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Author's Chapter Notes:

The bolded bits are direct quotes from the book - or almost. I've changed tenses once or twice but that's all.


When the last day of teaching dawned, I woke before the bell and lay in bed for a moment collecting my thoughts, and feeling grateful to be fully fit and well. I felt guilty for the way I had allowed my stress to affect my behaviour, of course, and my cheeks burned to recall recent transgressions, but - if I were being completely honest - more than anything else at all I felt my own selfish relief. I was going to Fulpmes with Nell!

***

I sneaked a glance at her as we passed under the pine trees. It was not yet properly dusk above us, and even down here it was still light enough that the girls walking ahead needed little more than a cursory eye kept on them; nonetheless, night came earlier in the valley and the trees blocked out a large portion of the natural light that did remain, and I was glad of the lanterns we carried. Nell's chestnut hair shone in their light, and her eyes, too, sparkled.

She turned at that moment, and I blushed to be caught looking at her so. I caught a startled look on her face, so subtle I wouldn't have noticed it had I not been watching so intently: her mouth closed, as if she had thought better of whatever she had intended to say, and she gave me a quick smile before starting again. "I love the smell of the trees here. I remember my very first time coming out here, stepping off the train at Spartz and knowing that the School would have to fall very far short of my expectations for me to want to leave."

I grinned, grateful for the distraction from my blushes a moment before. "And it didn't, then?"

Nell smiled more broadly. "No, evidently! I hadn't really expected to - when I first met with Madge and Therese, I felt certain their school would be somewhere I could work well. I like my job, I like my boss, I like my colleagues and I like the location - I count my blessings every day, believe me. It's very much different from my previous position," and she broke off slightly and set her gaze straight ahead, though it was clear her eyes were unseeing and her mind elsewhere.

The small town of Spartz was now visible beyond the trees. Unbidden, the girls ceased their singing, and Nell came out of her reverie, falling into step beside me once more. "I hope this walk hasn't been too much for Robin. It's not such a long way, though, and I suppose she's rather buoyed by her excitement just now." She leaned closer, her shoulder brushing against mine, and murmured into my ear: "I don't mind telling you, though, I'm looking forward to tonight's hotel." She seemed to dwell a moment longer than strictly necessary, and her low voice so close to me made my own breath catch in my throat. I opened my mouth but no reply came. My ears burned. "Con? Are you all right?" Traces of sudden apprehension showed in the corners of her face, if you knew where to look for them.

I nodded, mutely, searching for the right words to allay her concern without giving myself away. "Yes, I - me, too. Glad to be - staying in Innsbruck, that is." I stuttered, keeping my eyes fixed on the girls as they marched neatly along ahead of us. Nell and I had got on well as soon as we had met, had talked endlessly on walk after walk, night after night in the staff room. And yet increasingly I found myself lost for words in her company.

Nell laughed softly and slipped her arm through mine. "Tired? It's not been the easiest of terms, has it? The second half shouldn't be so trying, I'm sure of it. And we'll be sat on the train soon now." She was right - even as she spoke we were coming into view of the station.

In the train the Robin promptly fell asleep, and some of the others were not slow in following her example. The sleepers in our company lent a peaceful air to the journey, which nobody much liked to interrupt. Even Nell looked suddenly softer, Dorothy Brentham's head resting on her arm.
As the train limped into the outskirts of Innsbruck, Nell began to gently rouse Dorothy, and Louise Redfield did likewise with quiet Violet Allison. Joey caught my eye and gestured questioningly at little Robin, still fast asleep. I shook my head; the baby's health was subject to Dr Jem's careful management and it seemed unwise to disturb her sleep unless absolutely essential, even if it was still quite early. "Better not wake her, Jo. I'll carry her from here." And as the train pulled into the station, I lifted the dainty child from her beloved "sister's" lap and carried her from the train, leaving Nell to shepherd the other girls and their luggage onto the platform where we were met by Herr Marani and Herr Mensch.

Once we had reached the great Europe Hotel, I settled the baby in the cot in the room she was to share with Joey. Jo was swiftly tidying herself for Abendessen, and Nell brought Robin's supper of bread-and-milk, ready for when she should wake - as she did, shortly after. She was undressed, bathed and tucked into bed, there to eat her supper, and Jo placed a gentle kiss on her forehead before slipping quietly from the room. I sat with her a while longer before crossing the hallway into my own room to splash some water on my face and run a comb through my hair before going downstairs.

When I descended, I found only Nell, sitting in the salon with a cup of coffee and a book. She smiled as I approached. "Joey, Elsie and Anne have gone to the Maranis, Eustacia, Louise and Violet to the Rincinis, and Dorothy and Ruth to the Mensches. We also had invitations, but I said we had better be here for Robin - I hope you don't mind?" She added hurriedly, the thought clearly having only just occurred to her.

I grinned, and shook my head. "Not at all. They're dear girls, but I'm glad for some time without the responsibility. - and I'm sure that feeling is mutual!"

Nell's laugh rang out, acknowledging the truth in my words. "Oh, I quite agree! Now, Abendessen will be served at twenty o'clock and it's currently a quarter to. I suggest we first decide  any details of our journey tomorrow, and then we can stop 'talking shop' and turn to more agreeable topics."

"I thought we might take the longer route, taking the electric tram from the Westbahnhof to Wilten and then walking to the Stubaital-Bahnhof. It's a bit of a trot I know but, for the sake of the new girls, I think it well worth doing, so that they see as much of Innsbruck as possible. If they tire too soon, it's always possible to get a tram."

Nell nodded. "It is a good idea. And their cases will be sent on to Fulpmes, so they will have nothing to carry but small hand-bags. Well, that's settled, and we should arrive at our pension shortly before Mittagessen. I think they will send someone to meet us from the train, but if not I'm sure there will be someone who can direct us." Satisfied, she stood and extended an arm to me, gesturing with her other hand towards the Gastzimmer. "Shall we? Actually, I suppose that ought to be 'may I?'" She mused thoughtfully, taking my pale hand in her rather more weathered arm as she led me through the hotel.




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