Gillian Culver awoke and gave a groan as she saw where she was.
"So you are awake at last," said Merle, bending anxiously over the bed. "How do you feel?"
"I have a headache," Gill replied, for headaches and a sick feeling always accompanied this particular experience.
Merle ran her hand across Gill's forehead. "You haven't got a temperature," she assured her young sister, "but you do look pale."
Gill bit back the observation that there was nothing unusual in that. She had striking bronze hair and the very pale skin that often accompanies such an appearance.
"Stay in bed for now," Merle was going on. "I will find you breakfast and something for your head." She bent to kiss her sister, and then she was gone.
Left to herself, Gillian sat up slowly and looked around her. She was in a little slip of a room, and the sun that peeped through a chink in the curtains showed her that the room contained a big, old-fashioned wardrobe and a matching dressing table, along with a small bookcase. She had been there once before, she recalled, and she knew it was the guest room in Merle's house in Exeter.
With a sigh, Gill leaned back against the pillows and rubbed a hand across her forehead as if she could massage away her headache. Whilst it was lovely to spend some extra time with Merle, she wished it didn't have to happen like this. She loved her eldest sister dearly, but it was clear from the way Merle had looked so anxious that she was going to be the recipient of a great deal of unnecessary fussing. She sighed again, wondering what had happened to make Merle seem so worried.
Gill got up and put on her dressing gown and slippers, suppressing another groan as she saw that the soft pink slippers matched the pink pyjamas she was wearing. "Why pink?" she said aloud, her tone pained.
She drew back the curtains, letting the morning sunlight flood the little room, and then she headed off to the bathroom. After washing her face in cold water, she felt better, but she returned to her room, knowing that Merle would expect to find her in bed when she came back with breakfast.
No sooner had she settled herself against the pillows once more than Merle had returned bearing a breakfast tray. "Here you are," she said warmly, putting the tray across Gillian's lap. "This will make you feel better."
"Can I get up when I've finished?" asked Gill, spooning honey onto her porridge.
"If you like," said Merle, who still looked anxious. "You gave us quite a scare yesterday, Crumpet, fainting like that."
"I'm sorry," said Gill.
"You have been under a lot of strain lately, so it's hardly surprising," said Merle comfortingly. "See how you feel when you've eaten. I'll leave you to eat because Robert is in the living room with Jemima, and goodness only knows what they will be doing if they're left alone for too long."
Gill giggled. Three-year-old Robert was as full of mischief as Gill's own brother Ben, and Jemima, who was just two, would happily enjoy any entertainment that Robert dreamed up for her. "If only Nanny was here," she said. "She wouldn't stand any nonsense."
To Gillian's surprise, Merle looked upset. She patted Gill's shoulder sympathetically, and said, "We all miss her, Crumpet."
"What do you mean?" Gill turned anxious grey eyes to her sister.
"She passed away just before Christmas," said Merle gently. "I'm sure she didn't want to go on without Auntie M. Finish your breakfast, Crumpet, and we'll talk later." Before Gill could say anything else, Merle had slipped out of the guest room and Gill could hear her going downstairs.
"And that's why they think I'm out of my mind," said Gill to herself.
As she ate her porridge, Gill reflected sadly on the passing of Nanny, who had cared for her throughout her life, and presumably of Auntie M, the formidable old lady whose adventures were legendary within the family. Once she had disposed of the porridge, she drank the milky coffee that Merle had provided, but she took the aspirin and hid it in the drawer of the dressing table. She knew that the headache would fade once she had eaten; there was no need for medicine.
Opening the wardrobe, Gill sighed again. She rummaged through the few clothes therein, finally selecting a pair of navy trousers and a light blue blouse. She did her hair in its usual long plait, and then she made the bed and tidied the room.As she picked up the tray ready to go downstairs, she noticed a letter addressed in Hawk's distinctive script on the top of the bookcase, so she replaced the tray and took up the envelope instead.
'Dear Crumpet,' Hawk had written. 'Rio is incredible, but so hot. The flight was brilliant. If I wasn't so keen on sailing, I'd go for flying in a big way. We've found Godfrey, so by the time you get this, he'll be safe. Stop worrying. Love Hawk.'
Recalling that Hawk was not much of a letter writer, Gill grinned. But what on earth was Hawk doing in Brazil, and what did he mean about finding Godfrey?
