‘Bloody Hell,’ Miss Annersley said, peering through her spectacles at a figure about to board the Arlberg Orient Express in Paris. She turned to the girl by her side. ‘Lucy, did you know that your Aunt Jane was catching this train?’
‘Aunt Jane’s here? Really?’ Lucy Thomas, Head Girl of the Chalet School was incredulous. ‘Of course I had no idea, Miss Annersley. If she’s going all the way to Innsbruck, it has to reduce our chances substantially of all getting back alive.’
Lucy’s “Aunt Jane”, was the well-known amateur detective Miss Marple, famed for causing a trail of deaths everywhere she went. The only people who were in favour of her frequent excursions were the (ever-diminishing) residents of St Mary Mead, who were always glad of a few weeks’ respite from sudden deaths.
The Chalet School had been stuck on Guernsey during the German occupation and escaped to set up on the borders of Wales only to be embroiled in black-marketeering, tax evasion and several deaths.
One school of thought had it that Miss Marple’s arrival to solve some of the crimes had increased the incidence of deaths and the consequent near closure of the school. Fortunately it had survived and been scandal-free for several years.
Lucy, the daughter of a Scottish clergyman, had arrived at the school just after the Second World War and had helped considerably in bringing the malefactors to justice. As said malefactors included the husband, sister and niece of one of the school’s owners, Lucy’s efforts had not been met with enthusiasm in all quarters. However Lucy had made firm friends at the school, including the headmistress, and had stayed the course with quiet determination. Miss Annersley had vigorously opposed Mrs Russell’s proposal to appoint Peggy Bettany as Head Girl following the latter’s return from Reform School and had insisted that Lucy’s leadership qualities and loyalty to the school be properly rewarded.
As a direct consequence of the school’s improved behaviour and charitable works, an invitation had been issued to visit a new school which had been established at Briesau on the Tiern See. Austria had been partitioned after the war and Briesau was in French territory, so Madge had traded on her war-time work for the French Resistance in Guernsey to allow her sister Joey, newly released from jail, to be included in the party.
To Madge’s and Joey’s great joy, Robin had obtained leave of absence to make the sentimental journey back to the place where the school had been founded. Robin had just arrived on a train from Nouvion and a joyous reunion was taking place.
‘That’s a bit of a racy outfit for a novice nun, isn’t it?’ Lucy said to Miss Annersley.
‘Don’t be silly, dear. Madge and Joey are the only ones who think Robin is in a convent. The couple she lodged with in Guernsey have adopted her and she works in the café with them. Though René and Madame Edith would have a fit if they saw her in that garb. No doubt she was wearing something more demure when she left home this morning.’
‘Won’t Mrs Russell and Mrs Bettany think her outfit a bit odd for a nun?’
‘They’re absolutely clueless about clothes. Joey thinks anything in lime green is haute couture.’
Robin came over to greet Miss Annersley, who introduced her to Lucy. The two girls eyed each other warily. When the school had been in Guernsey, Robin had been the driving force and Lucy was concerned that Robin might decide to regain her former ascendancy. For her part, Robin eyed the Scottish pretender to her throne with caution.
A welcome interruption was caused by some typically Middle-behaviour by the late Colonel Black’s youngest girls.
‘Patience and Prudence Black, come over here now!’ Miss Annersley scarcely had to raise her perfectly-pitched voice to gain the twins’ attention. They ceased trying to push each other on to the track and presented themselves, the picture of innocence, to their headmistress.
The girls to be included in the party had been selected by Miss Annersley, but Lucy had begged her to include the late Colonel Black’s daughters who were supported at the school by an army charity.
‘The Black girls rarely get any treats,’ Lucy had pointed out. ‘It can’t be very nice for them knowing that their mother is in a mental hospital because she killed their father.’
‘But the little twins are such imps,’ Miss Annersley said. ‘We can’t afford any bad behaviour on this trip or our reputation as a school will be smirched again.’
‘We’ve got to take some Middles with us and they’re better behaved than many of the others. And we could ensure that their elder sisters keep an eye on them. Since they became Seniors, the quads have improved enormously.’
‘They had plenty of room for improvement,’ Miss Annersley retorted. ‘Faith and Hope being identical was a real trial – they were forever pretending to be each other. And Charity and Verity were such pranksters!’
Lucy deeply disapproved of her headmistress’s tendency towards slang but had held her tongue. It had been her own intervention on numerous occasions which had prevented the quads from spending even more time in solitary confinement, sewing sheets or going to bed early.
Back in the present, having reduced the twins to snivelling wrecks with a few well-chosen words, Miss Annersley returned to wondering how soon she could sneak off for a gin and tonic.
‘Look, Miss Annersley!’ Lucy exclaimed, breaking into her thoughts. ‘Isn’t that the famous Monsieur Poirot getting into the same compartment as Aunt Jane?’
Miss Annersley wished she had polished her spectacles. ‘I think so, Lucy. Maybe his influence will cancel out your aunt’s.’
Lucy thought this unlikely but was happy to encourage Miss Annersley in the idea. In any case, it was time to ensure the Middles and Seniors were on board and in their proper seats. Lucy knew that Miss Annersley would be no use – she would be nipping along to the toilet to down a miniature of G&T, Madge and Joey were too wrapped up with Robin to help and Miss Denny was busy with the Juniors. Matey was organising the sick compartment, which would undoubtedly be needed before the first stop, so it was all down to Lucy. She was used to it.
Miss Annersley returned, staggering slightly, from the toilet compartment. ‘It’s the motion of the train,’ she explained.
‘We haven’t left the station yet,’ Lucy said quietly. ‘And as no-one at the Chalet School ever goes to the lavatory, you’re going to draw attention to yourself if you don’t sit down right now.’
‘I have to see to the girls,’ Miss Annersley said, with a noticeable slurring of her words.
‘They’re all seated in their allocated places,’ Lucy said patiently. ‘I suggest you sit in that compartment until you feel a little better.’ She opened a door for her headmistress.
Miss Annersley stepped into the compartment and sobered up abruptly. ‘Miss Bubb! What on earth are you doing here?’
Author's Chapter Notes:
Embarking on what should be a pleasant trip to Austria, Miss Annersley notices an unwelcome passenger embarking on to the Arlberg Orient Express.