|The following morning, girls and mistresses gathered for breakfast in the sunny dining room of their hotel, which was perched high above Lac Léman on one of Lausanne’s many terraces. Vivien Knowles’ eyes found it hard to drag themselves away from the beautiful vista and focus on her rolls and coffee. The blue waters of that huge inland lake were glittering and dancing in the bright morning sunshine, and across the lake the white-capped Savoy Alps glistened in that same sunlight.|
“What a stunning view!”
Hilda laughed gently at Vivien’s awe-struck face.
“Miss Knowles, the view will still be there when you’ve finished eating, but the boat may not be!” she teased.
Vivien glanced round, saw the others had mostly finished and were waiting. Muttering a meek apology, she set to work. Hilda looked round the table.
“While Miss Knowles eats, who's going to be brave enough to recite Victor Hugo’s words about this most beautiful of towns?”
She was looking at Tessa as she spoke, for the Head Girl was studying French as well as English Literature, but even as Tessa was opening her mouth, another voice spoke in a flawless French accent.
“From the terrace of the cathedral, I saw the lake above the roofs, the mountains above the lake, the clouds above the mountains, and the stars above the clouds. It was like a staircase where my thoughts climbed up step by step and broadened at each new height.”
All eyes were glued to Miss Knowles’ face, and she laughed at their dumb-founded faces. Even Hilda’s eyes had opened wide in appreciation.
“You’re a creature of surprises, Miss Knowles,” she chuckled, pleased to note the dawning respect in the girls’ faces. “How do you know Hugo well enough to quote him, may I be so bold as to ask?”
“Vous avez un bel accent provençal, Mademoiselle Knowles," commented the deputy Head Girl, Mireille Morin, admiration in her voice.
"Merci, Mireille. That’s because my mother is French, from St Raphael in the Midi. I grew up bi-lingual, never dreaming how useful that would be one day.” Her brown eyes swung to Hilda, and she grinned cheekily. “I wrote to one of my old college lecturers, asking her what she could tell me about Lausanne. That quote seemed to hit the spot, so I learned it!” Hilda raised one eyebrow in amusement, and Vivien added meekly, “Of course, I have no idea if it's true!”
Her eyes sparkling, Hilda’s voice was bland in the extreme. “Oh I think when you finally climb up to the Cathedral, you’ll find you haven’t completely wasted your time.”
“You also speak German very well,” put in Miriam, a girl from Form VIB. “Is your dad German?”
Hilda choked on her coffee. Vivien chuckled. “No, but I love languages, Miriam, even if I am a scientist, so I also studied German while at University. I don’t speak it nearly as well as Miss Annersley, mind. One would mistake her for a native.”
Hilda set down her cup, smiled her thanks for the compliment and looked at her watch.
“Well, girls, if we’re to catch that boat, we’d better move. Do remember to wrap up warmly. It is nearly the end of October, and it’s more than my life's worth to take you back to Matron Lloyd with so much as a hint of a sniffle.”
She rolled her eyes, and the girls laughed, promising to keep her out of trouble with the school dragon.
Forgive me, Gwynneth, for taking your name in vain, she pleaded with a rueful smile, as she went to collect her own outdoor garments.
They had decided, the night before, that if the first day was fine they would cross the lake in one of the steamers and visit …vian over in France, for it might rain the other days. It was perfect autumn weather, the sky a clear blue and the air crisp and still. It promised to be a very smooth half-hour crossing.
Miss Knowles stood outside on the top deck, captivated by a much better view of the town of Lausanne as they pulled away from the shore. The town spanned several hills and seemed to creep above the lake in a succession of south-facing terraces, which were now vibrant with trees and flowers, even on this autumnal day. The leaves glowed red, brown and gold in the sunlight.
She turned to face France, where the Dents du Midi and the Savoy Alps loomed ever nearer, sweeping down to the lake steeply in places, their summits already covered in a thick mantle of snow. She breathed in the clear, crisp air. How glad she was, despite her initial difficulties, to have found a teaching post amid such dramatic beauty.
Hilda had been watching her surreptitiously from her post further down the rail, and now smiled with relief at Vivien’s rapt face.