Gill knew that she would have to be very careful with her questions, otherwise Merle would be convinced that she was batty. She took a deep breath, picked up the tray and went downstairs.
In the hall she encountered Frank, Merle's husband. He was a pleasant man, and Gill liked him a lot. "Good morning," she said, smiling at him.
"Good morning, Arminel," he responded, and although he smiled at her, Gill noticed that he seemed to be viewing her strangely. "I'm just off to work," he went on. "Merle is giving the kids their breakfast."
Gill took her tray to the kitchen and found Merle and the children sitting at the kitchen table. "Hello!" she said cheerfully, smiling at them.
"Aunt Arminel!" exclaimed Robert. "We're going walking!"
"That sounds lovely," Gill agreed, sitting down next to Jemima. "I'll help her, shall I, Merle?"
"Thank you," said Merle, giving Gill the spoon she was holding. "We're going to the park for a while this morning. Will you come?"
"I'd love to," replied Gill. "I feel much better with some breakfast inside me." She popped another spoonful of porridge into Jemima's mouth and said, "Good girl, pet. That's delicious, isn't it?"
Jemima nodded vigorously, the black curls she had got from her mother bouncing wildly.
"Can we take a ball?" demanded Robert. "I likes football."
"Of course we can," agreed Merle.
A knock on the back door heralded the arrival of Mrs Brown, a local woman who came in daily to help Merle with the cooking and cleaning. Merle outlined her plans for the day, and Mrs Brown agreed at once to everything, so Merle and Gill were able to get the children ready and were soon walking through the sunny streets to the park. As they walked, Gill was kept busy answering Robert's questions, while Merle pointed out all sorts of interesting things to Jemima, and the little girl did her best to repeat the words she heard. In the park, the children ran around happily, Robert with his football and Jemima picking daisies from the grass. She had to be watched carefully, though, because she was very likely to eat whatever she picked up. Once Robert was fed up with football, they wandered slowly across the park to the playground and the children were delighted to be allowed on the swings.
As she pushed the joyfully chuckling Robert on the swing, Gillian pondered her dilemma. Clearly something had happened to Godfrey, and Hawk had rushed off to save the day. Equally clearly, Arminel had been upset by it, which meant that she knew what was going on. Gill, however, had no idea what had happened.
'It's no wonder they all think Arminel is a frightful ass,' thought Gill. 'I show up with no idea about anything and say all the wrong things, so they think she is nuts. Poor kid.'
After lunch, Merle put the children down for a nap, and she and Gill sat together in the living room with a cup of tea and the news on the radio. Gillian paid scant attention to the news, for she was trying to work out how she could tactfully question Merle without making Arminel look any madder. It did seem that Arminel was a nervy sort of girl, but from the way her siblings treated Gill, they plainly loved her dearly. They obviously worried about her, which, Gill reflected, was hardly surprising.
"Do you want some more tea?" asked Merle, her voice breaking across Gill's thoughts.
"Yes, please," agreed Gill, leaping up. "I'll get it, Merle." She took the cups back to the kitchen and rinsed them out before making fresh tea for herself and her sister. As she poured the tea, the telephone rang, and Gill heard Merle answer it.
"Hello, Chas!" Merle said, and Gill guessed that it was their brother Charles on the phone. "How are you?...Yes, we're fine...Relieved...Tomorrow? Really? Then we will come up today...I'm worried about her, Chas."
Although she knew that it was wrong to eavesdrop, Gillian could not help overhearing their conversation. As she realised that Merle was going to discuss her concerns about Arminel, she grabbed the tray and noisily left the kitchen, alerting Merle to her approach.
"We can talk about it when we get there," Merle went on. "We'll leave at about three, so we'll be with you by tea time."
Gillian put the tea tray on the little table near Merle's chair and sat down again on the edge of the settee. She was eager to hear what had prompted Merle to arrange to go to Culver's Hold - no, it was called Chudleigh Hold, Gill remembered - that very afternoon.
Merle came into the living room smiling broadly. "They will be home tomorrow," she said, her gladness and relief evident.
"Thank goodness," said Gill, hoping she sounded suitably relieved herself. "I can't wait to see them."
"We'll go home today to help Alice prepare for them," Merle told her. "Can you be ready to leave at three?"
"Of course," agreed Gill. "I haven't got much to take with me. I'll pack that and then I'll help you with the kids."
