When Mademoiselle Lepattre said that I was to go with Nell to the Stubai at half-term, I thought I should burst with pleasure. I had the queer sensation of translucency, there in the staff room: felt certain that everyone must see my eyes shining, my skin flushed, my legs trembling, my breath ragged. But if anyone did notice, they must have thought nothing of it, or otherwise attributed my excitement to the trip itself - I was still a 'new girl' in the Tyrol, after all, and even those who had been there much longer still thrilled in the magnificence of the land all around us. My faith was never stronger, nor simpler, than it was in those Tyrolean years; the steadfast, unyielding mountains, and the beautiful tranquil lakes beneath them, constantly reaffirmed to me the existence of an equally steadfast, beautiful and loving God.
Neither did any of my colleagues notice, or at least pass comment on, the shaky grin I returned to a woman sat altogether too near for my easy comfort - close enough to easily reach over and pat my arm with a hand which was both brisk and firm, as I had expected, and gentle, as I had not. Certainly nobody noticed the way her touch seared through me, my skin surely exploding in flames beneath her palm. I suppose, once again, my relative newness counted in my favour; nobody here yet knew me well enough to recognise how very out-of-the-ordinary it would be for me - me! - to appear at all shy. The only person who might have begun to form a strong enough impression for such conclusions was Nell herself, but even she would have struggled for a yardstick to measure any irregularity against, since my behaviour around her was so awkwardly erratic, dancing from confident laughter to enthralled silence to panicked evasion.
The thought of half-term in Fulpmes glowed within me through a less than easy start to the term. The Easter term is never the easiest, with illness nearly as predictable as the weather is unpredictable, and Eustacia's antagonistic presence across two forms - as well as her almost immediate enmity with the prefects - served to make this a particularly trying one. Even still, as I came to bed tearing my hair out night after night, the thought of half-term could always raise a small smile and a shiver of anticipation.
From such heady heights, the sudden and persistent nag of toothache a mere fortnight later seemed utterly disastrous, a cruel trick of fate. Afraid of being instantly deemed unwell, temporarily delicate and a poor choice of half-term escort I kept it hidden for as long as I could, avoiding drawing any attention to myself amongst the rest of the staff and trying, without great success, to avoid the cycle of guilt-inducing temper and infuriating guilt as far as the girls were concerned. Through efforts of Herculean proportions, I evaded Matey's eagle eye for longer than I had expected, though Nell caught me one morning in the staff splasheries and asked if anything was wrong, said I'd seemed quieter.
I thanked her for her concern but insisted all was fine, an answer she seemed to accept, though not to believe: "I'm glad to hear it. I hope you know my door is always open, if you need - or want - to talk. I'd be happy to help."
Needless to say, I didn't take her up on it; but in the event it was only a few days later that the problem became impossible to hide any longer. The swelling, which had been near invisible until now, became far more pronounced, and I could no longer force myself to eat and smile through the pain, in spite of my best efforts. At the end of an especially trying day - in which the Fourth and Fifth both conspired to new feats of carelessness and time-wasting - I was spied and promptly hauled off to bed by the redoubtable Matron, bearing chilli paste and some other nostrum far stronger than the oil of cloves I had been fitfully self-medicating with, and promising a trip to Herr von Francius the following morning.
Matey would not have admonished any member of staff in the school corridor, but her face as she marched me to my room said all it needed to. Passing Nell Wilson on her way out of her own room added the final touches to my shame. Nell's eyes went swiftly to my swollen cheek, then to Matey.
"You'll have her fixed up and ready for half-term I hope, Gwynneth?" Her tone was light and she smiled at first Matey, then me.
"I'd have had her fixed up and ready a good week ago, had she come to me when the tooth first started." Matey's words, and face, were deliberately severe, but bore no malice, and I was certain I saw a twinkle of amusement in Nell's grey eyes. "Yes, she'll be right as rain in plenty of time. No need for mollycoddling over a bad tooth!" - this last addressed to me, of course. As if I had any wish to spend any longer in bed than absolutely necessary!
"I'm very pleased to hear it. I should hate to be solely responsible for all those girls up a mountain - so just you take what treatment's given to you and get better quickly, do you hear?" She grinned at us both, then strode off in the direction of the staff room.