"A finishing school? In Switzerland?" Lawrie Marlow's voice took on a tone of deepest outrage.
Ever since Miss Keith had made it quite clear, however nicely, that Nick and Lawrie would not be welcome into the Sixth Form at Kingscote, the twins had taken it for granted that they would be following in Ginty's footsteps and doing their "A" levels at the joint Sixth Form College that had been created by the two Colebridge Grammar Schools.
However, on the first day of half-term, they learnt that this was not happening. "Daddy has this important posting to Washington, and wants me with him," explained Mrs Marlow.
"Well, why can't we just stay behind here with Rowan?" asked Lawrie.
"No, thank you," said Rowan. "I have quite enough to do here without wiping your noses and seeing that you have your packed lunches, and so on."
Even Lawrie knew better than to rise to the implied insult in that one. "So why couldn't we stay with Karen and Edwin?" she asked, knowing before she even spoke, what the answer would be.
"Would you really want to?" Her mother raised an eyebrow at her. "And anyway, it wouldn't be possible. Karen's expecting another baby and is angry enough that I'm not going to be there to hold her hand, never mind lumbering her with you two."
Nicola, who had continued to eat her toast quietly, thought that Switzerland might actually be rather fun. But, "Why? Why Switzerland, and why a finishing school?"
"It isn't really a finishing school," explained Mrs Marlow. "It started out that way, as the finishing branch of a bigger school, but more and more girls are hoping to do their A levels there, and as older girls aren't accepted into the school proper, they have expanded their facilities quite a lot, and there is a great deal of crossover with the main school. I believe they are making it into a separate Sixth Form centre, although I'm not sure if that has actually happened yet. I expect there will be some girls who are just there for flower-arranging and cookery, but I gather they are more and more in a minority."
"But why that particular school?" asked Nicola. "I mean, going to Switzerland, who wouldn't like it -"
"Me," growled Lawrie, not yet feeling ready to accept such a major change in plans.
"But," went on Nicola, ignoring her twin, "why us? Why there? Can we afford it? Why not another boarding-school if we can't go to Colebridge?"
Mrs Marlow laughed. "Oddly, it was through your Aunt Mollie. She has a friend in Paris who was educated there, and who has sent her own daughter there, and who speaks very highly of it. It specialises in languages, which you two will like, and for what it is, it's extremely reasonable, so yes, we can afford it. Don't forget, with Lawrie's Prosser, we're getting two for the price of one! Besides which, it will take you unconditionally, without being dependent on your "O" level results, which many places wouldn't."
Neither Nicola nor Lawrie was really convinced, but realised that there was to be no arguing with their parents, whose minds were made up. "And I don't think they're best pleased with us for being more-or-less expelled from Kingscote," said Nicola. "Even Ginty could have done her A levels there if she'd wanted to; it was her choice to leave."
So it was to be Switzerland, and St Mildred's. The next crisis arose when Lawrie discovered that Drama was not on the list of subjects offered at A level. "So write and ask if there is any chance they could possibly offer it!" suggested Nicola, and was rather taken aback when Lawrie did attach a polite note to the bottom of the form she had had to fill in, stating her preferences as English, French and History, but asking whether it might be possible for her to take Drama instead of History. Nicola, whose own sheet asked for English, French and German, made no such requests and privately expected that nothing further would be heard, and that Lawrie would have to settle for history.
To both their surprise, within a week Lawrie received a letter from someone signing herself "Helena M Wilson, Headmistress", saying that, while they had not previously offered Drama as a subject, Lawrie was not the only girl to have expressed an interest in studying it, and they were hoping that it would be possible to offer it next term. However, this was not yet certain, and she hoped Lawrie would not be too disappointed if it proved impossible after all.
Lawrie said rather crossly that yes, she would be very disappointed indeed, but nevertheless wrote Miss Wilson a courteous reply, while she should have been revising for her Biology theory paper, thanking her for her trouble and hoping that it would prove possible.
The exams came and went. Both Nicola and Lawrie tended to take exams very much in their stride, and they had done enough practice papers for their "O" levels to hold no terrors for them. And after the exams, the last few weeks of term were always fun, with the finals of the cricket tournament - "Goodness, I wonder whether we shall play cricket in Switzerland; I do hope so!" - the diving cup, the various swimming galas and so on taking up a great deal of time. And, all too soon, the final Mark Reading of term, the final farewells to their closest friends - tearful on Lawrie's part, and even Nicola had to swallow uncharacteristically when she made her final trip to the roof to bid Miranda good-bye - and they had left Kingscote for the last time.
Some weeks later, Nicola and Lawrie were in Paris, waiting at the Gare de l'Est to board the train to Berne, on the second leg of their journey to Switzerland. Given Nicola's history of sea-sickness, their parents had decided that the twins had better fly to Paris, and travel on by train, Paris being one of the cities from which an escort was provided.
Their grandmother, hearing of this plan, had promptly invited them to stay for a week beforehand. Nicola and Lawrie had been rather taken aback by the invitation, their previous encounters with their grandmother not having been altogether satisfactory, but had surprised themselves by having a wonderful time. Aunt Mollie had shown them how to use the public transport system, and they had been free, within limits, to come and go as they chose. They had explored all over the city, visited all the main tourist sights and one or two museums, been flirted with in the Latin Quarter, and walked further than they would have believed possible. Aunt Mollie had taken them to the cinema, and their grandmother to the theatre. The twins were intrigued by how much Mme Orly seemed to have mellowed with age, and she, in her turn, was delighted by how much they had improved. The result being that she not only tipped them heavily before they left for Switzerland, but extended a warm invitation for them to come and see the New Year in with her before returning to school in January.
Now, however, January seemed as remote as the next century, as the twins looked at the group of girls dressed in gentian blue, feeling rather daunted and summoning up the courage to approach them.
"Are you the new twins for St Mildred's?" asked a friendly voice, and they turned to see a tall, red-haired young woman with friendly grey eyes addressing them. "I'm Len Maynard," she continued, "and I used to go to the Chalet School. Come and report in; the Millies tend to sit in a separate compartment, but you'd better get signed in anyway."
They did this, and were greeted warmly by an elderly Frenchwoman, who introduced herself as Mlle Berné and bid them "run along with Len and get comfortable".
"Are you at St Mildred's?" asked Nicola, rather shyly.
"No," explained Len, "I'm at Oxford; I've just finished my first year at Shrewsbury College. But my parents live next door to the school, and I spent most of my schooldays there. I've just been spending a few days in Paris with a friend of my mother's, and decided to come on by this train, as it's so much easier with a group."
"Why easier?" asked Lawrie.
"Well, quite apart from anything else, I can cadge a lift up to the Platz with the school coaches. Plus they organise Kaffee und Kuchen for us while we wait for the coaches, which is always good."
"Do we have to wait long" asked Nicola.
"About ninety minutes, until both the Calais and Stuttgart trains are in. But it's only about an hour's run in the coaches, so it could be worse. And wait until you taste the coffee they serve at the station!"
"It's good?" Nicola wasn't at all sure she liked coffee, especially station coffee.
"If you're thinking of English station coffee, don't - there's absolutely no relationship between them!"
"What happens if you don't like coffee?" asked Lawrie.
"Oh, they'll bring tea or hot chocolate, or even milk, if you prefer. At school it's mostly coffee, although I'm not sure what happens at St Mildred's."
They fell silent for a moment, but just then the compartment door opened and a couple of girls came in. One had short dark hair, and a rather boyish look; the other was anything but boyish.
"Len!" exclaimed the first girl. "What are you doing here? How come you're on the train? And who are you-" to the Marlows.
"I'm-" Lawrie began, but Len had also started speaking. "I've been staying with Tante Simone, and it was easier to come on with the school. And these are Nicola and Lawrence, but I'm not sure which is which yet!"
"I'm Lawrie, and this is Nick," said Lawrie.
"And I'm Jack, and this is Jane!" said Jack. "So how are you Len, and how's Reg, and are you still engaged, and...."
"Peace, my child!" exclaimed Len. "You're still an animated question-mark. I'm fine; Reg, as far as I know, is fine, but I've not seen him for a fortnight while I've been in France; and yes, we are still engaged. There are some very nice young men in Oxford, but none are as nice as he is!
"But are you two really Millies this year? I thought you were going into the Sixth Form, last I heard."
"We were," said Jane, "It's all been a bit unexpected. Miss Wilson wrote to Mummy at the end of last term to see whether she'd be willing to teach at least some A level drama as there were two people badly wanting to do it - "
"Me for one!" said Lawrie. "Have they been able to organise it?"
"I think so, darling! Mummy is allowed to do a bit of work now, but Daddy doesn't want her going back into films just yet - "
"Films?" asked Lawrie.
"Yes, she had an accident a couple of years ago and for a very long time they didn't know whether she'd ever be quite all right again. She is all right, but she still gets tired easily, and filming's very tiring, you know."
"Hang on, an accident a couple of years ago - she isn't, she couldn't possibly be-"
"Daphne Cibber, yes. I'm afraid so!"
"Wow!" Lawrie's eyes sparkled.
"Lal- " said Nicola, warningly. While it would be great if Lawrie and this girl - who seemed rather nice, if a bit gushy - chummed up, it had better be for the right reasons, and not because she had a mother whom Lawrie had long worshipped.
Lawrie either didn't hear her twin, or pretended she hadn't. She and Jane continued in eager, animated conversation long after the others had taken out books, or, in Nicola's case, stared in fascination at the French countryside that passed by the windows.
"Didn't you bring a book?" asked Len, shortly after the train had stopped at Dijon.
"Oh yes," said Nicola, "I've plenty. But I've not been in France before, and it's fascinating!"
"Do you speak French?" asked Jack.
"More or less - I did it for O level, and they made sure we could speak it more or less fluently. I expect I'll be a bit umm-ish and er-ish, though - and even more so in German."
"I hardly spoke any when I came, but I soon picked it up, and so will you," said Jack.
"Oh, I'm sure I shall," said Nicola. "But school languages never teach you the words you need to know, like what you ask for in the hairdresser, or if you have to go to the dentist."
"Or," said Lawrie, joining in the conversation as this was a point she had often made in French and German conversation classes, "what people really say when they want to go to the loo, or what they call their underwear."
Len laughed. "Yes, and it's even worse in Switzerland, as the local dialect is totally incomprehensible when you aren't used to it. Sometimes even native German speakers find it really difficult. But it's only really the dentist that you might need, and usually someone goes in with you and explains what your problem is, if you can't."
"Do you speak Swiss German?" asked Nicola.
"I understand it better than I speak it, but I can communicate in it. We mostly speak Hochdeutsch, ordinary German, at school, but of course the local girls all speak Schwitzerdütsch, as they call it, and you can't help picking up some. Especially when you live there year-round, as we did."
"Margot was the one who could really speak it," said Jack, and grinned at Nicola. "Len's one of triplets, had you gathered?"
"No!" exclaimed Nicola, fascinated. "I thought we were unusual enough, being identical twins."
"Oh, twins are ten-a-penny at the Chalet School," said Jack. "Although, to be fair, not identical ones. But Len has two other sets of twins in her family, and there are lots of others."
"Why, however many of you are there?" asked Nicola.
"I have the misfortune to be the eldest of eleven," said Len, rather pink.
"And we are the youngest of eight," said Nicola, "which also has trimmense disadvantages."
