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The First Time

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Gillian Culver awoke to find Hawk whispering her name and poking her. “Come on, Crumpet!” he said impatiently. “Wake up!“

“What?” she asked, sitting up in bed and rubbing her eyes. She had a bit of a headache, but Hawk’s next words stopped her from thinking about that.

“You wanted to see the foxes, didn't you? They're here.”

“Goody!” she exclaimed, throwing back the covers and leaping out of bed.

“Quiet, though,” Hawk cautioned her. “Let's not wake Nanny.”

Knowing that Nanny would scold her and send her back to bed immediately, Gillian saw the wisdom of Hawk’s words. She managed to whisper, “Where are they?”

“Put on your dressing gown and slippers first,” Hawk advised. He helped her into her dressing gown and tied the belt tightly for her. Gillian pushed her feet into her slippers, and then Hawk took her hand. “Be really quiet,” he told her.

Hawk opened the bedroom door and together they crept along the passage to the stairs. At the top they paused to listen, but the house was silent. They descended the stairs slowly, placing their feet as quietly as they could, both eager not to awaken anyone else. At the bottom of the staircase they paused and listened intently, but they could hear nothing.

“Come on,” said Hawk in a low voice. “We can see them from the morning room window.”

“Can't we go outside?” demanded Gillian. “I want to see them really close.”

“It's ever so dark outside,” said Hawk, looking seriously down at his little sister. “Won't you be scared?”

“It's dark in here, too,” Gillian pointed out, “and I'm not scared.”

“Okay,” agreed Hawk. “Come on then.”

He led her through to the kitchen and, as quietly as he could, he unlocked the kitchen door. It creaked a little as he swung it open, but neither of them noticed, so excited were they at the prospect of seeing the foxes. They moved stealthily along the path that ran around the kitchen garden and cut through the shrubbery, hoping that the rustling noises they made would not scare the foxes away. The garden was not nearly as dark as Hawk had said it might be, for the full moon bathed everything in its silvery light. The sky was almost cloudless and it was cool outside, but the two explorers were too excited to notice.

“Where are they?” Gillian was almost dancing with impatience.

“Hush, idiot!” he told her. “You'll frighten them.”

“But I can't see them,” she protested. “And I'm not an idiot.”

“There!” Hawk released her hand and pointed to the other side of the large lawn. “Now can you see them?”

Gillian followed the direction of his finger and gave a gasp. “Yes!” she exclaimed. As he poked her, she remembered the need for quiet; not only did they have to avoid scaring the foxes, they also needed to make sure they didn't awaken anyone. “There's a mummy and a daddy and two babies,” she told him in a delighted whisper.

Hawk grinned, pleased that he had awoken her and brought her out to see their nighttime visitors. That his parents might be less than thrilled to know that their five-year-old daughter was wandering the garden in the early hours of the morning, he did not consider.

“What do you think they're doing, Hawk?” she asked, watching fascinated as they walked together along the drive, their noses sniffing the cool night air.

“Probably looking for a meal,” he said. “I expect they'd like a nice chicken or perhaps a rabbit.”

“I don't want them to eat a rabbit,” Gillian informed him, regarding him with wide grey eyes.

“What if they're hungry?” asked Hawk. “You wouldn't want their babies to starve to death, would you?”

“Well, no,” she admitted, frowning as she considered the subject. “Can't they eat vegetables?”

“I think they also eat fruit,” Hawk told her. “I'm not sure about vegetables though.”

“We need to put out a plate of fruit and vegetables for them,” Gillian told him earnestly. “Then they can choose what they like and leave the rabbits alone.”

They fell silent and watched the foxes snuffling around the flower bed bordering the lawn and then slowly crossing the grass and disappearing into the hedge.

“Come on. We'd better go back in.” Hawk took Gillian's hand again and led her through the kitchen garden to the back door. When he had locked the door, he took his sister along the dark, silent passages once more, and together they crept back up the stairs. By the time they reached her room, Gillian was yawning, so Hawk helped her to climb into bed and covered her up warmly.

“Thank you, Hawk,” she said, her voice sleepy. “I liked those foxes.”

“Go to sleep,” he said, somewhat unnecessarily because her eyes were already closing. He crept out of her room and headed back to his own, managing to get himself safely into bed without anyone knowing what he had been doing, and was asleep almost as quickly as his young sister.

Just a few hours later, it was time to wake up. Hawk, who was invariably an early riser, got up without any difficulty, but Gillian was harder to awaken. When she finally opened her eyes, she found a sweet-faced lady bending anxiously over her, the grey eyes so similar to her own filled with worry.

“At last!” the lady said, gently smoothing the tousled bronze locks. “I thought you were going to stay asleep all day!”

“Mummy?” Gillian could scarcely believe her eyes. “Is it really you?”

“Yes, darling, of course it is,” said Mummy with a smile. She sat down on the edge of the bed and Gillian tumbled into her arms. “You are such a sleepy head this morning. It's breakfast time and you aren't even dressed.”

“They said you were dead,” Gillian told her gravely. “They said we wouldn't see you any more.”

“Who said that?” asked Mummy seriously.

“Godfrey and Merle and the others.”

“It must have been a dream,” said Mummy, cuddling Gillian tightly and kissing her pale cheeks. “I'm here now. Let me help you get dressed so you can have your breakfast.”

Gillian threw her arms around Mummy’s neck and kissed her back. “I can dress myself,” she pointed out.

“I know you can,” Mummy assured her. “I'll help you just so you will be quicker. We don't want to make Nanny cross, do we?”

