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The Borrowers Afloat

Mary Norton

  The Borrowers Afloat

  Mary Norton

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  Text copyright © 1959 by Mary Norton

  Copyright renewed 1981 by Mary Norton

  Illustrations copyright © 1959 by Beth and Joe Krush

  Copyright renewed 1981 by Beth and Joe Krush

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced

  or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,

  including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval

  system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

  Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be

  mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,

  6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

  First Harcourt Young Classics edition 1998

  First Odyssey Classics edition 1990

  First published 1959

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Norton, Mary.

  The Borrowers afloat/Mary Norton; illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush.

  p. cm.

  "An Odyssey/Harcourt Young Classic."

  Sequel to "The Borrowers afield."

  Summary: The Borrowers, a family of miniature people, journey down

  a drain, live briefly in a teakettle, and are swept away in a flood

  before finding a new home.

  [1. Fantasy.] I. Krush, Beth, ill. II. Krush, Joe, ill. III. Title.

  PZ7.N8248BI 1986 [Fic] 86-4613

  ISBN 0-15-210345-1 ISBN 0-15-204133-6 (pb)

  Printed in the United States of America


  C E G H F D (pb)

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  For Peter and Caroline

  Chapter One

  "But what do they talk about?" asked Mr. Beguid, the lawyer. He spoke almost irritably, as of foolish goings-on.

  "They talk about the borrowers," said Mrs. May.

  They stood beneath the shelter of the hedge among wet, treelike cabbages, which tumbled in the wind. Below them on this dark, dank afternoon, a lamp glowed warmly through the cottage window. "We could have an orchard here," she added lightly, as though to change the subject.

  "At our time of life," remarked Mr. Beguid, gazing still at the lighted window below them in the hollow, "yours and mine—it's wiser to plant flowers than fruit..."

  "You think so?" said Mrs. May. She drew her ulster cape about her against the eddying wind. "But I'll leave her the cottage, you see, in my will."

  "Leave whom the cottage?"

  "Kate, my niece."

  "I see," said Mr. Beguid, and he glanced again toward the lighted window behind which he knew Kate was sitring: a strange child, he thought; disconcerting—the way she gazed through one with wide unseeing eyes and yet would chatter by the hour with old Tom Goodenough, a rascally one-time gamekeeper. What could they have in common, he asked himself, this sly old man and eager, listening child? There they had been now (he glanced at his watch) for a good hour and a quarter, hunched by the window, talking, talking...

  "Borrowers..." he repeated, as though troubled by the word. "What kind of borrowers?"

  "Oh, it's just a story," said Mrs. May lightly, picking her way amongst the rain-drenched cabbages toward the raised brick path, "something we used to tell each other, my brother and I, when we stayed down here as children."

  "At Firbank Hall, you mean?"

  "Yes, with Great-Aunt Sophy. Kate loves this story."

  "But why," asked Mr. Beguid, "should she want to tell it to him?"

  "To old Tom? Why not? As a matter of fact, I believe it's the other way round: I believe he tells it to her."

  As he followed Mrs. May along the worn brick path, Mr. Beguid became silent. He had known this family most of his life, and a strange lot (he had begun to think lately) they were.

  "But a story made up by you?"

  "Not by me, no—" Mrs. May laughed as though embarrassed. "It was my brother, I think, who made it up. If it was made up," she added suddenly, just above her breath.

  Mr. Beguid pounced on the words. "I don't quite follow you. This story you speak of, is it something that actually happened?"

  Mrs. May laughed. "Oh no, it couldn't have actually happened. Not possibly." She began to walk on again, adding over her shoulder, "It's just that this old man, this old Tom Goodenough, seems to know about these people."

  "What people? These cadgers?"

  "Not cadgers—borrowers..."

  "I see," said Mr. Beguid, who didn't see at all.

  "We called them that," and turning on the path, she waited for him to catch up with her. "Or rather they called themselves that—because they had nothing of their own at all. Even their names were borrowed. The family we knew—father, mother, and child—were called Pod, Homily and little Arrietty." As he came beside her, she smiled. "I think their names are rather charming."

  "Very," he said, a little too drily. And then, in spite of himself, he smiled back at her. Always, he remembered, there had been in her manner this air of gentle mockery; even as a young man, though attracted by her prettiness, he had found her disconcerting. "You haven't changed," he said.

