on the room for a moment, to regain her composure.
"Nancy, Kathie, you're just in time to join us," Ruth Derwent called them over. "Sharlie's insisting we play that insane game the Middles find so entertaining, and we need all the sensible adults we can muster."
"Impertinent Questions," Sharlie clarified for them, expertly shuffling two decks of cards.
"Yes, don't think the pair of you are escaping now you're here," Rosalind Moore added her mite. "Come and sit down. Deal the cards, Sharlie, and let's get on, or we shan't have time to play at all."
Hands still clasped, Nancy and Kathie moved to join their friends, grateful for this unexpected show of support.
Miriam Ashley was less grateful. "I'm going to see the Head," she announced to the room at large. "See what she thinks of this sort of behaviour."
"That's right, off you trot," Ruth Derwent told her unconcernedly. Then, as the younger woman seemed to hesitate: "What are you waiting for? Nobody's stopping you."
As Miriam flounced out, slamming the door behind her, Nancy finally regained the power of speech and turned to her colleagues in incredulity. "Did you really already know about us?"
"Not a clue," Peggy returned cheerfully, looking around at her companions for their similar confirmation. "But we couldn't let Miriam Ashley think she'd scored, could we?"
"So it was all for show?" Kathie's voice was tight. "Come on, Nance, I think it's probably time we started packing."
"Hold on a moment, you two," Ruth put in quickly. "We didn't know about you; now we do. I can't see why anything else needs to change."
"That wasn't just public support, us against St Hilda's, it was private support as well," Peggy told them.
"In fact, I'm grateful to the pair of you for giving us the chance to get one up on that Ashley woman," Sharlie confessed with a grin.
Nancy and Kathie relaxed slightly. "We still have to wait for Hilda's decision though," Nancy warned.
"Oh, I don't think you've got much to worry about there," Ruth said calmly. "After all, no one ever sacked Nell, did they?"