When they trooped off the boat at …vian-les-Bains, known by poets as ‘the pearl of Lake Geneva’, Vivien remarked how attractive it was on the lakefront.
“You’ll notice there are still some late summer flowers blooming,” said Hilda quietly, pointing out the vivid flower beds. “They’re between the lake and the foothills of the mountains here and enjoy a much milder climate than the rest of the lake.”
“And you warned the girls to wrap up warm!” giggled Vivien, loosening her coat.
Hilda shrugged. “Once a Headmistress always a Headmistress! I just can’t help being bossy.”
She laughed at Vivien, who had stuck her tongue out.
“Very ladylike, Miss Knowles! It’s a good job the girls are well ahead.” Her eyes danced as they looked down on the smaller woman. “Of course, I could tell Matron to dose you with cod liver oil on our return, just to be on the safe side now you've opened your coat to the breeze. Tempting fate, I call it!”
Vivien’s mouth opened for a riposte, but the girls came flocking round and the moment was lost. Hilda tossed her a wicked grin and turned to answer the girls’ eager questions. It had been decided to introduce Vivien to the …tablissement Thermale first. As they walked along, Hilda said that the medicinal properties of …vian water were discovered in 1789, and many people now visited the building to take the waters for the treatment of kidney and digestive troubles. The water, filtered in its natural state by sand, was very cold and low in minerals, so used for both drinking and bathing.
When Vivien tasted it however, she grimaced. "Ugh! I'd rather drink ditch water, which I'm sure is better for one’s health than this stuff!"
Hilda quickly turned away and blew her nose to smother her laughter. They followed the guide as he led them through the Art Nouveau pump house with its tiled cupola, the girls glancing into the small rooms where different treatments were taking place. Hilda was on the qui vive for any more of Vivien’s flights of fancy, but she seemed to be on her best behaviour for the moment, having been thoroughly frowned on by the taciturn guide, who had overheard her comments about his beloved water.
When they came out into the fresh air again, the girls decided they would give the bottling factory a miss, having had enough of water for one day. Hilda refused to meet Vivien’s eye at that point, not wanting to completely lose her composure. What had she let herself in for, she wondered rather breathlessly. Even Nell had never been this brazen in her humour!
She led them for lunch to a restaurant in the port, La Bernolande, where they tucked into the delicious rustic cuisine while watching the steamers ploughing their furrows across the lake, and yachts and other small boats made the most of the fine weather. After finishing their coffee, they walked along the shady lakeside promenade under giant Italian poplar trees, fed the large number of swans there, and gaped at the giant cormorants diving into the lake for fish.
The elegant shops opened up again after the long lunch break, and Vivien treated them all to some French chocolates. Looking around at the girls as they accepted this munificence, she remarked roguishly,
“They won’t do any of us any harm, as we all seem to be somewhat streamlined.” She cast a glance Hilda’s way. The latter braced herself. “Although, Miss Annersley is clearly on a diet, with that slim figure of hers, so perhaps we should keep them away from her.”
“Have you not heard of my penchant for cream cakes, Miss Knowles? I thought everyone knew.”
Without a word, Vivien paced all the way round Hilda’s tall, slender gracefulness, looking her up and down. Hilda forced herself to remain still under this scrutiny, although her face was alight with laughter.
“Then where do you keep all the excess baggage?” asked Vivien naughtily. “In your handbag? Up your sleeve?”
“No, I expend it controlling incorrigible little monkeys like you," Hilda riposted quickly. "I thought they were only to be found amongst the Middles, but apparently not so!” Swinging round with a broad grin on her face, she added, “En avant, mes braves. Le bateau nous attend."
The girls moved off after her, giggling at this exchange. Tessa moved over to Vivien.
“Don’t worry, Miss Knowles. None of us has ever got the better of her. Even Miss Wilson had trouble, and she had a very sarcastic tongue.”
Vivien eyes rested on Hilda’s back with a very thoughtful look in them.
“Oh, I haven’t finished with you yet, my dear,” she muttered, her eyes glinting.
