|Still Saturday Afternoon in the Salon|
Hilda was lifting her cup when the phone rang, making her jump. The cup slipped through her hand, coffee flying in all directions. Jack caught the cup before it tumbled to the floor, while Hilda rushed across to take the receiver Matey was holding out to her. She raised an eyebrow.
“Jeanne Sarazan,” Matey murmured, as anxious as her Headmistress.
“Jeanne, my dear, what’s wrong? Why are you inside? You should be out skiing.”
“Miss Annersley, Matron Henschell asks would you come up to Pansy immediately.” Jeanne’s voice was trembling. “She also asks that you phone Dr Jack. We need him.”
“Dr Jack’s here with me, Jeanne. We’re on our way!”
Hilda tossed down the receiver and turned to the door. “Jack, you’re needed upstairs, so bring your bag. Gwynneth, you’d better come, too. I’ve no idea what’s wrong.” Jack grabbed his bag and hurried after Hilda and Matey as they made for the front stairs. Hilda looked at Matey. “Did you hand Helen over to Barbara before the meeting?”
Matey’s head turned in alarm. “You don’t think…”
“I don’t know what to think,” Hilda gasped, “but I should imagine Helen’s in a mood to do almost anything.”
“Why do you say that?” asked Jack, as they reached the top of the stairs and hurried down a long corridor.
“I’m expelling her! She doesn’t know yet, but probably guessed the truth when I told her I’d be speaking to her parents. That was partly what the staff meeting was about.”
Jack frowned as they hurried down yet another corridor. When was the last time Hilda had expelled anyone? “Is that the sort of thing you’ve been doi…?”
Ignoring him, Hilda flung open the door of Pansy dormitory, but stopped dead on the threshold, so horrified was she by the scene that met her eyes. Beside her, Jack swore. Matey stepped round Hilda to see, and nearly used some choice words of her own.
Barbara Henschell was leaning over Sarah Avison, who was sobbing bitterly in a bed halfway up the room on their left. Jeanne stood near the door, her arm round a weeping Lesley Jones from Form IIIA, who clutched her left wrist with her other hand. Gillian Reece, the Games Prefect, was at the far end of the room, holding Helen Cassidy in a tight grip. The latter had been struggling violently to escape, but stopped and remained absolutely still at the sight of her Headmistress.
The adults stared round the dormitory, scarcely able to believe their eyes. There were two beds on either side of Sarah’s, and all four plumeaux were covered in a mass of white foam. Through the foam one could see what appeared to be black, burnt patches. Sarah’s own plumeau lay in a heap on the floor at the end of her bed, and a great deal of black, burnt fabric showed through a mountain of foam. Indeed, the flames had gone right through the plumeau to its underside, which was also black. A fire extinguisher lay beside it, another one lying near Gillian. The smell of burning hung in the air.
“Matron Henschell?” whispered a white-faced Hilda.
“Quite!” said Barbara, her own face as white as the plumeaux. She kept an arm round the sobbing Sarah. “In a nutshell, Jeanne and Gill brought Lesley in to me because she’d fallen off her toboggan and damaged her wrist. She’s in Lobelia dorm so they took her there and I brought Helen along with me, ordering her to stand in the corner furthest away from the door.” She bit down hard on her lower lip to stop it trembling. “I’m afraid all three of us were concentrating on Lesley, doing our best for her, when we heard Sarah scream. That’s when we noticed Helen had gone! By the time we got here, all five beds this side were on fire. Helen was in the act of setting fire to the bed over there, but Gillian managed to catch hold of her, while Jeanne and I worked the fire extinguishers.” She ran down, obviously riddled with guilt. She looked at Jack. “Sarah’s arm’s in a bad way. I was about to take her to the bathroom to douse it in cold running water…”
Hilda had recovered from her first shock. “But why is Sarah still in bed?”
“She cried herself into a bad headache after you left her with me, and wasn’t much better when she woke from her nap, so I kept her here.” Barbara hugged the sobbing girl.
Jack examined the burned arm. “I think running water for five to ten minutes would help considerably. Can you manage, dear?”
Hilda watched as the weeping girl was helped off the bed. Barbara led her from the room, Sarah hugging her arm to her body. Jack went over to Lesley, sat her down on the bed nearest the door and examined her wrist. He opened his bag, asking Jeanne to help him bandage the wrist. An edgy silence fell on the room. In the silence, Hilda once more took in the ruined plumeax, the empty fire extinguishers, and Gillian still keeping a tight hold of Helen. She shuddered. If Barbara and the two girls hadn’t moved so fast…
“She could have burned the whole place down,” whispered Matey, her blue eyes burning with anger.
