It was with a feeling of great relief that Hilda, having relayed Jack’s message to Robin, left the library and made her way to Nell’s study. A quiet cup of tea was just what she needed. Nell opened the door as soon as Hilda knocked; instead of ushering her in, though, she stood in the gap and looked at her friend, her face stern.
“Did you want something?” she asked.
“You invited me,” Hilda pointed out, and Nell frowned at her.
“That was before you decided to land me with the task of telling Herr Laubach what’s happened to his precious art models,” she retorted. Then she relented and stood aside, letting Hilda enter the room. “Well, come in. I’ll even find you a cup - though really, why I’m giving you tea, I can’t think!”
Despite Nell’s words, however, Hilda saw as soon as she entered the room that Nell had always meant to offer her tea. Nell’s favourite chairs were drawn up by the fire, facing each other. On the little table between them, two cups were already waiting beside the steaming teapot, and a tin of biscuits completed the the scene.
Taking a seat in her usual chair, Hilda took a deep breath and released it with a sigh. Nell looked at her with raised eyebrows, but said nothing, busying herself instead in pouring out. She handed one of the cups to Hilda, then sat down herself.
“Don’t talk yet,” she instructed. “Drink that, have a biscuit, and calm down a bit, and then we’ll talk things over.”
Though she shook her head at her friend’s bossy manner, Hilda obeyed nevertheless, and they sat for a few minutes in silence, sipping their tea and nibbling at biscuits. Finally, Hilda laid her empty cup down on the table and looked at Nell with a smile.
“Thank you, my dear. I needed that.”
“So I should say. It’s been a long time since I saw you so upset,” Nell replied.
“Do you think I over-reacted, then?”
“All things considered, yes,” Nell said thoughtfully. “The girls are fine, other than the fright they got. I know we’re always concerned about being able to return Plas Howell in good condition, but the floor can be put right, and the stove lid repaired or replaced. Really, it’s the school equipment that’s come off worst, and that’s hardly irreplaceable, whatever Herr Laubach may say!”
“It’s not the house I’m thinking about,” Hilda replied with an impatient gesture. “Oh, I’m thankful there’s no great damage done, but that’s not what concerns me.”
“So what is it that’s worrying you?”
“Nell, I know no-one was hurt, but do you realise how easily someone could have been? A red-hot stove lid was flung across the hall with enough force to knock over a cupboard!”
“It probably rattled quite a bit first...” Nell dried up suddenly as Hilda glared at her. “No, I see your point, it could have been a tragedy. But it wasn’t!”
“And that’s enough for you?” Hilda’s voice was very quiet, and her expression serious.
Nell sipped her tea silently, turning over Hilda’s question in her mind. Finally, she looked up, meeting her friend’s eyes.
“I think… it has to be enough. Children will do idiotic things sometimes, but how can we stop them? We don’t want to watch the girls all the time - and it would be impossible, anyway, and they’d still find ways to get into trouble that we’d never anticipate. After all, who’d ever have thought that girls old enough for Lower Third would be foolish enough to mess around with a stove? We do our best to teach them to be sensible, but the responsibility is theirs in the end.”
“There’s a great deal of truth in what you say,”Hilda said, considering this response. “But wouldn’t you still feel responsible if someone had been injured tonight, even though logically you’re not to blame?”
“Feelings,” Nell noted somewhat wrily, “are not the most logical things.”
“You seem to handling this far more rationally than I am,” Hilda answered. Her cheeks flushed slightly with embarrassment, something Nell’s sharp eyes noticed at once.
“I think it’s because I teach science - Oh, don’t glare like that! I’m serious,” she said quickly, for Hilda’s eyes had narrowed at what it must be admitted had sounded a great deal like an opening for Nell’s usual teasing of her unscientific friend.
“What I mean is that in a chemistry lab, for example, accidents are very much a part of life,” she went on. “Any mistress worth her salt does what she can to prevent them, but I know there’s always a risk. So when something not too serious does happen, I’m more inclined to be relieved than worried.”
“I see...” Hilda replied thoughtfully. “That makes sense. Though I seem to recall you blaming yourself a good bit when Evvy Lannis blew the laboratory up!” Her eyes were twinkling now.
“And didn’t you and Con and - oh, everyone - tell me not to be such an ass?” Nell retorted. “So that’s settled. Now, what do I have to do to talk you out of making me break the sad news to Herr Laubach? Because I warn you here and now, I don’t guarantee the school will still be standing when you return!”
She had meant to make Hilda laugh with that, but to her surprise her friend looked at her in dismay. “Oh, Nell, can’t you handle him? If I have to stay and tell him, the whole day will be wasted, and there’s so much I have to see to in Armiford.”
“Of course I’ll deal with him,” Nell hastened to reassure her. “I was only teasing, and I never expected you to take it seriously. Though I will keep my fingers crossed that it rains on Monday!”
Hilda did laugh then, for Nell held up her hands and began attempting to cross all her fingers at once. “Idiot! As for taking you seriously, I know what a temper you have when you’re really roused, and Herr Laubach in a fury is enough to bring out the worst in anyone.”
Nell dropped her clowning and gave her a warm smile. “I’ll be good, I promise.” Examining her friend’s face, she realised Hilda still looked worried, despite her laughter at Nell’s antics. “I think we’d best change the subject,” she continued. “I did promise you a nice quiet time, didn’t I? So let’s have some more tea, and you can tell me what you think of Agatha Christie’s latest.”
“Ah, yes, murder. Such a nice peaceful subject,” Hilda replied, her voice heavy with sarcasm. But she took her refilled cup without demur, and the pair were soon embroiled in literary discussion, the Middles well and truly forgotten for the time being.