Grams looked radiant as they wheeled her into the sun room. She literally beamed joy, which made me feel a little guilty that I didn’t come see her more often. It was hard to believe that in a few short years she would be one hundred years old. It must have been contagious as I felt a surge of happiness. “Grams!” I exclaimed as I sprang toward her as if I were nine years old again.
“Oh, what a surprise. How is my favorite granddaughter?” Grams asked as We hugged and exchanged kisses on the cheeks. She looked up at her nurse and said, “Nicole, this is my granddaughter, Beth. We share the same name, ‘Elizabeth’, but she goes by ‘Beth’ while I’ve always been known as ‘Betty’. She and her husband, Bob, own the ranch now.” The nurse smiled and nodded.
“Grams, you look wonderful.” I said.
“Oh, I suppose I don’t look bad for an old English broad, eh? Nicole, could you bring us some tea and… What is the weather like outside?” She asked.
“It’s a bit nippy, but promises to warm up later today.” I replied.
“Good. Nicole, bring us tea and any of the scones left from this morning.” Said Grams.
“I will be happy to do so, ma’am.” Said Nicole.
“Oh, Nicole, if there aren’t any scones, any biscuit or cookie will do.”
Nicole laughed and asked “Even if all we have are vanilla wafers?”
“Yes!” Grams huffed. “I told her once than I thought vanilla wafers were only suitable for toddlers and then she found a box of them I had stashed in my room. I’ll never hear the end of it.” She tried to look deadly serious, but her eyes betrayed her.
“Oh, Grams,” I said while giggling, “you’re too funny.” We engaged in small talk. I inquired as to her health and care. She asked about Bob and the kids. Long ago, Grams and mother had insisted that it was absolutely taboo to discuss business before the tea had been poured. Grams was English by birth, but after marrying Gramps, Texas had been her home for nearly seventy years. Nicole soon appeared with the tea service. There were no scones, but a batch of biscuits made from scratch.
While Nicole poured the tea, I buttered two of the biscuits and asked Grams if she would like one of the jams on her biscuit. She asked, “Well, what brings my favorite granddaughter into town to see her old Grams? I think I will have a little of the grape jam on mine, if you don’t mind.”
“We’ve built a climate controlled storage facility at the ranch to store Gramp’s photos, those that aren’t on display at the Smithsonian, some of mom’s paintings, and your articles and journals.” I answered. Grams nodded approvingly as I picked up my purse and pulled out a small book. It was a very old diary with a brown leather cover cracked with age. “I found this among your journals and it’s not yours… it’s not your handwriting.”
Her eyes widened. “Ahh, I haven’t seen that for many, many years. Have you read it?” She asked.
“No,” I replied, “I thought it better to first find out what it was.”“I first saw that little book in 1942. It is a diary filled with the most unbelievable adventures written at the very beginning of the twentieth century. It was already quite old when it was given to me.”
The look in Grams’ eyes changed as she thought back over the years. “I was a young reporter then, just beginning, really, the Geographic Society sent me from London to Malaysia. They had found a ruined city that suggested the ancient Khmer empire had been much larger than previously thought. I never got to see the ruins. Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor, and almost overnight, the Japanese had swept across Southeast Asia. I and a few others were evacuated from Lumpur just hours before the city surrendered.”
“I knew you were in India during part of World War II, Grams, but I’ve never heard this story.” I said as I placed the small diary in her hands. She looked at it and continued.
“We were in a Short Sunderland flying boat, one of those planes that can take off and land in the water. They dropped us at the nearest safe port and then flew back to Singapore to rescue others, but we never saw them again. They had left us in a small port city, Mission St. Mary. There wasn’t a British embassy there, but there was a small legation office that helped us find lodging in what was called the ‘British quarter’ of the city. It would be nearly a month before a ship arrived to take us to India.”
“You were stranded there for a month? Where is Mission St. Mary, anyway?” I asked.
Grams smiled. “Why it is in Lemuria, that mystical place everyone seems to forget it exists. It wasn’t bad at all. They did have electricity and running water. And clubs and dancing. The most popular place was ‘Hank’s Intercontinental’ near the docks. It was at Hank’s one evening when the discussion turned to whether women should be allowed to fight in the war. There were tales of women in the ranks of the militias of the Spanish Civil War, as soldiers in Russia, and among partisans. In England, women were on anti-aircraft gun crews and they could do everything except actually fire the gun. I thought it was silly, but the men at our table all insisted that it was against a woman’s maternal instinct to pull a trigger and therefore women would never be suitable for combat. It may have been the gin talking, but I said ‘Poppycock, a woman can be every bit a soldier as a man and that someday English women would serve side by side with men.’, or something to that effect.“There was laughter and the conversation moved on. Reverend Duncan Thornton, the vicar of St. Mary, leaned toward me as he filled his pipe, ‘You may be interested to know, Miss Ralston, that English women may have already served in a fighting capacity.’ While he tamped the tobacco in his pipe, I pressed him for details. ‘What I know is very sketchy. Apparently, it occurred during the last years of the late queen’s rule right here. If you would like to know more, come to St. Mary’s, I think there are some things there that would interest you.’
“The treaty port was named for the church. Mission St. Mary was one of the first permanent structures built at the end of the eighteenth century. It was comforting to see a quaint English church so far from the devastation of war. The vicar was pleased to see me and escorted me into the churchyard to a grave covered with flowers. At the head of the grave was a simple but beautiful wooden cross engraved with ‘C. Matthews.’ There were other graves there with the same type of cross.
“The vicar knelt down and removed some of the flowers revealing divots dug out of the grave. ‘If Mission St. Mary were to have a patron saint, it would be her.’ he said. When I inquired as to who was buried there. He answered ‘Lieutenant Caroline Matthews.’ He went on to tell me that according to legend, the head of her adversary, Isuwannayu, was also buried there.”
“Wait a minute, Grams,” I interrupted, “do you mean there was the head of another person buried in her grave?”Grams smiled and continued, “Yes, the story is that Lieutenant Matthews was given the task to capture or kill the rebel, Isuwannayu, a powerful woman who sought to overthrow the king and set herself up as queen. The king was to display Isuwannayu’s head in his court, but women who served under Lt. Matthews stole the head and supposedly buried it with Lt. Matthews. The struggle between the two women had become legendary among the tribesmen of Nobelongga. After their deaths, a belief arose that dirt from the grave had magical powers of healing. The poor vicar spent a good part of his time keeping the gravesite repaired.”
“What an interesting story, how come no one has ever heard of it?” I asked.
“Several reasons, Beth.” Grams replied sadly. “First, the experiment of allowing women to serve in the military ended quickly with the death of Queen Victoria and there are no government records. The story takes place in Lemuria, a small island continent that most people don’t even know exists. The adventures for the most part are unbelievable, contact with prehistoric creatures, lost cities, and ancient races. And finally, an epic conflict between two women doesn’t interest readers, or should I say publishers.”
“But isn’t that why Reverend Thornton gave you the diary, to be published?” I asked wondering why Grams, a journalist, would keep such a story to herself.
“Perhaps… I think he was just as happy to be rid of it. The problem with publishing it as nonfiction, is that the facts can’t be substantiated, and to publish it as fiction does a disservice to the lives of the people in the diary. Here,” she said handing the diary back to me, “why don’t you read it and tell me what you think.”
We chatted more about family and after my visit with Grams, I drove back out to the ranch. A norther blew in that evening and it got cold. Bob was watching a game on TV, so I curled up on the sofa with the diary and began to read: “January 1st, 1900 – A new century, a new year, a new day. We have arrived at Mission St. Mary….”