Jack laid Lesley down on the bed, her wrist now firmly bandaged, and tucked the plumeau round her. He saw Hilda’s stillness, her grave eyes watching him, and wondered what she was thinking.
He turned fierce eyes on Helen, who was as white as Hilda. “You could have killed everyone in here, my girl,” he cried angrily. “What on earth possessed you to…”
Matey held up her hand, stopping him mid-rant. His anger was not needed.
Feeling her legs might now support her, Hilda walked slowly up the room between the two rows of beds, skirting round Sarah’s badly burnt plumeau, until she stood inches from Helen and Gillian. Her cold grey eyes dwelt with such force on Helen that the girl shrank in on herself, her own eyes drooping.
“Thank you for being so quick, Gillian. You, Jeanne and Matron seem to have saved us from disaster, much like the three musketeers. You may let her go now.” The voice was warm, but Gillian was terrified by the unyielding mask that was the Abbess’s face. She stepped hastily to one side, but remained alert
Hilda reached out and tilted up Helen’s face. “Why?”
Everyone in the room shivered. That one word was soft, but cut like a whip. Helen stared back at Hilda, her eyes distended.
Hilda’s hand dropped. “Let me ask you a simpler question. What did you use to set fire to the beds?” Helen licked her lips, tried to speak, but her mouth was too dry.
Gillian put her hand in her pocket, then held it out. On her palm lay a cigarette lighter. Hilda stared, aghast. Her eyes lifted to Gillian.
“She was about to set fire to the bed here, so I grabbed it off her.”
Hilda took the lighter, clasping it tightly in her own hand. “That was very brave of you, Gillian. Would you search all her pockets, please?”
“No!” croaked a terrified Helen. “You can’t!”
Hilda’s face was impassive. “You lost all right to privacy when you burned Sarah’s arm and tried to set the school on fire. Search her, please, Gillian.”
Gillian set to, and produced a second lighter from one blazer pocket, and a small box of matches from the other. In Helen’s dress pocket, she discovered yet another small box. Hilda held out the hand with the lighter in it. The other items joined it. She looked down, her brain scrambling to make sense of it all. Her heart almost stopped at the thought of the damage these small objects could have done.
Her eyes were glacial when they lifted to Helen. “How did you hide these? Someone would have noticed if they were in your blazer pocket around school, and the matrons do spot checks in the dormitories for banned items. Which these are!”
Helen was now trembling violently, but Hilda’s eyes held no pity. They rested on Helen in silence. The girl knew her Headmistress would wait forever, if necessary.
“I keep moving them around. One lighter was in my sponge bag today,” she whispered. “There was one in my shoe in the wardrobe. The matches… sometimes they’re in my dressing gown pocket… sometimes in my pencil box… or my coat pocket… or my gloves…” She ran down.
“Why, Helen?” insisted Hilda. “Why bring them to school, when you’re all told often enough how dangerous fire is in a wooden building with wooden floors and walls?”
Helen shrugged. “I’ve always brought them with me. It’s not doing anyone any harm.”
“Are you insane?” Jack burst out, unable to control himself. “You’re no…”
Matey took hold of his arm and squeezed it painfully. This was Hilda’s province. She was doing fine on her own!
“You know your words aren’t true, don’t you?” said that distant, glacial voice. “You know exactly how much harm these items can do.” A memory nudged its way in. Hilda stared transfixed at the girl. “Last year, the waste paper bin in your form room caught fire. No one knew how it started. It was you, wasn’t it?” Helen’s eyes gave her away. Hilda heard startled gasps behind her. “The Christmas before that, you were one of the candle bearers at the Christmas performance in St Luke’s Hall. A stage curtain caught fire. That was you, too!”
Hilda took a step back, as though to get a better view of her pupil. “What possible reason could you have for playing with people’s lives in such a manner? I dread to think how many people you could have killed in that Hall, or in the school.”
“The fire in the bin was because Miss Wilson told me off.” Helen’s eyes grew angry.
“Deservedly so, I’m sure. And the curtain?” asked the measured voice.
“Someone said... not very nice things about me!”
“You mean they wouldn’t give in to your bullying?” The fire went out of Helen. “Does it make you feel better to start a fire when you’re angry?”
Helen nodded, saw Hilda’s lips tighten and quickly added, “Yes, Miss Annersley.”
“Have you started fires at home?”
“Yes,” Helen whispered, looking frightened again at being so easily understood.
“Your parents never suspected anything?”
“Oh, they’re easy to fool.” Scorn was rife in Helen’s voice.
“It would seem that we, too, are easy to fool,” Hilda commented wryly.
Helen gaped at her. Jack and Matey exchanged glances that were almost amused, despite their feelings of horror. Hilda never said or did what one expected.
