Throughout the summer and autumn, Humphrey and Arminel saw one another at least once a week, and often more. Arminel was due to finish her college course the following year, and Humphrey had begun to wonder if he could speak to his uncle about taking Arminel on as his secretary. He had more paperwork to do than he had time to do it, and he knew he would have more time to assist his uncle outside if someone else was helping in the office. As yet he had not said anything to Arminel, but he knew that she would need to look for a job, and he wanted her to work with him.
In the late autumn, Humphrey prepared to travel to South America with Godfrey. He was to be gone for six weeks, and both he and Arminel were dreading the separation. They had become good friends, so the thought of being apart for six weeks was difficult. However, there was nothing they could do but wait for the time to pass.
The evening before he was due to travel to London with Godfrey, Humphrey came to Chudleigh Hold. He would stay the night with the Chudleighs so he and Godfrey could set off early the next morning. Merle and Frank had also come to stay, bringing their children with them, and Ven had managed a night at home in the middle of her latest concert tour. The atmosphere was a strange mixture of joy because most of the family was gathered under the same roof and anxiety because Godfrey's kidnapping and subsequent incarceration were still fresh in their minds.
With so many people at Chudleigh Hold, it was almost impossible for Arminel and Humphrey to have a moment alone. Although no one had even hinted at it, Arminel knew that her siblings were worried that she and Humphrey would no longer be 'sensible' if they were under the same roof at such a time, and as a result, one of them was always close at hand. Finally, wanting more than anything to say a private goodbye to Humphrey, Arminel devised a plan.
Feeling pleased with her idea, she waited until just after ten, and then she excused herself. She bade everyone a casual goodnight and managed to wink at Humphrey as she left the drawing room. Confident that she was not under suspicion, Arminel went up to her room. She penned a brief note for Humphrey, slipped along to his room, and left it under his pillow. Then she hopped into bed and pretended to be asleep.
About half an hour later, Arminel's bedroom door was quietly opened, but Arminel did not open her eyes to see who was looking in on her. She lay still, her breathing slow and even, listening carefully. Footsteps came quietly to the bed, and Merle’s soft voice murmured, "Sweet dreams," before she straightened the bed covers and slipped out of the room again. After such tenderness, Arminel could not feel angry with Merle for checking up on her, but she clung to her resolve to meet Humphrey privately however indecorous it might be.
Arminel slipped out of bed and dressed again. She waited until just before eleven o'clock, and then she quietly opened her bedroom door and went silently downstairs to the library. She switched on the desk lamp and settled down in a comfortable leather chair next to a coffee table piled high with books and papers.
Just five minutes later, the door swung silently open and Humphrey came in. He grinned at Arminel and held out his arms to her. She got up and threw herself at him, hugging him tightly. "Oh, Humphrey!" she exclaimed. "I can't believe that you're going tomorrow! I'm going to miss you so much."
Humphrey caught her more closely against him. "I'm going to miss you, too," he assured her. "Come and sit down, Arminel, and let's talk." He led her across to a sofa that was not in the circle of light cast by the lamp, and he sat, pulling her down next to him. He turned towards her and took both of her hands in his. "Before I go, I want to tell you something," he said, looking suddenly serious.
Arminel entwined her fingers with his. "You can tell me anything," she said encouragingly.
"I know." He smiled at her and leant closer, pressing his mouth to hers. They enjoyed a long, tender kiss, and then Humphrey pulled away a little. "Arminel, do you remember the day I first kissed you? We were on the Susannah…"
"Yes, of course I do," she replied, surprised that he would think she could forget her first kiss.
Humphrey smiled and ran a hand across her shining hair. "Do you remember what we talked about afterwards - what you asked me?" he wondered.
Arminel thought for a moment. "Yes," she responded, blushing.