"Does it?" asked Len. "You'll have to tell me sometime; one of my sisters often complains that we elder ones treat all the younger ones as though they were exactly the same age. We probably do, at that!"
"Are your triplets also at Oxford," asked Nicola, not feeling she knew Len well enough to want to go into the advantages and disadvantages of elder siblings.
"No, neither of them is. Margot is reading medicine at Edinburgh, and Con started off reading English at Shrewsbury with me, but hated it, said the reality didn't match up to the expectation at all, so she left at the end of the first term and did an accelerated secretarial course, and she's got herself a job as general dogsbody on a magazine, which is what she wanted."
"Are you reading English?"
"Not me! No, my love was always modern languages, and of course it's been such an advantage learning to speak them so fluently. And, of course, doing other lessons in them - we did learn not only how to ask for the loo, but how to do long division and dissect sheeps' eyeballs in French and German as well as English!"
"Or all the different parts of a car engine. Actually, I can do cars better in Schwitzerdütsch," said Jack.
"Which reminds me," said Len, "You never did say how come you're a Millie this term. Didn't they want you for a prefect?"
"Well, I'm not sure I really am a Millie, exactly, but from what I gather, they've decided to turn it into a sort of Sixth Form extension, or something, and all the oddball subjects like engineering - “
"And drama!" interrupted Jane. "Don't forget drama, darling!"
"Not easy to do, with you around!" retorted Jack. "But as I was saying, the oddball subjects like engineering and drama are going to Millies, and the mainstream subjects are being taught in the school proper. So there's masses of overlap now, and none of the Sixth Form need wear uniform. But I'm not sure how much the privileges will be the same - if we're in the main school, we still sleep in dormitories, worse luck."
"Oh dear," said Nicola. "I never thought of that!"
"Of what," asked Lawrie, recognising a certain note in her sister's voice.
"Well, I put down to do English, French and German since the school specialised in languages. It didn't occur to me that if we are taught in the different languages, they happen automatically. Maybe I should have gone in for engineering and geography, or something."
"They might let you change," said Lawrie, doubtfully.
"Worth asking," said Len. "As long as you're sure. They won't love you if you keep on changing your mind, but they'd probably let you do it once. I'm the wrong person to ask, because I did do languages, and am loving them. Don't forget, you get the literature at 'A' Level."
"Yes, but there'd be a reading-list, wouldn't there?" asked Nicola, who was game to try reading in French and German if she had to.
"They'd certainly love you if you asked for a reading-list of French and German novels! Do ask Bill when you get there, though; at worst she can just say no!"
"'Bill'?" queried Lawrie.
"I beg her pardon, Miss Wilson. But universally referred to as 'Bill' by all and sundry. Not, of course, to her face."
"What is she like?" asked Lawrie. "Although, perhaps you don't know her very well, since you weren't at St Mildred's?"
"Ah, if you think that, that's where your toes turn in, as she's my godmother! I've known her all my life, both in and out of school. When I was a kid, the school was in Wales, and she was joint Head there."
"You really have been at the school all your life, then?" asked Nicola.
"Oh yes, and my mother was the school's very first pupil. Which she never allows one to forget! You'll meet her, fairly soon - she always invites new girls over to tea during the first half of term."
"She's Josephine M Bettany, the novelist," interposed Jane.
"Oh, really? We used to love her books when we were younger, didn't we, Lawrie? Be interesting to meet her."
Eventually, the train reached Berne, and they piled out, rather stiff from long sitting.
"Um - I don't suppose...." Jack looked at Len.
Len, who knew her Jack of old, grinned. "Probably not! What are you plotting?"
"I was just wondering whether you thought there was time to take Nick and Lawrie to see the bears?"
"I wouldn't have thought so; not if you want Kaffee und Kuchen as well. It's a good half-hour's walk from here. And you're bound to come down during the term and can see them then."
"Yes, I suppose so. Pity, though."
"Oh yes," said Nicola, with a grin. "Mary Plain. Does she really exist?"
"I don't know about Mary Plain herself, but the bear-pits are still there, and her relatives, no doubt! They're not that far from here - are you desperate for coffee, or could you live without?"
"Well, it is tempting," said Nicola. "But would they give us permish, do you suppose?"
"They can only say no!" exclaimed Jack, and was over speaking to Mlle Berné before Nicola had a chance to react. And back again, within a moment.
"She says we may go, but she will take no responsibility if we miss the coaches, and we are to be back here absolutely not one second later than 17:30."
"Great! You coming, Lawrie?"
"Only if everybody is," said Lawrie. But Jane and Len, who were not as enthusiastic about the bears, decided that a cup of coffee and a cake was more important, and Lawrie elected to stay with them. They agreed to keep an eye on Jack's and Nicola's cases, and the two girls headed off.
It was an easy enough walk to the Nydeggbrücke, where the bear pits are situated, and the two girls hurried through the busy streets full of shoppers. "One of these days, I really want to come and spend the day here," said Nicola. "How far is it to the school - are we allowed to come down by ourselves?"
"I don't think so," said Jack. "I'm not entirely sure how much more freedom we get, being Millies and Sixth Form and all that, but again, we can ask. I think we're allowed down to Interlaken by ourselves - well, not totally by ourselves but in small groups, but I wouldn't swear to it."
"I suppose it would be a bit much to ask. I'm actually quite surprised they let us go to the bear pits; my old place wouldn't have."
"Actually, I was surprised, too," admitted Jack. "But Mlle Berné is rather a pet, and we are Millies. I just hope she didn't think all five of us were going - I didn't mean to give her that impression, so hope she didn't take it."
Neither Jack nor Nicola was the type of girl to linger looking in shop windows, although Jack did drag Nicola a few steps off the main track to show her the " Kindlifresserbrunnen" or Ogre Fountain, which appealed to both of them. But they dared not linger more than a very few minutes, and hurried on to the bridge. The bear pit is situated just across the river, and the bears were out, enjoying the early autumn sunshine. Several visitors were throwing down pieces of fruit and other goodies to them, and the girls enjoyed watching them for several minutes.
They then decided that they were thirsty, and bought themselves each a bottle of Rivella, a soft drink that was new to Nicola, before heading back. The walk back, being uphill, seemed to take longer than the walk down to the river, and although they hurried, the station clock was just striking the half-hour as they entered the forecourt, and there was no sign whatsoever of the school coaches.
"That's torn it!" exclaimed Jack. "And that was very unfair of them not to wait - it's only just half-past. Now what are we going to do?"
Meanwhile, up on the Gornetz Platz, Nell Wilson and her secretary, Gillian Culver, were busy finishing off a long day's work.
"There, I think we are ready!" exclaimed Gillian. "Let them come!"
"Let them come, indeed!" replied Miss Wilson. "Now then, they should arrive at around 18:30 or 18:45; that will give them up to half an hour to wash and brush up, and then we'll assemble them in the Hall and explain a bit about the new arrangements. Won't they be thrilled?"
"I hope so," said Gillian, soberly.
"You look as though you expect trouble?"
"We-ell, some of the Lower Sixth could have confidently expected to have been prefects this term - people like Jack Lambert and José Helston and maybe Wanda and Jane. I hope they don't resent not being. Besides which, they're so conservative at that age, and hate change."
"Yes, but at least they're old enough not to go off the rails if they do feel disappointed."
"You hope....", said Gillian. "Talking of maturity, I think we'll need to keep an eye on these new twins - the Marlows. Their former school doesn't seem to have loved them one little tiny bit."
"It may not have done, but as you know we believe in giving people a fresh start here. And either they had superb teaching staff, or these are extraordinarily intelligent children - have you seen their O level results?"
Gillian, who hadn't, looked them up, and gave a low whistle. "Excellent indeed! But Bill, why are you letting that Nicola-child do languages - she's got a string of grade ones for sciences and mathematics, and her languages appear weaker. She looks like a born scientist!"
"Yes, I mean to have a word with her tomorrow about that. I think she'd be more comfortable doing maths or sciences; maybe she can be persuaded to change her mind. The sister is the one who asked if she could do drama; I'm glad we're able to offer it to her."
"Yes, it's nice that we have the facilities to broaden the curriculum a bit. And, of course, there are the girls who are just coming for a final year's general course, to brush up their languages. I wonder how they will mix in."
"Probably very well; most people have a good set of O levels these days, even if they don't want to take it further. But now, my child, we had better go and get tidy, or the coaches will arrive and find us not ready."
Back at Bern central station, Nicola was silent. She had no real idea how you got to the school from Bern, although she imagined there must be a bus, or something, to Interlaken. But she had very little Swiss money with her, and was not entirely sure how she would go about changing her French francs at that time of the evening. The Bureau de Change in the station forecourt was rather obviously closing punctually.
Before she could formulate her thoughts into words, though, Jack gave a huge sigh of relief. "Len's still here! Thank goodness for that!"
Len came over to them. "I'm sorry you had such a fright - you're not late, and not in trouble. Mlle Berné said to apologise for abandoning you, but the Stuttgart people had caught an earlier train than expected, so we met them in the café. We were waiting for you, but then Reg came down to meet me, after all, and said he'd give you two a lift with us. We've rung Bill, and she knows all about it. Come and meet Reg, Nicola - my fiançé, you know."
Reg proved to be rather older than Nicola had expected, "but still younger than Edwin," she thought, privately. Perhaps if you were the eldest girl in a long family you wanted a much older husband. He was rather quiet and shy, but encouraged Nicola to sit in the front, as she, alone of all of them, had never seen the area before, and pointed out various landmarks to her. And they were all gratified to find that they overtook the coaches fairly soon after reaching the motorway, amid much waving and laughter, and arrived at the school a good fifteen minutes before the first coach.
Reg set them down outside St Mildred's, a large chalet set slightly apart from the school proper, but attached to it by a covered way. A tall woman with a mass of white hair opened the door to them. "Ah good, here you are! Thank you, Reg. Now, Jack I know, of course, and you are Nicola, aren't you? I'm Miss Wilson."
"Yes, I'm Nicola." Nicola wondered whether they ought to say something about their rather unorthodox arrival, but Jack broke in, "Miss Wilson, I do hope I didn't mislead Mlle Berné into thinking that more of us were going to see the bears than just Nicola and me; I really didn't mean to!"
"I'm sure you didn't. And as it turned out, it was as well, as it meant the coaches could get off earlier than planned, as Reg couldn't have fitted many more of you into his car! Did you like Bern, Nicola?"
"Very much, thank you, Miss Wilson. I'd love to see it properly sometime; we had to hurry rather!"
"And if only you'd known that Reg had come down, you needn't have hurried nearly so much. Did you get anything to eat or drink?"
"We had a Rivella each, and that was all I wanted," said Nicola.
"Well, it won't be long to supper time. I'll show you your rooms, and you can open your cases and get washed. The coaches won't be long now."
The girls were each shown to a tiny cubicle, with matchboard partitions separating it from its neighbour. Each of the cubicles had a small narrow wardrobe. The beds were wooden, made rather like old-fashioned sofas, with a low wooden head and back. In the daytime, they were covered with a loose cretonne cover and there were cases to match for the pillows and duvet, turning the whole affair into a little sofa. A wicker chair and a bedroom one fitted into the corners opposite, and a table-bureau stood before the window. One end lifted up and showed a mirror, and a shallow locker for brush and comb and other oddments. Three drawers made up the other end, on top of which was a reading-lamp that could shine either on the bed or on the desk. Besides these, there was also a narrow chest of drawers, about five feet high and on this the girls could put their photographs and any vases they had brought. Pretty curtains to match the bedcover hung at the lattice window, and a jar of flowers stood on the broad sill.
