After giving it a quick knock and hearing the 'Herein' that welcomed her in, Hilda Annersley pushed open the study door.
"Oh. You're on your own," she frowned, her brow furrowing slightly.
"And it's a pleasure to see you too, my dear!" Nell Wilson, sprawled inelegantly across the sofa, responded. "Yes, Con's been soused with brandy and sent to bed. Aren't I enough for you by myself?" she grinned.
Hilda hovered nervously on the threshold. "Erm," she said, and then under Nell's inquisitive glance, finally entered fully into the room, crossing it and going to perch on an armchair. "I don't kn - what's wrong with Con?"
"Bad tooth. She's an appointment with the dentist tomorrow, but so filthy is her temper that for the best interests of all concerned she's taken herself off to bed."
"Oh," A worried look crossed Hilda's face. "Has she been feeling bad all day?"
"She started complaining about it the day before yesterday but the silly ass wouldn't do anything about it..." Nell rolled her eyes. "And now this!"
"Perhaps that explains it, then," Hilda mused.
"What? Hilda, you're being awfully mysterious. Won't you tell me what's going on?"
"I need to speak to Con, really."
"I wouldn't go near her if I were you," Nell replied. "Not until she's had that tooth seen to. More than your life's worth, I'd say."
Hilda looked worried again.
"Come on, tell me! A problem shared and all that," Nell coaxed.
Hilda sighed. "Did Con tell you about some trouble she had with Margia Stevens today?"
"She mentioned something - set her a poem to learn, I think."
"Yes." There was something in the tone of Hilda's voice that made Nell sit up straight. "Did Con tell you what?"
Nell shrugged. "Poetry's poetry, isn't it?" she said and then, under her breath but still audible, "All of it's a punishment if you ask me..."
Under Hilda's steely gaze, Nell looked slightly penitent.
"There are some things that aren't, perhaps, suitable for our girls to be reading," Hilda said.
"Oh!" Revelation dawned on Nell's face and she chuckled. "She chose something a bit risque, did she? Naughty Con!"
"No. Not as such." Hilda passed over a book she'd been holding in her hand through the whole conversation. "Here. On this page."
Nell took it from her very reluctantly. "Can't you just precis it for me?"
Hilda looked at her sternly.
"Oh, alright then," Nell muttered, casting her eyes over the page. " 'Avenge o lord thy slaughtered saints, whose bones lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold,'" she began, before stopping and looking up at Hilda with wide eyes. "What is this?"
"Go on, read it," Hilda replied.
Nell read throught the poem a couple of times, silently mouthing the words, trying to make sense of the difficult syntax. She looked up at Hilda in some confusion. "It's a bit...um...."
"Yes," Hilda agreed.
"I mean, 'slain by the bloody Piedmontese that rolled mother with infant down the rocks'?"
"And 'the tryple tyrant' who holds sway in 'Italian fields'. Is that...?"
Hilda nodded. "Yes. He means the pope. The victims of the massacre were protestants..."
Nell winced. "...and the perpetrators catholics."
"Oh." Nell considered this for a moment. "Um. It's not really in keeping with our inclusive religious approach here, is it?"
"Not really, no."
"Of course," Hilda said, "what Milton does here with the sonnet form is really very interesting - and we can't - we mustn't pretend that atrocities such as this didn't take place. But..."
"...but it's perhaps not the best thing for the girls to be reading without some kind of explanation being given them to help them make sense of it, to put it in context."
They sat in silence for a moment.
Finally Nell chuckled. Under Hilda's puzzled stare, she hastened to explain.
"It could be worse. I'm not altogether sure I understand it myself, and I can't think that Margia made much sense of it on her own, what with all those words in the wrong order and funny punctuation. I imagine Con herself hasn't really read it either. So, I think we should just be grateful it was that poem she landed on, and not - well - something a bit more, erm, incendiary." Nell was on her feet now, at the bookcase, searching for a book that Con had recently shown her. Finding it, she flipped it open and, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, handed it to Hilda. "Something like that, for example."
Hilda read the title of the poem Nell was pointing to. "Nell, really!" she exclaimed, and then, as she read a bit further, "Goodness me! Is that even physically possible?"
"I couldn't possibly comment," Nell grinned wickedly.