Boarding the paddle steamer, Hilda wondered if she was letting Vivien get away with too much, but reflected that their companions were Sixth formers and not likely to take advantage. After all, she had opened up to them pretty comprehensively high on the Rösleinalpe at the beginning of term. This gentle teasing was, in a way, only adding to her words there, showing there was a way through one’s grief, even if she was still finding it extremely difficult at times. She followed the girls up to the higher deck, still pondering the question. It was a mild day, even though dusk was approaching, so they stood at the rail and absorbed the scene as Lausanne drew ever nearer.
They were closing in on the little port when Hilda became aware of a young lad of eleven or twelve standing against the rail further down the boat, his arm round a toddler of eighteen months, whom he had hoisted on to the rail so she could get a better view. A very dangerous occupation, to Hilda’s mind. She glanced around, but could see no sign of their parents. Moving very slowly, with no particular aim in mind, except to be on hand if necessary, she was edging nearer when disaster struck.
The steamer’s funnel gave a short, sharp blast. The boy jumped in shock, and his grip loosened. The little girl toppled backwards out of sight with a yell, and the boy screamed in fear. Hilda moved fast, shedding her coat and shoes as she went. She wondered, with a calm detachment, if she had the necessary strength, even as she grasped the rail, preparatory to hoisting herself up on to it.
Her arm was seized from behind. “I’ve got her, Hilda!”
Shedding her own coat and shoes, Vivien hopped up onto the rail and dived cleanly into the water, leaving scarcely a ripple. Sick with anxiety, Hilda found her shoes and put in her coat, then went quickly to the frightened boy and put her arm round his shaking body. They leaned over the rail to watch. She would never forgive herself if Vivien lost her life because she herself had been too slow.
Vivien reached the girl quickly, but, as she grasped her, the terrified toddler hit out with her fists and they both sank beneath the water. Hilda’s arm tightened round the boy as he cried in alarm. She watched fearfully, aware now of the girls hanging over the rail, some shouting out to Vivien, encouraging her. People on the landing stage and lakefront had also stopped to watch. One of the shipping company’s workers held a lifebuoy, ready to throw it, if an occasion arose.
Vivien and the toddler suddenly popped up, but the little girl fought her hysterically. Again they went under. Hilda heard a splash, and saw a man swimming fast to where Vivien and the child had disappeared.
“Come on, Vivien. You can do it! Dear God, help her!” Hilda pleaded silently, her face bone white, her eyes searching the empty lake.
Even as she prayed, the woman and xhild popped up once more. This time, Vivien had one arm tight around the little girl's arms to stop her struggles. Shaking the water from her eyes, Vivien looked up, saw Hilda, and indicated the quayside. She swam strongly in that direction with her free arm, the girl tucked tightly against her body, the man swimming close behind in case of further difficulties.
Feeling overwhelming relief, Hilda told the girls to go below, ready to disembark, then turned to the boy, who was now white to the lips and still shaking.
“Let's find your parents. Would you tell me your name?”
He looked at her blankly. Cursing her own stupidity, she repeated the questions in French.
“Laurent,” he stuttered.
She succeeded in getting him below, where they found his parents finishing a cup of coffee on the other side of the boat, unaware of any panic or disaster. Quickly, Hilda related what had happened, doing her best to exonerate the boy, for she could see he was still in shock. The parents exclaimed over him, appalled and terrified, bombarding him with questions. Hilda went in search of a glass of water for Laurent, feeling she herself could do with a strong brandy. He drank the water, the boat docked, and Hilda watched as he was hustled off by his anxious parents.
She went back to her shaken girls and reassured them. It had been clear that Vivien was a strong swimmer, so Hilda remained calm and patient in front of the girls, some of whom babbled incoherently in their relief. Inwardly, she was quaking at the thought of what could have happened. She knew that if she herself had dived before Vivien got there, she would never have had the strength to restrain that terrified little girl. Thank God for Vivien! This had surely not been part of her scenario, when she arranged the trip to help Vivien, but, as she was to reflect later, God always knows what He's about!
By the time Hilda and the girls disembarked at the Quai des Rives, neither Vivien nor the child was to be seen, nor indeed the young boy and his parents. A man in the uniform of La Compagnie Générale de Navigation approached, however, and guided them over to the embarkation building. Leaving the girls outside, Hilda entered a small, cramped office which seemed to be full of people. A tall, rather self-important looking man in the Compagnie’s uniform was speaking loudly to the parents. Vivien herself was sitting shivering in a corner, water dripping down her face, a blanket round her shoulders, and a look of total bemusement on her face. She looked up in relief at the sight of Hilda.