"Please, where is my sister to sleep?" asked Nicola, hoping that she wouldn't be told, as she would have been at Kingscote, that it was none of her business. However, the Chalet School obviously had a different policy, and Miss Wilson merely smiled and said, "We thought you were old enough to be trusted to be near each other, so she's next door to you."
"Thank you. Actually, we've always been together; at my last school, they put sisters in a room together unless parents asked for that not to happen."
"That was never the policy here; Matron always liked to keep sisters and best friends as far apart as possible, at least until they were seniors. Now, I hear everybody else arriving, so I'll leave you to wash your hands, and please come downstairs as soon as you can; we will meet in the hall in fifteen minutes."
They did as they were told, and Nicola was just coming back from the bathroom when Lawrie came rushing up. "So what happened? Did you get into trouble? Did you see the bears? Were you horrified when we left you behind?"
"Come on, " said Jack. "We've been told to go downstairs as soon as we're ready, so I think we'd better do that. Catch up in a minute, Lawrie, when you've had a wash and brush-up."
The two of them went downstairs, and, not being very sure where to go, waited in the hall, until an American girl, whom Nicola learnt was called Sammy van der Byl, showed them into what she called the "Saal", a long, narrow, west-facing room full of evening sunshine. There were a number of basket chairs and two or three tables, one with a scatter of magazines and illustrated guides on it. Under each of the windows was a comfortable ottoman and both ottomans and chairs were piled with gaily coloured cushions. One corner was dominated by a towering porcelain stove. Wire stands filled with flowering plants stood between the windows. Opposite, bookcases filled with books of all sorts and in the three official languages of the school - English, French and German - offered an inviting selection to readers. Nicola's eyes gleamed, and she went straight over to browse, while Jack picked up a magazine and leafed idly through it. Soon they were joined by Lawrie and Jane, as well as a dozen or so other girls, some of whom were obviously old friends, others as new as Nick and Lawrie themselves.
A bell rang, and Nicola and Lawrie were shepherded, with the other Protestant girls, into another sitting-room where a Miss Norton took prayers. Nicola and Lawrie, used to prayers at Kingscote which went above most people's heads - except possibly their sister Ann's - were rather surprised by the atmosphere of reverence and devotion. Nicola's sense of spirituality had been developed a little by very occasional attendance at Mass at the Merrick's chapel, and she felt something of the same atmosphere in this little service, and wondered what the Catholic prayers were like. Lawrie, whose churchgoing was still no more than something she did when required, had no idea of prayer, but found the stillness and quietness appealed to something in her that she hadn't known was there.
After prayers everybody filed back into the entrance hall, where they lined up in tidy rows. Miss Wilson, Mlle Berné and Miss Nalder joined the other adults.
"I'm sorry we haven't chairs for you," said Miss Wilson, in her attractive voice, "but there hasn't really been time to sort out a rota for setting them out, and I won't keep you long.
"I want to welcome you all to St Mildred's, both those of you who expected to find yourselves here, and those of you who didn't! As you may have gathered, we've been making a few changes with the Sixth Form arrangements as so many girls were coming to join St Mildred's in order to take their A levels here. So we've decided to merge the two. You are all members of St Mildred's, with all the traditional freedoms that this implies - you need not wear uniform, as long as you conform to the dress code, you have far more freedom than you would have done in the school proper, and you are generally treated as students rather than as schoolchildren.
"However, with increased rights come increased responsibilities. If you don't behave with the maturity we expect of you, your privileges will be taken away from you. But I don't expect that will happen!
“As for your interaction with the rest of the school, we're not asking you to undertake the routine duties of break, prep and Kaffee und Küchen - but we are asking certain members of the Upper Sixth to be prefects, and the Lower Sixth will be stepping into their shoes during public exams.
"Miss Annersley will explain to you who are to be prefects exactly what your duties entail, but I'm sure you will all like to know that the Head Girl is to be Janice Chester, her deputy will be Adrienne Desmoines and the Games Captain is to be Judy Willoughby."
There was a round of applause at this, and three rather pink young ladies got up and went to the front to be congratulated. Miss Wilson then read out the names of the other prefects, who also went up to the front. "Tomorrow morning, you will all go into prayers with the rest of the school so that these appointments can be announced. I know that some of you Lower VIth will be disappointed not to be sub-prefects, but you will be taking over the duties in the summer, and perhaps you won't be sorry to be excused taking prep and break duty! I do know, though, that Miss Annersley may well want to call on some of you for escort duty during rambles and trips down to Interlaken, so be prepared for that.
"We don't have many rules here, but we do expect you to keep those there are. Mainly, we expect you to stick to the language of the day, as always. We also expect you to keep us informed of your whereabouts at all time - if you wish to go out on the Platz, or down to Interlaken, or even Berne, you may, as long as you go in groups of no less than four, and you let us know where you are going and what time you expect to be back. And if we tell you that the weather forecast is too poor, we expect you to be sensible about this, too. Those of you who have been here for some years will know how quickly the weather can change, and how easy it is to get stuck.
"We also expect you to be sensible about what time you go to bed; the house should be quiet after 10:00 pm and ideally all school-books should be put away at 9:00 to give you time to relax. All school-books are put away on Saturday nights, of course, and not taken out again until Monday mornings. You need to do other things as well as study!
"Now, supper is ready, so let's move into the dining-room. Tomorrow morning, after prayers, you will unpack, and Miss Culver or I will see each of you briefly to discuss your timetables."
The dining-room was a far cry from most school dining-rooms, resembling nothing so much as a French bistro. Tables for four, covered with pretty blue checked cloths that matched the curtains, were laid with pretty coloured glasses and chunky peasant crockery. A serving-hatch gave into the kitchen, and a long table underneath served as a repository for plates, bowls etc.
After a delicious meal, Nicola and Lawrie discovered that the girls were expected to clear the tables, as well as making their own beds and keeping their sitting-room clean and tidy. As it had never occurred to them to do anything else, they wondered at the fact that it had been thought necessary to point this out to them. "Do we help with the washing-up?" asked Lawrie. "We had to at weekends in our old place, but not during the week."
"Also, what about laying the tables for breakfast?" asked Nicola, another chore which had been on the rota at Kingscote. However, it seemed that neither of these was necessary at St Mildred's, and once the dining-room was clear and tidy, the girls went out into the garden to enjoy the last of the evening sunshine.
Here, another difference was immediately apparent. At Kingscote, the girls would have used this occasion to catch up with their own gossip, and new girls would have been left to have coped as best they could. But here, Jack and her friends took special care to keep Nicola and Lawrie involved in the conversation, and to feel part of the group.
"What games do you play?" asked a girl whose name appeared to be Van. Her appearance was such that Nicola, for only the second time in her life, thought "That's beautiful!", rather than "That's pretty!"
"We played hockey quite a bit, but were best at netball," said Lawrie.
"And cricket, in the summer," added Nicola.
"Nick was usually games captain in our form," explained Lawrie, much to Nicola's embarrassment. Lawrie might possibly have grown out of proclaiming desires other people would have kept private, but she still had her moments of saying things you wished she'd thought twice about.
"Oh well, that was only in form," she muttered, embarrassedly.
"Yes, but our form won the Cricket Cup for four years running," bragged Lawrie.
"Well, Judy will certainly love you if you're cricketers! We don't get many cricket matches, except House matches and an occasional match against a visiting team."
Just at that moment, Mlle Berné came over to the group. "Ah, Nicola," she said, "I think I owe you an apology - it was not very kind of us to have left you stranded like that."
Nicola, totally unused to staff members apologising to girls for anything, didn't quite know where to look. She managed to remember her manners sufficiently to smile, and say, "Well, we did have a bit of a fright, but Len was there at once, so it didn't matter."
"I know," said Mlle Berné, "but it's not the introduction to the school we would have hoped for you. Were the bears worth it?"
"Oh, definitely! I'd love to go down again sometime and have a look properly, when there is more time."
"I expect you will be able to do that. It isn't very far from here, and quite easy to get to - it's a direct train ride from Interlaken."
"I thought it must be; what worried me was that most of my money is in French francs, and I hadn't had a chance to change it. Which reminds me, is there somewhere I can do that?"
"Not nearer than Interlaken, I'm afraid; you could change some at the hotel in an emergency, but their rates aren't very good. Do you have a lot of francs?"
Nicola explained that they had been staying with their grandmother, who had been unexpectedly generous about pocket-money for the term ahead. "Is there somewhere I could keep it safe, do you suppose? Not that I think anybody would take it, or anything, but it's a lot to carry about."
"Miss Culver will put it in the safe for you; that's what we normally recommend. Go and see her in the morning, after you have seen Miss Wilson, and she will sort it for you."
"Thank you, Mademoiselle."
The next morning, being Friday, the school spoke German. After the first few minutes, Nicola and Lawrie both realised, with relief, that their spoken German was as good as, and in many cases better than, that of the other new girls. They were rather short on vocabulary, but discovered that someone would always help them out with a word when they needed it. "What helps," said Jane, "is to carry a notebook around with you so you can make a list of the new words you've come across, so that you can learn them later."
After breakfast and prayers, the girls went to unpack their trunks, while the lower sixth and other new girls had individual interviews with Miss Wilson to sort out the subjects they were doing, and the upper sixth spoke to Miss Culver to sort out their timetables.
Lawrie was called before Nicola, and went in nervously, only just not begging Nicola to go in with her, but returned a few minutes later grinning cheerfully, with a timetable featuring Drama, History and French, having been made to realise that this combination worked better than the Drama, English and French she had first thought of.
Nicola knocked, also slightly nervously, and was not altogether reassured by Miss Wilson's first words to her, fortunately in English: "Well, Nicola. And why, please, have you asked to do languages?"
Nicola swallowed, reminded rather vividly of Miss Cromwell from Kingscote. And given that Crommie had always liked it if you stood up to her and refused to be intimidated, she reckoned it was possible that Miss Wilson was cut from the same cloth.
"I made a mistake!" she said, trying not to allow her voice to shake. "I hadn't really appreciated that I'd get the languages anyway in ordinary lessons. I think I'd rather like to change, if that's possible at this stage."
"Yes, I think you had better," agreed Miss Wilson. "You're obviously cut out to be a scientist or mathematician. Your arts and language results are very good, but it's the maths and sciences you've got grade 1 in. So what is it to be?"
"I'm not quite sure. Maths is my favourite, I think; I just find it fascinating."
"What are you hoping to do when you leave school?" asked Miss Wilson.
"Again, I'm not totally certain, but possibly sign on for a short-service commission in the Wrens, and then see how it goes."
"Not university, then?"
"I'm not sure. Possibly. Only, that just might be procrastinating before making a decision."
Miss Wilson laughed. "Well, there is that. But universities are far more prepared to make really good offers to girls wanting to read science subjects - I've known girls who are offered places with just two Es, whereas for arts subjects it's nearly always Bs and Cs at a minimum. Still, you need not decide that before next summer. For now, you do need to decide on your A levels."
"Did I hear you were offering Engineering this year?" asked Nicola, not too sure what that would involve, but liking the sound of it.
"Yes, Jack Lambert begged for it, and the syllabus is not too difficult to implement. I'm sure she'd appreciate someone else to study it."