"Thank you," said Merle gratefully. "I must call Frank."
They finished their tea, and while Merle called her husband, Gill went upstairs to pack. She pulled down a suitcase from on top of the wardrobe and opened it on the bed. As she packed, she wondered again where Arminel was. For two reasons she was quite certain that Arminel did not live Gill's life while Gill was busy being Arminel. Firstly, Gill always awoke in her own bed the morning after she had gone to sleep, and any time spent with Arminel's family occurred in just one night of Gill's own time. Secondly, none of Gill's friends had ever made any comments about unusual behaviour, as Arminel's siblings did. Perhaps poor nervy Arminel was getting a good night's sleep so that she would be better able to cope with life when she awoke. Gill certainly hoped that was what happened.
Once her case was full, Gill carried it downstairs and left it in the hall. She went up to Jemima's room, where that young lady was slumbering peacefully in her cot. Merle put a finger to her lips, indicating that they should be very quiet, and then she handed Gill a pile of clothes. Efficiently, Gill packed what she was given, and then they repeated their activities in Robert's room. By the time that the children awoke, the cases were stowed in the boot of the car and everything was ready for their departure.
As Mrs Brown had left for the day, Merle locked up the house, and they went out to the car. "Will you drive, Arminel?" asked Merle, offering Gillian the keys. "I'll sit in the back and keep the children happy."
Although Hawk had started to teach Gill to drive, she had no licence and did not feel that she would be able to drive from Exeter to Chudleigh Hold. "Would you drive, please, Merle?" she begged. "I'll look after the kids."
"I thought you enjoyed driving," said Merle, giving her an odd look. "Okay, hop in everyone."
Gill got into the back of the car and fastened a seat belt around Robert. Merle put Jemima onto Gill's lap and then got into the front seat. Jemima snuggled comfortably into Gill's arms, but Robert wriggled in his seat. As she had a bag of toys to keep him occupied, Gill pulled out a picture book and showed it to him.
"Let's read a story," she suggested. "No, keep your seat belt on, Robert. You can see quite well from there."
Catching her eye in the mirror, Merle grinned at Gill, and Gill realised that the short journey to Chudleigh Hold was going to be a challenge. Robert was an active boy and he would not take kindly to being imprisoned in a car for any length of time. Smiling ruefully to herself, Gill acknowledged that Arminel was probably right to enjoy driving.
Three stories, some colouring and a bag of cookies later, Merle was turning into the long driveway of Chudleigh Hold. Gill smiled happily at the sight of the big house. She had so many happy memories - her own memories - of growing up in Culver's Hold, and it was always wonderful to be there. The house was pretty much the same whether she was Gillian Culver or Arminel Chudleigh. All the people were pretty much the same, too. Major things that happened in one world also happened in the other world. It was only the excitements and adventures of Arminel's world that were absent in Gill's world. That realisation made Gill think again about Auntie M and Nanny. When she was in her own world both had, to the best of her knowledge, been alive and well. Here, though, both seemed to have passed away. Did that mean they would do the same thing at the same time in her own life? Merle parked outside the house, and, swallowing hard, Gill opened the car door and got out. She put Jemima down, and turned to release Robert. As she straightened, she noticed a tall figure at the top of the stairs.
"Charles!" she exclaimed, hurtling up the steps and flinging herself at him, almost knocking him over.
"Steady on, old thing," he said, but Gill knew from the hug he gave her that he was not angry.
"It's nice to be back," she told him. "I'd better help Merle with the cases."
Charles called to his nephew, who came up the steps, pulling Jemima along with him. Merle was busy unloading the boot, so Gill helped her take out the last of the bags and then Tizzard appeared to carry them indoors.
They all went inside and followed Charles to the morning room. Gill sank down into her favourite armchair with a contented sigh. Jemima toddled over and held out her arms, so Gill scooped her up and cuddled her.
"Alice has been cleaning their rooms," Charles informed his sisters. "And when they phoned, Godfrey said we should make that little room next to his ready, too."
"Ready for what?" Merle demanded.
"Presumably for someone to sleep in," said Gill.
"But who?" Merle asked.
"I know Humphrey Anthony and Tom Vinton are driving down with them, but they'll go on to Fardingales," said Charles. "They won't stay here."
