It was a bright day in early autumn, and the Chalet School girls had been sent on a ramble.
“You’ll have plenty of time for lessons later,” said Nell Wilson, “but this nice weather won’t last for much longer. We may as well make the most of it while we can.”
Accordingly she had gathered the middles, while Hilda Annersley took the seniors and Ivy Norman the juniors, and they had set off in various directions according to their desires. The juniors had gone towards the pine woods, in the hope of finding any berries that were left over to make a pleasant addition to their tea that afternoon, while the seniors opted to go in the direction of the Dripping Rock. The middles, meanwhile, had followed Joey Bettany’s suggestion of walking around the lake to Buchau and getting the steamer back to Briesau. It was, as she said, a jolly walk, and the sun was shining so brightly that everyone was in a good temper, and inclined to agree with her.
Joey was walking with Elisaveta, her great friend, who had come back to the school for a second term, and the pair were inciting jealous stares from Simone Lecoutier, who had hoped to have Joey to herself for this walk. Elisaveta was oblivious, fortunately, and Joey pretended not to see, and Miss Wilson has her eye on all three of them, hoping to forestall any arguments. In any case, the pair soon lagged behind, involved as they were in a discussion about the Belsornian language, which Joey was determined to learn, and so when they came upon the young woman who sitting on a chair on the veranda of one of the smaller chalets on the edge of Buchau, they were quite some distance from the rest of the chalet crowd.
Joey would not have paid any attention to the unfamiliar face of the woman, for in the three years that she had lived here she had grown accustomed to visitors, and she was prepared to pass by with nothing more than a nod and smile and a “Grüss Gott!”, when Elisaveta stopped all of a sudden, and exclaimed in French,
The young woman looked round and rose to her feet, eyebrows arched in surprise.
”Cousin Elisaveta," she said, coming slowly forward to greet them. "This, I did not expect.”
”What are you doing here?” said Elisaveta, submitting to an embrace remarkable for its casual insouciance, for her friend’s young cousin was plainly surprised to see Elisaveta, and not at all pleased. “Does Cousin Alexander know?”
“Of course,” said young woman, cutting her short with an abruptness that would have been rude in anyone else, but which seemed to cause the young princess no surprise. “He has no objections. But what are you doing here?”
”I am here at school,” said Elisaveta, and Joey could see in her friend the same difference that she had adopted when Cosimo’s jackal, Ternikai, had stopped them in the forest last term; she stood straighter, shoulders back, head held with a regal air that sat ill with her schoolgirl plaits and crumpled gymslip. “My father decided that I should spend some time learning away from court.”
”Very sensible of him,” said the woman. “And so the old duffer let you go? Res miranda.”
She looked then at Joey, who was so fascinated by the woman's reference to Elisaveta's grandfather, the King of Belsornia, as 'the old duffer' that she had been staring somewhat impolitely without realising. But Elisaveta was no stranger to social courtesies, and on seeing her cousin’s glance, turned to invite her friend to join the conversation.
“Cousin Sophia," she said, continuing in French, "may I present Miss Joey Bettany. Joey, this is…”
But a very slight shake of the head from the young woman, so slight as to be perceptible only to an observant child like Joey, made the little princess pause, and her friend could see that she was thinking carefully. Joey looked at the young woman curiously. She was strung like a bow, tension quivering in her slender frame, and Joey wondered what it could be that caused her so great an anxiety.
”Sophia Alexis,” said the young woman, holding out a hand to Joey, though almost as soon as that young lady had grasped it, it was withdrawn with just a hint of hauteur. “As you may have guessed, I am a slight relation of this young lady.”
What a peculiar woman, thought Joey, studying Sophia Alexis with interest. She was tall and verging on too-thin, with her brown hair bobbed (though not waved) and quite an ordinary face, the sort that might be pretty if she were to put a little effort into makeup - or a smile. Her clothes, too, were quite plain – a simple shift dress in blue and white sailor stripes, silk stockings, quite boring shoes - and yet even Joey’s unpractised eye could tell that nothing she wore was quite as plain as it looked. The simple shift was not cotton, but cut from the finest silk; the shoes were of common design, but uncommon quality. And as for the delicate silk stockings…
I wouldn’t dare even to roll them up, thought Joey, imagining her sister’s face should she tear such a fine garment. Impossible to darn them back to life, should an accident occur...
“Not Lady Sophia?” she said aloud. “I mean,” she added, as Sophia shot her a sharp look, “I thought any relation of a princess must be a ‘Lady’ at the very least.”
A nudge from Elisaveta told her that she was being rude and she had the grace to blush, but Sophia shrugged it aside.
”Titles mean little to me,” she said. ”I am here in a private capacity. I, my lady companion, two servants, my studio. This seclusion suits me very well.”
She might have said more, and Joey was certainly bursting to ask questions, but that point Miss Wilson appeared, looking close to anger.
“If you want to walk all the way back to Briesau, you two, you’re going the right way about it,” she snapped at them. “What have you been doing, girls?”
“My apologies, Madame,” said Sophia, raising her voice in English for the first time, and Joey noted the accent - foreign, and yet not quite like Elisaveta’s, nor any other that she had heard at the Belsornian court, for it was deeper, more guttural. She was far more comfortable in French - the language of court, thought Joey, and nodded to herself. “I’m afraid I had been detaining them with chit-chat. Farewell, my young ladies,” she said to the pair. ”You had better obey your schoolma’am - and I must return to my work.”
She nodded at Joey, gave her hand briefly to Elisaveta, and returned to her house, and the two girls turned and ran to join their mistress.
"Do you know that woman, girls?" asked Mrs Wilson as she shepherded them back to join their peers.
"Yes," said Elisaveta and hesitated, before falling back on her cousin’s words. "That is, she is a slight relation of mine."
"I see," said Miss Wilson. She looked as if she would have liked to ask more, but she resisted the temptation and instead bade them to hurry. She set a good pace herself, striding slightly ahead of them to encourage them to keep up.
"What was it that she was fiddling with, when she was saying goodbye?" asked Joey of Elisaveta as they hurried along in the science mistress’s wake.
"What do you mean?" said Elisaveta.
"Just that she had something that she was playing with when she was sitting down, and it looked quite odd," said Joey.
"Oh, that," said Elisaveta, and shrugged. "Cousin Sophia is something of an artist, and she collects all sorts of bits and pieces. I expect it was some kind of object she was drawing or modelling or something. She used to go around with a wooden hand, I seem to remember."
"A wooden hand?"
"Yes. Articulated, you know - like an artist's dummy, but a hand, not a body. She used to play with it, even bring it to meals sometimes, till His… I mean, till Cousin Alexander put a stop to it. But then, they're all a bit…well…"
But their arrival among the rest of the crowd of middles put an end to her description of what the distant relations were a bit like, and they all took to their heels and ran to catch the steamer back to Briesau.