"What else is Jack doing - what goes with Engineering?"
"Well, Jack's doing Physics and Chemistry, but if maths is your favourite, I'd suggest you do Applied Maths, and then just one science. Which do you think you'd prefer? Physics or Chemistry?"
"Oh, physics!" said Nicola. "I once read somewhere that physics was the study of what made the universe work."
"It is, indeed," said Miss Wilson. "That's a very maths-heavy timetable, but I think you'll manage."
"The only thing is," said Nicola, "that I don't have the technical vocabulary in either French or German. So far I seem to be managing more or less okay with ordinary chatting, in German, but I haven't the first idea about scientific terminology in either language."
"That will come," said Miss Wilson. "It will be assumed you don't know, at first, and you will be given a vocabulary list. And you will find you're coming across terms that are new to you in English, too, and all new words will be given in all three languages. Do buy a couple of notebooks from Stationery to keep vocabulary in, and try to learn at least ten words a day - that will get your vocabulary up and running as quick as possible. Now, was there anything else before I ask you to send in Thérèse Parrais?"
"Um, only - " Nicola hesitated, not wishing to sound like a swot. Oh well, mutton and mint sauce, as her brother Giles used to say. "It's just that I haven't read much in French or German yet, and wondered if there was a recommended reading-list for our private reading?"
"Now, that's thinking all round the subject, just what we like here," said Miss Wilson, with a grin. "No, we don't issue a formal reading-list, but you'll find that what's in the bookshelves in the Saal will keep you going for a while. And do read the magazines and periodicals we subscribe to, too. Now, take your list of subjects to Miss Culver, who will give you your timetable, and ask Thérèse to come in, please."
Nicola did as she was told, and Miss Culver quickly helped her sort out her timetable from the master copy pinned to the wall in her office. "The timetable proper won't start until Monday," she explained in fluent German, which Nicola was delighted to find she could follow easily. "This afternoon, you will have very brief lessons in each subject, and be issued with the relevant text-books and so on, so that you can begin reading up on your subjects. Tomorrow we will be going for a ramble."
Nicola had not met the word "Bergwandern" before, and had to ask what it meant; Miss Culver willingly supplied the translation for her, which emboldened Nicola to ask about leaving her purse in the safe.
"Of course you may, although most people keep their own purses, but leave most of their money in an envelope. Here, write your name on this one, and put your surplus supplies in. Just remember to ask me for it on a Friday evening if you're going to want any, as I'm not on duty on Saturdays, and very often am not here."
"Danke sehr, gnädiges Fräulein," said Nicola, pleased to have remembered the formal mode of address.
Nicola, quick as always, had already finished her unpacking, but went in to see whether Lawrie needed a hand. Lawrie, needless to say, was sitting on the bed surrounded by a pile of clothes, engrossed in a copy of Sheridan's "The Rivals".
"Oh Nick," she said. "I don't know where to put things."
"I think we're supposed to speak German," said Nicola, in that language.
"What, even when it's just us two?" asked Lawrie, incredulously.
"Oh yes," said a new voice, and a girl that they had been told was called Margaret Twiss poked her head round the door. "Sorry to interrupt and all that, but you did have the door open. Yes, we are expected to speak German at all times on Tuesdays and Fridays. And you'd better hurry up getting tidy, as we're supposed to have it done by lunchtime."
"Yes, well, thank you," said Nicola, not very sure how to take this rather officious young woman. And, catching Lawrie's eye, she realised that Lawrie had no doubts at all. She trod heavily on her toe, hoping that Lawrie wouldn't say something rather rude, but too late. Lawrie did hold her tongue while Margaret was in the room, but as soon as her back was turned said, quietly, but nevertheless audibly, in English, "Well! Who died and made her queen, I'd like to know!"
Margaret heard, as she was meant to do, and scowled to herself. And Lawrie had made herself an enemy at the Chalet School.
Margaret Twiss had had no real reason to suppose that she would have been made a sub-prefect had she remained in the school proper. In fact, had she been honest with herself, she would have known that she was not the type of girl from whom prefects are made. But she chose to believe that she would have been a sub-prefect, and so was already feeling rather at outs with the world that day. And Margaret was famed in the school for her unpraiseworthy tendency to sulk and to bear a grudge. Moreover, she was going through a very plain stage, with rather bad skin and hair, and Lawrie and Nicola's undeniable physical attractiveness was another blow to her. As was the fact that they were obviously busy making themselves popular with the leaders of the form, people like Jane Carew, Jack Lambert and Wanda von Eschenau.
So by the time St Mildred's assembled for lunch, she was feeling extremely cross and grouchy, and her closest friends, Mollie Rossiter, Meg Lyall and Rita Quick could get nothing from her at lunch, so left her to her sulks and chatted among themselves. And Margaret, as is so often the case, found that she got grumpier and grumpier, and as she discovered, during the course of afternoon, that Lawrie was taking all the same subjects that she was, by supper time she was in an extraordinarily bad mood.
Supper proved to be fried lake trout, one of the few meals served at the Chalet School which Margaret really disliked. She had realised, from earlier smells coming from the kitchen, this would probably be so, and concealed an envelope in her pocket, into which she managed to secrete quite half her helping, aided by the fact that her friends, knowing her dislike of fish, turned a blind eye. She had been going to throw the envelope into the waste-bin, but, unfortunately remembered something she had read in the holidays. So while her friends were drinking coffee in the Saal, and sharing round some chocolate that Mollie had brought back with her, Margaret ran quietly upstairs and, with neat fingers unpicked the hem of Lawrie's winter coat, pushed the fish inside, and sewed it up again.
The next morning, after breakfast was over, Miss Wilson announced that the whole school was going for a ramble that afternoon, and she hoped that most of St Mildred's would choose to join them. Some girls would be on escort duty, but she suggested that those who were not took the new girls up to the Auberge. Nicola and Lawrie joined the expedition, along with Len Maynard, who wandered over saying she was at a loose end and would like to join in, if they would have her. Jack Lambert and Wanda von Eschenau, who were leading the walk to show everybody where to go, greeted her enthusiastically. It was not a very long walk, but quite challenging for those unaccustomed to the steady climbs that those who had been there for some years were used to, and several of the new girls were tired by the time they reached the inn, and glad of the rest. Everybody enjoyed trying out the echoes, and in all the afternoon was deemed a great success.
On Sunday, the girls were required to attend one or other of the school chapels. After that, they were free to do as they liked for the rest of the day, and many of them spent the time in the gardens. It was not until Monday that the fish began to make itself known. By Monday evening, Nicola and Lawrie were both so tired from a day spent speaking French and studying unfamiliar subjects that they did no more than comment that there was an odd smell coming from their wardrobe, and opened the windows. Their other neighbours, including Jack, Wanda, Jane, and, of course Margaret herself, also barely noticed.
By Tuesday evening, however, the smell was much stronger and by Wednesday, when Lawrie opened the wardrobe to get out a clean skirt, she was nearly sick. Matron sent the girls down to breakfast, and set herself to investigate. Her first thought was that something - a mouse, perhaps - had died in the wardrobe, but when a thorough search produced no small corpse, she then lifted down all the clothes that had been hung in there. As she did so, the hem of Lawrie's coat brushed against her leg, and felt unpleasantly damp and squishy. The fish was very soon discovered and disposed of, and Lawrie's coat taken to be hung out-of-doors to see whether that would help the smell disperse.
Matron washed her hands, and then went straight into the dining-room and spoke to Miss Wilson, who tapped a knife-handle on the table to attract attention. "I am sorry to have to say that we appear to have a baby among us. Would the person who tampered with Lawrence Marlow's winter coat please stand up?"
Margaret rose to her feet, blushing deeply. Miss Wilson simply stared at her for what felt like an eternity, while her head sank lower and lower. Finally she spoke: "My study, please, as soon as you have finished your cubicle work."
Lawrie, angry and upset, made quite certain that those on her breakfast table - Jane, Jack and Nicola - knew exactly how furious she was going to be if her new coat was ruined. New clothes were still rare for the younger Marlows, and Lawrie's was new only by virtue of the fact that there was only one non-uniform winter coat already in the family. Nicola was perfectly happy to wear it - it had been Ginty's, and Ann's before her, so allowed Lawrie the joy of a new coat. And she was embarrassed, as always, by Lawrie's overt emotionalism. Fortunately Jane, who also wore her emotions on her sleeve, was able to empathise with Lawrie and express sympathy: "Oh darling, it's too, too frightful, I know. But they're pretty fair here; they'll make sure it's as good as new." Meanwhile Nicola and Jack exchanged "Oh help!" faces, and started to giggle.
"It's not funny!" stormed Lawrie.
"No, it isn't," said Nicola, "but you are! Honestly, Lawrie, do shut up. I'm sure your coat isn't ruined, and if it is, as Jane says, they'll sort it. Are you going to play netball this afternoon? Arda was saying they were hoping to get up a couple of teams for a scratch game, and to meet on the playing-fields at 4:30."
Lawrie, perforce, subsided. She had retained her old habit of going for a quick breath of air between finishing her breakfast and making her bed, and just as she was going upstairs, Miss Culver caught her and told her she was wanted in the study.
In the meantime, Miss Wilson had soon had the story out of Margaret. She listened to her in silence, and then looked Margaret up and down in silence. "Well," she said at length, and oh, the iciness in her tone, "This was an extremely unpleasant prank you chose to play, which has damaged someone else's property and could have led to serious illness among us. I am thoroughly disgusted with you. You will, naturally, apologise to Lawrence, and pay for the cleaning and repair of her coat. You will also be in solitary confinement until Saturday morning; apart from your lessons you will spend your time in isolation in the school san, and have your meals there. I hope that you will never stoop to such pettiness again."
Lawrie was sent for, and when she arrived, Miss Wilson said, "Margaret has something to say to you, Lawrence."
Margaret muttered a formal apology, which Lawrie had no idea how to respond to. She looked rather helplessly at Miss Wilson, who said, meaningfully, "I am sure Lawrence accepts your apology, don't you, Lawrence."
"Um, er, yes, perhaps, yes of course," was the best that Lawrie could manage, and she was thankful to be dismissed.
Matron was sent for, who escorted Margaret to her cubicle to pack an overnight case with the things she would need for a few days, and then to the San, where Nurse, icily silent, showed her to the small single room that had seen so many wrong-doers. She was told to go to class, but to return to the San at lunch-time, and then again at the end of school, where she would remain until the start of class next day.
The Drama students had two double lessons with Lady Carew - whom they were to address by her professional name, Miss Cibber, during class - on Wednesdays for the practical part of their syllabus. Miss Wilson spoke to her as soon as she arrived, explaining what had happened between two members of her class.
"Oh, don't worry, darling," replied Miss Cibber. "The same sort of thing happened to me when I was in rep, years ago. The director sorted us - he wasn't having two members of his team at odds with each other, and I can sort these two! They'll be the best of friends by the end of the day, just you wait!"