"I wasn't sensible the night I kissed that girl I told you of," he said, his face serious. "I walked her home, and she invited me in. I stayed with her that night." Humphrey paused, his eyes scanning Arminel’s face for some reaction to his words. "In a way, I wish I hadn't," he went on, "but taken logically, I'm pleased I did."
"Why?" she asked with interest.
"A man ought to know about such things," was Humphrey's reply. He took a deep breath and slid off the sofa. Kneeling on the floor in front of Arminel he said, "Arminel, I love you. I'd like to keep you by my side forever. Would you do me the tremendous honour of becoming my wife?"
Looking down into his kindly face, a face that had become so familiar and so dear to her, Arminel knew that there was only one answer she could give to his question. "Oh, Humphrey!" she breathed. "Yes!"
"Even after what I've just told you?" he asked, wanting to be certain that she understood what he had told her. "Even though you won't be the first girl in my bed?"
Arminel put her hands to Humphrey's face. "A man ought to know about such things," she told him, grinning despite the heightened colour of her cheeks.
Humphrey chuckled and fumbled in his pocket. He drew out a small box which he opened, and then he turned it so that Arminel could see what was inside. As she gasped, he took the ring and slid it onto her finger. "Is that all right?" he asked, unable to keep a note of anxiety from his voice.
Arminel looked at the beautifully-cut emerald set into a band of gold. "It's incredible," she told him in awe-filled tones. "I love it. Thank you, Humphrey."
"You're incredible," he told her, getting off his knees and sitting at her side again. "You make me so happy, Arminel. I can't imagine how I will manage, being away from you for six weeks."
Arminel leaned into Humphrey's embrace. "You make me so happy, too," she assured him. "No one has ever been as understanding as you are. I'm so lucky."
"You're so sweet," he said, and his lips found hers again. A long while later, they released each other. Humphrey gently smoothed Arminel's hair. "I'll ask your brother if I can marry you," he said, serious again now. "I'd like to do things properly."
"Godfrey will be pleased about that," Arminel told him. "But Humphrey, can we wait until you come back before we tell anyone?"
"I will come back," he assured her, mistaking the reason for her words. "My family has nothing that people would kidnap me to get."
"I wasn't thinking about that," she replied with a smile. "And I know you're very resourceful, so I don't think kidnappers would be able to hang on to you. Especially not if Tom Vinton hears of it."
"That's encouraging," Humphrey conceded. "So what's bothering you, Arminel?"
"I don't want my sisters and Charles to keep on at me while you're gone," she explained. "I'm going to miss you enough as it is. I'd rather deal with it myself than have them constantly on my case. Let's talk to Godfrey when you get home again."
"If that's what you want," he said, his fingers on her face now. "I'm going to write to you, Arminel. Will you write to me?"
"Yes, of course I will. But how will my letters find you?"
Humphrey pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket. "These are the addresses that I'll be using and the dates I expect to be there. They'll forward anything that arrives after I've left."
"Okay." Arminel held Humphrey's hand against her cheek. "But take care, Humphrey."
"I will," he promised. "Now it's late, and if you're going to get up to see us off, you should sleep now."
"I know," she agreed, "but I don't want to leave you."
"I don't want to leave you either." Humphrey caught her against him and held her tightly.
She clung to him for a moment, and then she pulled away. "You have a long journey tomorrow," she reminded him. "You need to sleep." They stood up and Arminel turned off the lamp. The moonlight coming through the window showed them their way to the library door, and across the hall to the stairs. They went up silently, and on the landing Arminel stopped and looked up at Humphrey. "Can you find your room from here?" she whispered.
"Along there, last room on the left," he whispered back.
"Yes, that's right," she agreed. "Goodnight Humphrey."
"Goodnight," he said, and he leaned closer to kiss her cheek.
