With all the excitement of the Third’s experimenting with snow and stoves, followed by Lavender causing a flood, the previous conversation the Staff had been having was almost entirely forgotten. Almost, but not quite; when Hilda got into bed that night, a niggling feeling that she was forgetting something refused to let her sleep. After tossing and turning for a while, she gave it up and began going through the day in her head, hoping the answer was to be found there.
A few letters to parents that still needed answering, some business matters that had to be attended to… no, there was nothing especially worrying there. The girls’ foolishness, and Herr Laubach’s probable rage? No, Nell had calmed her down on both those counts. Nell… it was something to do with Nell. She racked her tired brain - and suddenly, as clearly as if she were hearing it again, Nell’s voice rang out in her mind. “It didn't matter so much about me. I have no one in particular to grieve if I'd gone.” She had noticed it at the time, but - knowing Nell wouldn’t thank her for arguing it then and there - had followed her friend’s segue into discussing Blossom, then turned to other matters. She had meant to talk it over later in private, but the excitements of the afternoon had driven it out of her mind.
So that was it. Well, it was much too late to do anything about it now; she had been late in going to bed, and even Nell would be asleep at this time, or should be at least. But tomorrow she would take it up with her. The decision made, she rolled over once more, and finally fell asleep.
“Nell? Do you have a moment?” Hilda asked, popping her head round her friend’s bedroom door at the call of “who is it?”
“For you, and only for you, yes,” Nell replied, looking up from her towering pile of essays with a rather wild expression that was only accentuated by the disarray of her hair. “But if that moment involves any requests taking me away from my marking, I won’t be happy and I give you fair warning!”
“Why ever are you marking in your room? Don’t you have a perfectly good desk in the Staff room?” Hilda asked, temporarily distracted.
“These absolutely must be done today, and people talk to me there,” Nell replied, her whole tone showing deep disapproval of such dreadful behaviour as talking to her.
“The horror!” Laughing, Hilda quickly revised her plans. “I was going to invite you to join me for elevenses, but I can see that won’t be appreciated. When you’re done marking, why don’t you come and find me in the library? I’ll give you a restorative tea.”
“I think I’ll need it, so thank you! I accept with pleasure. Now…” she trailed off, and Hilda completed the sentence, smirking.
“Run along and leave me in peace? Yes, ma’am!” Hilda suited words to actions, closing Nell’s door and setting off down the corridor. Perhaps it was a good thing really that Nell had no time now; she could finish her own duties, and marshall her arguments for the afternoon.
True to her word, Nell showed up at the library in good time for tea. Hilda, waiting for her with little fruit cakes she had coaxed out of Megan besides the usual biscuits, was pleased to see that her friend no longer bore the faintly deranged look she had worn that morning. In answer to her queries, Nell confirmed that she had indeed managed to finish all her correcting, and launched into a diatribe against some of the Fourth’s ideas of Science. The mix of her clever sarcasms, the honest howlers she brought in to illustrate her point, and her cheerful wild exaggerations, soon had Hilda giggling madly. Part of her mind, though, continued to dwell on the reason she had invited Nell to join her, just as it had all day; and the more they talked, the more absurd she found it and the angrier it made her that Nell could have said such a thing. How could this brilliant woman be so foolish as to think her life was worthless - for wasn’t that, essentially, what it amounted to?
“Nell,” she began, rather more abruptly than she had intended to. “I’ve been remembering something you said yesterday, about when you left Guernsey with Joey and Frieda… you said it wouldn’t have mattered if you’d died. You don’t really think that, do you? You can’t possibly.”
Nell looked at her in some surprise as she set down her cup. “Goodness, have you been thinking about that all this time? In any case, you’re exaggerating, my dear. I didn’t say that nobody would have shed a tear for me! What I said was that it didn’t matter so much about me, because no one would have grieved particularly; and that, before you jump down my throat, is perfectly true. Imagine how devastated Jack, and the Russells, and the Bettanys, would have been if Joey and the Triplets had died? Or Bruno von Ahlen and the Mensches if Frieda had been lost? Joey and Frieda both have husbands and families, and I don’t.”
Hilda frowned, pondering how to answer. She carefully avoided the topic of husbands, remembering how close Con’s marriage had been to that escape. Hang Con! Was that part of the reason for this nonsense of Nell’s? But she knew it would just make matters worse to dig into that. Instead, she said, “What about your cousin and her boys? Oh, I know you’re not terribly close to them, but they would have grieved you. And what about Biddy?”
“I may be her legal guardian, but it’s Madge and Jem who raised her really,” Nell pointed out.
“The Russells had a big hand in her upbringing, but so did you, and she loves you. She’d have been heartbroken, and she would have mourned you bitterly, I can promise you that - as would everyone at this school, the girls and the Staff alike! You matter to us all.”
“Yes, but - ” Nell began to argue, but Hilda cut her off, running out of patience with this impossibly stubborn woman.
“Yes but nothing,” she snapped, with more vim than grammar. “Your death would have mattered, just as your life matters! So don’t think such utterly ridiculous nonsense about no-one grieving you.”
Nell glared at her. “I never said that!”
“But can you promise me you never thought it?” Hilda asked, suddenly quiet.
Nell continued to glare, but her silence - the only answer her hard-headed but honest friend could give - was answer enough for Hilda. The shock of realising that her fears on that count were true cut through her anger.
“Nell, I don’t want to quarrel with you,” she said, softening her tone. “I just want you to understand, to believe, that if you had been lost, our loss would have been irreplaceable. My loss would have been irreplaceable, for I would have lost my senior Mistress, my right hand in the School, and above all my dear, dear friend.” She reached out and took Nell’s hands in her own, willed her to believe it; to see in Hilda’s eyes the grief and horror she felt at the mere thought of Nell’s death. “Can’t you believe that? Believe that you would have been missed, and mourned, by myself and by so many others?”
Nell didn’t speak for a few moments, just held Hilda’s gaze. The anger in her face faded, mixed with grief and gratitude and other unidentifiable emotions. “I - ” she began, her voice husky. Clearing her throat, she tried again. “I think so. Yes.” She squeezed the hands that held hers. “Thank you.”
Then, pulling away, she continued in a deliberately cheerful tone, “Now, didn’t you promise me a restorative tea this morning? Hand over those fruit cakes you’ve been hoarding on your side of the table, or I shall charge you with false pretenses! And you might tell me what’s happened in the School today. I’ve been so busy, I dare say the roof could have fallen down and I wouldn’t have noticed it - except perhaps to flick bits of plaster off my desk.”
Hilda did as she asked, passing the cakes and changing the subject. She was secretly glad to do so; she had been rather startled by how her intended gentle persuasions had changed to passionate arguments, how fierce her anger and worry had been. It had been important to convince Nell, of course, but usually she had better control of herself… Nell, seeming to realise that she wasn’t entirely paying attention to their conversation, smiled at her - a real smile, not that forced cheeriness. Smiling back, Hilda let go of her thoughts and concentrated on her friend. Yes, her words had been fiercer than she had intended, but they had made Nell listen, and she had taken them to heart. That was what really mattered.