Victoria Holt

The India Fan

England & France

The Big House

I had always been fascinated by the big house of Framling. Perhaps it had begun when I was two years old and Fabian Framling had kidnapped me and kept me there for two weeks. It was a house full of shadows and mystery, I discovered, when I went in search of the peacock-feather fan. In the long corridors, in the gallery, in the silent rooms, the past seemed to be leering at one from all corners, insidiously imposing itself on the present and almost—though never quite—obliterating it.

For as long as I could remember Lady Harriet Framling had reigned supreme over our village. Farm labourers standing respectfully at the side of the road while the carriage, emblazoned with the majestic Framling arms, drove past, touched their forelocks and the women bobbed their deferential curtsies. She was spoken of in hushed whispers as though those who mentioned her feared they might be taking her name in vain; in my youthful mind she ranked with the Queen and was second only to God. It was small wonder that when her son, Fabian, commanded me to be his slave, I—being only six years old at that time—made no protest. It seemed only natural that we humble folk should serve the Big House in any way that was demanded of us.

The Big House—known to the community as "The House" as though those dwellings which the rest of us occupied were something different—was Framling. Not Framling Hall or Framling Manor but simply Framling, with the accent on the first syllable which made it sound more impressive. It had been in the possession of the Framlings for four hundred years. Lady Harriet had married into the family most condescendingly, for she was the daughter of an Earl, which, my father told me, meant that she was Lady Harriet instead of simple Lady Framling. One must never forget that, for the fact was that she had married beneath her when she became the wife of a simple baronet. He was dead now, poor man. But I had heard that she never allowed him to forget her higher rank; and although she had come to the village only when she was a bride, ever since she had considered it her duty to rule over us.

The marriage had been unproductive for years—a source of great annoyance to Lady Harriet. I guessed she constantly complained bitterly to the Almighty for such an oversight; but even Heaven could not ignore Lady Harriet forever, and when she was forty years old, fifteen years after her wedding day, she gave birth to Fabian.

Her joy was boundless. She doted on the boy. It was simple logic that her son must be perfect. His slightest whim must be obeyed by all underlings; and the Framling servants admitted that Lady Harriet herself would smile indulgently at his infant misdemeanours.

Four years after the birth of Fabian, Lavinia was born. Although, being a girl, she was slightly inferior to her brother, she was Lady Harriet's daughter and therefore far above the rest of the community.

I was always amused to see them come into church and walk down the aisle—Lady Harriet followed by Fabian, followed by Lavinia. They would be watched with awe while they took their places and knelt on the red and black prayer mats embroidered with the letter F; and those behind were able to witness the amazing spectacle of Lady Harriet's kneeling to a Higher Authority—an experience which made up for everything else the service lacked.

I would stare in wonder as I knelt, forgetting that I was in church, until a nudge from Polly Green reminded me and re­called me to my duty.

Framling—the House—dominated the village. It had been built at the top of a slight incline which made one feel that it was on the alert, watching for any sins we might commit. Although there had been a house there in the days of the Conqueror, it had been rebuilt over the centuries and there was hardly anything left of the pre-Tudor building. One passed under a gatehouse with its battlemented towers into a lower courtyard where plants grew out of the walls, and in iron-banded tubs shrubs hung over in artistic profusion. There were seats in the courtyard onto which leaded windows looked down—dark and mysterious. I always fancied someone was watching behind those windows—reporting everything to Lady Harriet.

One went through a heavily studded door into a banqueting hall where several long-dead Framlings hung on the walls —some fierce, some benign. The ceiling was high and vaulted; the long polished table smelt of beeswax and turpentine; and over the great fireplace the family tree stretched out in all directions; at one end of the hall was a staircase leading to the chapel and at the other end the door to the screens.

During my tender years it seemed to me that all of us in the village rotated like planets round the glorious blazing sun that was Framling.

Our own house, right next to the church, was rambling and draughty. I had often heard it said that it cost a fortune to heat it. Compared with Framling, of course, it was minute, but it was true that although there might be a big fire in the drawing room, and the kitchen was warm enough, to ascend to the upper regions in winter was like going to the arctic circle, I imagined. My father did not notice. He noticed very little of practical matters. His heart was in ancient Greece and he was more familiar with Alexander the Great and Homer than with his parishioners.

I knew little of my mother because she had died when I was two months old. Polly Green had come as a substitute; but that was not until I was just past two years old and had had my first introduction to the ways of the Framlings. Polly must have been about twenty-eight when she came. She was a widow who had always wanted a child, so that just as she took the place of a mother to me, I was to her the child she never had. It worked very well. I loved Polly and there was no doubt whatever that Polly loved me. It was to her loving arms that I went in my moments of crisis. When the hot rice pudding dropped into my lap, when I fell and grazed my knees, when I awoke in the night dreaming of goblins and fierce giants, it was to Polly I turned for solace. I could not imagine life without Polly Green.

She came from London—a place in her opinion superior to any other. "Buried myself in the country, all for you," she used to say. When I pointed out to her that to be buried one had to be under the earth in the graveyard, she grimaced and said: "Well, you might as well be." She had contempt for the country. "A lot of fields and nothing to do in them. Give me London." Then she would talk of the streets of the city where something was always "going on," of the markets, lighted by night with naphtha flares, stalls piled high with fruit and vegetables, old clothes and "anything you could think of," and all the costers shouting in their inimitable way. "One of these days I'll take you there and you can see for yourself."

Polly was the only one among us who had little respect for Lady Harriet.

"Who's she when she's out?" she would demand. "No different from the rest of us. All she's got is a handle to her name."

She was fearless. No meek curtsey from Polly. She would not cower against the hedge while the carriage drove past. She would grasp my hand firmly and march on resolutely, looking neither to the right nor the left.

Polly had a sister, who lived in London with her husband. "Poor Eff," Polly would say. "He's not much cop." I never heard Polly refer to him as anything but He or Him. It seemed that he was unworthy of a name. He was lazy and left everything for Eff to do. "I said to her the day she got engaged to him: 'You'll sup sorrow with a long spoon if you take that one, Eff.' But did she take a bit of notice of me?"

I would shake my head solemnly, because I had heard it before and knew the answer.

So in the early days Polly was the centre of my life. Her urban attitudes set her aside from us rural folk. Polly had a way of folding her arms and taking a bellicose stance if anyone showed signs of attacking her. It made her a formidable adversary. She used to say she would "take nothing from nobody" and when I pointed out, having been initiated into the intricacies of English grammar by my governess, Miss York, that two negatives made an affirmative, she merely said: "Here, are you getting at me?"

I loved Polly dearly. She was my ally, mine entirely; she and I stood together against Lady Harriet and the world.

We occupied the top rooms of the rectory. My room was next to hers; it had been from the day she had come and we never wanted to change it. It gave me a nice cosy feeling to have her so close. There was one other room on the attic floor. Here Polly would build up a nice cosy fire and in the winter we would make toast and bake chestnuts. I would stare into the flames while Polly told me stories from London life. I could see the market stalls and Eff and Him, and the little place where Polly had lived with her sailor husband. I saw Polly waiting for him to come home on leave with his baggy trousers and little white hat with H.M.S. Triumphant on it and his white bundle on his shoulder. Her voice would quaver a little when she told me of how he had gone down with his ship.

"Nothing left," she said. "No little 'un to remind me of him." I pointed out to her that if she had had a little 'un she wouldn't have wanted me, so I was glad.

There would be tears in her eyes which made her say briskly: "Here. Look at me. You trying to make me soft in me old age?"

But she hugged me just the same.