Bells were a feature of the Chalet School that Kathy secretly rather detested. Not only the girls but their mistresses were endlessly subject to them; bells told them when to rise, when to dress and even when to pray. She supposed you became used to them after a while.
Right now a bell was summoning Kathy to Abendessen, but for once, mutiny rose in her heart. Why should she go in to a meal she knew she couldn't eat? Astonishingly delicious as the food was here, and despite the sharpening effect of the climate on her appetite, Kathy knew she simply wouldn't be able to touch a bite. She would be forced to sit there, poking one-handed at her food, under the unfriendly eyes of girls who knew she was a failure as a teacher. And, oh, her arm did so ache!
A hot tear slid down her nose, and she impatiently struck it away before it could fall onto the snow. It was of no earthly good, however - another followed, and yet another, until they were falling freely onto the snow, looking quite likely to melt it.
Oh, she could wring that naughty little monkey Margot Maynard's neck, and with pleasure! Her sister, too. Con had no business being so simply hopeless at mathematics. If she'd only put in a little hard slog, there wouldn't have been any need to punish anyone in the first place.* Now Kathy was in a completely untenable position and had no idea how to get out of it. She simply must let Margot prepare for the party, but just as she had built bridges with Mary-Lou, Kathy feared she had lost the respect of the Middles forever.
Giving in to her injured feelings and the pain in her arm, Kathy let the tears simply rain down and gave herself and her strained nerves over to a good, hard cry.
She was in this desolate state when her wretchedness was interrupted by the sound of firm, womanly footfalls. She looked up, half startled and half defiant.
"Well! There you are!" said Nancy Wilmot. For the moment, that appeared to be all the conversation coming.
The two women surveyed each other in silence for a long moment. Kathy was miserably aware that the guilty signs of weeping were evident on her face, that her face was wet and her nose was probably swollen, not to mention the new tears welling up in her eyes - and there! They fell after the others, giving her away completely. To be discovered weeping in a way that the babies in IIIb would despise, and by another teacher! Shame burned in her cheeks, as she waited for Miss Wilmot to say something scornful and herd her back to Abendessen like a naughty child. Then she would probably speak to the Head... oh, it was too much!
Instead, Miss Wilmot produced a large and entirely serviceable handkerchief, and passed it to Kathy, with instructions to blow.
Somewhat taken aback by this practical approach, Kathy obediently submitted to blowing her nose, and felt much the better for it. She opened her mouth to stammer some defence, but Miss Wilmot linked an arm through her uninjured one and marched her off before she could think. To exposure and disgrace, Kathy supposed; even so, there was something comforting in the firm support of Miss Wilmot's arm. Kathy had spent so long fighting to keep in control and be firm, and it was a terrible relief, even if disaster followed, to have someone so steady to whom to cling, hanky crumpled in her hand.
They headed, not for the dining room nor the Head's room, but for the kitchen. Kathy was a little puzzled, but mostly relieved; while at that moment she would have followed Miss Wilmot into a lion's den, simply for the sake of the strength of the arm supporting her own, both places seemed very like lion's dens at the moment for poor Kathy!
"Miss Ferrars and I will not be taking Abendessen," Miss Wilmot said in German. "Would you be so good as to supply us with some hot chocolate and some of that delicious cake?"
The kitchen staff sent the two women curious looks, but were quick to obey. Kathy stood quietly by Miss Wilmot's side, still clinging to her arm for dear life, and stealing shy glances at her. She had to admit that she had not noticed Miss Wilmot much before now, at least not as a person in her own right! She had just been one of the teachers who seemed so very at home at the Chalet School, not unkind in any way, but able to call each other by name without shyness, and steeped in a shared history and confusing tangle of references, customs and understandings that made poor Kathy feel at times as if she'd been shipwrecked in a strange civilisation. Now she looked at Miss Wilmot, not as a Chalet School teacher, but as a fellow woman, for the first time. She could not say what she felt, precisely, except that there was something very comforting about the plump solidity of her figure and the clear, confident tones of her voice.
Before Kathy even really took in what was happening, she and Miss Wilmot were ensconced in a cosy sitting-room, the mug warming her hands. She looked questioningly at Miss Wilmot, realizing with sudden embarrassment that she herself hadn't said a single word since she was first discovered!
"I suppose you're wondering -"
"Drink your chocolate, and get some of that cake into you, my good girl," Miss Wilmot interrupted. "Explanations can wait. A little of sugar is the best thing for a fit of tearfulness, you'll find."
Grateful to postpone explanations, Kathy sipped at her chocolate. It really was marvelous. She had quite liked cocoa back in England, with its memories of childhood mugs sipped at her Aunt's knee, but the hot chocolate she was served in Switzerland was incredibly delicious, rich and strong - and had quite the incredible effect on her mood! She could feel strength seeping back into her along with the heat and sweetness.