Jack could only admire Hilda’s poise. She was calm and restrained, icily restrained, and in complete control of the situation. She was getting far more out of the girl than he would have done with his anger. Instead of haranguing Hilda, perhaps he should take lessons from her. He had never admired her so much, considering the fearful shock she had just received.
Hilda looked down at the items in her hand. “Are there more of these?”
“N… no, Miss Annersley.”
Hilda looked up, the coldness in her eyes searing Helen’s soul. “Can I trust your words?” Helen bit her lip. “I see I can’t! Where are they?” Her voice sliced through the air. Helen flinched. So did Gillian and Jack.
“Lighter… in my gym bag. Ma… matches in my locker,” she stuttered.
Hilda’s eyebrows rose. Her head turned to Matey, who nodded and rustled from the room. At that moment, Barbara Henschell returned with Sarah, who was still sobbing, obviously in great pain. Jack moved across to them with a plumeau taken from the bed nearest to him.
“Could you find me plenty of gauze?” he murmured. Matron left the room again. Jack laid Sarah down, tucking the plumeau round her shivering body and explaining what he was about to do. He went back for his bag. From it, he produced a syringe which he proceeded to fill from a small bottle. He looked over at Hilda, who was watching anxiously. “Dressing that burn will be very painful for her, so I’m going to knock her out. I’ll leave some strong painkillers for later.”
He quickly administered the injection. Hilda saw the girl’s eyes gradually close, her face relax. Barbara returned with the gauze, and she and Jack bent over the bed to dress the wound, Jack having found everything else he needed in his bag. Even as he worked, though, he kept an ear open for what was going on behind him. He found it hard to believe such cold malevolence could be present in one so young.
Hilda turned back to Helen, who was also watching the activity. Hilda saw there was no shame in her face, no pity for Sarah, no remorse.
“Tell me this, Helen.” Hilda drew the girl’s attention back to herself. “We’ve established you like lighting fires, but why today, in particular?”
“They betrayed me!” Helen spat, her anger overcoming her fear of Hilda. “You’d decided you were going to expel me, so what did it matter who I hurt?
“Oh, you read minds, as well, do you?” They all shivered at the menace in the soft purr. “I seem to recall my words were that I would be speaking to your parents. There was no mention of expelling anyone. It’s been many a long year since I expelled a pupil. I usually find some saving grace, no matter how badly a girl may have behaved.”
Helen clenched her lips to stop them trembling. She and her Headmistress both knew that nothing stood between her and expulsion now. There was no saving grace to be found, not in the fires she had started, nor in her actions towards Tonia and Sarah, nor in her disrespect of her Headmistress and the school.
“You say they all betrayed you? Who would that be? Tonia? Julia? Bella? All the latter two did was reveal to me what a vindictive girl you are. Tonia tried to hide your nastiness to save your bacon, but I didn’t hear any thanks for her generosity when she held out a forgiving hand to you in my study a few hours ago.” Hilda’s face was once more implacable, her voice cutting. “There was no betrayal, Helen! Bullying should always be reported. That’s what they did. They gave me the truth, the truth being that you were trying to hurt Tonia, by pushing her and pinching her, by tripping her up so she would bang her head and possibly be badly injured. Then, for good measure, you tried to push her off the gym equipment! Such a huge grudge to bear a courageous girl who changed her own silly ways and tried to help you change yours! You say you weren’t trying to kill her, but I have to ask myself if that’s really true, now I’ve seen for myself just what form your revenge can take.”
Gillian flinched again. She had never admired her Headmistress more, nor been so afraid of her. Jack’s eyes nearly popped out of his head at what was being revealed. How did Hilda restrain herself, when she must long to tear this young woman’s head from her shoulders? He could only imagine what that cold, biting tone was doing to the girl. It was scaring him! He met Barbara’s eyes and saw how distressed she was, but she nodded firmly. He agreed with her. This was Hilda at her best! She might not have much iron in her blood, but she had plenty in her soul!
“Why hurt Sarah?” Hilda rapped out. This time it was Helen who flinched. “Her plumeau was more badly burned than the others. Why was that? Did she also betray you?”
“She… she told lies about me,” Helen whispered.
“No, Helen, she told me the truth about your nasty bullying, threatening to hurt her in the same way you were hurting Tonia.” Hilda could see Helen beginning to wilt. “Why is Sarah’s arm so badly burned? Were you trying to kill her, too?” Helen’s eyes fell under the onslaught of those icy words and clear, cold eyes. “Tell me!”
“She tried to push the plumeau away… when I set it on fire… so I held her arm over the flames, until I…” Tears rolled down Helen’s cheeks, choking her.
“Until you got in the way of the flames yourself and had to let her go,” finished Hilda. “That’s when she screamed!”