At this, Gillian's eyes almost popped out of her head. She recalled reading a novel called 'Fardingales', and the young heroes of the story were Humphrey Anthony and Tom Vinton.
"But Godfrey would want two rooms for them," Merle pointed out, "and not that tiny one."
"What about Anstace Roseveare?" asked Gill, unable to resist the temptation of being facetious.
Charles seemed to take her query quite seriously, though. "She's in Rio with her husband at the moment," he told her. "He's something in the Navy, I believe."
"So she married Roger Treatt!" said Gill. "I did wonder."
Merle gave Gill a look of surprise, but she turned back to Charles and said, "What time did they say they'd arrive? We will need to check that there is a suitable meal for them. Do you think the others will stay for that?"
"I'm sure you can persuade them to, Merle," said Gill with a smile at her sister. "When will Ven be here?"
"She still has a fortnight of her tour to do," said Merle, sounding a little impatient. "I do wish you'd listen more, Arminel. You are nineteen now, so you should pay attention."
"I'm sorry, Merle," Gill said, mentally apologising to Arminel as well.
"She has had a lot to worry about," Charles put in pacifically. "It's no wonder Ven slipped her mind."
"You're right," said Merle. "I'm sorry, Crumpet. It has been a tough few weeks."
"They'll be here at about one, Godfrey reckoned," said Charles, returning to the matter at hand. "So we'll hold lunch until two. I'll let you sort that out with Cook. What do you want me to do now?"
"Look after your nephew and niece while Crumpet and I do the beds," said Merle promptly. "Come on, Crumpet. Let's go." As Charles gave a discreet cough, Merle hastily amended her words. "Sorry, Arminel," she said with a grin. "It is still so hard to remember."
"That's okay," Gillian assured her. She kissed Jemima's rosy cheek and set her on the floor. "Let's go and make a start on the rooms." She slipped her arm through Merle's, and they abandoned Charles to Robert and Jemima.
"I'm sorry I snapped at you," said Merle as they went upstairs together.
"Don't worry about it," said Gillian. "It has been a difficult time for you, too. I'm sorry I seem so...mad...sometimes."
"Don't say that," Merle told her. "You aren't mad at all. But Arminel, please put your hair up tomorrow. It's okay when it's just us, but if Hawk's pals come with him, you need to look a bit more grown up."
"I will," Gill promised. She wondered how Arminel put her hair up and hoped that she would be able to manage a suitable style on her own. She was surprised to find out that Arminel was nineteen because she herself was just seventeen, and she had always thought that they must be the same age. As she still wore her own hair in one long plait, she had not considered the need to adopt a more grown-up style.
Together Gill and Merle went to Godfrey's room. It had been kept clean and aired for him, but the bed needed to be made up and Merle insisted on cleaning the room again. The same went for Hawk's room. Once they had sorted out their brothers' rooms, they rejoined Charles and the children for tea, and then Gillian went off to start on the little room next to Godfrey's while Merle spent some time with the children. As she tucked in the blanket, the door opened and Charles limped in. He sat down on the window seat, and looked at Gill.
"Bearing up, Arminel?" he asked quietly.
"Yes," she assured him with a smile. "How could I not be? They'll be home tomorrow."
"It's been tough," said Charles, and Gill saw from a look that passed briefly across his face that he had been under a terrible strain. She guessed that he had known the full story of what had happened to Godfrey and Hawk, while the girls had been shielded from some of the more unpleasant or worrying details.
Understanding that Charles would have felt frustrated that his lameness prevented him from going to his brothers' assistance, Gill went over to him and patted his arm comfortingly. "Someone had to keep things going here," she reminded him. "You couldn't have left as well."
"You are right, of course," he acknowledged. "It's just so frustrating."
"Staying at home is the most difficult job," she told him. "You can only wait, and waiting is the hardest thing to do."
"Sometimes you surprise me, Arminel," said Charles with a smile. "You can be very sensible."
"I wish you would tell the others that," Gill said. "They just think I am a silly kid."
"That's not true," Charles protested. "But you do get into a state when you don't need to."
"And I don't need to when one brother goes missing and has to be found by another?" Gill turned back to the bed, hoping that she had made him think a little differently about Arminel.
Charles got off the window seat. "Thanks, old thing. I'll leave you to your work." He gave the long bronze plait that fell down her back a gentle tug as he passed, and then he was gone, leaving Gill to finish the bed and check that the chest of drawers was empty. She knew from her own version of the family that they tended to fill every space available, and as the tiny room had no wardrobe, the guest would probably require all the drawers for his things.