The atmosphere in the small room behind the stage, known as the Green Room, in which the practical Drama classes took place, was icy. Lawrie and Margaret had both rather obviously been crying, and Jane and José, the other two students, were very subdued. Miss Cibber, however, pretended not to notice, and, after explaining the syllabus rather quickly, got the girls working on improvisations. They all enjoyed this enormously, it being new to all of them except Jane, and, by a judicious choice of characters and pairings, she enabled both Lawrie and Margaret to vent much of their ill-tempers and anger, and the double period ended with everybody in fits of laughter. By the time the first session came to an end, they were both feeling a great deal better, and were able to work hard during their other classes and free periods. They had practical Drama again for the last two periods of the day, Miss Cibber taking some other classes in between, and she repeated her prescription, so the girls ended the day with their sides aching from laughter, feeling much better about each other. Lawrie, in fact, was rather horrified by the extent of Margaret's punishment.
"Three days is a bit much!" she said. "Can you come and play netball after tea, or do you have to go straight to the San?"
"Oh, anybody being punished doesn't get to do games," explained Margaret. "Even if I wasn't in solitary, I'd have to go for very dull walks with a mistress, I expect. I'll see you tomorrow. And, Lawrie - I really am sorry. I was upset for other reasons, and I hate fish, and generally took it out on you. I'm an idiot!"
Lawrie grinned. She wasn't quite ready to treat Margaret as a friend, but such a full-hearted apology completed what Drama had begun. "That's okay. But I'll still kill you if my coat is ruined!"
Margaret, in her turn, laughed. "And I wouldn't blame you! I do hope it isn't - I honestly didn't think about ruining your coat, only about the smell."
"Well, you got that all right. Wasn't it nasty?!"
The two girls walked across the Hall together, and then Lawrie walked with Margaret up to the San. They had to walk in silence, since the rule about silence in the corridor was strictly enforced, but nevertheless, they were together. Miss Wilson, on her way back to St Mildred's, noticed them and did a double-take. She changed direction swiftly and headed across the Hall to the Green Room, hoping that Miss Cibber would still be there.
She was, chatting to her daughter. "Oh, darling," she said, when she saw Miss Wilson, "Did you want me? Off you go, then, Jane darling, and I'll see you soon."
Jane kissed her mother and disappeared, leaving the two women together. "My dear Lady Carew," began Miss Wilson.
"Oh, do call me Daphne, please darling!" came the interruption.
"Oh, yes, of course, and I'm Nell. But what I want to know is what magic you worked - I have just seen two girls, who were at each others' throats this morning, and one of whom is still in deep disgrace, walking along together like the best of friends."
Daphne Carew laughed. "Made them laugh. And let them get their feelings out of the way, too. Improvisation can be a great tool like that. I think they're okay now."
"Well, I must say, you're a total miracle-worker. I wish I could send all my trouble-makers to you! How have you enjoyed today? You must be exhausted, with the various classes you've had."
"Oh, it was the greatest fun. I do believe I love teaching and directing. But, darling, I think I'm really glad it's only one day a week - I'm exhausted now!"
"Well, come to the staff-room and have a cup of tea before you head home. Are you driving yourself, or will Sir William come and fetch you?"
"Oh, he's coming to pick me up. He should be here by now - yes, there's the car, now. May he have a cup of tea too, do you suppose? And may we take Jane home for the weekend, and perhaps a friend, too?"
Miss Wilson readily agreed to both these requests, and later, listened to Jane's ecstatic comment, swiftly followed by, "But how awful, I don't know whether to invite José or Jack or Lawrie!"
"I should keep Lawrie for another weekend," said Miss Wilson; "I happen to know that Joey Maynard plans to invite her, and the other new people in St Mildred's, to tea on Sunday afternoon."
"Oh - bother!" said Jane, "she would probably have asked me to go with her, as I was sheepdogging her, and I do love going to Auntie Joey's. Oh well, there'll be other times. And it is lovely being able to go home so often at the weekend."
"Just as long as you keep up with your work," said Miss Wilson.
"Oh, I shall, I shall," said Jane, fervently, and Miss Wilson believed her, since Jane was known as a worker.
That evening, Len Maynard came over to St Mildred's to deliver her mother's formal invitation to tea on the Sunday afternoon. "Any chance I could have a word with Nicola Marlow?" she asked.
"Look here, Nick," she said, when Nicola appeared downstairs, wondering. "Do you have a free afternoon during the week? Only I really need to go to Interlaken, and you were saying you needed to change some French francs to Swiss ones. If you do have a free afternoon we could go together; if you don't, could you trust me to change the money for you? The banks are closed on Saturdays, you see."
"Wow, that's really kind of you," said Nicola. "Actually, I'm free on Friday afternoons, if that's any good to you - I'd simply love to go into Interlaken, if I can get permission."
"That shouldn't be a problem - let's go and double-check with Miss Wilson."
Miss Wilson readily agreed, reminding Nicola to let someone know when she left and when she returned again, and on the Friday afternoon the two of them set off, giggling childishly at the feeling that neither could quite shake off, that they were playing truant.
Nicola was enchanted by the little mountain railway, and the way it worked, and wondered aloud whether she and Jack would be able to see more of the workings if they asked, since they were engineering students.
"You can but ask," said Len, "but I don't know whether either of you has enough Schwitzerdütsch yet to cope. On the other hand, Jack does have a little, and plenty of people speak Hochdeutsch and can act as interpreters. So you aren't regretting having dropped languages?"
Nicola laughed. "Dropped them? I think I've learnt more French and German vocab in a week here than I did in two years at Kingscote when I was studying them officially."
Len grinned. "Yes, I've known other people say that. And, as it's Friday, you ought to be speaking German right now," dropping into that language.
"Miss Wilson did say I might speak English, if I chose," Nicola replied in German, the last week having helped her drop most of her inhibitions about speaking it in front of people she didn't know very well.
All the same, they both continued to chat in German throughout the short journey, and Len helped Nicola understand and reply to the cashier in the bank where she changed her and Lawrie's French francs into Swiss ones. Then Len explained that she needed to pick up her tickets for her trip back to Oxford, and her sister Margot's to Edinburgh.
"When do you go?" asked Nicola.
"Monday. We're going to break the journey in Paris again and spend the night with tante Simone, and then we'll take the Silver Arrow to London - that's a train to le Touquet and then a plane to Gatwick Airport, and another train to London - which is cheaper than flying from Paris but it means you don't have to go on a ferry. Which is good."
"Which is very good!" said Nicola, who still got seasick on ferries. "I'll have to investigate that. When does your term actually start, though - I must send my sister a good luck card?"
"Oh, have you a sister going to Oxford? Which college, and what's her name - I'll look her up."
"Oh, she's going to Shrewsbury - hang on, that's where you are, isn't it? Yes, do look her up, she's called Virginia really, but usually Ginty or Gin. Unless she decides to rename herself, like my sister Karen did - she was always Karen at school, but we tended to call her Kay at home. And at university she started calling herself Katie!"
"What's Ginty going to read?"
"English, I think. I hope she likes it - you said your sister didn't? And Kay, who was reading Classics, left Oxford after two terms to get married, so we assume she didn't really like it, either. Mind you, if Edwin - that's her husband - hadn't got a job near us she might have stayed on."
"I'll certainly keep an eye open for Ginty. And don't waste a stamp - if you give me your letter, I'll see she gets it when she arrives."
"Oh great, thanks. I wonder where's a good place to get postcards - most of my family will be shouting for them by now, I shouldn't wonder."
Postcards duly bought, Len treated Nicola to a cup of coffee and a cream cake before they went back to the Platz.
"I'll see you on Sunday, I gather," said Len as they parted. "Who are you bringing with you?"
"Jack, I expect," said Nicola. "That is, if you think she'd like to come?"
"I'm sure she would," said Len. "She tends to look on me as something of a mentor, you know - and now my sister Felicity looks on her as the same, so it's all in the family!"
"I'd noticed that," Nicola agreed. "Felicity always comes running up if we're having break in the school proper, as opposed to in Millies. She's a sweet kid, I think."
"She'll pass with a shove. She's the one I told you about who accuses me of treating all the younger ones as though they're exactly the same age. Much younger than she is, needless to say. I do try not, but it's not always easy to realise that she's now ten and not a baby of five or six."
"My father's bad like that, too. As he's in the Navy, he doesn't see us very often, and I think he still mentally thinks of us as about ten. My oldest brother, Giles, also tends to lose track of us at times. It's really annoying!"
Len laughed. "I should just about think it is! Ah well, the perils of a large family, I'm afraid. Now, I must go, and so must you. See you on Sunday!"
"Bis zum Sonntag!" agreed Nicola, and went in to wrestle with a page of maths problems that, while difficult, she found unexpectedly satisfying.
Jack was delighted to go to Freudesheim with Nicola on Sunday afternoon, and Lawrie, after some thought, decided to invite Margaret. She would have certainly asked Jane had she been available, or failing her, José, but José had gone with Jane for the weekend, and Lawrie, if the truth be known, felt rather sorry for Margaret. Although, once she felt better, she had accepted her punishment graciously, she was in disgrace and most of the staff and girls let her know it. Lawrie, who never brooded on anything for long, was the exception. So when Margaret came back to St Mildred's after breakfast on Saturday, Lawrie asked if she'd like to go. Margaret's face lit up. "Oh, Lawrie, that would be lovely. Thank you so much!"
Miss Wilson raised her eyebrows when Lawrie told her who her guest was to be, but said nothing. Privately, though, she thought "There's some good stuff in those Marlow girls, unless I miss my guess. I wonder why they didn't do so well at their old school."
Tea at Freudesheim was enjoyed by all, old and new girls alike. Lawrie and Nicola were fascinated to meet Len's mother, whose books they had enjoyed as children - and, indeed, Nicola was currently reading, and enjoying, one of her novels aimed at older readers that she had found on the shelves in the Saal. Actually, she was reading it on Wednesdays and at the weekend; conscientious, she had picked a French novel to read on Mondays and Thursdays, and a German one on Tuesdays and Fridays. These were going more slowly, as she found she had little time to read, except perhaps for half an hour before bed. Lawrie just read whatever she picked up, straight through, regardless of the language of the day, and mostly, it has to be said, in English.
Joey Maynard may have been old enough to have daughters at university, and an author of some renown, but she had obviously never lost the knack of communicating with younger people, and both Lawrie and Nicola found her easy to talk to.
Margot Maynard, Len's triplet sister, was also present, and somehow it emerged during the course of the general conversation that she was hoping to test her vocation as a missionary nun when she had finished her medical degree. Many of the new girls were very surprised, and fairly vocal about it. Lawrie, although she remained polite, was fairly obviously sceptical about the whole thing. Nicola said nothing, and became very silent.
Joey always tried to have a private word with each new girl during the course of these tea-parties, and when it was Nicola's turn, she commented on this. "You seemed rather struck by Margot's news. Have you not met any nuns?"
"Well, no, I haven't actually, not to talk to. It wasn't that - I was just thinking that all the people I know whose religion actually affects the way they live their lives, well, apart from my sister Ann, and it's not quite the same, well, they seem to be Catholic. At least, all two of them! Three, if you count my grandmother."
"Who was the other?" asked Joey, amused, but able to disentangle that rather confused speech.
"A friend of ours from home, Patrick. He was expelled from his school mostly because he couldn't and wouldn't accept the changes that came in after Vatican 2. His family has a private chapel and the Latin Mass is still said there; I go occasionally."
"Does Catholic spirituality attract you?"
"I don't know; I'm not too sure what you mean by 'Catholic spirituality'. But it seems more - I don't know, you come away feeling you could so easily be drawn in. I always come away thinking 'never again', but I always go back, at least once each holidays." Why, Nicola wondered, was she talking about this sort of private stuff to a complete stranger? Yet it didn't seem strange or horribly blush-making here, somehow, not like it would have done at home.
