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Sisters-by-Marriage

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“And I've put you in here, and Mary-Lou will join you as soon she's set free. The nursery is just opposite, but Beth will make sure to keep my young sinners quiet. Mary-Lou will need all the rest she can get.” Joey Maynard swept into the bedroom she had picked out, followed closely by a large St Bernard dog and, coming along behind him, a young lady in the uniform of the Chalet School.

Verity-Anne Carey – known to the Chalet School at large as Mary-Lou Trelawney's 'sister-by-marriage', for the former's father had married the latter's mother – set down the nightcase that she had held, clutched in both hands, all the way from her dormitory at the school next door, through the garden gate and up the stairs to this cheerful, yellow room with a view of the mountains. She had greeted her hostess with the pretty manners for which she was known and submitted dutifully to the attentions of Bruno the St Bernard, then fallen into silence. Joey Maynard, guessing how her guest felt, had chattered brightly about school and family doings all the way up the stairs. Now, nudging Bruno out of the way, she turned to face the girl. “Not much of a Christmas term for you people, was it, Verity?”

“No,” Verity said, before adding, in a burst of honesty, “it was rather dreadful – actually. The way it ended, I mean.”

“I know. It was rather dreadful for everyone. However, Mary-Lou is getting on splendidly now, much better than anyone expected. You do know that, don't you?”

Verity nodded, quite solemnly. It was – and Mrs Maynard had an inkling of this – suddenly very hard for her to maintain her composure. There had been some concern at the school about Verity-Anne following Mary-Lou's dreadful accident, and Verity, sensing this and wishing not to be a bother to anyone, had done her utmost to maintain what Jack Maynard had referred to as “a stiff upper lip – good girl!” What that self-control had cost her not even Verity understood, but with the stress in school and the shock of Mary-Lou's accident it had almost worn her down. Dr Maynard and Matron had had a good discussion the day before about Verity's holiday, and that young lady was to have a most relaxing time, as free from worries and as full of good food as they could make it.

Verity knew nothing of this, of course. Her gaze was fixed on the distant mountains that so many Chalet girls had found to be a help in times of trouble. “She will be allowed to come tomorrow – won't she?”

“Almost certainly, Dr Jack says. Now, how about you wash up and unpack your case, and I'll send one of my monkeys to fetch you at tea time. Or you can join the family in the nursery if you'd rather.” And with that, Mrs Maynard was gone, Bruno at her heels.

Left to her own devices, Verity sat down on the wicker chair in the corner of the room and began to lose herself into a cloud of thought. Not for nothing was Verity Carey known in her form, and in the Chalet School at large, as a 'mooner'. Verity often felt that hours could pass by without her noticing – that one moment she would be listening to the rising-bell and the next in her geography lesson, with no clear memory of bathing, dressing, prayers, Fruhstuck or anything else that had happened in between. Various members of her dormitory attributed Verity's appearance at anything primarily to Mary-Lou; Verity had a vague idea that she had had Josette Russell at her elbow a lot following Mary-Lou's accident. The upshot of all this was that the consent sheep-dogging had left Verity with neither motivation nor inclination to manage things for herself and so, despite Mrs Maynard's suggestions she simply sat and thought.

Some unknown time later a high-pitched shriek – quickly muffled – roused Verity from her daze. It was most unlikely that anything dangerous had happened in the well-regulated confines of Freudesheim but Verity, for all her mooning, possessed a certain curiousity that was enough to bring her out into the corridor. From behind the nursery door emitted the sound of giggles and childish voices, and drawn by some instinct she didn't quite understand Verity pushed the door open.

She was met by the sight of Len Maynard, that shining light of Upper IV B, rolling around on the floor with her brother Charles, while Con and a tearful Mike knelt over a pile of wooden blocks, in the middle of which stood the remains of a tower. Meanwhile Margot, the last of the triplets sat in the corner with a book open on her lap. Beth Chester, older sister to Verity's friend Barbara and “mother's help” to Jo Maynard, held baby Felicity in her arms while Felix played at her feet.

Oh,” said Verity. She had had little experience of family life, and none with younger siblings. The cheerful energy of the Chalet School had given her a sense of fun which had been lacking in her early years but this was something much different.