Once the room was ready for the unknown guest's arrival, Gill went to wash and unpack her suitcase. Arminel had always occupied the same room as Gill herself, so she felt quite at home as she went in. Her suitcase was by the door, so she opened it and put everything away. Arminel seemed to be as tidy as Gill was, and Gill wondered if Arminel had attended some parallel version of the Chalet School; perhaps another Matey had encouraged Arminel to be such a tidy creature.
When she had finished unpacking, Gill perched on the windowsill and looked out across the lawn. She sometimes occupied Arminel's life for just a day, but at other times she stayed there for a week or more. This time, she really hoped that she would stay long enough to hear what had befallen Godfrey and Hawk. She knew virtually nothing about what had happened, and when they arrived they would tell the whole story. Presumably Arminel knew enough to have made her frantic about their safety, and when Arminel returned, she would see that they were safe. Once Gill left, she would be unable to find out what had happened until she came back again, and that could be a very long time. She sighed, wondering for the umpteenth time why this strange thing happened to her. No one else had ever admitted that they had similar experiences, although she had carefully asked both her family and her school friends about it.
Giving herself a mental shake, Gill tidied her hair and went to wash her face and hands, then she ran lightly down the stairs and sought Merle and the children. She found them on the terrace, where Robert was bouncing energetically around, and Jemima was trying to copy him. Merle, looking as fresh and dainty as ever, was perched on the balustrade and watching her children with an indulgent smile. As Gillian appeared, Merle turned her smile from her children to her young sister.
"I've finished the little room," Gill told her, sitting down next to her. "I really wonder who it's for."
"So do I," said Merle. "I just cannot understand why Godfrey would ever offer any visitor that room."
"We will just have to wait until tomorrow," said Gill philosophically. "All will become clear then. May I help you put the children to bed, please, Merle?"
"I thought you had been doing that for the past two weeks," said Merle, giving Gill a very thoughtful look.
"I know," she agreed, hoping that she could save the situation. "I didn't know if they would want you because they aren't at home now. I thought it might unsettle them." She looked at Merle from the corner of her eye, waiting to see if her excuse would be accepted.
"That's true," Merle conceded. "We will have to see."
Seeing Jemima about to tackle the stairs down from the terrace, Gill leapt up and ran across to catch the little girl in her arms. "Let's not go down there now," she said, carrying Jemima back to Merle. "She is going to be as much of a monkey as Robert," she told her sister with a smile.
"I know," said Merle with a theatrical groan. "I'll spend all my time saying, 'Wait until your father gets home' to them!"
"I'm sure you won't need to do that very often," said Gill comfortingly. "You managed well enough with Ben and me."
Merle threw an arm around Gill's shoulders. "You weren't much trouble," she reassured her. "Ben, however, was quite a handful. Come on. Let's start the bedtime routine." She gave her sister a hug and then stood up and took hold of Robert's hand.
Gill carried Jemima, who had been sleepily sucking her thumb as she sat on her lap, and they went upstairs to the nursery. While Merle dealt swiftly with her daughter's needs, Gill took Robert off for his bath. Very soon they were both tucked up in bed in the nursery, so Gill crept out, leaving Merle to make sure they were asleep before she returned downstairs.
Gill sat with Merle and Charles until ten o'clock, and then, stifling her yawns, she excused herself. Just in case she found herself back in her own life the next morning, she gave Merle a big hug, for she would not see her until the summer holidays began in her own world. "Goodnight," she said cheerfully, and she walked slowly up to her room.
Once she was in bed, Gill fell asleep quickly. She slept dreamlessly, and as soon as she woke up the next morning, she discovered that she was still in Arminel's life. A little shiver of anticipation ran through her as she remembered that Godfrey and Hawk would be returning that day, and she would get to hear exactly what they had been doing. She threw back the bedclothes and got up, pulling the curtains to let in the sunlight. When she had dressed, she glanced idly around the room, and then she noticed a photograph album on the bookcase. She went over to look at it, reasoning that while she would never read a diary of Arminel's, she could look at her photographs. The album was fascinating. Gill looked closely at the pictures of Arminel, finding it difficult to believe that they were not photos of Gillian herself. Both as a young girl and as a teenager, the resemblance between Gill and Arminel was uncanny. Finally, at the end of the album, Gill found some photos taken of Arminel and baby Jemima. Arminel's striking hair was plaited and the plaits were wound around her head. Arminel herself looked delighted to be holding her niece, and Gill smiled affectionately at the photograph. She may have never met Arminel, but sometimes she felt that Arminel was almost like her sister.
