Victoria Holt

Time of the Hunter's Moon

The Forest Fantasy

I WAS nineteen when what I came to think of as the Forest Fantasy occurred. Looking back it used to seem mystic, like something which happened in a dream. Indeed there were many times when I almost convinced myself that it had not happened outside my imagination. Yet from an early age I had been a realist, a practical person, not given overmuch to dreaming; but at that time I was inexperienced, not really out of the schoolroom and only in the last stages of my prolonged girlhood.

It happened one late October afternoon in woods in Switzerland not far from the German border. I was in my last year at one of the most exclusive schools in Europe to which Aunt Patty had decided I must go to "finish me off" as she put it.

"Two years should do it," she said. "It's not so much what it does for you, but what people believe it to have done. If parents know that one of us went through the polishing process at Schaffenbrucken they will be determined to send their girls to us."

Aunt Patty was the proprietress of a school for girls, and the plan was that when I was ready I should join in the enterprise. Consequently I must have the very best of qualifications to fit me for the task and the additional polish was intended to make me irresistible bait for those parents who wanted their daughters to share in the reflected glow which came from that glory which was Schaffenbrucken.

"Snobbery," said Aunt Patty. "Sheer unadulterated snobbery. But who are we to complain if it helps to keep Patience Grant's exclusive Academy for Young Ladies a profitable concern?"

Aunt Patty was rather like a barrel to look at, being short and very plump. "I like my food," she used to say, "so why shouldn't I enjoy it. I believe it to be the bounden duty of everyone on Earth to enjoy the good things which the Lord has bestowed on us, and when roast beef and chocolate pudding were invented they were made to be eaten."

The food was very good at Patience Grant's Academy for Young Ladies-very different I believed from that which was served in many similar establishments.

Aunt Patty was unmarried "for the simple reason," she would say, "that nobody ever asked me. Whether I should have accepted is another matter but, as the problem never presented itself, neither I nor anyone else need be concerned with it.

She enlarged on the subject to me. "I was on the shelf from the nursery," she said. "I was the perennial wallflower of the bail. Mind you, I could climb a tree in those days before I was so incommoded by avoirdupois, and if any boy dared pull my pigtails he had to move fast to avoid battle, from which, my dear Cordelia, I invariably emerged the victor."

I could believe it, and I often thought how stupid men were because none of them had had the good sense to ask Aunt Patty to marry him. She would have made an excellent wife; as it was she made me an excellent mother.

My parents were missionaries in Africa. They were dedicated-saints, they were called; but like so many saints they were so concerned with bringing good into the world at large that they did not seem to care so very much for the problems of their small daughter. I can only vaguely remember them - for I was just seven years old when I was sent home to England - looking at me sometimes, faces shining with zeal and virtue, as though they were not quite sure who I was. I wondered later how in their lives of good deeds they had ever found the time or inclination to beget me.

However-it must have been to their immense relief- it was decided that life in the African jungle was no place for a child. I should be sent home, and to whom should I be sent but to my father's sister Patience.

I was taken home by someone from the mission who was travelling back for a short stay. The long journey seems very vague to me but what I shall always remember was the rotund figure of Aunt Patty waiting for me when I disembarked. Her hat caught my attention first of all for it was a glorious affair with a blue feather perched on the top. Aunt Patty had a weakness for hats which almost rivalled that of food. Sometimes she even wore them indoors. And there she was-her eyes magnified behind pebble glasses, her face like a full moon shining with soap and water and joie de vivre under that magnificent hat with the feather wobbling as she took me to her enormous lavender-scented bosom.

"Well, here you are," she said. "Alan's girl... come home."

And in those first moments she convinced me that I had.

It must have been about two years after my arrival when my father died of dysentery, and my mother a few weeks later of the same disease.

Aunt Patty showed me the paragraphs in the religious papers. "They gave their lives in God's service," it was said.

I am afraid I did not grieve very much. I had forgotten their existence and only remembered them very rarely. I was completely absorbed in the life of Grantley Manor, the old Elizabethan house which Aunt Patty had bought with what she called her patrimony two years before I was born.