“Dear God in Heaven!” whispered Jack. “She’s a lunatic!”
“I wish that were true, Dr Jack,” Hilda replied sadly. “There might then be some excuse for her actions. I’m afraid every single act of hers had intelligent purpose and malicious intent behind it.” Helen’s head lifted. She stared at Hilda. “Interestingly, Helen, every day you join us in saying the Our Father, asking God to forgive us our trespasses, ‘as we forgive those who trespass against us.’” Hilda softly emphasised the words. “Only you don’t, do you? You never forgive anyone anything. You hold your grudges close, and try to work out the most painful way to hurt those who’ve come up against you. What’s worse is that there’s been not one word of sorrow from you for Sarah’s pain or for the damage you’ve done, just as there was no real sorrow for what you did to Tonia. Do you think only bullies have rights?”
“N.. no, Miss Annersley…”
“Oh, you obviously do think that, Helen, so why not be honest? After all, you’re now in so much trouble, what difference can it make?” A note of contempt crept into Hilda’s voice. Helen seemed puzzled, unsure how to take this plain-speaking. Jack cheered Hilda on. “You react very badly to anyone who says ‘No’ to you. Even staff members, it would appear. You thought you had the right to hurt Tonia and burn Sarah, just because they stood up to you. You never even considered there might be consequences. Unhappily for you, I’m afraid there will be severe consequences. Not one person in school is safe from your dangerous activities, so you won’t be going near them ever again. If I could, I’d send you home this very instant.”
Matey had appeared in the doorway moments earlier. She could see the defeated look on Helen’s face and knew Hilda had done her worst. Those words she did hear said it all. A fraught silence fell while Hilda contemplated Helen, as though wondering who and what she was. A soft clearing of a throat alerted her to Matey’s return.
“Don’t move!” she warned the girl, freezing her to the spot with a look. She turned to her friend, who came forward and held out her hands. On them lay two boxes of matches, another lighter and some wax tapers. Hilda’s eyes widened. How bad could it get?
“The tapers were hidden in her hat band,” Matey murmured. She put her hand in her pinafore pocket and withdrew another lighter and more tapers. “In her pencil case and locker.”
An icy fire glowing in her eyes, Hilda looked round at Helen, who seemed to have shrunk while her back was turned. “Even now you try to pull the wool over my eyes! You don’t seem to understand the meaning of the word ‘truth’, just as you don’t understand that you’re not the only person who matters in this school, nor in the big, wide world out there.” Bright red patches burned in Helen’s white cheeks. “Every item of your clothing, every drawer, bag and box, will be searched. There will be no more hiding places for you or your lethal toys.”
She turned her back on the girl, and handed to Matey the matches and lighters she had been given when Gillian searched Helen. “Put all these in my desk drawer and lock it, please. Will you and Gillian take Helen down to my study and wait there with her? On no account are
you to leave her alone. She doesn’t make one move without your permission. I’ll be down as soon as I can, but I want to satisfy myself about Sarah’s and Lesley’s condition first.” She looked over at Gillian, who was very pale. “I’m sorry to spoil your fun outside, dear, but I can’t leave Matron on her own with Helen.”
“Please don’t worry, Miss Annersley. Time’s nearly up out there, anyway.”
Hilda became aware that Gillian’s lips were compressed, as though in pain. “Were you also burned, Gillian? You’re hurting, I can see.”
Gillian held out her hand. Hilda grew cold at the sight of the huge blisters. “Only down my thumb, Miss Annersley, when I tried to get the lighter off her. She flicked it on deliberately when I reached for it.”
Hilda turned eyes like icicles on Helen. The girl was unable to meet those eyes.
“Dr Jack?” Hilda said softly
He was already there, gently inspecting the thumb. “I’ll put some ointment on it, then some gauze and a bandage.” He drew her over to Sarah’s bed and tended to the sore thumb. Gillian was unable to suppress a hiss of pain at one point. Hilda winced, and contemplated Helen with those grey gimlets. Helen bit her lip, more tears sliding down her face.
“I’m afraid those are crocodile tears, Helen, so put them away, please! The only one you have any pity for is yourself!” Hilda said sharply. “You burned Gillian as deliberately as you burned Sarah, showing a callous disregard for their pain and shock. Have you ever caught your own fingers in the flame of a lighter?” Helen remained silent. “Clearly not, because you’re a coward, aren’t you? Afraid of pain yourself, but only too delighted to inflict it on others.” This was said with such scorn that Helen’s tears became a flood.
Hilda turned to watch Jack, who was gently winding a bandage loosely round the gauze. He smiled reassuringly at Gillian. “I’m sure Matron Lloyd can find you a waterproof cover for that. I don’t want you to get it wet till I see you again. Here, better take these tablets, as well. They’ll help with the pain.”