"Do you go to Church apart from that? Or only at school?"
"Mostly only at school," Nicola confessed. "My mother likes us to go and support the local vicar, but as she doesn't like the new services very much, she doesn't really make us go. Ann always goes, when she's at home, but the rest of us go about once a holidays and that's it."
"I grew up an Anglican, you know," said Joey. "I converted to Catholicism just after I left school. It's not for everybody, but it is one of the ways to God, and if it might be the right way for you, don't fight it!"
"But I'm not even sure I believe in God!" exclaimed Nicola. "I was at least thirteen before I discovered that people really did believe, even today - and then meeting people like Patrick and Margot, who actually let their belief affect how they live - well, I feel kind of...." she stopped, not quite sure of the word she wanted.
"Gobsmacked?" suggested Joey.
Nicola laughed. "Well, yes, that. Only we aren't supposed to say things like that at school, I gather."
"No indeed," said Joey. "Please don't repeat it. But you have to admit it is expressive. But as for not being sure you believe - well, I don't suppose everybody is really sure, most of the time, not even Margot."
"Although I think for Patrick it's more about old-fashioned Catholicism than actually about God. But it's not something we're comfortable talking about, really."
Joey smiled at her. "No, it's not so easy to talk about it, I know. And I know what your friend Patrick means - these days, sometimes, I wonder if I have gone to the wrong chapel, as the mid-morning services are so very like the Anglican ones. But we do still have a Latin mass at 8:00 every Sunday - I'm sure you could get permission to go, if you wanted."
"I might do that," said Nicola, fairly sure she wouldn't ask. However would you explain to Miss Wilson, of all people?
Joey passed on to the next person after that, and shortly afterwards the girls walked back across the garden and the playing-fields that separated the two establishments. Nicola was still silent, thinking things over.
As she had told Joey, she hadn't ever met any nuns to talk to - there were one or two who attended Mass at Patrick's place, but she invariably tried to slip away without talking to anybody, no matter how keen she was to accept an invitation to breakfast on other days. Her ideas of nuns were, like most people's, based on books like The Nun's Story and Black Narcissus, or, indeed, the films of the books. And yet, this Margot Maynard, who had come up with some outrageous suggestions when they were playing "Subject and Object" and similar ice-breaking games, and who had told a truly awful joke over tea - Nicola grinned, remembering the punchline - was seriously contemplating becoming a nun.
And being a Catholic had mattered enough to Mrs Maynard that she had actually bothered to change from being an Anglican. As, for that matter, had her own grandmother - who might have changed originally because of her second marriage, but who certainly took it seriously enough now.
And being the right sort of Catholic had mattered enough to Patrick to make him refuse to conform at school, and end up being expelled. She didn't know Mrs Maynard, of course, but she seemed a super person, and not just another adult - look at that unexpected "gobsmacked". And Patrick - well, Patrick was Patrick and she did know him. Well enough to know that his faith was a huge part of his life, but that he had plenty of room for other interests.
And Mrs Maynard somehow, just being friendly and interested, causing her to talk about stuff she'd normally have been hung, drawn and quartered before even mentioning! All very difficult, thought Nicola, and decided to shelve the matter for the time being.
The weeks went by, and Nicola and Lawrie continued to settle in. The weather got colder and less pleasant. Lawrie's coat was returned to her, as good as new, and she was glad of it on cold mornings when she went out for a breath of air. More and more often, though, it was raining too hard for this to be possible. She loved her courses, especially Drama, and got on very well with the other three, although she and Jane were apt to squabble as they were very alike. Her hero-worship of Daphne Cibber had not evaporated due to close contact, in fact, rather the reverse, and those of her friends who were not doing drama got rather sick of her constant "Miss Cibber says....". Jane teased her enormously: "Even I don't worship my mother like you do."
"Well, of course not, she's your mother! You wouldn't. You can worship my mother, if you like."
Miss Annersley took the history of Drama classes that made up the other part of their syllabus, and Lawrie found this less interesting, but Miss Annersley knew how to get the best out of her, and she found, as one does, that hard work actually rendered it more interesting than she would have thought.
French proved very easy for her - she spoke it well, and the fact that, on French days, she could speak nothing but helped improve her accent and vocabulary very quickly. The literature she enjoyed, especially Molière and Racine. She struggled a little with History, largely because her lessons were mostly on Tuesdays and Fridays, thus in German. Although her German was nearly as fluent as her French, and rapidly became equally so, she had very little background in the European history which they were specialising in, and also found that she had to concentrate far more than she was in the habit of doing. But nevertheless, despite a few sarcastic remarks from Miss Charlesworth, which rolled over her with no noticeable effect, and a couple of rather poor marks, which she did mind about, she generally did very well.
Nicola, meanwhile, also thoroughly enjoyed her work, and found the study of Maths, Physics and Engineering totally absorbing. Engineering was possibly her favourite, largely because she and Jack were the only two studying it, and they had to do a great deal of work on their own, with only a little help and oversight from Miss Wilmot. Unlike Lawrie, Nicola found she enjoyed being self-directed in this way, and as Jack did, too, they both got on very well and were quite a long way ahead of themselves in the syllabus before many weeks had passed. Physics and Maths were also good, and Nicola found Miss Wilson's slightly sarcastic manner as bracing and enjoyable as she had found Miss Cromwell's at Kingscote, and she found Miss Wilmot very easy to learn from.
Nicola was probably closest to Jack, largely because she worked so much with her, but got on very well with all "the gang", and one or two others as well.
"What do you think of Lawrie Marlow?" Miss Wilson asked her close friend and co-head, Miss Annersley, one evening when the two of them were having coffee together after supper, as they did on at least one evening most weeks.
"She's a nice girl; not the kind to slog at stuff that doesn't come easily, but she's clever enough when she chooses. And she does choose, mostly, certainly in my classes. Why do you ask?"
"Only because I teach Nicola, the twin, and she really is a good student - keen, interested, works hard and clever. And both of them have settled down extremely well. But they had a really rather poor reference from their last school - I gather they were not exactly expelled, but it was decided that it was in neither party's best interests for them to continue at the school after their O levels."
"Yes, strange. Where were they – oh, Kingscote! That was one of the places I visited during my sabbatical; it's extremely good academically, but Edith Keith, the headmistress, is the kind of woman who doesn't encourage individualism, and likes all the girls to blend in so much that you really wouldn't notice when any particular girl joined or left the school. The Marlows, of course, are the type of girl who very quickly get themselves noticed in any setting, and I can't really see Kingscote liking that."
"Yes, I suppose that's very true. At least nobody could accuse us of turning out so many little tin soldiers, all alike!"
"No, indeed. We've certainly produced our fair share of originals over the years, and then some, I think!"
Half-term was rapidly approaching. Lawrie had spent a weekend with the Carews in their chalet further up the alp, and had been promised another weekend later in the term. Jack, Nicola, Wanda and Gretchen had ventured into Interlaken one Saturday afternoon, and then, when that had been a success, spent the following Saturday in Berne.
But when she thought of half-term, Nicola, uncharacteristically, felt almost homesick, thinking of the enjoyable, if all-too-brief half-term holidays at Trennels. But Trennels was closed now, having major structural repairs done, while Rowan camped in an old caravan - "Sooner her than me, this weather!" said Lawrie - and the rest of the family was elsewhere. It was uncertain, even, whether it would be ready in time for Christmas, Mum had said in her latest letter. "Daddy and I will fly back to England for a few days, we think, but we may all have to go to a hotel, like we did those holidays when you were twelve."
So the thought of half-term was one she pushed away as often as possible. And because she didn't speak of it, nobody told her that there would be expeditions for the majority who couldn't go home. So it was a delightful surprise when Miss Wilson announced that those of St Mildred's who were not going home or to stay with a friend would be going to Innsbruck for the long weekend. They might also get a chance to visit the Tiernsee, where the school had been started some thirty years earlier, but that was rather dependent on the weather. Everybody was thrilled with the idea, and several of the girls who lived locally, including Jane, begged to be allowed to join in, and it was almost the entire complement of the house that climbed into the big coaches on the Friday morning. All the St Mildred's teaching staff were going too, as was Miss Annersley, who said it was far too long since she'd been to Innsbruck, and she welcomed the chance to visit it again.
The journey took about six hours, but went smoothly, and it did not seem long before they were checking in to their hotel with a couple of hours to spare before supper. Miss Wilson had suggested they form into small groups of four or six girls, and explore the city on their own, issuing them with street maps, lists of suggested things to see, and strict instructions as to what time to be back. She and Miss Annersley, meanwhile, went off to visit some old friends who still lived in the city, taking with them Wanda von Gluck and Gretchen von Ahlen, who were related to the friends.
Nicola and Lawrie found themselves with Jack, Jane, and José, and spent a very pleasant couple of hours walking round and seeing the sights, noting down museums that looked worth visiting, and occasionally popping into various shops. Nicola and Lawrie were amused to discover that neither Jane nor José had the first idea how to read a map, something that they had learnt how to do years earlier. So part of the walk turned into an impromptu lesson on map-reading.
After a delicious supper at the hotel, the girls were taken to a concert at one of the local churches, which they thoroughly enjoyed. The Drama students spent most of the interval criticising the soprano's presentation of herself, and had to be hushed by Miss Wilson, who didn't know whether to be annoyed with them for being rude, or pleased with them for applying the lessons they were learning. "Well," said Lawrie, not rudely, but as one stating a fact, "even Nick knows not to come on like that when she's singing!"
"Are you a singer, Nicola?" asked Miss Wilson. "I didn't know that. That will come in useful for the pantomime next term!"
"Pantomime?" said Lawrie and Nicola together.
"Yes, it's become traditional that St Mildred's entertains the school and the Platz generally with a pantomime at the end of the spring term. This term there is the Nativity play given by the main school, and at the end of the summer term, there is the school fête."
"Sounds like fun," said Lawrie. "I wonder-"
"Yes," said Miss Wilson, "I expect we'll be asking you Drama students to help produce it. But we can think about that another time, the concert is about to start again."
Walking back to the hotel afterwards, Lawrie tackled Jane about it. "You might have told me about the pantomime!"
"Gosh, darling, I'd forgotten all about it! That's not until next term, though - I hope we can have some fun with it. I wonder what we can do that involves twins.... assuming, that is, that Nick wants to be involved."
"Oh, I'm sure I shall, if I'm not too snowed under with work!" said Nicola. "I always have enjoyed being in school plays and so on, except when I've had to sing instead of Miss No Voice here. Who then chucked the part anyway, so they gave it to someone completely different."
"Hang on," said Jack, urgently, "you can't scrap here! We'll be made to walk in crocodile and go on organised excursions if you do!"
The twins contented themselves with glaring at each other, but then changed the conversation to the Nativity Play, telling of the horrors of the Christmas Play at Kingscote, when all the good parts were given to worthy, well-behaved girls, and the likes of Nicola and Lawrie were usually "Sheep: noises off!"
"Except that term we did it in the Minster, and then we ended up with Nick singing and me being the Shepherd Boy, which was the main part," said Lawrie, gleefully.
"What sort of play do you do here?" asked Nicola, hurriedly, before Lawrie could go into too many details about that particular occasion.