Arminel kissed his cheek in return, and then they parted. She went on up to her own room, and once she had changed for bed, she carefully put the ring back in its box and hid it away in a drawer. Then she climbed into bed and fell asleep almost at once. The alarm woke her in the morning, and as Arminel dressed, she remembered that Humphrey had asked her to marry him. A warm glow spread through her, and she abandoned her usual morning tidy-up so that she could dash downstairs for breakfast. She found Humphrey already sitting at the table, so she said, "Good morning," and sat next to him. Merle passed her a cup of coffee and Arminel helped herself to bacon and eggs.
Godfrey turned up next and then Charles put in an appearance. Owing to the early hour, breakfast was a quieter meal than usual. The two travellers ate heartily to fortify themselves for the journey ahead. As she sipped her third cup of coffee, Arminel glanced at Humphrey. He smiled at her and beneath the table, his hand felt for and caught hold of hers. Arminel squeezed his hand tightly as it lay in her lap. Now that the moment of parting was so close, she felt as if she must weep. How would she manage without Humphrey for six weeks? He was so strong and dependable, and she always felt better able to deal with anything when he was at her side.
"Come on then." Godfrey stood and looked at Humphrey. "We'd better go," he told the younger man.
Humphrey squeezed Arminel’s hand and released it before standing up as well. He and Godfrey went to collect their suitcases, and soon everyone met together in the hall for the final goodbyes. Humphrey shook hands with his hosts and then, while Godfrey was saying farewell to Merle and Charles, he stepped closer to Arminel. She looked up at him, her eyes bright with unshed tears, and Humphrey almost weakened when he looked into her expressive face.
Seeing how he felt, Arminel smiled at him. "I'm just being silly," she said firmly. She had realised that she had not told him how much she cared the previous evening, and she knew she could not let him go without knowing just how she felt about him, so she moved even closer to him. Then she reached up to kiss his cheek. As her lips brushed his face, she murmured, "I love you, Humphrey."
It was all Humphrey could do to kiss her cheek and step back from her. The words she uttered made him long to catch her against him and passionately kiss her, but that would definitely be inappropriate. Instead, he said softly, "I love you, too. I don't think I'll need a plane to get me to South America - after that, I feel that I am walking on air."
Arminel giggled, and all danger of tears passed. "Take care of yourself, won't you," she told him firmly.
"I will. And look after yourself, too. I'll see you next month."
"I'll be waiting," she promised.
"Ready?" Godfrey had picked up his case and was looking interrogatively at Humphrey.
"Yes," Humphrey replied, taking up his own case and following Godfrey to the door.
The remaining Chudleighs stood at the top of the steps and watched as Godfrey and Humphrey climbed into the car, and then they were all waving as Tizzard drove away.
Once the car was out of sight, Merle linked arms with Arminel and they headed back inside. "Are you okay?" asked Merle anxiously.
"Yes, I'm fine," Arminel assured her. "I'm not worried that they'll be in danger. It's just that they'll be away for so long."
"You'll be busy with your course," Merle reminded her, "and you can come and stay with me. Robert and Jemima will leave you no time for fretting about them."
Arminel giggled. "That's certainly true," she agreed. "And I will come, Merle. It will be lovely, thank you."
"Good. Now let's go and start on the chores." Merle took Arminel’s arm and they headed upstairs to make the beds and tidy the bedrooms.
Arminel went to college and stayed with Merle, and generally kept herself busy. She wrote to Humphrey two or three times a week, and he wrote back at least as often. His letters were short, as he did not have the pen of a ready writer, but he told Arminel of what he had seen and done; she was thrilled by the gradual change of greeting from 'Dear Arminel' to the more effusive 'My darling Arminel'. The closing changed, too, from 'Love, Humphrey' to 'With all my love forever, Humphrey', and Arminel was both touched and relieved that her fiancé was not forgetting about her while they were apart. One letter even included a snap of Humphrey in the mountains, towering peaks forming a spectacular backdrop. It was the first photo that Arminel had of Humphrey, so she put it into a frame and set it on her dressing table.
