The staff-room was busier than usual for a Sunday, and buzzing gently with the excitement of its visitor.
"Have you all heard that our one and only Mary-Lou has taken it upon herself to invite Emerence Hope, of all people, home for the half-term?" Ivy Norman asked the room at large from where she sat curled up on a pouffe. "That's as well as Carola Johnstone and the Björnesson girls, of course. Quite frankly Signa Björnesson is handful enough without adding the Australian child into the mix - I would have thought."
"'Tis poor Mrs Trelawney I'm feeling sorry for," Biddy O'Ryan murmured with real feeling, perched gracefully on the arm of the sofa nearest the well-loved visitor. "Would you just imagine? I'm sure there's a number of white hairs in this room that weren't there this summer, and all credit to Emerence!"
"Oh, she can't be so awful, surely?" This interjection came from Mary Burnett herself, comfortably ensconced on the sofa and perceptibly more relaxed than she had seemed on Thursday evening, when Rhyll had last seen her. "It's not as though we've not had our fair share of firebrands in the past, after all. Come to think of it, Biddy, I remember you at fourteen -"
Much laughter greeted this reminder, and Biddy shrieked and covered her face in her hands. As the pealing laughter subsided, she peered above her fingertips and narrowed her eyes at her tormentor: "Oh, I'll admit I was no angel, but I was nowhere near the exploits of this one - or plenty of others I could mention, for that matter. But you've a point, we do usually manage to pull them in well enough - 'til now. Why, even Miss Jennifer Penrose is a different girl this term. I daresay she's doing her fair share in the garden these days, Evvy?" Her eyes twinkled as she asked the question in much too innocent a voice, and Rhyll grinned as she nodded in reply.
"Oh, keen as mustard, and very much ready to learn, too. As you say, quite a different girl." From the corner of her eye, she saw Peggy give her a curious look from where she sprawled against her sister, her head resting easily on Mary's shoulder.
"And it's no less a transformation than plenty of others we've seen." This was Dollie Edwards, over from St Agnes for the day and now standing at the lattice window through which afternoon sunlight streamed warmly, her cigarette hand resting on the open frame. "Just look at Elizabeth Arnett, not so many years ago..."
The smiling nods of agreement in response to this gradually became rather fixed, as most of those present silently recalled first the reformed sinner who had eventually grown into a well-regarded Head Girl, and then by association her erstwhile bosom friend Betty Wynne-Davies, one of the very few to have proven too great a task for the Chalet School.
"It's a shame," began Biddy, perhaps best placed to reflect on these two former classmates of her own. "It's a real shame Betty couldn't turn it around. I'm sorry to say it, and I hope to goodness I'm proven wrong, but it's her that this Emerence character most reminds me of, so it is."
"But in the end, it was not that Betty could not 'turn it around', as you say," interjected pretty little Jeanne de Lachenais, as usual carefully pouring oil on troubled waters. "Indeed, she wrote you a very thoughtful letter after it all, Hilda, did she not? For Betty, it was not the easiest route, but finalement the story is a happy one, n'est-ce pas?"
"That's quite right," the Head, thus addressed, put in from her window-seat. "In any event, I'm not so sure she is the right likeness for our Emerence, Biddy. Betty had had a difficult upbringing and, in a way, it very much threatened to warp her character. Emerence, whilst a perfect product of misguided parenting, has at least a very clear sense of herself as a real person who matters and is loved. There's a powerful foundation in that, and to an extent it is much easier to undo bad training than it is to create - or recreate - that inherent sense of self. I have every faith that our stormiest petrel will improve eventually - as has almost always been the case before."
The room was respectfully silent for a few moments as those present digested Miss Annersley's words, until Biddy's irrepressible cheer bubbled up once more. "And before we get too caught up recollecting my own misdeeds and reformation yet again, I seem to recall a number of hair-raising tales of Jo's own exploits in Tyrol, and we all know what a fine upstanding citizen she is today!"
With this rejoinder, the staff-room relaxed one again into easy laughter and reminiscence. In spite of her own lengthy tenure, and the unerringly welcoming intentions of the rest of the staff, Rhyll felt a familiar pang, an awareness of her own position on the outside. She was unable to disguise a grin of relief when Pam Slater, stood alone by the fireplace on the other side of the room, caught her eye with a conspiratorial wink.
Rhyll darted a quick glance around her colleagues, hoping none had witnessed this display of irreverent camaraderie; after all, Biddy had really only made the remark about Jo as a means to restore the atmosphere, and for all she invariably found Slater's candidness greatly refreshing, Rhyll had no intention of taking any position on the uneasy truce that existed between her two colleagues. Thankfully, all were fully engaged in the tales of days gone by: it seemed to be the story about Jo rescuing her friend Elisaveta, using skills learned through Guiding - Rhyll couldn't help but wonder at the rather juvenile efforts of the wayward Prince and his companion, thus undone - and even Rosalind and Ruth, both surely too new to have yet met Jo herself, were giving the tale their full attention.
Meanwhile, Slater had sidled up beside her. "You know, I suppose this was one of the better stories - the first time I heard it," she murmured, sotto voce. "At least it's not one of the 'Jo Bettany, the greatest Head Girl that ever there was' yarns. Cigarette?" Rhyll shook her head, and Slater continued: "Now Mary, you can see how she might have been the best Head Girl. Jo? I'm less convinced."
Rhyll shrugged, still balancing gratitude and respect against her desire to avoid forming a faction - or merely being perceived to do so. "I'm not sure there's really any glory in being the greatest Head Girl that ever there was, anyway. One of the great myths of schooldays, isn't it?"
Slater grinned. "Well, you were never Head Girl, were you, with such a circumspect attitude as that?"
"Nor were you," Rhyll surmised shrewdly, realising only after she'd spoken that her words could be conveyed as an insult.
Fortunately, Slater only grinned wider. "Touché! No, I wasn't quite the right sort - for a change. Not enough of an all-rounder, I don't think, - and probably too interested in my own work to boot."
Rhyll raised an eyebrow. "In a man, they'd call that 'single-minded' and grant you a promotion."
Slater snorted appreciatively. "I've often thought that might make for an easier life, all things considered."
Rhyll carefully didn't take a quick glance at Peggy before she spoke, though she heard her voice chime in with the main conversation at that moment, sweet and cheerful; she didn't let her gaze settle thoughtfully on Peggy's sparkling dark eyes set in a face which was pale and clear, and from which her good nature shone unabashed; she didn't even pause long enough to conjure up her most detailed mental picture of her younger colleague, flashing a beguiling smile revealing even white teeth and any quantity of charming mischief, lest her own face somehow give her away.
"Oh, easier, absolutely. But nothing like as interesting."