"It's different every time," explained Jack. "Usually Mrs Maynard writes it, and there are lots of crowd scenes and choirs, but plenty of solo parts, too. But we won't be involved with that, unless Plato wants some of us for singing."
"Plato?" asked Lawrie, not having come across the school's eccentric singing-master.
But discussion of his particular foibles had to wait, as they had reached the hotel.
Next morning was fine and clear, and after breakfast everybody piled into the coaches for the promised trip to the Tiernsee. Gretchen and Wanda, the daughter and the niece of Old Girls who had been at the school when it was at the Tiernsee, knew many of the stories of the earlier days, and spent much of the short journey retelling them to Nick, Lawrie and as many of the other girls who were in earshot. Some of the stories sounded more alarming than exciting, particularly the ones relating to the escape from Austria after the Anschluss. Some of them had had to escape from Spärtz, the town at the foot of the mountain, through a long tunnel from the church that came out high in the mountains. "And, do you know, Bill's hair was chestnut when they went into the tunnel, so they say, and when they came out it was quite white!"
"Not really?" exclaimed Lawrie, with an ear for a good story. "White like it is now?"
"Not quite," said Miss Wilson herself, who had walked to the back of the coach while they were talking. "It has got a lot whiter in recent years. But white enough to give everybody a real shock when they saw it, although for most people that wasn't to be for a fair few months. We had to get out of the country straight away, on foot, without going back for a change of clothes or anything, and it was a long time before we all met up again. Sadly, for some of us, that never happened. We lost track of far too many people during those years, and we know that some of them didn't make it."
The girls were silent a moment, absorbing this. Particularly for the British girls, whose country hadn't known what it was to be invaded, and to have enemy soldiers walking around as if they owned the place, the realisation that they actually knew people to whom this was reality, not just something they'd read about or seen in the cinema, was rather shattering. Miss Wilson knew all about this, of course, and after giving them a moment, turned their thoughts by telling them what the plans were for the day.
"Briesau in October is totally dead," she explained. "Almost everybody who lives there is on holiday, profiting from the gap between the summer and the winter tourists, and most shops and hotels are closed. However, you will be able to walk round and see where the school was, and some of our other favourite haunts. And the Kron Prinz Karl Hotel is open, so we've booked in for lunch there. After lunch, which will be quite early, we thought we would take you all on one of the rambles we used to enjoy in our Briesau days, if the weather holds out. If not, we'll go for a tour in the area in the coach."
The weather did hold out, and the promised ramble took place, up past the Dripping Rock and on to Geisalm. They weren't able to go quite the way they would have gone when the school was there, as the path wasn't quite safe any more, but a better path had been built in recent years which was, in fact, more direct. They were just in time to catch the final steamer of the day back to the landing-stage at Briesau, and then had an hour to explore the village before the coach was to take them back to Innsbruck.
"Wouldn't it have been a lovely place to go to school," said José, wistfully. "My mother was here for two terms, and she's always said there's nowhere quite like it, and I do see what she means. I mean, the Gornetz Platz is lovely, too, but it's not the same!"
"No, it isn't," said Jack. "I love the Gornetz Platz, but you can't pretend it's as lovely as here. And look at those wonderful mountains across the lake!"
"Isn't that where the San was?" asked José. "I know that Auntie Madge and Uncle Jem lived up there, and Mummy went there for a holiday at least once. And Auntie Joey used to go to Belsornia, too."
"Yes, I think it was," replied Jack. "But Wanda will know. Hey - Van - isn't that mountain over there where the San was?"
"Yes, I think so," called back Wanda. "But I don't really care which one it was, it's just such a glorious view! And I want to take a photo. You guys go and stand by the lake so I can get human figures into the foreground - you don't have to look at me."
Jack and Lawrie crossed the road to do this, but Jack was so engrossed in looking up at the mountains, already snow-capped even in October, that she quite forgot to look where she was going, trod on a fallen leaf, slipped, and tumbled head-first over the low fence into the lake!
"Well I suppose," said Miss Annersley later, "that it wouldn't have been a Chalet School expedition if something like that didn't happen!"
Jack was, fortunately, more or less unhurt and able to scramble out of the lake very quickly, especially as it was shallow just there so she could stand up. "That is COLD!" she said, and indeed, had already started to shiver by the time the other girls had helped her hurry into the hotel, where Herr Braun, horrified, had called a chambermaid to take her quickly to the new steam baths that he had recently had installed. As he was rather proud of this facility, he suggested that the others might like to try them, too, so the five girls who had been with Jack all took full advantage of his offer.
Thanks to his prompt action, Jack took no harm, and any lingering stiffness from her tumble was also offset by the warmth of the bath. Her clothes were far too wet to put back on again, but Herr Braun was able to supply her with a pair of slacks and sweater from the hotel shop, for which he refused to take any payment.
Miss Wilson was inclined to be annoyed with Jack, but everybody explained that it had been a total accident, there was nothing she could have done that could have prevented it. "We weren't fooling around, Miss Wilson, I promise you," said José, earnestly. "She just trod on a wet leaf and it slipped."
"Well, do look where you're going another time, Jack. But no harm done, I think. And did you enjoy Herr Braun's steam bath?"
The girls actually weren't too sure about that. "But it feels absolutely lovely now I've had it," said Jane, "even though it was a bit strange having it." And the others agreed.
The next day was Sunday. The Catholic girls splashed through the rain with Miss Wilson and Miss Nalder to hear Mass in the Cathedral; the Protestant girls were to have attended the English service in one of the hotels, but Miss Annersley had discovered the previous day that it had been cancelled as the pastor was away. So she took the girls for a little service in one of the hotel lounges. Nicola, who hadn't really come across Miss Annersley before, was amazed at how much she enjoyed the service. Somehow religion, here, wasn't boring as it always had been at home.
At lunchtime, Miss Wilson said that as it was so very wet, the afternoon excursion would really be a drive around looking at wet scenery. If anybody preferred to stay back at the hotel and read, that would be a perfectly acceptable alternative.
Jack, who was beginning to feel very stiff after her fall, opted to stay behind, and Nicola, not entirely sure how much she would enjoy a long drive in a steamy coach with no real object at the far end, also decided to stay. Jack fell asleep, and Nicola, finishing her book, decided to go down to the lounge to see whether there was anything worth watching on Austrian television. However, Miss Annersley was sitting in the lounge, reading. She looked up at Nicola and smiled.
"Hullo, Nicola," she said. "It is Nicola, isn't it?"
"Yes, I'm Nicola. Am I disturbing you? Only I came down because I'd finished my book and Jack's fast asleep."
"Is she all right, do you suppose?" asked Miss Annersley.
"I think she's a bit stiff, the way one is after a fall like that. It's always far worse next day."
"You speak as though you know something about it?"
"Well, only from falling off horses!" Nicola remembered one or two rather spectacular crashes that she had certainly felt for a day or so.
"Come and talk to me," said Miss Annersley. "It feels as though I ought to know you, because I know Lawrie, but of course I don't, at all."
Nicola was rather taken aback by the invitation. Although she had already discovered how friendly the mistresses could be out of school, it still surprised her, every time, when an adult showed signs of actually wanting her company, rather than merely tolerating it. She was not very sure what to say, but Miss Annersley was a good listener, and skilled at drawing out rather shy girls, and it wasn't long before she was telling her all about her family, and what they did, and Kay's steps, and her first niece and the baby that was on the way. And about Trennels, and how they had come to live there.
"It's funny," she said, pensively. "I really hated it when we moved so suddenly and Lawrie and I didn't get a chance to say 'goodbye' to our London house, but I love it now, and it will be such a shame if we can't go back for Christmas, even though I know it's only a temporary thing."
"It's normal to hate change," explained Miss Annersley. "I expect you were sorry to leave Kingscote, weren't you?"
Nicola had to think about that one. "It was sad saying goodbye to my friends, of course, but really, who wouldn't like coming to school in Switzerland? And besides, the sixth form is never quite the same; too many people have left, or your friends aren't prefects and you are, or vice versa."
"Did you like being at Kingscote?"
Again, Nicola had to think. "I don't think I ever thought about it. It was school, and school was where you had to be, so you didn't particularly think whether you enjoyed it or not. I do like being here though!"
Miss Annersley laughed. "I'm delighted to hear it. But look, it's stopped raining! Why don't you see whether Jack has woken up and feels like a walk? I don't know about you, but I should like to stretch my legs a bit."
Nicola agreed that she would, too, and Jack, although stiff, thought she would probably feel better for a walk, so the three of them wandered round the pedestrian area. On the Maria-Theresenstrasse, they peeped into St Josef's Church just as Mass was starting.
"Want to stay?" asked Miss Annersley, and both girls nodded yes. Nicola found that, as when she attended the Latin mass at Patrick's, a quietness took hold of her. This Mass was in German, and she wondered whether, in English, it would be the same, or whether it would prove as boring as she often found Anglican services. On the other hand, even they weren't all that boring here, although she did still tend to let them wash over her.
The short service over, the three of them looked briefly round the church and then started to walk back to the hotel. Nicola plucked up her courage. "Miss Annersley," she asked, "Do you think it would be possible for me to sometimes go to the 8:00 am Mass in Our Lady of the Snows, even though I'm Protestant?"
Miss Annersley smiled. "I am sure it would, Nicola, as long as your parents don't object."
"I don't think that my parents would object," she said. "They never mind me going over to Patrick's place in the holidays."
"Well, you must check with Miss Wilson, I think, but I can't see why not, myself."
Monday morning was spent visiting a couple of museums, and then after an early lunch, they climbed back into the coaches to return to school. Life felt a bit flat for most of them for a couple of days, and then they were back in routine, and the break felt like a distant memory.
Nicola did take the opportunity of a private word with Miss Wilson to ask, rather embarrassedly, about attending Mass.
"If your parents don't object," said Miss Wilson. "Perhaps you could ask your mother for permission next time you write?"
"Oh, no, I don't think so," said Nicola. "It's not important enough for that. And they never mind me going to Patrick's in the holidays."
This led to explanations about Patrick, and the private chapel where the Latin Mass was said each week. Miss Wilson finally agreed that, as Nicola was accustomed to going to Mass at home, she might go at School. But if she wished to take matters further, she was to ask her parents first. Or, of course, wait until she was 21.
Nicola privately thought she was unlikely to want to take matters further, but found the weekly half-hour in the Chapel of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges spoke to her, in the way the Mass at the Merricks had done. She wondered what her sister Ann would say if she knew, Ann having objected several times to her going to the Merricks, but decided that what Ann didn't know, wouldn't hurt her.
For Lawrie, Jane, José and Margaret, the next great excitement was the Nativity play, which they were to be very involved in, helping Miss Ferrars produce it, and taking main parts themselves. They went over to the main school to hear the read-through, and Lawrie was very full of it when she came back.
"It's not a bit like that dreary shepherd-boy thing we used to do!" she explained earnestly to Nicola. "They've done this story, about a family living in a country where they aren't allowed to celebrate Christmas, and this angel - that's me - comes and takes them to Bethlehem to worship the Christ child there at the first Christmas because they aren't allowed to do it at home. And there are all sorts of carols, and Plato wants soloists, and you will sing won't you? I did tell him you would."
"Hmmm. Lal, you are a menace, you really are! You knew I didn't want to sing here! I wish you hadn't volunteered me."
"I know, but it would really make the play if the angel could sing, and you know I can't, not reliably. And Plato is pretty strict - the standard is superb. And anyway, you said you'd sing in the pantomime next term."