We had great conversations-she and I. She never seemed to hold anything back. Afterwards I often reflected that most people seem to have secrets in their lives. It was never like that with Aunt Patty. Words flowed from her and there was never any restraint.

"When I was away at school," she said, "I had lots of fun but never enough to eat. They watered down the broth. Soup, they called it on Monday.

That wasn't bad. A little weaker on Tuesday, getting so feeble on Wednesday that I used to wonder how much longer it could totter on before it was revealed as plain H2O. The bread always seemed stale. I think that school made me into the gourmand I am for I vowed when I left it I would indulge and indulge. If I had a school, I said to myself, it should be different. Then when I came into money I said, `Why not? "It's a gamble,' said old Lucas. He was the solicitor. `What of it?' I said. `I like a gamble.' And the more he was against it the more I was for it. I am a little like that. Tell me `No, you can't' and as sure as I'm sitting here I'll soon be saying, `Oh yes you can.' So I found the Manor ... going cheap with things having to be done to it. Just the place for a school. I called it Grantley Manor. Grant, you see, A little bit of the old snobbery creeping in. Miss Grant of Grantley. Well, you would think she had been living there all through the centuries, wouldn't you? And you wouldn't ask; you'd just think it. Good for the girls that is. I planned to make Patience Grant's Academy into the most exclusive establishment in the country, like that place Schaffenbrucken in Switzerland."

That was the first time I had heard of Schaffenbrucken.

She explained to me. "It is all very carefully thought out. Schaffenbrucken selects its pupils with care so that it is not easy to get in. `I'm afraid we have no room for your Amelia, Madame Smith. Try again next term. Who knows you might be lucky. We are full up now and have a waiting list.' A waiting list! That is the most magic phrase in the vocabulary of a school proprietress. It is what we all hope to achieve ... people fighting to thrust their daughters into your school, not as the case usually is with your trying to wheedle them into doing so."

"Schaffenbrucken is expensive," she said on another occasion, "but I think it is worth every penny. You can learn French and German from the people who speak it as it should be spoken because it's their own language; you can learn how to dance and curtsey and walk round a room with a book balanced on your head. Yes, you say. You can learn that at thousands of schools. True, but you won't be seen as you will be if you have the Schaffenbrucken glow on you."

Her conversation was always punctuated by laughter.

"So it is a little Schaffenbrucken bloom for you, my dear," she said. "Then you will come back here and when we let it be known where you have been, mothers will be fighting to send their daughters to us. `Miss Cordelia Grant is in charge of deportment. She was at Schaffenbrucken, you know.' Oh, my dear, we shall be telling them we have a waiting list of young ladies clamouring to be coached in the social niceties by Miss Cordelia Grant of Schaffenbrucken fame."

"One day," she said, "this school will be yours Cordelia."

I knew she meant when she died and I could not imagine a world without her. She was the centre of my life with her shining face, her spurts of laughter, her racy conversation, her excessive appetite and her hats.

And when I was seventeen she said it was time I went to Schaffenbrucken.

Once again I was put in the charge of travellers - this time three ladies who were going to Switzerland. At Basle I should be met by someone from the school who would conduct me the rest of the way. The journey was interesting and I recalled the long voyage home from Africa. This was very different. I was older now; I knew where I was going; and I lacked that fearful apprehension of a very small girl on a journey to the unknown.

The ladies who conducted me across Europe were determined to look after me and it was with some relief, I imagined, that they handed me over to Frâulein Mainz who taught German at Schaffenbrucken. She was a middle-aged woman, rather colourless, who was glad to hear that I had learned a little German. She told me my accent was atrocious but that would be rectified; and she refused to speak anything but her native tongue for the rest of the journey.

She talked about the glories of Schaffenbrucken and how fortunate I was to be chosen to join this very select group of young ladies. It was the old Schaffenbrucken story and I thought Frâulein Mainz the most humourless person I had ever met. I suppose I was comparing her with Aunt Patty.