Having settled the question of her hairstyle, Gill sat in front of the mirror and deftly plaited her hair. She wound the plaits around her head and pinned them into place, relieved that Arminel had a good selection of hairpins and clips on her dressing table. When she looked suitably neat and grown-up, Gillian went downstairs for breakfast.
Merle and Charles were already at the table, Merle presiding over the coffee pot as she had always done, and Charles reading a letter. They exchanged greetings, and Gill accepted a cup of coffee to go with the kippers she had collected from the dish on the sideboard. They discussed trivialities over breakfast to mask the excitement they all felt, and afterwards Gill went to make the beds while Merle disappeared to the nursery, where her children were having their breakfast with Alice, the Chudleighs' long-time maid. They met again mid-morning, and much was the fidgeting and clock-watching that went on as they waited with ever increasing impatience for the arrival of their brothers.
As Merle brought in yet more coffee, they heard a car approaching, and had it not been for Charles' prompt action, she would probably have dropped the tray on the floor in her excitement. Being unburdened by anything, Gill was able to leap up and run from the room ahead of Merle and Charles, and she reached the front steps as Hawk and Godfrey walked towards the house. She noticed that three other men were with her brothers, but then she was throwing herself at Hawk, and he was catching her and hugging her.
"Hello Crumpet!" he exclaimed, sounding pleased to see her.
"Hawk! How are you?" she demanded. She pulled away from him and turned to greet Godfrey, but Merle had already flung herself at him and was berating him roundly for his adventures.
"Let's go inside," said Charles, as calm and practical as ever. He shook Hawk's hand and slapped Godfrey on the back, before turning to the other three men.
"Charles Chudleigh," he said, offering his hand to the tallest of the three.
"Sorry, Chas," Hawk said recalling his manners. "Humphrey Anthony and Tom Vinton," he went on, indicating first the tallest of the three, a pleasant brown-haired man of his own age, and then a smaller, very dark man. "My sisters Arminel and, when she has finished scolding the bart, Mrs Frank Pullen. And this is Gonzalo." Hawk indicated the last member of the group, a very small, nervous looking chap. "Let's go inside. I'm sure we could all use some refreshment after the journey we've had."
Gill shook hands with Tom Vinton and Humphrey Anthony, thinking that they perfectly matched the way she had imagined them from reading 'Fardingales'. Merle finally released Godfrey and remembered her duties as hostess, smilingly welcoming the group to Chudleigh Hold and ushering them into the drawing room. She dispatched Gill to tell Alice and Cook that Sir Godfrey and Mr Hawk had returned and to check that lunch would be on time, and then she supplied her guests with much appreciated glasses of sherry.
By the time Gill returned, they were sitting comfortably and sipping their drinks, having agreed that the exciting tale of their adventures could wait until after lunch. Gill perched on the arm of the sofa at Hawk's side, delighted to have her favourite brother back safe and sound. She looked again at the visitors, two of whom looked perfectly relaxed, evidently quite used to being in a house like Chudleigh Hold. The third man, however, looked most uncomfortable. He was a villainous-looking fellow, small in stature and dark of skin and hair. He squirmed awkwardly in his seat and kept directing appealing glances towards Godfrey. Godfrey, taken up with patting Merle's hand and grinning at Charles and Gill herself, seemed not to notice, which increased the small man's unease.
Humphrey Anthony and Tom Vinton chatted easily with Charles, telling him about flying in helicopters and life in the Andes, and Gill listened with interest. She had been studying South America in geography lessons that term, and it was fascinating to listen to stories of that faraway land told by people who had actually been there.
"You all right, young Crumpet?" Hawk demanded, turning to his youngest sister.
"Yes, absolutely fine now," she assured him with a grin.
"You look it," he realised, sounding surprised.
"Of course," she said lightly. "When I read your letter, I knew everything would be all right."
Hawk looked at her closely. In her own life, Gill and Hawk were great allies, so she presumed that Arminel shared a similar relationship with Hawk, too. That being the case, would Hawk realise that she was not Arminel?
