As soon as Nell was safely through the door, Hilda closed it behind her, shutting out the blizzard. Ignoring the heaped-up snow that had made its way inside as she waited with the door open, anxiously looking out for Nell, she took her partner’s hands and pulled her towards the ceramic stove. Those few minutes of standing in the icy wind had given her enough of a taste of the weather outside to know that Nell must be half frozen.
“Thank you,” Nell said, as she took off her gloves and held her bare hands over the stove, sighing with relief. It was so good to be back indoors, out of the cold. The coil of rope felt heavy on her shoulder, and she realised she didn’t have to carry it any more, but could simply drop it to the floor. Her fingers still felt too cold to tackle the knot that held it tied round her waist, so she left it for the time being. Instead, she reached up to remove her scarf, but Hilda took the end from her.
“Keep warming yourself, I’ll take it off. So you couldn’t find your way across?” she asked, carefully unwinding the scarf from Nell’s neck.
“Couldn’t even find the hedge,” Nell admitted. “It’s dreadful out there, you can’t see a foot in front of your nose. I’m sorry, my dear, but it looks like we’re stuck here for the duration.”
“Don’t worry about it. You did your best, and you know you’d never have been happy if you hadn’t attempted it,” Hilda said comfortingly.
“I suppose so,” Nell replied with a shrug. She still felt frustrated by her failure, but it couldn’t be helped. Her hands were warm now, and she quickly undid the rope end knotted round her, letting it fall on top the coil. Realising she still had her ski goggles and cap on, she reached up impatiently and pulled both off, and Hilda gave an exclamation of horror.
“Nell! Whatever’s happened to you?”
Too late, Nell remembered that her unfortunate encounter would have left its mark on her face. Still, what else could she have done? She could hardly keep everything on for the rest of the day.
“Oh, don’t worry, it’s nothing much,” she said lightly, attempting to pass it off.
Hilda’s eyebrows shot up. “Nothing much?” she replied, her disagreement with that assessment ringing in every note. “Have you seen yourself? You look as if you’d been in a boxing match!”
She pointed Nell to the hall mirror, forcing her to admit that her partner did have a point. The blow had driven the goggles hard into the skin around her right eye, leaving her with a fine dark ring surrounding it. There were also a few other bruises on her forehead - and, she suspected from the way other points were aching, several more on still covered areas.
“A boxing match is rather an exaggeration, I think,” she said mildly. “I’ll put some ice on the worst parts - mercifully that’s one thing we’re not short of! - and I’ll be fine. Just let me get back into indoor clothes, and I’ll take care of it.”
She tried to turn and go to her room, but Hilda stood in front of her, blocking the corridor.
“You’re not going anywhere until you tell me what happened to you,” she stated, already inwardly reproaching herself. She knew it was too dangerous! Why had she ever let Nell go?
Nell tried to step around her, but Hilda held her ground, and she gave up with a sigh of defeat. “It’s nothing, Hilda, honestly. I just… ah… ran into a little trouble.”
“A little trouble? Perhaps you could be more specific, if it isn’t too much effort?” Hilda asked with the gentle irony the girls held so much in awe.
It had its usual effect. Nell looked heavenwards as if asking for guidance, then met her eyes reluctantly. “A tree, Hilda. I ran into a tree.”
Laughter, incredulity, anger - any or all of these were the reactions Nell was expecting. But the guilt that spread over Hilda’s features astonished her.
“I’m sorry, darling. I should have stopped you going…” very gently, she touched Nell’s bruised face. “This is all my fault.”
“I walk into a tree and it’s your fault? I’ve never heard anything so absurd in my life!” Nell retorted.
Hilda bit her lip. “If I hadn’t been so upset about missing Christmas with the Maynards, would you have come up with this ridiculous plan?”
“Yes, I would, because I was just as upset at the idea as you were,” Nell replied instantly. “And my plan was not ridiculous, thank you very much! It had every chance of working, I was just unlucky.”
Hilda’s eyes flashed, and she seemed ready to snap back. Then her expression changed to a rueful smile, and she took Nell’s hands instead. “We won’t argue about it, love. You’re back safely, and that’s all that matters. Come with me; let’s change our clothes, then we can see to your bruises.”
Nell linked her arm with Hilda’s. “Lead on, Macduff,” she cheerfully - and deliberately - misquoted, causing her friend to roll her eyes. “I’m starting to feel like a boiled lobster after standing by the stove in my ski suit!”
It wasn’t until they were back in the study, and Nell was sitting in an armchair holding an ice pack to her left elbow as the currently most painful spot, that she finally saw the familiar teasing twist in Hilda’s smile.
“Nell,” Hilda began in her most innocent voice, “how exactly did you manage to walk into a tree?”
“Quite easily,” Nell answered in a matching tone. “I just put one foot in front of the other until I collided with the trunk. Easy as falling off a log!”
Pulling a face at the cliche’d expression, Hilda instantly sniped back, and they settled into the familiar banter. Though she was careful not to let it show, deep down Nell felt extremely relieved; if Hilda could tease her about it, she was no longer absurdly blaming herself. Everything was back to normal.