Merle and Charles noticed how regularly letters for Arminel came from South America, but they made no comment. They were secretly relieved that Arminel was dealing so well with the separation, for they had expected her to be tearful and anxious while Humphrey and Godfrey were away. Instead, she carried on stoically, working hard at her secretarial studies, keeping up with her chores around the house, and chatting and laughing as usual. Although she always took Humphrey's letters up to her room, not emerging for more than an hour afterwards, when she reappeared, her eyes were never red; indeed, reading the letters always made her seem happy.
Finally, the day of Godfrey and Humphrey's return arrived. Chudleigh Hold had been cleaned from top to bottom, and Godfrey's room was ready for him. Humphrey was to stay for dinner, but then he would return to Fardingales and his own family. The two men landed in London in the early morning and caught the first train to Exeter, where they were met at the station by Tizzard. They finally walked up the steps to Chudleigh Hold's heavy front door just before twelve o'clock.
"They're here!" exclaimed Arminel as she heard the car pull up outside the house. She got up quickly from her seat in the drawing room, and almost ran across the hall, closely followed by Merle. Charles, whose limp slowed him down, adopted a much calmer pace.
Arminel wrenched open the door and found herself looking at the unshaven face of her eldest brother. "Hello, Godfrey," she said perfunctorily, stepping neatly round him and gazing happily at Humphrey, who was just behind Godfrey.
Humphrey gazed back at Arminel, a huge smile on his face. "Hello," he said, his voice low.
Arminel resisted the urge to throw herself at him. "Hello Humphrey," she said happily. "I'm so pleased to see you."
"I'm delighted to see you, too," he told her, taking her arm and leading her back into the house, for it was a cold December day, and he felt chilly after growing used to the humid heat of South America.
"How are you?" she inquired, looking anxiously at his face. He, too, was unshaven, and she thought he looked exhausted.
"I'm looking forward to sleeping for a week," he said, putting his case down and releasing her arm. "It's a long journey, and it comes after plenty of other long journeys."
"Lunch will be ready soon," said Merle, who had turned to greet Humphrey and caught his remark. "If you'd like to rest here, we can have your room made up. It won't take long."
"Thank you, Mrs Pullen," Humphrey said as he sat down on a couch in the drawing room. "I really ought to get back to Fardingales. My uncle will be eager to hear about the trip."
"I understand," Merle assured him.
Arminel sat down in an armchair from which she could gaze at Humphrey. Godfrey was recounting the details of the journey home, so Humphrey looked across at Arminel. "I'm sorry I don't look very presentable," he said, "but we landed this morning and went straight to the station. We were both eager to get here."
"I'm glad you're back safely," Arminel told him. And then, seeing that no one was taking any notice of them, she added, "You look wonderful to me."
"It's great to be back," he said, wishing he could at least take her hand. "You look amazing, Arminel - even better than I remember."
Arminel's lips curved into a smile even as her cheeks flushed. Humphrey grinned at the expression on her face. Then Alice appeared in the doorway to announce that lunch was ready. They all stood, and Arminel said, "I'll just show Humphrey where he can have a wash."
"Charles can do that," Merle began, but Godfrey intervened.
"I'm quite certain that Arminel can manage," he told his sister. He had seen how regularly letters from Arminel arrived for Humphrey, and he knew that Humphrey had written more to Arminel than to his own family. He thought Humphrey was a decent, honourable young man, and he knew he could be trusted to respect Arminel. Furthermore, they were clearly overjoyed to see one another again, and Godfrey felt they would appreciate the chance of a few private words together.
"This way," said Arminel, leading Humphrey across the hall.
Once they had turned down a long corridor out of sight of the others, Humphrey caught Arminel’s hand in his. She smiled up at him in such a way that he at once released her hand and caught her in his arms. Before she could say anything, his mouth closed over hers, and he kissed her thoroughly.
When he released her, Humphrey asked, "Is that better?"
Arminel blushed and giggled. "Yes, a bit," she told him. "I've missed you so much, Humphrey. It feels as if you've been away for years."