Matey bustled out, returning moments later with a glass of water for Gillian, who took it and swallowed the tablets. “Thank you, Doctor Jack. It feels better already.” Gillian turned to Hilda. “I’ll take Helen down now, Miss Annersley.”
“Are you sure, Gillian? You must be in considerable pain. Well, if you insist, thank you, my dear. I’ll be down shortly.”
She watched Gillian and Matey guide Helen, now shaking and weeping, through the door. As they disappeared, she happened to glance at Jeanne, who was sitting with Lesley on the bed near the door. Her face was bone white, her hands trembling, her eyes glassy. Hilda went to her at once, drew her up from the bed and away from Lesley.
“Jeanne, what is it, child? Did Helen frighten you in some way? Or were you also burned?”
Jeanne’s lips quivered. She took a deep breath, spoke in broken French. “When I was nine – our house caught fire. My father – he broke a bedroom window because we couldn’t get down the stairs – they were on fire – but breaking the window made the fire worse – we could hear it crackling on the landing – smoke was coming under the door. Neighbours were shouting outside – telling us to jump. They would catch us. He dangled me over the window ledge, dropped me into their arms – He had to force Maman to jump – she was so frightened - but she didn’t jump so well – and broke her leg. ….” Jeanne stopped speaking, lost in that terrifying memory.
“Et ton Papa?” whispered Hilda, holding the shaking girl close.
“The fire burnt down the door as he was helping Maman – he scrambled onto the window ledge and jumped – they caught him, but his back was badly burned. He has dreadful scars, but if it hadn’t been for him helping us out of the window – and the neighbours catching us - we would have all burned to death.”
Jeanne crumpled against Hilda, sobbing on her shoulder. Hilda held her closely and looked round. “Doctor Jack, could you and Matron take Lesley and Sarah to san and leave them with Nurse? Make sure of them before you leave. Matron, would you then come back to look after Jeanne for me? I wish to go and see for myself that both girls are comfortable before going down to the study, but Jeanne shouldn’t be left on her own.”
Jack wondered what had happened to that frightening woman with the soft, icy tongue who had controlled the whole room with ease. She was all compassion and gentleness now, comforting Jeanne. What a nightmare for the poor girl! And what a nightmare of a mess for Hilda to sort out! It had taken this horror to show him just how strong a leader she was, and left him wondering how he had dared dictate to her.
With a sigh and a shake of his head, Jack went to Sarah’s bed, gently picked her up and carried her through the door. Barbara took his bag, helped Lesley off the bed and ushered her through the door after Jack. Still with her arms round Jeanne, Hilda seated them both on the bed vacated by Lesley. She was quivering inside. How had they all been so blind? Why had not one mistress picked up even a hint? How had the other girls in the form missed the lighters and matches, when they missed so very little? Teenagers were not easily fooled by their peers. Was Helen just a very good actress, one skilled in the art of smoke and mirrors?
Jeanne stirred in her arms, breaking into Hilda’s distressing thoughts. “I’m so sorry, Miss Annersley. I didn’t mean to…”
Hilda smiled into the damp eyes. “Don’t apologise, Jeanne, dear. I’m not surprised this nasty incident brought back the horror for you. You’re still upset, I can see, but if it ever bothers you in the future, don’t hesitate to come and talk to me. Will you promise?”
Jeanne saw the kindness in the blue-grey eyes. “I promise. Would you mind if I told Ellie?”
“About the house fire? Not at all! I know you’re becoming good friends, and friends share their troubles.” Hilda paused, her eyes thoughtful. “You may also tell her about this episode today. I think you need to talk it out, and I know she’ll keep it to herself.”
Jeanne’s face was still strained. “Thank you, it will help. You’re right about Ellie and me. We seem to understand each other.”
Another loving smile enveloped her. “I couldn’t be happier, Jeanne. Ellie needs friends, but she finds it very hard to trust people because of what’s happened to her over the years. Now she’s relaxed a little, I think she’s chosen exactly the right person to trust.”
Overcome, Jeanne laid her aching head back on Hilda’s shoulder, unsure what to reply to the beautiful compliment. Hilda understood, and held her close.
Barbara Henschell entered the room at that moment, looked round at the mess and shuddered. She walked over to the two sitting on the bed. Jeanne raised her head, and Hilda became concerned by the girl’s pallor. “You look as though you’ve cried yourself into a bad headache, child. Shock will do that, and you’ve had a nasty one. Would you prefer to lie down, rather than go outside again?”
“I think I might like to be on my own for a while, if I’m not needed,” whispered Jeanne.
“They’ll be coming in soon, so you don’t need to worry. Matron will take you down to the spare room in the Annexe. You can have a nap on the other bed in Ellie’s room. How does that sound?”
