Victoria Holt



On the night of the great storm, our house, like so many in the village, was damaged; and it was due to this that the discovery was made. I was eighteen years old at the time and my brother Philip twenty-three; and in the years to come I was often to marvel at what followed and to speculate how different everything might have been but for the storm.

It came after one of the hottest spells on record when the temperature soared into the nineties, and there was hardly a topic of conversation which did not concern the weather. Two old people and one baby died of it; there were prayers for rain in the churches; old Mrs. Terry, who was ninety and after a frivolous youth and less than virtuous middle age, had taken to religion in her seventies, declared that God was punishing England in general and Little and Great Stanton in particular by starving the cattle, drying up the streams and not providing enough moisture for the crops. The Day of Judgement was at hand, and on the night of the storm even the most sceptical of us were inclined to think that she might have a point.

I had lived all my life in the old Tudor Manor House on the Green, presided over by Granny M. The M stood for Mallory, which was our family name, and she was called Granny M to distinguish her from Granny C—Granny Cresset—for at the time of my mother's death, which coincided with that of my birth, the War of the Grannies had waged.

"They both wanted us," Philip had told me when I was about four and he a knowledgeable nine. That made us feel very important to be so wanted.

Philip told me that Granny C had suggested that she have one of us and Granny M the other—dividing us as though we were two strips of land over which the generals were fighting. It was a long time before I could trust Granny C after that for the person who mattered most in my life was Philip. He had always been there, my big brother, my protector, the clever one, possessed of five glorious years of experience beyond my own. We quarrelled occasionally, but such differences only made me realize more fully how important he was to me, for during the periods of his displeasure I suffered acute misery.

The suggestion of parting us had fortunately aroused the indignation of Granny M.

"Separate them! Never!" had been her battle cry, while she stated with no uncertain emphasis that as the paternal grandmother she had the greater claim. Granny C was at length vanquished and forced to accept the compromise, which entailed brief summer holidays once a year at her home in Cheshire and the occasional day visit, gifts of dresses for me and sailor suits for Philip, stockings and mittens for us both and presents at Christmas and birthdays.

When I was ten years old Granny C had a stroke and died.

"A nice state she would have got us into if she had had the children," I heard Granny M comment to Benjamin Darkin. Old Benjamin was one of the few who ever stood up to Granny M, but he could afford to because he had been at the "shop" from the day he was twelve years old and he knew more about the business of map making than any man alive, so said Granny M.

"The lady can scarcely be blamed for the acts of God, Mrs. Mallory," he said on that occasion with mild reproof; and presumably because he was Benjamin Darkin, Granny M let it go at that.

Granny M behaved as the lady of the manor in Little Stanton, and when she went into Great Stanton, as she did at that time every day, she rode in her carriage with John Barton the coachman and little Tom Terry, a descendant of that prophet of doom, the now virtuous nonagenarian Mrs. Terry, in his place at the back of the carriage.

Philip said, when he was about eighteen and as far as I was concerned the wisest man in Christendom, that people who "Came into things" were often more dedicated to them than those who had been bora into them. What he was implying was that Granny M had not been bora into the squirarchy. She had merely married Grandfather M and thus had become one of the Mallorys who had lived in the Manor House since it had been built in 1573. We knew this because the date was engraved on the stonework on the front of the house. But there could not have been a prouder Mallory than Granny M.

I had never known Grandfather M. He had died before the great Battle of the Grannies had begun.

Granny M managed the village as efficiently and autocratically as she did her own household. She presided over fetes and bazaars and kept our mild vicar and his "woolly-minded" wife in order. She made sure there was a good attendance at morning and evening services, and every servant was expected to be in his or her place at church every Sunday—and if certain essential duties prevented attendance, there must be a rota so that anyone who missed one Sunday must be there the next. Needless to say Philip and I were always present and walked sedately—Sunday fashion—across the Green from the Manor to the church, on either side of Granny M, to take our places in the Mallory pew at the side of which was the stained-glass window depicting Christ in Gethsemane, presented by one of our ancestors in 1632.

But perhaps what claimed Granny NTs greatest devotion was the "shop." It was unusual for squires to be connected with business and pay such respect to a shop. But this was no ordinary shop.

It was a shrine, as it were, to the glory of long-dead Mallorys, for the Mallorys had been great circumnavigators of the globe. They had served their country well since the days of Queen Elizabeth and it was Granny M's conviction that the country owed a great deal of its maritime supremacy to the Mallorys.

A Mallory had sailed with Drake. In the seventeenth century they had also gone off on their adventures; but there was one great interest which set them apart. It was not their determination to capture the ships of enemy Spaniards and Dutchmen, but their fierce desire to chart the world.

They, said Granny M, had carved their name on the world's history, and not merely that of England; they had made navigation easier for hundreds—no, thousands—of great adventurers all over the world; and what these intrepid sailors—and not only sailors but those who explored the terrain of the Earth—owed to Mallory's maps was inestimable.

The "shop" was situated in the main street of Great Stanton. It was an ancient three-storeyed building with two bow windows on the ground floor, one on either side of the stone steps which led up to the front door.

At the back of the shop, across a yard, was another building in which were situated three steam-driven machines. This was forbidden territory unless we were accompanied by an adult. The machines did not greatly interest me but Philip was immensely interested in them.

In one of the bow windows was a great globe painted in the most beautiful blues, pinks and greens, which in my early days had held immense fascination for me. When I was a child and had visited the shop in the company of Granny M, Benjamin Darkin would show me a similar globe which was in the front room and he would twirl it round and round and show me the great blue seas and the land and its boundaries; never hesitating to point out the pink bits on the globe— the parts which were British. Made so, I presumed, by the glorious Mallorys who had made the maps to show the explorers the way.

Philip had been equally excited by visits to the shop and would talk to me about it. We had maps in our schoolroom and when she visited us there, Granny M would ask us questions about the atlas. Geography was a subject which took precedence over all others, and Granny M was delighted by our interest in it.

In the other bow window of the shop there was a huge map of the world. It looked magnificent spread out before us with the continent of Africa on one side and the Americas on the other. The sea was a vivid blue, the land dark brown and green mostly. There were our own islands looking quite insignificant just to the left of the funny-looking tiger which was Scandinavia. But, most glorious of all, was the name of our ancestor written in gold on the right-hand corner: Jethro Mallory 1698.

"When I grow up," said Philip, "I am going to have a boat and I am going to measure up the seas. Then I'll have my name in gold at the bottom of a map."

Granny M overheard that remark and her face was one deep happy smile, for it was just what she intended; and I guessed she was congratulating herself that she had rescued her grandson from the clutches of Granny C who might have tried to make an architect or even a politician of him, for her family had harboured people in these professions.

I learned a little of the family history over the years and discovered that Granny M had never entirely approved of her son's marriage to Flora Cresset. Flora, judging by her portrait which hung in the gallery, had been very pretty but frail, which seemed to have been borne out by her death at my birth; but then so many people died in childbirth— babies too—so that to survive was, in a way, a minor triumph. I said to Philip that it was an indication of the tenacity of women that the human race went on, to which he replied: "You do talk nonsense sometimes."

Philip was more down-to-earth than I was. I was a dreamer, a romancer. He was interested in the practical side of map making, calculations and measurements, and his fingers itched to take up compasses and such scientific instruments. For me it was so different. I wondered who would be living in those remote places. I wondered about their lives; and when I looked at those islands in the midst of the blue tropical seas, I wove all sorts of stories about my going there, living among the people and learning their ways.