So that was how Miss Susannah Smith, late of Gateshead, Bolton, Birmingham and most recently London, came to be boarding the Paris-Wien express one cool September morning of 1926. Her possessions were minimal, one suitcase, one soft bag and a drawing case, and they sat in the corridor of the train while she lingered on the platform, taking leave of Matty.
“Make sure you get some proper sleep, young man,” she instructed him, tugging at the lapels of his coat.
“Of course I will,” he replied patiently, in his light tenor voice.
“And don’t get yourself into any scrapes.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“Well, as long as you’re doing your best not to get into scrapes, I’m happy.”
“Stop it, you twit! I’m serious! And you’re not to write any really scurrilous articles threatening important people. No insulting any bigwigs.”
“But Suze, it’s my job to write threatening articles!”
“Only if you have the proof to substantiate your claims and you’re absolutely sure they can’t do anything to you. You know what can happen! Just...try to act responsibly and...and don’t upset everybody!”
“Says the girl who’s unable to publish in just about every major paper in London!”
“That was different, as you very well know,” she countered, primly. “That was nothing to do with politics. Anyway, I haven’t upset anyone who can have me...suffer an unfortunate accident. Seriously, Matty, promise me you’ll try and stay out of harm’s way. You're...you're all I've got.”
Wary of sentimentality, she turned the worried expression on her face into a mock-severe frown, but he saw through her and relented. “Alright,” he promised. “Nothing but good clean journalism from me, at least until I’m settled properly here.”
She scowled at him. “I suppose I’ll have to be satisfied with that.”
“Don’t you worry about me,” he told her. “You should be more concerned with what you’re going to do. You thought about what you’re going to teach the young’uns once you’re out there?”
She groaned. “Worrying about you was my way of trying to forget about that. Oh Matty, I’m making such a mistake. I never was a teacher and I never suited the countryside, and here I am landed with both! I’m going potty. Crazy. Off my rocker. Why on earth did I agree to it?”
“It’ll do you good,” he replied. “And you have the chance to instil some good socialist ideas into your kids!”
She laughed at that. “You idiot! I can’t go teaching eight year olds political and economic theories!"
“Why not?” he protested. “Best to catch them when they’re young. How about this for an idea: teach them about fair taxation by taking a proportional cut of their pocket money and using it to the benefit of the whole class!”
“Please tell me you are joking! I will face a full-scale revolt before the end of the second week if I take that line with them!”
“Oh, I’m perfectly serious,” he assured her, straight-faced. “They only need a bit of training and then you can have a full Communist uprising and take over the rest of the school by force. Or you could form a trade union! Get all the teachers on your side, then overthrow the headmistress and form a cooperative!”
“Stop being so stupid!” she cried, batting at him with her fists. He dodged her swipe, laughing at her.
“Alright, alright,” he protested. “It was just an idea.” He sighed, and then said, “Well, at least I have one less thing to worry about.”
“Well, I suppose you’re right, in a way – I doubt there’s much trouble you can get up to in the Austrian mountains!”
“Oh you little...oh look, the train’s leaving! Kiss me, Matty, quickly!”
He did so, and she hugged him with all her might, and then as the train began to puff and blow he flung her up into the carriage and slammed the door.
She leaned out of the window and waved goodbye. He stood there, tall and slim, his fair hair glinting in the pale sunshine, his hat flapping wildly over his head as he bade her farewell; and she felt a pang of homesickness, for she had no home now but Matty, and he, dear old thing, was rapidly receding from view. Heavy of heart, she turned away from the window and dragged her luggage into the nearest compartment. However, she brightened when she saw that she was not alone, but that a woman not much older than herself, and also unmistakeably English, sat in the forward-facing window seat. Susie was always delighted to meet fresh people, so she gave the woman a friendly smile as she entered the compartment and was pleased to see it returned.
“Good morning,” she greeted her new companion cheerfully as she lugged her possessions in after her.
“Good morning indeed,” replied her companion politely. Susie would have said more, but her suitcase chose that moment to jam in the doorway and she became preoccupied with trying to free it. The young woman watched her struggling with some amusement, and then after a few moments, she took pity on her.
“Let me help you.”
Together they eventually had the suitcase stowed safely, and Susie turned to give her assistant a grateful grin.
“Thanks everso,” she said, sitting down and wiping her hands on her skirt.
“Don’t mention it,” her companion responded, drily. Her voice was low and warm, and Susie found herself purring inside as she heard it. She realised she was taking a liking to this woman, who was elegant and slender, with curling hair of rich chestnut brown. The dryness of her tone told Susie that she was someone who would be a challenge to conquer, but that only made her all the more appealing. She did so relish a challenge, after all.
Oh honestly, stop it! she told herself firmly. It’s not as if you’re going to see her again after this journey!
But she found her homesickness receding fast in the face of this new entertainment, and she cast around for something amusing, charming, witty to say to her companion, who was still regarding her with that drily quizzical air. Something clever, she thought to herself. Say something intelligent and bright, something witty, striking, funny, different!
What she ended up saying was,
“Are you going far?”
Her companion gave a half-smile, like a lazy cat. She replied, in those low tones,
“Oh,” cried Susie, “The same as me, then!”
Her companion raised an eyebrow. You can’t leave it there, she thought to herself, desperately. Say something more amusing!
She coughed and added, “I’m afraid I shall be boring you with my company for the whole of your journey, in that case!”
The eyebrow rose higher. “Not if I move into another compartment,” her companion remarked, and then they looked at each other, and they both burst out laughing.
“Oh, how cruel!” exclaimed Susie, as she recovered herself. “And you’ve not known me five minutes yet!”
“Well, who knows,” replied the other, “it may be you that is fleeing to escape me long before we’re in Austria.”
“Oh, I doubt that,” said Susie, warmly. “I doubt that very much.”
Her new friend hesitated, and then nodded to the window, in the direction of Paris.
“Was the young man your brother?” she enquired.
“Yes,” Susie replied, her homesickness returning with a sickening pang as she thought of Matty and Paris. “Yes, my younger brother, Matty. He lives in Paris now.”
The other nodded. “I thought you looked too alike to be anything other than...family,” she said. A shade seemed to pass over her face, but it disappeared almost immediately. She smiled again at Susie. “So why are you heading to Innsbruck?” she asked. “Just a visit?”
“Oh no,” answered Susie, animatedly. “No, I’m going to join a school, believe it or not, up in the mountains above Innsbruck – the Chalet School, it’s called. Yes,” as her new friend’s eyebrows shot up once more, “you wouldn’t think it, but I am to become a teacher, insane, miserable creature that I am!”
“Well I never,” said the other, simply.
“Oh, I know,” breezed Susie, airily. “Don’t tell me, I’m too young, too odd-looking, too irresponsible, too...too downright crazy. I know! Believe me, I know. I’ve been having doubts about it since I accepted the post! And it’s in the middle of nowhere – right up in the mountains! I just don’t know what I’m to do with myself. I’m sure I’m not the right person to be looking after kids, especially not the rich children of...” she bit off her remark before saying capitalists, and continued, “I’m just worried I’ll end up despising them all, children and mistresses alike.”
“Oh, it wasn’t that that surprised me,” said her friend, amusement now warming her voice. “It’s nothing to do with your...fitness for teaching. It’s just that I rather think we’re going to the same place. You see, I’m to become a mistress at the Chalet School myself.”