“Hello,” said Len, scrambling to her feet. “Have you seen Mary-Lou again?” she asked, as though forgetting that Verity had scarcely had the chance to visit the San amid the flurry of the last few days of term.

“Not for a few days, but your mother says your father says she's doing well,” said Verity from her position in the doorway. Mrs Maynard had said she could join the others yet she felt, as a visitor, somehow outside this scene of family life.

“Well, do come in,” Beth said, with a smile that felt very much like Barbara's.

“Yes, do,” Len said. “Don't mind us. Mike's tower fell down – I expect you heard him – but he'll build it up again as good as new.”

Verity came in, shutting the door behind her, as the Maynard siblings resumed their various occupations. Charles and Len set themselves to entertaining Felix, and Con attepted to convince Mike, in a hushed voice, that if he put the biggest blocks at the base of his tower instead of on the top, it would be less likely to fall down again.

“Would you like to hold Felicity?” Beth asked.

Verity was yet to discover that in the Maynard household, being handed a baby was considered as much of a welcome as being leaped on by a large dog. Before she quite understood what was happening, Felicity, who was remarkably heavy, was in her arms, and Beth had turned her attention to picking up the toys which lay scattered on the floor.

Rather out of her depth, Verity retreated to the chair beside Margot and sat down, Felicity on her lap, and set herself to watching the scene in that familiar daze with which she viewed the world. It wasn't until Felicity reached out and grabbed Margot's sleeve that Verity realized, dimly, that Margot's book had apparently remained untouched since she sat down.

“I'll take her,” Margot said, scooping the baby into her arms and bouncing her with the skill of a big sister. “You really have seen Mary-Lou, haven't you?”

“Oh yes,” said Verity, startled. “Father flew out to be sure she was all right and he took me up to the San.”

“And is she? Really? I mean, she looked so... so still.”

Verity swallowed hard. “She's still just the same Mary-Lou,” she said, a deep sense of gratitude dawning on her that she was just the same. “I think she will have pain for a while and she might not be able to do everything just at first. But the doctors told Father they were certain she would walk and run and climb again.”

Margot cuddled Felicity close. “I'm sorry it happened,” she said, finally.

“It wasn't your fault,” Verity said, out of her depth. “And I know Emerence never really thought she might hurt someone.”

“If I'd been stronger I might have been able to stop her. I almost let my devil win – it was only because of Mary-Lou that I didn't go with Emmy, you know. And then there would have been two of us on the toboggan.”

Verity shuddered to think what might have happened if Mary-Lou had been hit by two people instead of one. For someone who lived so much of her life in a daze she still had a clear memory of that awful day, of Mary-Lou's limp body and Emerence howling and how Miss O'Ryan had looked. Verity remembered that silent walk back to school while the doctors from the San worked on Mary-Lou in the snow, with Hilary Bennet, her partner in the croc, gripping her hand, and she remembered waiting in Miss Dene's office with Hilary and Vi and Lesley, being made to drink hot milk until Miss Annersley came to tell them that Mary-Lou was still alive.

“It made things so awful for everyone,” Margot continued. “And I know that – if it had been Len or Con it happened to – I wouldn't have been able to go on. And I know you and she are sisters and – everyone was thinking of you.”

Verity sat, silent. She didn't know how she had gone on through that quiet, painful week while Mary-Lou clung to life, and she had found herself more grateful to know that Mary-Lou had survived than she was to know that her father had returned alive. For Mary-Lou was a real person to Verity, and the father that had come back to his motherless daughter was a stranger. Had Verity told this to Miss Annersley or to Mrs Maynard, instead of keeping it to herself, she would have been told in no uncertain terms that this was normal. However she had held onto it and worried over it until she couldn't think straight.

“I never had a sister before Mary-Lou,” she said, finally unburdening herself to the younger girl. “I didn't know what it would be like. I suppose it's not the same as you and Len and Con, because we aren't real sisters and we didn't grow up together – but I like to know that Mary-Lou and Mother are always there for me and Father and when I thought that she might not be...”