Hilda bent down. “That was a very brave thing to do, my dear, but we need to get you back quickly.”
She could hear Vivien’s teeth chattering with cold. Standing tall and stately, her hand on Vivien’s shaking shoulder, Hilda’s quiet voice cut cleanly through the volubility of the others present.
“If it is all right with you, Monsieur, I would like to take my colleague back to our hotel so she can find some dry clothes and warm up.” She raised an eyebrow.
Responding instinctively to that raised eyebrow, the officer turned and offered his hand.
“Monsieur Duzelier, à votre service, Madame,” he said unctuously. “May I offer the Compagnie’s gratitude to your colleague? She is a very brave lady.”
“Yes, she is, Monsieur Duzelier, but I wonder might I trouble you to order a taxi. It's far too cold to be out in the street in those wet clothes.”
His air of importance punctured, he picked up the phone to do her bidding. The parents turned to Vivien, the mother holding the little girl close. The father had his arm round Laurent, whose cheeks now held a little colour. They both offered their heartfelt thanks to Vivien, but Hilda saw the frowning looks bestowed on Laurent by his mother and felt sorry for him.
“Monsieur, Madame, I think Laurent has suffered enough for one day. He was very frightened, and has, I think, learned his lesson and already been punished enough. N’est-ce pas, Laurent?” She looked kindly into his solemn brown eyes. He nodded, tears welling up, and she added gently to his mother, “He didn’t mean what happened, and I suspect he’s rather worried you won’t trust him again with his baby sister.”
The mother’s brown eyes, very like her son’s, softened. With a nod, she placed the wet toddler in Laurent’s arms. He clutched her to his chest and smiled tremulously at everyone. Glad the mother had not had to watch her little girl struggling in the water, Hilda put an arm round her. The woman clung to her, whispered more thanks.
The taxi was announced, so the father quickly shook hands with both women, and Hilda ushered Vivien out into the darkening street, where Vivien shivered even more violently. Putting her into the waiting taxi, Hilda asked Tessa to go with the mistress, while she and the others returned post-haste on foot to the hotel. The girls were all talking over each other, undisguised admiration for Vivien in their voices. Perhaps the near-tragedy had been a blessing in disguise, thought Hilda with a smile.
Your handiwork, Nell?
During dinner, she knew she had been right when Mireille turned to Vivien.
“Miss Knowles, weren’t you frightened before diving in?”
“There wasn’t time for fear, Mireille. I just reacted instinctively. You should know that Miss Annersley was already there, and about to dive in. She'd noticed the problem well before the rest of us, and had her shoes and coat off when I caught up with her.”
She sent a look of undisguised admiration at Hilda, but the latter shook her head.
“Being younger than I, you wanted to save my ageing bones, for which I thank you.” Her eyes were sombre. “Watching that little girl hitting out at you made me realise I wouldn't have been strong enough, and we would probably both have drowned.”
“No, I just wanted to preserve your dignity,” countered Vivien, seeing the guilt in Hilda's eyes. “You probably could have rescued her, but Headmistresses shouldn’t be seen with dripping hair, their clothes clinging wetly.”
The girls chuckled at the vision she conjured up. Hilda wrinkled her nose.
“Oh, I think my dignity would have survived intact after all these years, Miss Knowles.”
“Do you have your life-saving certificate, Miss Knowles?” asked Maureen Elder, a leading light in VIA, and a Science student. “Miss Wilson did, as Guide Captain.”
“Yes, I decided it was a useful thing to have as a teacher, and I’ve always been a strong swimmer.”
She stopped, looked round, then took her courage in both hands and dived in, much as she had that afternoon into the water.
“Tell me more about Miss Wilson.”
It transpired that she had been a Guider in her youth, but, being new to the school, had held her peace about joining the troop re-started by Nell Wilson just two years earlier. The girls were off, telling her all about Nell's prowess as Captain, the legends thay had heard about her, and encouraging Vivien to come and watch them one Saturday morning.