Jeanne gave her a small smile, the serenity returning to her eyes. “I’d like that.”
Hilda looked up at Barbara. “Take her along to her dorm first to get her night things, but, once she’s settled, you don’t need to stay with her. Peace and quiet are what she needs. Ellie will soon be back to keep her company. Perhaps they can both sleep there tonight.” She gave Jeanne another hug, then rose to her feet to clasp Barbara’s arm. “I think you need a rest yourself after the shock. You’re as white as Jeanne. I can never thank the three of you properly for saving Sarah and being so quick with those extinguishers.”
Barbara shook her head. “I’ll never forget Gillian’s actions! She simply pounced on Helen like a panther and wrestled that lighter from her! We’re fortunate she’s such a strong girl. Helen didn’t stand a chance! Gillian never let on that she was hurt, either. Such bravery! And Jeanne was a Trojan with the fire extinguisher. Those things are heavy! We owe them both a great debt.”
“We owe you a debt, as well, Matron.” Hilda searched Barbara’s worried eyes. “You’re blaming yourself for this, aren’t you, because Helen escaped on your watch?” Matron nodded. “But you mustn’t! If it was anyone’s fault, it was mine, for leaving my Matrons to bear the responsibility. I should have had her locked in the isolation unit in san, as I usually do, but that seemed too harsh.” She grimaced. “If only I’d realised just what she is.”
“Shall we share the blame and leave it at that?” asked Barbara with a wink, trying to ease Hilda’s own guilty feelings. She searched the white face and heavy eyes. “You look pretty done in yourself, but I’m presuming you have to go down and sort out Helen. Well, try to do it as quickly as possible, or you’re going to collapse.”
“I don’t have time to collapse, I’m afraid. Helen’s not the only problem on my plate today. I wonder, when you’ve settled Jeanne, would you find new plumeaux for the beds in here, then lock the door until Gaudenz appears to remove all the burnt ones and tidy the place up a bit. That would be far easier than finding new beds elsewhere for everyone tonight. I’ll phone him as soon as I get to the study, ask him to do it now, before the girls all stream back in. He won’t believe his ears!” she sighed. Barbara snorted. “You might well laugh, my friend, but he’s already had to clear out blocked lavatories and remove disobedient snowmen from form rooms this term. My name’s mud where he’s concerned!”
They heard a quiet giggle from Jeanne, who was unable to help herself. Hilda saw she was looking a little brighter. “You, too, may laugh, my girl! I tell you, it’s no fun being in charge of this zoo!” The other two laughed again, and Hilda smiled at Jeanne. “I’ll see you later, dear. Oh, and feel free to share my woes about the school, and my handyman, with Ellie, too.” She winked, relieved to see Jeanne’s pale face wreathed in smiles.
The smile faded from Hilda’s eyes when she turned for one last, despairing look at the destruction perpetrated by Helen. Barbara clasped her arm, wondering from what depths of courage Hilda had produced those moments of light-heartedness for Jeanne. Hilda followed them from the room, and went along to the small san at the far end of the school, where she found Jack had finished his ministrations. Sarah was still unconscious, but Hilda suspected she would be in considerable pain when she woke up. Lesley was also tucked up and sipping a hot drink. After a few words with her, Hilda and Jack moved to the door, followed by Nurse.
“Don’t worry, Hilda. I’ll look after them. Jack’s told me what’s happened. I can’t begin to tell you how sorry I am about what this means for you.” Nurse was saddened by the strain in the white face, and by the shock still reflected in Hilda’s eyes, but she said nothing more. What was there to say that would make it any easier for the Headmistress? She faced an appalling task, but she would do it with grace, as she did everything.
Hilda and Jack left the san and were walking down the corridor when the full horror of what could have happened hit Hilda with the force of a hammer blow. A loud roaring filled her ears. Dots of light danced before her eyes. Jack dropped his bag and caught her as she swayed towards him. He lowered her into one of the chairs set along that particular corridor.
“Head down, Hilda!” he warned, fingers on her pulse. Moments later, deep tremors ran the length of her body. Anxiously, he drew her back upright, but the tremors grew worse and she began to shake uncontrollably. She wrapped her arms round herself, scared she would shake into tiny pieces. Kneeling in front of her, Jack removed his jacket, placed it round her shoulders, and gently rubbed her back until the shaking eased. She pulled the ends of his jacket closer round her body. She was so cold! Jack clasped her hands comfortingly in his warm ones, looking up into her bloodless face where the scratches stood out angrily.
Her haunted eyes met his. “I relaxed my guard, allowed the horror in,” she whispered. “It was like a bomb going off inside, the thought of what might have….”