Fortunately for Verity, Mrs Maynard chose that moment to appear in the nursery seeking her guest. Seeing the look on Verity's face and the look on Margot's she made a swift guess as to what they were discussing. She was anxious to spare Margot any additional pain over Mary-Lou's accident, knowing that her small daughter was still worrying over it; so too did she feel that the turbulent emotions Verity had kept so well hidden needed a better venue of expression. She bade Beth and Len take the rest of the flock downstairs for tea, lowered herself into the chair vacated by a relieved Margot and passed Verity a clean handkerchief.

It was some time before Verity collected herself enough to speak. “I'm awfully sorry,” she said, twisting her fingers around the handkerchief. “But I didn't know.”

“Didn't know what?” Mrs Maynard asked, her voice low.

“That I could … love... Mary-Lou so much though we aren't related, not really. And she isn't even really my sister.”

“But that doesn't matter. Verity, my child, some of our nearest and dearest can be those we've adopted. Why, I have two adopted sisters of my own – Juliet and the Robin. I don't see enough of either of them, now we're all grown, but they are still as dear to me as Madge and Dick.”

This understanding was enough to set Verity talking. She told that lady all her fears for Mary-Lou, and about how it been harder to have Mary-Lou so ill than it was to have her father missing in the Amazon, and about how scared she had been that she would have to fill Mary-Lou's place at home when she couldn't ever be like Mary-Lou. If Mrs Maynard was surprised to hear Verity say so much, she didn't show it, merely allowing the girl to talk though it meant she missed tea with her family.

“Do you know what's strange?” Verity said, finally. “That even though I hate that Mary-Lou had to be hurt and Mother and Father and everyone had to have so much pain – that part of me is a little glad I could find out what it really means to have a sister?”

“That,” said Mrs Maynard, “is not at all strange, but a very great gift. Your father gave you that gift when he married Mrs Trelawney, but it's also a gift you and Mary-Lou give to each other. Now, if you're feeling better, go and give your face a wash, and I'll make sure my children save you some cream buns.”

**

The Mary-Lou who was delivered safely to Freudesheim by Dr Jack and a nurse seemed at first to be a very different Mary-Lou to the one Verity had known. She was taller and slimmer and wore a jaunty red knitted shawl covering her shaved head.

Dr Jack carried her inside with great ceremony and set her in a reclining chair in the big salon. The smaller members of the Maynard clan had, to their great disappointment, been confined to the nursery with Bruno in order to prevent Mary-Lou from becoming utterly exhausted within minutes but the triplets had been allowed to be present, for, as Mrs Maynard had said, “Mary-Lou may be an invalid, but she will hate being treated like one!” So it was that Verity, watching Mary-Lou's solemn entrance, hung anxiously back behind the triplets and said nothing as she was settled into her chair. Len and Margot talked even on about everything that had happened in school since Mary-Lou's accident, with Con filling in the gaps her sisters brushed over, and Mary-Lou took it all in as though it was the first news she had had from school in years.

When Mary-Lou seemed to be tiring, Dr Jack sent the reluctant triplets upstairs to join their siblings before drawing his wife out of the room with him. “You talk to her quietly for a while, Verity. Much better for her than my lot,” he said, closing the door behind him and leaving his guests alone.

“I'm so glad you could come,” Verity said after an awkward moment of silence. The conversations she had had the day before still weighed heavily on her, and she was inclined to view Mary-Lou in a whole new light.

“So I am!” Mary-Lou answered. Her voice was passionate, but her head rested against the back of the chair and she didn't move. “They told me I ought to be allowed out to spend Christmas day here, but they thought I'd have to stay in the San the rest of the time. You don't know how happy I was when Uncle Jack told me he'd actually been wrong for once! Well, he said that for anyone else he would have been right, but that I always had to do things my own way.”

“You do, though,” said Verity, boldly. She wouldn't have dared say such a thing a year ago, not because she thought Mary-Lou would take it badly but because Verity-Anne Carey didn't say such things to anyone. Now Mary-Lou wasn't just anyone.

Now Mary-Lou just laughed. “I suppose so,” she said. “Everyone else always says so, anyway. But I don't know how to else to go about doing things. I just see what seems right and I do it.”

“I don't see things at all,” Verity admitted. “I never know what I'm doing until after I've done it.”

“Isn't it funny? How two people like us can be so different, and get on so well? You know, I think that's what school teaches us, more than anything else. Just think what it would be like if we didn't like each other.”