"Let's go and have some lunch," said Merle, effectively distracting Hawk from any unexpected changes in Arminel.
They went through to the dining room, where Alice was waiting for a glimpse of her master. Godfrey greeted her warmly, bringing a smile to her worried face, and promised that he would venture to the kitchens after lunch to greet Cook. He took his usual place at the head of the table, with Merle to his left and Gonzalo, looking more ill at ease than ever, on his right. Gill found herself between Hawk and Humphrey, and she very much enjoyed hearing the two of them discussing volcanic eruptions and earthquakes with Tom Vinton.
When Hawk alluded to Fardingales, the large house where Humphrey lived, Gill said, "I hear you had quite an adventure there. Will we have time to hear that story as well?"
"Oh, you won't want to hear that old yarn," Humphrey assured her with a smile. "Hawk's tale is much more exciting. Fardingales can wait for another time."
Smiling to herself, Gill finished her lunch and looked around the table. The others were still eating, enjoying their food with the unhurried attitude of people who had nothing better to do than dine.Impatiently, she laid down her knife and fork, eager to hear the full story of Godfrey and Hawk's adventures.
Sensing her eagerness, Hawk grinned at her. "Patience is a virtue," he reminded her, his tone infuriatingly placid.
"It's all very well for you," she told him, "because you know what happened. Merle and I have been stuck here and kept in the dark about it all. Gobble up your food, there's a good lad, and put us out of our misery."
Humphrey laughed at her outburst. "I've finished," he assured her. "Please don't blame me for any delay."
Finally, though, everyone had eaten enough and while Merle and Gill cleared the table, Godfrey went to the kitchen to greet his staff, the faithful Gonzalo at his heels. Tea was provided for the guests, and when everyone was sitting comfortably, Godfrey started the story.
Perched on a pouffe at Hawk's feet, Gillian listened with wide eyes to the tale. As she heard all that her brothers had gone through, she felt she could empathise with Arminel more. The poor girl had been worried sick and with good reason; it was hardly surprising that she had been so anxious, and ended up fainting. Gill felt that she would have been equally distraught to discover that Godfrey had been kidnapped and was likely to be brutally murdered. Merle also appeared unnerved by the tale, horrified to discover the dangers that had beset her brothers.
"And so I had to bring Gonzalo back with me," Godfrey wound up. "He couldn't have stayed there."
"But can we trust him?" asked Merle, looking concerned.
"With our lives," Godfrey assured her. "Don't you agree, Hawk?"
"Definitely, Sir Chulley," said Hawk with a laugh.
"He is devoted to Godfrey," added Humphrey. "He's a villainous looking specimen, but after all they went through, his loyalty is unquestionable. Don't worry, Mrs Pullen."
"He can help Tizzard," Godfrey continued. "Goodness knows, we can always use another pair of hands around here."
"Would anyone like some more tea?" asked Merle. "I think we have just about talked ourselves dry!"
"No, thank you," said Humphrey, standing up. "We really should press on to Fardingales. Ready, Tom?"
"I am," agreed Tom, also getting up. "Thank you, Mrs Pullen. It's been lovely to meet you."
"You, too, Miss Chudleigh," added Humphrey, shaking hands with Gill.
"I'll see you out," said Hawk, and he led the way to the entrance hall, his brothers and their guests following him.
Gill turned to Merle. "All's well that ends well," she said with a smile. "Merle! Are you okay?"
"I just can't believe it," said Merle, looking exasperated as she dashed a hand across her tear-filled eyes, "when I think how nearly we lost him!"
Gill put an arm around her sister. "We didn't lose him," she pointed out. "He looks fine, Merle. Don't be so soppy."
Merle grinned at that. "You are right, Crumpet...Arminel," she said, hugging her sister in return. "Don't you dare tell them about this, mind. I'll deny it all!"
"Then don't tell them I fainted the other day. Let's show them that we can cope with things every bit as well as they can."
"It's a deal," agreed Merle.
Godfrey, Charles and Hawk returned, and they threw themselves into comfortable chairs. "Where's that tea you promised us, Merle?" demanded Godfrey. "I'm parched after all that. And a couple of sandwiches wouldn't come amiss either."
"I'll see what I can do," said Merle with a laugh. "Coming, Arminel?"