“Hilda, don’t! It didn’t happen!”
“Truly, a thread of grace wrapped itself round this building today, Jack! If Barbara and those two girls hadn’t acted so swiftly, this building would have gone up like a tinder box.” She gripped his hands like a vice. “All I could think when I saw it was that, if the school had gone up, at least most of the girls and staff were safe outside. What was she thinking?” Her voice was an agonised whisper.
“I don’t think she was thinking. I saw her eyes. She was as angry as a cornered tiger, until you started in on her. My goodness, love, you scared the living daylights out of me, never mind her! You were so cold, so implacable. That soft voice of yours does serious damage. Nell might have had the sarcastic tongue, but she had nothing on you in full flow.”
“Jack, please…” Her lips trembled. She covered her eyes with a shaking hand.
“I’m sorry, love,” he murmured. “I shouldn’t have mentioned her, when you’re at such a low ebb. I guess you need her matter of fact common sense at moments like these. You do know she would have torn that girl limb from limb, don’t you?”
Tears trickled helplessly from beneath her hand.
“Hilda, please don’t think you’re less than Nell because you didn’t do what she would have done!” he murmured gently. “You might not have as made as much of an impression as you hoped on that little vixen, but you had her weeping in the end. You made me quiver in my boots, I’m telling you, and I saw the others’ faces. They felt the same. Gillian flinched at one point when you spoke to Helen. I could never have done what you did in there, not in a million years. I don’t think Nell could have, either. What you got out of Helen was unbelievable, especially that admission that she actually held Sarah’s arm over the flames to make sure she got burned. I bet she wishes now she’d kept that fact to herself. Nell and I would both have lost our tempers early on, and got nothing from her at all. I wanted to strangle her.”
She lowered her hands, tried to brush away the tears from her cheeks, “Oh, I did too, believe me, Jack, although I wasn’t so much angry as appalled and horrified by what could have happened to the school, and by all the physical and emotional hurt she’s inflicted on so many girls. But showing any emotion at all would have filled her with pride at her own cleverness, and would have got me nowhere. It never does.”
“Well, you taught me a lesson. Several lessons! May I borrow you when my own staff are next in need of a sharp shock?” Her lips trembled, and he hurried on. “Hilda, I apologise profusely for the way I spoke to you earlier, if this is the sort of thing you’ve been dealing with lately. Mother Abbess and Matey were right. I shouldn’t be standing in your way, nor should I be dictating to you. I won’t do it again. You surely know your own mind, and that steel spine and obstinate nature will keep you going through the worst of times.”
Her fingers brushed away more tears. A faint smile curved her lips as she looked down at him. He knew she didn’t believe him.
“Why was she angry enough to set fire to the place, anyway?” he asked with a perplexed frown.
“You heard her, Jack. Some of the girls in her form, who’ve always been up to all kinds of mischief, have suddenly changed their ways, mainly because of Linda’s accident. Helen couldn’t take that. She had no intention of changing her own ways, so the others had no right to do so, either, to her way of thinking. She tried to take her revenge, in quite nasty and very dangerous ways, but that didn’t work with girls like Tonia Slater. I found it all out this morning, after several interviews with the girls, and discovered just how virulent her temper is. I suspected, then, that no one was safe around her, which was why I wanted her gone.” Hilda shuddered. “I didn’t know how right I was, did I? Setting fires is obviously her default mode when her anger’s too fierce to contain. She also suspected I was going to expel her, although I hadn’t really made up my mind at that point. We do try not to apply the ultimate sanction, but, when I called a meeting of the senior staff early this afternoon, they all wanted her gone.”
“Then I come along and try to send you to bed like a naughty little girl!” he muttered, angry with himself for being so blind all these years. “No wonder you and Matey told me where to go, in the nicest possible way, of course!” She gazed down at him, no condemnation in her eyes. “Why did no one ever notice the matches, the lighters? It beggars belief that she’s been getting away with it for so long.”
She sat back, her eyes staring ahead. “I’ve been asking myself that very same question. Why did I not realise when the bin and curtain went up in flames?” She closed her eyes in self-blame.
“Don’t, Hilda. You can’t be here, there and everywhere, when you’re only one person. That’s why you have staff! Who would suspect any child would deliberately set fire to a curtain in such a public place? She must have been very quick both times.”
“Even if no staff noticed, girls usually notice everything about their peers. How do you set fire to a bin in your own form room and no one notices you doing it? All I can say is that she’s clever and cunning, because even Matey, with her spot checks, missed all those lighters and matches.” Hilda shivered, hugging herself again. “Did that all really happen, Jack? It seems like I’ve just had the worst kind of nightmare.”