Tessa Lewis, remembering her conversation with Hilda, added quietly, “After all, Miss Knowles, you’re following in Miss Wilson’s footsteps in the form room, so you might as well follow them out of it, as well.”
Vivien scrutinised Tessa. This girl saw far beyond her years!
“Well, I have heard Miss Wilson had a very strong sense of humour, Tessa. Was she in the habit of employing it in the classroom, as well as out of it?”
There was a moment of awful, silent suspense. Hilda held her breath. Moments later, they were all talking at once, trying to convey what the Head of St Mildred’s had been like, both as mistress and friend. Vivien asked enough quiet questions to keep the ball rolling, and learned just what there was to live up to where Nell Wilson was concerned. Rather surprisingly, she also learned just what she was doing right, for the girls were not averse to voicing their thoughts.
Hilda leaned back, her eyes keen on Vivien’s vivid face, her quick ears picking up all the details the excited girls were pouring out. She had a feeling it was going to be a very long evening. She also had a feeling that all resentment against Miss Knowles was now gone, and that her brave exploit was about to become yet another Chalet School legend, encouraging those not there to accept this new member of staff as someone to be cherished.
Hilda heard Nell’s name mentioned again, and her eyes met Tessa’s. Tessa winked. Hilda smiled back gently, but if anyone had looked hard enough, they would have seen the unshed tears. Her memory had gone back to that awful day two weeks ago when she had so nearly lost herself.
Your ears burning, dear heart?
Was that a quiet, familiar laugh she heard underneath all the excited chatter going on around her?
When Hilda entered the dining room the following morning, the others were already there, the girls hanging onto Miss Knowles’ every word. Vivien, however, saw Hilda and rose from the table.
“Miss Annersley and I are going to have our breakfast in peace this morning. Bon appétit, mes filles!”
Without further ado, she marched Hilda over to a table for two in a quiet corner, leaving the girls gaping after her. Hilda’s eyes twinkled across the table.
“They only wanted to continue worshipping at your feet,” she teased, opening out her serviette.
“And I wanted some peace and quiet!” sighed Vivien.
She watched Hilda pouring out the coffee, which had just been delivered to their table.
“You arranged all this deliberately, didn’t you?” Her voice was abrupt.
For a moment the coffee pot wobbled dangerously in Hilda’s hand, but she controlled herself and continued pouring.
“Oh, yes, I planned it all, down to the little girl falling in the water and you ending up looking like a drowned rat.”
She grinned unrepentantly when Vivien sighed again, this time with exasperation.
“You’re a very slippery customer, did you know that?” she retorted. “You arranged this holiday with the Sixths in the hope that it would help matters. I cottoned on last night, when Tessa made that comment about Miss Wilson. You did, didn’t you?”
Hilda set down the coffee pot and gazed across at this woman for whom she was developing a very healthy respect.
“Didn’t you?” Vivien insisted.
Hilda nodded, reluctantly yielding up her secret. “It seems to have worked better than I anticipated. I don’t think you’ll have any more problems. It’s all down to you now. You’ve got them smack in the palm of your hand.”
Vivien shook her head at the gentle, dignified woman opposite.
“Oh no! It’s you who has them in the palm of your hand. I've never seen such love for a Head as I see in their eyes.” Hilda made to deny it, but Vivien persisted. “You deserve that love and so much more. I can’t believe all you've done for me this term. I don’t think there's another Head anywhere on this planet who does as much for others as you.” Hilda tried to deny that, as well, but Vivien added, “You'd have gone into that water if I hadn’t beaten you to it, wouldn’t you?”
Hilda nodded, her eyes steadfast. Vivien shook her head.
“And yet, seriously, you must know you’re not strong enough for such activities.” Hilda raised an eyebrow. “When I first met you, at my interview, you were thin, too thin, but you looked healthy and fit, though there was a great sadness in your eyes. When I saw you at the beginning of term, that had changed...”
Hilda’s hand went to the arm with the bullet hole. “I was shot just after I met you.”