“It would be awful. It's always bad enough when there's just one girl who doesn't get on, like Jessica, even though she's so much better now.”

Mary-Lou yawned softly, closing her eyes. Verity looked around frantically, as though Dr Jack might leap out of the walls to tell her she was exhausting Mary-Lou too much, but no Dr Jack emerged and a moment later Mary-Lou's eyes fluttered open again.

“Are you all right?” Verity asked.

“I just get so tired so easily. It's like my head gets filled with fog. Uncle Jack says it will get better slowly. I hope so because it's awfully annoying. I like talking to you, though. You have such a nice voice.”

People had said this to Verity before and it never ceased to amaze her so much that she was incapable of registering it at all. “What should I talk about?”

“Anything. It was so quiet in the San, except for when I had visitors, and I wasn't allowed many of those. At first it was just Dr Jack and the other doctors, and Aunty Jo. I was so glad when you and Dad came.” For a moment Mary-Lou was silent, as though she was gathering her thoughts, and despite having just been instructed to talk about anything, Verity was happy enough to sit and wait. “I didn't know I could be so happy to see him, you know.”

“He wanted to see you dreadfully,” Verity said. Father was good at explaining things, much better than Verity was, and she struggled to put what he had said to her into her own words. “Partly because of Mother, of course, and partly because he says he owes so much to your father. But he said he had to make sure for himself that you were all right, as much as for everyone else. And he was so glad that you were, Mary-Lou, really glad. And I was, too. Miss Annersley told us you were much better and so did Dr Jack, but I didn't quite believe it until I saw you. And all the school wanted to know, too.” That was the longest speech Verity had ever made, and when she got to the end of it she gave a little sigh.

“I'm glad. Does that sound selfish? I thought so much about everyone while I was lying there, waiting to know if I would walk again. I hoped you were all thinking of me – and – and praying for me. I felt so alone sometimes, even though I knew that God would never let me be alone.”

Mary-Lou's simple faith was sometimes too much for Verity, who said her prayers and attended church dutifully but rarely considered such matters on her own time. “It doesn't sound selfish,” said Verity, who knew as well as every other girl at the Chalet School that Mary-Lou could never be considered such a thing. She looked at Mary-Lou's thin, pale form, with the shawl on her head and a light blanket over her legs. “I'm glad, too. That – that the things that – we all feared didn't happen. I thought about Mother all the time – I wanted you to be well for you – but also for her.” Verity had to dig out the handkerchief she had pushed into a pocket that morning, warned by yesterday's talk with Mrs Maynard, in order to wipe her eyes.

Mary-Lou's reaction was unexpected. “Oh, Verity, I'm so thankful you were thinking of Mother.”

“Thankful?”

“Yes, of course. Oh, Verity, don't you see?”

Verity didn't, and said so.

“Because – Mother doesn't have very many people. Father died, and Gran died, and if it wasn't for you and Father she would only have me, and if – well, then she would have been alone. But I'm glad to know that you were worried for her, because it means that there is one more person who could take care of her if God had called me home.”

Both girls sat in silence for a time, listening to the laughter and voices of the Maynard children in the nursery upstairs and to the sound of Anna at work in the kitchen. For Verity, it was Mrs Maynard's words to her the day before that brought home the reality of Mary-Lou's words now. It was, indeed, a gift that they gave to each other, and for a fleeting moment she felt something that might have been the faith with which Mary-Lou lived. She cleared her throat and said, hurriedly, feeling almost embarrassed, “I will always care for Mother, no matter what happens. I promise.”

Mary-Lou nodded slowly, and reached out a hand. Verity took it, hesitantly, but returned Mary-Lou's quick squeeze. “Thank you, Verity.” Mary-Lou smiled, and for a moment she looked less tired. Somewhere overhead, Margot Maynard was bellowing at a sibling, and one of the babies was crying.

Verity looked at Mary-Lou, remembering the day they first met as new girls at the Chalet School. “I didn't know I needed a sister,” she said, forcing herself to speak the words aloud. Even if they never spoke about it again she wanted to say this now, when the memory of Mary-Lou lying limp in the snow was still painfully fresh in her mind. “But I think I did.”

Mary-Lou squeezed her hand again, and a moment later the bell rang for Abendessen.