“No, not really,” agreed Gillian, so she allowed Mummy to help her dress and brush out her hair before doing it into two plaits. “And Hawk showed me the foxes,” she said, remembering the excitement of the night. “There were four of them.”

“Really?” asked Mummy. “Where were they?”

“Crossing the lawn. Can we leave some food out for them? I don't want them to eat rabbits.” Gillian looked up at her mother. “Hawk says they like fruit.”

Before Mummy could answer, a knock at the door heralded the arrival of Nanny. “Miss Arminel’s breakfast is ready, Lady Chudleigh,” she said firmly, whereupon Gillian broke into peals of laughter.

“Nanny has forgotten us,” she said to Mummy.

Looking decidedly puzzled, Lady Chudleigh stood up and took her daughter’s hand. “Come on, Crumpet,” she said. “Let's have breakfast.”

Still giggling, Gillian trotted happily to the nursery. She clung tightly to Mummy’s hand, unwilling to let go even for a moment.

Mummy sat at the table next to Gillian and tucked a napkin onto her lap. “Eat up,” she suggested, handing her a spoon.

“Please may I have honey?”

Mummy obligingly added honey to the porridge. “I'm sure you are hungry after your busy night,” she said, watching affectionately as Gillian began on her breakfast. “Thank you, Nanny,” she added as that lady put a cup of coffee down in front of her.

“Would you like anything else?” inquired Nanny.

“No, thank you. I've already had breakfast. I'll stay with Crumpet, Nanny.”

“Very well, Lady Chudleigh,” Nanny replied, and she bustled out.

“Why is she calling you Lady Chudleigh?” Gillian demanded, putting down her spoon. “Has she forgotten your name?”

“Nanny always calls me Lady Chudleigh,” said Mummy. “Are you feeling all right, Crumpet?”

“No, she calls you Lady Culver,” Gillian corrected her firmly.

“Eat your porridge,” said Mummy, giving Gillian a look of puzzlement.

Thinking hard, Gillian finished her porridge and drank her milk. “It's a very strange day,” she remarked as she put down the cup.

Mummy placed a hand on Gillian's forehead, but it was cool and her face was as pale as usual. She did look a little tired; since she had evidently spent the night having vivid dreams, that was not unexpected, so she gave her an indulgent smile. “Come and help me with your room,” she said, standing up and holding out her hand.

Gillian got up quickly and slipped a rather sticky hand into Mummy's. They headed first to the bathroom for a thorough wash, and then they went to Gillian's bedroom and began to make the bed. Gillian chattered happily as she helped her mother, but when she retrieved her teddy bear from the floor beneath the bed, she stared at it, a frown on her face. Somehow teddy looked different, although she couldn't quite work out how. She gave him a hug, and he felt different, too. Tucking him into bed and patting the covers down around him, she decided to say nothing quite yet. After all, Mummy was already surprised by some of the things she had said, and she didn't want anyone to think that she was not well and send her back to bed for the day.

They dusted Gillian's room, and Gillian noticed all sorts of things that were not quite right. Her glass beads were now green instead of the pretty shade of turquoise she recalled. The books on her shelf were slightly different. The clothes hanging in her wardrobe were definitely not hers. Gillian was puzzled by the changes, but when she realised that the most important difference was that Mummy was there, she shrugged philosophically and decided to accept everything the way it was. It really didn't matter if teddy was a bit thinner or her favourite picture book was missing if it meant that Mummy had come back.

When they had finished tidying Gillian's room, Mummy said that she could go to the nursery to play with the others, but Gillian was loath to do this. After two months of missing Mummy every day, there was no way she would let her out of her sight now she had got her back. She clung to Mummy's hand and pleaded with her until Mummy gave way. Together they went to attend to Mummy's room, and after that Gillian helped her pick flowers from the garden and arrange them in the pretty vase in the morning room.

After lunch, Mummy curled up on the sofa with Gillian in her lap and read her a story. She helped Gillian to read some of the words, praising her lavishly as she managed to read a whole sentence correctly. When the story was finished, Gillian closed her eyes and dozed off, content to be held in Mummy’s embrace once more.

When she awoke, she was back in her bed and the early morning sun was streaming through the window. At once she recalled the events of the previous day, and she leapt out of bed, eager to see Mummy again. Without pausing to put on her dressing gown or slippers, she ran along the corridor to her parents’ room and flung open the door.

“Mummy!” she cried, clambering onto the ancient, ornate bed.

Awakened by his youngest daughter's shout, Sir Jeremy Culver sat up and caught her in his arms. “Good morning, Crumpet,” he said, his voice still heavy with sleep.

“Where's Mummy?” she demanded, looking around her.

Sir Jeremy looked sadly down into the eager little face, so like that of his late wife. “Oh, darling,” he said, clasping her against him. “I know you miss her. We all do.”

“But I saw her yesterday!” Gillian assured him. She pulled away from him and ran back to her own room, where she scrabbled around first on her dressing table and then on her bookshelf. The pretty glass beads were turquoise once more, and her favourite book was resting across the tops of the other books, exactly where it should be. Even teddy was, when she went to investigate, as fat and cuddly as ever.

Gillian threw herself face down on her bed and wept bitterly. Even when Daddy came and cuddled her, she was inconsolable. She just couldn't understand what had happened.

As the years passed, Gillian realised exactly what happened to her. She told no one, for she knew that no one would believe her, and above all things, she hated being laughed at. Despite the heartbreak she had felt when she returned to Culver’s Hold that first time, she treasured the memory of the day she had spent with Lady Chudleigh. She had never met her again, but it had been balm to her sorrowful soul to have Mummy back even for such a short time. To have been cuddled by her, to have heard her voice, and to have felt loved, these were priceless treasures that she would never forget.