It is very difficult to look as if you minded the death of a grandfather who, though you may have spent your holidays in his house, certainly seldom remembered that you did. It was like that with the Forbes family. Their mother had died when Holly, the youngest, was quite little. Before the war they had lived in Guernsey with their father. As soon as war was declared, their father, who had retired from the Navy to have time to bring his family up properly, rejoined the Navy, and the children were sent to England and given to their grandfather to look after.
Grandfather was a clergyman, vicar of a village called Martins. But Martins, though he did his duty by it, was far less important to him than a reference book he was writing on animals mentioned in the Bible. He was so absorbed in this reference book that when Sorrel, Mark and Holly first arrived at the vicarage all he said was, "There were four beasts." At the time Sorrel and her brother and sister, not knowing about the reference book, thought this both rude and inaccurate, but after a very little while they understood that he honestly did not realize they were there.
Holidays came and went and Sorrel and Mark and Holly scarcely ever saw their grandfather except in church. Sometimes they saw him on his bicycle going to visit somebody in the village, but mostly he was shut in his study. He even ate his meals there. Then, two years later, he spoke to them again. He told them about their father. This time he was not so much vague as buttoned-up-looking. It was as if he had fastened an extra skin around him as a covering against feeling miserable.
"The telegram says 'missing.' "
"Nothing about 'presumed drowned'?" Sorrel asked.
"Then he could easily be a prisoner in the hands of the Japanese," she persisted.
Grandfather looked at her. "Quite possibly," he said, and shut his study door.
Sorrel was just a little over twelve at that time. Mark was nine and a half and Holly eight and a quarter. The telegram talk had taken place in the hall. Mark swung on the banister.
"I bet he's a prisoner."
"If he's a prisoner or . . ." Sorrel broke off, she did not believe her father was drowned, so she was not going to say the word. "Whom do we belong to? Grandfather?"
Holly smelled something good cooking. "Let's ask Hannah."
Hannah was what made holidays with Grandfather bearable. She had been looking after him for years and years, and she treated him with a mixture of affection and rudeness, but never with respect.
"I give respect where respect is called for," she would say to Grandfather, "and it's not called for when you wear your suit so long you can see your face in it, and it's green rather than black. And it's not called for when, instead of taking an interest in decent Christian things, you get creating about eagles, lions and the like, which aren't what a person expects to hear about in a vicarage."
Hannah treated Grandfather as if he were a piece of furniture, flicking him over with a duster or a feather mop.
"Look at you, looking like something thrown away for salvage! Dust everywhere!"
Perhaps because she had always liked them, or perhaps because she had lived so long in a vicarage, Hannah was a great singer of hymns. All day long snatches of hymns came from her, often with bits that were not hymn stuck on and sung to the same tune or something like it.
"We plough the fields and scatter the good seed . . . drat the butcher, that's a wretched piece of meat!"
On the morning when Grandfather had his telegram Hannah was not singing. She knew what was in the telegram and she was very fond of Mr. Bill, as she called Sorrel's and Mark's and Holly's father. All the same, singing or not, she was comforting-looking. She was all curves: a round top piece which was pushed in a little in the middle, only to bulge out enormously down below. Her legs had great calves, which curved only slightly at the ankles before they became feet. She had a curving face finished off with a round bun of hair. Usually her face was red but that morning it was almost pale.
Sorrel looked at her and quite suddenly she began to cry, and when she cried the other two did too. Hannah knelt on the floor and made room for them all in her arms.
"Do you think he's drowned, Hannah?" Sorrel hiccuped.
Hannah hugged them all tighter. "Of course I don't. Nor does them at the top that sent that telegram. Gentlemen of few words they are in the Navy. If they mean drowned they say drowned, and if they mean missing they say missing. Why, we're used to your father being missing. We're always missing him."
After that the three felt better. Hannah said worrying made you cold inside and she gave them all cups of cocoa and, as if there were no such thing as rationing, two spoonfuls of sugar in each cup. While they were drinking their cocoa Sorrel asked Hannah what was going to happen to them. Hannah did not see at first what she was worrying about and when she did she gave a big laugh.
"You never thought your father didn't arrange for something like this, of course he did. You'll go on just the same until he comes back. You and Holly at Ferntree School for Girls, and Mark at Wilton House."
Mark frowned when he was puzzled. "But who pays for us if Daddy can't?"
"Who says your father can't? Of course he's provided for you and, as a matter of fact, your grandfather pays your school bills and always has."
Mark took a big swallow of cocoa. "Why?"
Hannah was cooking the lunch. She looked over her shoulder at him. "What a boy for questions! Your father lost money when the Germans took the Channel Islands, but your grandfather had enough so that was all right."
Copyright © 1994 by Noel Streatfeild. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.