"I said I'd act in it, not sing in it! And anyway, from all I gather, the Pantomime is mostly for the Finishers." This was how those girls doing a general course or an extra year were now referred to.
"Oh, them too, of course, but not only them." Lawrie was anxious. "But you will sing, won't you, Nick? I did say you would."
"Well, I'll audition," said Nicola. "But maybe Plato - hang on, what is the man's name, I can't call him that?"
"He's Mr Denny. No idea why he's called Plato, apparently he always has been."
"Well, anyway, maybe he won't want me. I'm sure they've lots of singers."
However, as Nicola was speedily to find, Mr Denny appreciated a lovely singing-voice when he heard it, and hers was, indeed, lovely. So Nicola found herself involved in choir and solo rehearsals. Although the original idea had been that she would double for Lawrie, this was abandoned and she was to be an angel in her own right. The twins became a speaking angel and a singing angel.
So November passed. It grew colder, although there was no snow. "We'll probably have all you could want, after Christmas," said Gretchen, when Lawrie complained of this in her hearing.
Then, suddenly, it was December and only two weeks until the end of term. Nicola and Lawrie were still unsure what would happen for the Christmas holidays. Mrs Marlow had discovered, in America, the existence of a machine she called a Xerox, which had transformed letters - she would write one letter, and make a number of copies of it, to send to the entire family. She also sent a brief summary of such family news as she had received, knowing that her children almost never wrote to one another. So although Rowan had not been in touch with them, they knew that repairs to Trennels were taking far longer than expected, since dry rot had been discovered. It was definitely not going to be habitable in time for Christmas. Mrs Marlow's letters were leaning more towards a visit to Paris for Christmas, although this begged the question of whether Rowan could leave the farm, even for 48 hours.
Lawrie was fairly happy-go-lucky about it, thinking far more about the play, and reckoning her mother would doubtless let them know in good time where they should report. Nicola, however, was apt to fret and wished she knew where they would be going.
But suddenly her thoughts were turned in quite another direction, with the appearance, one Friday evening, of a smiling Len Maynard accompanied by the twins' next eldest sister, Ginty.
"Surprise!" said Len, and left them to it.
Lawrie, who had always liked Ginty rather more than Nicola did, greeted her effusively. Nicola, not entirely sure whether she was pleased or not, was the one to ask, "So what are you doing here?", fairly sure that Ginty had not just appeared for the pleasure of their company.
"I'm a Displaced Person," said Ginty. "A Refugee. Mum was so busy making plans for Christmas - it is to be Paris, by the way, I've a letter to pass on - that she forgot that I was due to come down long before you two and Peter break up. And I had nowhere to go. So I smiled sweetly at your Len and told her what had happened, so natch, she invited me out here for the rest of your term!"
Nicola wondered how on earth Len, who she'd liked enormously at the beginning of term, got on with someone like Ginty. But then, people did like the strangest people, she supposed. "I'm glad you made friends with Len," she said. "She's a lovely person."
Ginty made a face. "Not really my type, I'm afraid. Too goody-goody pi, rather like Ann."
"She is not!" exclaimed both Nicola and Lawrie together, but Ginty was going on, "But that can be useful on occasions!"
"Could you be more selfish?" thought Nicola, and Lawrie, to her considerable surprise, echoed the thought: "Really Gin, how selfish can you get?"
"Well, you've changed!" said Ginty, rather unkindly. "Remember when you used to get Ann to do all your share of the work, and carry your case for you and so on?" Privately, she knew she had taken advantage of Len's good nature, and was slightly ashamed of herself, but was not planning on admitting that to the twins.
"Yeah," agreed Lawrie, "but Ann asked for it. Len doesn't. Ann lies down and begs to be walked all over you, while Len will help you when you want help, and leave you alone if you don't. Still, you're here now, whatever. So how are you going to fill your time?"
"Well, I've work to do, natch, and I thought maybe on Saturday we could go Christmas shopping in Interlaken?"
"Sorry," said Lawrie. "No can do - I've got rehearsals most of the morning and then there's a netball tournament in the afternoon."
"I'm afraid I'm involved in both, too," said Nicola. "Sorry, Gin - maybe if we'd known you were coming, we could have rearranged things. But if it's fine on Sunday, we'll take you on our favourite walk. And maybe some of our friends who aren't involved in either the play or the netball would go to Interlaken with you?"
Rationally, Ginty knew there was no way she could have expected the twins to have dropped everything to look after her, nor would she really have wanted them to, but she still couldn't prevent herself from feeling slightly hurt. She was more angry and upset than she was willing to let on that her mother had forgotten about her term dates when making plans, and allowed this to colour her response.
"Oh, no thank you," she said, offendedly, "I think if you can't go with me, I'll go alone, thank you very much." And she turned and swept out, past the twins, past an astonished Len who was in the hall, chatting to Jack Lambert, and back towards Freudesheim. Lawrie thought about going after her, but then thought not. Nicola, meanwhile, went up to Len. "I'm so sorry she wished herself on you like that," she said. "Typical Ginty, I'm afraid."
"Don't worry about it," said Len. "I'm afraid Ginty is hurting rather badly just now. She was pretty upset by your mother not remembering that Oxford's term dates were different and feels a bit rejected. I know your mother didn't mean it that way, but Ginty's -"
"A silly idiot!" said Nicola, crossly. "She does take things terribly personally. But she shouldn't have invited herself like that, all the same, it's a bit much!"
"I'm not bothered," said Len, "and don't you be. It's always nice to bring a friend home - my parents really like it. And before you say it, yes, I know Ginty doesn't like me particularly, but that's her problem, not mine!"
Len was right. Ginty had taken her mother's memory lapse as personal rejection, and felt very unwanted and neglected. But the warmth of the welcome she received at Freudesheim, and, indeed, on the Gornetz Platz in general, soon helped her forget her hurts, and after a couple of days, she was able to agree when Joey Maynard suggested, gently, that it had merely been an oversight on her mother's part and not deliberate rejection.
Meanwhile Nicola was wrestling with an issue that would not go away. Miss Wilson had spoken, when Nicola had asked about attending Mass, of taking things further. Nicola had no idea of doing this - but the words wouldn't go away. Still not entirely sure she believed in God, she knew that if she were to become a believer, the Catholic way would be the right one for her. But she had no idea how you went about it. Patrick would have been the obvious person to ask, but she wouldn't be seeing him at Christmas, and it wasn't the kind of thing you could put in a letter. Perhaps her grandmother? Except that Grandmother, although she had been unexpectedly friendly and pleasant during their stay in the summer, was still rather an unknown quantity, and might not like being asked such an unexpectedly personal question.
Maybe Mrs Maynard? Nicola didn't feel she knew her very well, but she had seemed very friendly and understanding about Catholicism earlier in the term. Plucking up her courage with both hands, Nicola telephoned Freudesheim and asked whether she could come over to have a private chat with Mrs Maynard. And, at the agreed time, heart bumping rather loudly, she crossed the playing-field and went through the gate that linked the field with the Freudesheim gardens and into the house where, over tea and lemon biscuits, she shyly asked about it.
Mrs Maynard proved a tower of strength. "But that's just exactly how it was for me!" she exclaimed. "The idea simply wouldn't go away. It was partly because - well - Jack was beginning to be a bit special then, although I had no idea, at the time, of getting married for many years. He'd become a Catholic in his late teens, too, and it was important to him. And I'd always been attracted to Catholic spirituality, and their way of worship."
She explained to Nicola exactly what the mechanics of becoming a Catholic involved. "But if I were you, Nick, honestly, I'd wait until you have left school. If it's genuine, it won't go away, but there will be no rush about it. The longer you have thought and prayed about it - and do pray, even if you aren't too sure there's anybody the other end - the more sure you will be, if and when the time comes, that you are doing the right thing."
Nicola felt relieved. It might still happen, but it wouldn't have to happen before she'd been able to talk to Patrick about it, and she could put it behind her for now.
With a much lighter heart, she set off back across the garden, just as the first snow began to fall.
Fortunately, for once, she reached St Mildred's before the snow became dangerously heavy, and joined in with the others in speculating whether they would be able to ski next day.
"Unlikely!" said Margaret. "Once it starts, it's set for several days. It will be Wednesday, at the earliest, before we can go out. We might get one good go of ski-ing before we break up, though. I hope so."
"How hard is it?" asked Lawrie, rather nervously.
"If you've got good balance, it's not hard to learn the basics," said José. "Of course, here it's mostly langlauf - we don't go in for the fast downhill ski-ing. And you have to be careful not to let the toes of your skis cross. They have an annoying habit of doing that!"
"Maybe I'll just try tobogganing!" said Lawrie.
"Oh, you fall off enough when tobogganing!" said Jack. "Like most of these things, it's tricky until you get the knack, and then it's relatively easy. I tell you what, I wish we got ice-skating here. They skated in Tirol, of course, but then they had the lake. My cousin skates at home, and she says there's always something new to learn. But ski-ing and tobogganing is great fun."
It was, indeed, several days before they could go out and enjoy the snow, but when they did, they were able to make the most of it. Ginty and Len came over from Freudesheim, and Joey Maynard also came out with a big sledge with her youngest children, well wrapped up, on it. All three Marlows were natural athletes, and, despite Lawrie's misgivings, soon found their balance and were able to move around on skis fairly effortlessly, although the slightest lapse of concentration meant a fall. After a couple of hours, they were glad to go indoors to hot baths and Matron's special rub for sore muscles.
It was now the last week of term, and lessons were more or less abandoned to keep the girls out in the fresh air as much as possible. The weather stayed fine, and they were out ski-ing and tobogganing every morning, and there was usually a play rehearsal in the afternoon. Then it was the day of the Play itself.
All went smoothly. Lawrie and Nicola, as the Angels, were on stage much of the time. José and Jane played the mother and father of the family; Margaret, who could have had a large part had she wished, had said that she would prefer a small part. She loved the theatre and the stage, but wanted, she realised, to produce and direct plays, not act in them. So she had done a lot of the work on the production, helped by the others, and seemed to have a gift for it. Many people agreed, at the end, that it was one of the best Christmas Plays that the School had ever produced.
Even Ginty was thoughtful. "It makes you realise a bit more, I think, this contrast between the modern world and the ancient one. I mean, when you just have a straight nativity play, it's just a story, it doesn't impinge on real life - but for these people, it does."
"Your sister's singing is simply glorious," said Joey, whose own golden voice had been a great asset to the School over the years.
"She's the only one of us who can sing," said Ginty. "But yes, she makes rather a nice noise, I think."
Lawrie and the other Drama students were slightly drunk on success. St Mildred's didn't go in for the "Spot Supper" that was now a tradition in the main school, but they still had a special meal, during which Miss Wilson twice had to ring for "A little more quiet, please."
Before bedtime, Lawrie wandered into Nicola's cubicle.
"I'm tired," she said. "But I'm glad we came here, aren't you?"
"Yes," said Nicola. "And when I think what a fuss you made about having to...".
"Yes, well," said Lawrie, grinning. "But it might have been utterly ghastly. But it's not. And I'm already looking forward to next term!"
With which sentiment, Nicola could only agree. And wondered, as she settled herself to sleep, whether she had ever felt like that about Kingscote. And if not, whether this was due to the fact that she was growing up, or whether it was because this was St Mildred's.