“Join the club, love! If I’d not been there, and you’d told me about it later, I’d have dismissed it as pure exaggeration.” He saw she had re-gained a little self-control. “What are you going to do now? If you could see your face, and feel your pulse, you’d know you need to rest, but I’d say that’s the last thing on your agenda.”
She laughed mirthlessly. “Now? I’m going down to my study to call her parents, assuming they’re at home this time, and that my legs will support me that far.”
“You have iron in your soul,” he said gently. “I saw it on display in there. You’ll do both those things, no matter how much they cost. Come on, old lady, let me help you down the stairs.”
She caught his hands, her eyes gentle on him. “Thank you for these moments of quiet, Jack, and for your own thoughts on the matter. They’ve cleared my mind. Without this respite, I couldn’t have gone down there and done what I know I have to do. You’re a dear, kind man. Thank God you were here, for you were badly needed.”
He squeezed her hands. “You do the same for us often enough. You’re always there when anyone needs help or comfort. I’m not sure how we’ll manage when you decide to retire.”
Her face impassive, she stared down at him. “You’ll manage,” she relied softly. “No one’s indispensable.”
Except you, dear heart!
“Not so, Hilda. Nell left a huge hole, for she was a wonderful friend and teacher. So will you, when the time comes. You’ve been the most generous of friends, and the wisest and most compassionate guide, both spiritually and educationally, our own girls could ever have had.” Jack laughed, “Okay, okay, I won’t embarrass you further. Come on!”
He rose to his feet, took back his jacket and shrugged it on, noticing how she shivered without it. He put his arm round her, gently guiding her to her feet, steadying her when she swayed. He was worried she wasn’t going to reach the end of the day in one piece.
Her head turned back to the san. “Will Sarah be alright?”
“It’s pretty bad and she’ll be in considerable discomfort for a while, but we’ll give her help with it. I’ll check her again before I leave and come back tomorrow morning, but if Nurse is worried during the night, just give me a call, okay?”
She allowed him to help her down the stairs, for her legs were like jelly. How she needed an injection of Nell’s pragmatism!
When they approached her study, she looked at him thoughtfully. “You know, Jack, there is one good side to all this. I no longer feel guilty about expelling her. Such a relief!” she added with a grimace, making him laugh.
“You’ve no earthly reason for feeling guilty. She really isn’t normal, Hilda. You’ll be well rid of her.” He saw her distress, and quickly changed the subject. “Shall I stay, while you make your phone call?” He wanted to see more of her in action.
“Feel free! Helen’s staying,” she said dryly.
“How will you keep this quiet, when some of the girls already know?”
“I can’t! I won’t!” she replied firmly. “I can’t expect Lesley and Sarah to keep quiet, even if Gillian and Jeanne would. I intend to inform the whole school, so it doesn’t get embroidered beyond recognition in the telling, like Chinese whispers. Who knows? There might be another girl somewhere in the school who’s also feeling angry and ill-used. This might just make her stop and think before she oversteps any boundaries.”
“You’re being pretty open!” He was full of admiration for her.
“Better the truth from the horse’s mouth, wouldn’t you say, than the garbled stories that might go home? I also intend to send a short missive to all parents, explaining the problem and warning them that we rely on their good offices to check their girls’ belongings before their return at the start of each new term. Helen’s parents have to bear some responsibility for this.”
He turned her round to face him. “I take my hat off to you, Hilda. I don’t think I ever realised just how difficult it is shaping malleable young minds. I’ve watched how well you’ve dealt with my own lot over the years, but just took it all for granted. Today’s been an eye-opening, spellbinding lesson in leadership, your sort of leadership, and I’ve learned a very great deal. You’re one impressive lady!”
Author's Chapter Notes:
Thank you so much for joining me for the re-start of Volume 9. For those who haven't read the message I posted on the resurrected Vol 8 yesterday, I was trying to post a new chapter last Monday, but it went wrong so I decided to delete the chapter and start again. Alas, I deleted the whole volume by mistake. Goodness only knows how, as it wasn't the first time I'd deleted chapters. Anyway, I now plan to re-post a chapter - sometimes 2 - every day until I've re-posted all the lost ones. The only thing I really mourn are all the wonderful reviews, some of which took you so long to write. I've hated to disappoint you after all your goodness to me. Many thanks to those kind people who posted comments on Vol 8 yesterday and today. I really wasn't expecting that!
May I suggest you *favourite* this Vol 9 again, as the old *favouriting* won't work for it. Keep your fingers crossed that all goes well this time, and do re-read the last chapter of Vol 8 if you've forgotten where we are.
May I suggest you *favourite* this Vol 9 again, as the old *favouriting* won't work for it. Keep your fingers crossed that all goes well this time, and do re-read the last chapter of Vol 8 if you've forgotten where we are.