“You mean you were a heroine.” Vivien flashed back. “Yes, you’d been shot and were still recovering, and had an air of fragility about you that was to be expected, but it hasn’t disappeared. Not yet, anyway! Perhaps the physical shock and the infection, added to your grieving...” Again an eyebrow was raised. “Yes, I know all about it, now. Jo Maynard filled me in. I’m sorry you've lost such a dear friend, but something in you hasn't recovered from the shooting, so for you to jump into that water would have been either an act of supreme courage, or supreme folly. Probably both! When I reflect on that, and on all you’ve done for me, it’s no wonder the girls reverence you.”
Hilda kept her face impassive, gazing with keen eyes at this perceptive woman seated opposite, a woman mature enough in years and character to be totally at ease with her new Headmistress. Hilda was not to know it, but Madge Russell and Jack Maynard were also concerned about that same frailty.
“Vivien, I assure you, my health is fine. I have skiing in the winter and walking in the summer to keep me fit.”
She realised, even as she spoke, that that was not quite true. She no longer felt like taking the walks she used to take with Nell.
“Let’s just say I’m glad you were there, and a strong swimmer.”
Before Hilda could continue, Vivien spoke again. “You’ve looked even frailer these last few days, with dark shadows under those fine eyes, although your smile is as ready as ever and your eyes hold a light that wasn’t there before. It wasn’t a simple headache that kept you out of school one day last week, was it?”
There was something in Vivien’s eyes that made Hilda admit the truth. She shook her head, thinking ruefully how Mother Abbess would smile approvingly at her for being so open!
“No, my grief got the better of me. It happens from time to time. I have good friends, very special friends, and I received many unexpected blessings that day, far more than I deserve.” Her voice grew stronger. “As for helping you, Vivien, you weren’t happy, and that was mostly my fault. This holiday was one way of making amends. I should have known better, after all my years at the helm.”
“How long is it exactly you’ve been at the helm?” Vivien tried to deflect Hilda’s guilt.
Hilda’s eyes left Vivien, to stare across the dancing waters of the lake. She reflected on all the years, and all the changes, some great, some small, that had taken place in those years.
“I became Head in 1937.”
“So that means you’re celebrating twenty-five years next year,” mused Vivien.
Hilda heard the excitement in her voice, and guessing, with her usual prescience, what was going on in Vivien’s mind, her eyes swung sharply to her colleague. Vivien gasped at the overwhelming pain she could see there.
“Don’t go there, Vivien. Please, I beg you, do not go there. Don’t remind Nancy, either,” Hilda pleaded, a quiver in that beautiful voice. “I was appointed Head at Easter, and next Easter will be the first anniversary of Nell’s death. Celebrating will be the very last thing...”
Her voice broke. Tears shone in her eyes. Repenting of her thoughtlessness, Vivien laid a hand on Hilda’s where it lay clenched on the table. She was beginning to appreciate just what this lovely woman had lost, what anguish was still hers, despite her smiles, her serenity.
“I’m sorry, Hilda, that was unforgivable of me. My dratted sense of humour got the better of me. I’m old enough to know better.”
Hilda controlled herself with a great effort and squeezed Vivien’s hand. She blew her nose, picked up her cup and drank the coffee gratefully.
Into her mind leapt images of the festivities Nell had organised to celebrate Hilda's twenty-one years as Head. Nell had been so tender and loving that day, something that would always remain with her. As would the world cruise she and Nell had been offered by Joey, Madge and their brother, Dick. Neither of them knew how, but their affection for each other had been enhanced and deepened by that time together, away from their responsibilities. It had been a time out of time, a very special gift from above. There had been laughter and fun, gentleness and beauty, and so many memories to warm her when her heart felt cold and empty, as it still did too often.
Thank you, for that special memory, dear heart, just as you promised.
Her voice was very soft when she spoke again.
“Vivien, I’m sorry I spoiled the fun I could see building in your eyes. You’re going to be a remarkable asset to the school in the years ahead, even with that dratted sense of humour!” Vivien laughed sheepishly.
"Perhaps we’d better eat, or the girls will be champing at the bit,” Hilda added briskly, effectively closing the door on any more personal conversation, though it was to return later in the day.
Author's Chapter Notes:
Since Vol 1 was getting rather long, I thought the trip to Lausanne would be a good place to begin Vol 2. I may well post again later on today - anything to take my mind off Abby, left behind in the animal hospital on the Wirral for the immediate future. Many thanks for the caring emails about her and for the kindly reviews on here.