Gill got up, hiding her reluctance to leave her brothers, and followed Merle to the kitchen. They arranged for tea and sandwiches and then went to rescue Alice from Robert and Jemima. It seemed that both children had been surprisingly well behaved, and Alice had enjoyed caring for them. In the sitting room, they were in awe of Uncle Godfrey, whom they had not seen for several months, while Uncle Hawk was greeted as a well-loved and remembered partner in crime.
"It's a good thing they didn't see me with two inches of beard," Godfrey told his sisters. "That would have frightened the living daylights out of them!"
"Yes, you do look quite civilised now," observed Hawk. "Chas, have you cabled Cherry to tell her that the prodigal has returned?"
"I have," Charles assured him. "I did it when you were swigging sherry before lunch. And I phoned Ven, too. She says she'll see you next week."
"What about young Ben?" Godfrey inquired.
"Oh, we left him in the dark," Merle informed him. "There was nothing he could have done, so we thought we'd wait until we knew all the details."
"Good scheme," said Godfrey approvingly. "Although he will be furious to have missed out on all the fun."
"It was not fun!" exclaimed Merle. "It has taken at least ten years off my life, that's for sure."
"Tell us again about the treasure," said Gill. "I wish you'd been able to pocket some of it. I'd love to have seen some of those jewels!"
"And had more tribal chiefs after our blood?" demanded Godfrey. "No, thank you. I have seen enough treasure to last me several lifetimes!"
"It does seem sad that it's buried forever," put in Merle.
"Best thing for it, if you ask me," said Godfrey with conviction. "Ah, here comes sustenance."
They fell upon the sandwiches and cake provided by Cook as if they had not seen food for many a long day, and talk turned to other things. Sitting quietly on the couch beside Merle, Gill looked around her with satisfaction. Although they were not all there, the atmosphere between the Chudleigh siblings was just like that which existed between the Culvers. Although she enjoyed going away to school, Gill had missed her family, and it was moments like these that she cherished.
Once Merle and Gill had put the children to bed, they again sat and relaxed with their brothers, talking and laughing until late into the evening. Hawk was in fine form, amusing his listeners with extra details about their adventures, while Charles put in pithy comments, and Godfrey looked as if he had begun to unwind, finally believing that his ordeal was over. When Gill started to yawn, Merle looked across at her with a smile.
"Go on up to bed, Arminel," she said. "It's ever so late."
"I think I will," Gillian agreed. "Goodnight. "
They returned her farewell, and she headed up to her room, still yawning. She changed into the pink pyjamas, wondering what Arminel would think if she left her a note suggesting blue or green as a more appropriate colour for girls of their particular colouring, and tumbled into bed. As soon as her head touched the pillow, Gillian was asleep.
She was awoken by the loud ringing of the rising bell, and as she sat up, the familiar headache assaulted her. She struggled out of bed and dashed off to the bathroom, for she was supposed to take the first bath that morning, but on her way, she encountered Matron.
"Gillian Culver!" exclaimed that formidable lady when she saw Gillian's white face. "Are you feeling well?"
"I have a bit of a headache," admitted Gill, halting before the school's domestic tyrant.
"Go and wait for me in the San," ordered Matron inflexibly.
Meekly, Gill headed along the corridor to the San, secretly relieved at the prospect of returning to bed. After all, she had lived through two full days during the night, and stepping into someone else's shoes was tiring. She sat in an armchair by the fireplace, and soon Matron was bustling in.
"Are you having another of your bilious attacks?" she asked sympathetically. "I've asked for tea and toast, and once you have had breakfast, I'll give you something to take away the headache. Then you will be able to sleep. Just leave your sponge bag and towel on the shelf there, Gillian, and hop into bed."
Gill did as she was asked and was soon between the covers, admiring her lovely emerald pyjamas while she awaited her breakfast. Once she had eaten a slice of dry toast and drunk a cup of tea, Matron handed her two little tablets. There was to be no secreting of those tablets in the bedside cabinet because Matron stood over her and watched her swallow them both. After that, Matron bade her lie down, and then she tucked her in and kindly patted her shoulder.
"Go to sleep," she said, her voice now gentle, "and I will come back and see how you are in a couple of hours. Sweet dreams!"
"Thank you, Matron," said Gill, closing her eyes. Despite her intention of considering again her strange connection with Arminel Chudleigh, Gillian went straight to sleep.