"I've missed you, too," he assured her. "I love you, Arminel. I can't wait to make you my wife."
"I love you, too," she assured him. "I'm so glad that you didn't change your mind while you were away."
"I shall never change my mind," he promised. "Let me have a wash, darling, because we ought to join the others. I will come over and see you tomorrow."
Realising that they could not be late for lunch, Arminel showed Humphrey the small cloakroom where he washed his hands and face. When he emerged, he caught Arminel against him and kissed her again.
"Can I talk to Godfrey about you tomorrow?" he asked as they walked towards the dining room.
"I'd like that," she agreed.
In the dining room, they took their places at the table and enjoyed Cook's excellent roast lamb. Conversation centred on the travellers' recent experiences, and although she would rather have been alone with Humphrey, Arminel enjoyed the stories he and Godfrey told. And when he had finished his food, Humphrey's hand sought and grasped hers beneath the table, leaving her feeling deeply happy.
Humphrey stayed for coffee, but then he made his excuses and set off for home. As she decorously shook his hand at the front door, Arminel wished he was staying longer, but she knew that was selfish of her. He looked exhausted, and he needed to return home to reassure his family that he had returned unscathed from his sojourn. The look Humphrey gave her as he said goodbye told Arminel that he wanted to stay just as much as she wanted him to, so she smiled back at him and watched him leave.
Once the car taking Humphrey home had disappeared from sight, Arminel set off for the staircase so that she could continue with her Christmas knitting. Before she could ascend, Merle called her back.
"Arminel! Come and have another cup of coffee," she suggested.
Arminel turned. "Okay," she agreed.
Merle led the way into the dining room, where Godfrey was already drinking more coffee as he went through the letters that had come during his absence. Charles dealt competently with estate business, but plenty of personal letters came for the master of Chudleigh Hold. Arminel slipped into her seat and accepted coffee from Merle.
"It's good to have them back, isn't it?" observed Merle, giving Godfrey a fond look.
"What's that?" asked Godfrey, looking up and catching her eye.
"I'm pleased to have you home," Merle told him.
"And Arminel is pleased to have Humphrey home," added Charles, grinning at his youngest sister.
"I'm impressed with young Anthony," declared Godfrey. "He's hardworking and intelligent." He glanced across at Arminel as he went on, "He's dependable and responsible, and good company, too."
Arminel nodded, hoping that the subject would soon be dropped. She was already aware of Humphrey's good qualities, and while she was delighted that Godfrey liked him so much, she preferred not to talk about her feelings for Humphrey with her family. She had been dating him for five months, which surely spoke for itself.
"When will you see him again?" asked Charles.
"Give him time to recover from the trip!" Arminel exclaimed.
"In other words," added Hawk, who had been silent until that point, "mind your own business."
"Judging by the hand holding that was going on," said Charles with a grin, "he won't keep away for long."
Arminel blushed and did her best to hide her hot face behind her coffee cup.
Fortunately, Merle saw Arminel’s embarrassment and deftly changed the subject. "I shall go home tomorrow evening," she told them. "If there's anything you want me to do, Godfrey, you'd better say it now or forever hold your peace."
"We need to discuss Christmas," said Godfrey. "Come and see me in my lair when I've had a chance to look through this pile."
"Okay." Merle drained her cup and stood up. "I'm going to check on the kids. Arminel, you might come and help."
Arminel stood as well. "I'd be happy to," she said, "and then I'll help you pack."
Despite their early start, the day flew past. As she lay in bed that night, Arminel thought about the day ahead. She had heard nothing more from Humphrey, but she knew that he would not go back on his word - he would come to Chudleigh Hold the next day and ask Godfrey for Arminel’s hand in marriage. And after hearing Godfrey's opinion of Humphrey, Arminel felt certain that he would agree. Smiling, she fell asleep, her mind filled with the image of herself in a long white gown walking down the aisle of the village church to marry Humphrey.