Miss Wilmot would not allow her to speak until she had also eaten a thick slice of delicious spiced cake.
"Better?" She asked at last. Kathy nodded. "Then, my dear," she said gently. "Suppose you tell me all about it? Is it news from home? Or... are you in trouble, dear?"
Kathy felt a moment of brief hysteria at that question, recalling that Felicity Maynard had promised to pray that God would give Kathie a baby of her "vewy own" very soon! Seeing Miss Wilmot's look of alarm at her queer expression, she hastily opened her mouth to tell Miss Wilmot that everything was perfectly all right, really, she'd just had a moment of weakness. Somehow, however, once she'd begun, the whole sorry tale spilled out.
"The worst of it is," she finished, "there's no real way to win. I wouldn't have punished Margot by making her miss her real birthday, if only I'd known. But now, she's learning she can get away with everything, just because my arm was aching and I was more harsh than I meant to be. The class won't respect me, and I'll be sent away, and - and - oh, I do detest those triplets!" she finished suddenly, and choked down on the noisy tears that were threatening to arise.
Miss Wilmot reached out and touched her shoulder. "You poor lamb," she said softly.
The sympathy and kindness was all too much for Kathy. With a sob, she let go completely of the bare remnants of the icy dignity she'd clutched to her since she came to the Chalet school, and clutched Miss Wilmot instead. Narrowly escaping turning the remains of the hot chocolate and cake over, she flung herself at the older woman, buried her head on the comforting softness of her well-padded shoulder, and howled.
There was a moment of stiff surprise in the woman she was clinging to, and a protective arm curled around Kathy's waist, while a hand stroked the back of her hair. "You poor lamb!" Miss Wilmot repeated. "You have been making heavy weather of things, haven't you?"
There was a note of amusement amidst the sympathy, and Kathy stiffened a little, sitting up slightly. "I suppose I've been very foolish," she said, icily; with a momentary resumption of dignity.
"Oh, you have, a little, but then, aren't we all at times? You might remember, though, that when a scholar is having difficulty understanding, it might be a good idea to try and guide her, rather than punish her."
That aspect of the matter hadn't been occupying Kathy's mind overly much, having been more preoccupied with Margot's punishment than with Con's part in the matter, and she flushed.
Miss Wilmot smiled at her and pulled her arm gently, so she left her own chair and came to rest on the couch next to the other woman, head still resting on her shoulder. There was still a terrible relief not to be dignified. Somehow, there was something that made Miss Wilmot very easy to trust, and Kathy was glad to let her guard down, just for once. The arm she was leaning against was as warm as the hot chocolate had been, and the feeling was very nearly as sweet.
"There - it's not such a bad thing. Biddy would as likely have refused to teach her at all. Just remember to be a bit more patient with the slower girls in future. In truth, none of the triplets are as bad as you think. Oh, Margot can be a young demon when she likes," she added to forestall Kathy's protest, "but when a child has never learned self control it's not an easy thing to control her yourself."
"The worst of it is, whether I let her help with the preparations for the party or not, there's no way to win," Kathy complained bitterly. "Either I'm harsher than I meant to be, or I'm teaching her she can get off scot-free when she misbehaves, because her mother is close-to-hand and a Somebody."
"It's not easy, I know. Listen, Kathy, I can't help you with your present dilemma, but I can suggest something that might make you feel a little better. Next week I'm going to tea with Mrs. Maynard. Would you like to come?"
Kathy hesitated. Despite her fondness for Mrs. Maynard's books and the nice time she'd had playing with her babies, the last person she wanted to face right now was the triplets' mother.
Miss Wilmot saw her expression, and laughed. "It won't be as bad as you think! And I'd like the chance to get to know you better. I have the feeling you'd make a very worthwhile friend."
Kathy's cheeks flushed again, for a more pleasant reason. That someone as positively nice as this wanted to know her better, after the mess she'd made of her teaching, pleased her. "I'd like that," she said shyly, giving the woman an impulsive hug. Friendly arms closed around her, and she sighed, suddenly happy. How silly she'd been!
The door opened, and before Kathy was quite sure what had happened, Miss Wilmot was off the couch and in the chair she had just vacated. Kathy stared at her, stunned by the sudden movement.
"Is everything all right?" inquired Miss Stewart, looking inquisitively at them.
"Quite all right - now," Kathy said, getting to her feet. "I must go see what my young demons are up to. Thank you, Miss Wilmot."
"Haven't you been told before that we're all on a Christian name basis here? I'd like you to call me Nancy." Miss Wilmot - Nancy - was a little pink, too, from hot chocolate or sudden movement.
"Nancy," Kathy repeated, and was met with a flashing smile.
However difficult it was to remember to use Christian names with the other teachers, Kathy suspected it would be very easy to think of Miss Wilmot as Nancy.
* New Mistress at the Chalet School