  She at once became more serious. "But you can't deny that it was a strange old house?"

  "Old, yes. But no more strange than"—he looked down the slope—"than this cottage, say."

  Mrs. May laughed. "Ah, there Kate would agree with you! She finds this cottage quite as strange as we found Firbank, neither more nor less. You know, at Firbank, my brother and I—right from the very first—had this feeling that there were other people living in the house besides the human beings."

  "But—" exclaimed Mr. Beguid, exasperated, "there can be no such thing as 'people' other than human beings. The terms are synonymous."

  "Other personalities, then. Something far smaller than a human being but like them in essentials—a little larger-seeming in the head, perhaps, a little longer in the hands and feet. But very small and hidden. We imagined that they lived like mice—in the wainscots, or behind the skirtings, or under the floorboards—and were entirely dependent on what they could filch from the great house above. Yet you couldn't call it stealing: it was more a kind of garnering. On the whole, they only took things that could well be spared."

  "What sort of things?" asked Mr. Beguid. Suddenly feeling foolish, he sprang ahead of her to clear a trail of bramble from her path.

  "Oh, all sorts of things. Any kind of food, of course, and any other small movable objects which might be useful—matchboxes, pencil ends, needles, bits of stuff—anything they could turn into tools or clothes or furniture. It was rather sad for them, we thought, because they had a sort of longing for beauty and for making their dark little holes as charming and comfortable as the homes of human beings. My brother used to help them"—Mrs. May hesitated suddenly as though embarrassed—"or so he said," she concluded lamely, and she gave a little laugh.

  "I see," said Mr. Beguid again. He became silent as they skirted the side of the cottage to avoid the dripping thatch. "And where does Tom Goodenough come in?" he asked at last as she paused beside the water butt.

  She turned to face him. "Well, it's extraordinary, isn't it? At my age—nearly seventy—to inherit this cottage and find him still here in possession?"

  "Not in possession, exactly—he's the outgoing tenant."

; "I mean," said Mrs. May, "to find him here at all. In the old days, when they were boys, he and my brother used to go rabbiting—in a way they were great companions. But that all ended—after the rumpus."

  "Oh," said Mr. Beguid, "so there was a rumpus?" They stood together by the weatherworn front door, and intrigued against his wish, he withdrew his hand from the latch.

  "There most certainly was," exclaimed Mrs. May. "I should have thought you might have heard about it. Even the policeman was implicated—you remember Ernie Runacre? It must have gone all over the village. The cook and the gardener got wind of these creatures and determined to smoke them out. They got in the local ratcatcher and sent up here for Tom to bring his ferret. He was a boy then, the gamekeeper's grandson—a little older than we were, but still quite young. But"—Mrs. May turned suddenly toward him—"you must have heard something of this?"

  Mr. Beguid frowned. Past rumors stirred vaguely in his memory ... some nonsense or other at Firbank Hall; a cook with a name like Diver or Driver; things missing from the cabinet in the drawing room...

  "Wasn't there"—he said at last—"some trouble about an emerald watch?"

  "Yes, that's why they sent for the police."

  "But"—Mr. Beguid's frown deepened—"this woman, Diver or—"

  "Driver! Yes, that was the name."

  "And this gardener—you mean to say they believed in these creatures?"

  "Obviously," said Mrs. May, "or they would not have made all this fuss."

  "What happened?" asked Mr. Beguid. "Did they catch them? No, no—I don't mean that! What I meant to say is—what did they turn out to be? Mice, I suppose?"

  "I wasn't there myself at the time—so I can't say 'what they turned out to be.' But according to my brother, they escaped out of doors through a grating just in the nick of time: one of those ventilator things set low down in the brickwork outside. They ran away across the orchard and"—she looked around her in the half light—"up into these fields."

  "Were they seen to go?"

  "No," said Mrs. May.

  Mr. Beguid glanced swiftly down the mist-enshrouded slopes. Against the pallid fields the woods beyond looked dark—already wrapped in twilight.

  "Squirrels," he said, "that's what they were, most likely."

  "Possibly," said Mrs. May. She moved away from him to where, beside the washhouse, the workmen that morning had opened up a drain. "Wouldn't this be wide enough to take sewage?"

  "Wide enough, yes," said Mr. Beguid, "but the sanitary inspector would never allow it: all these drains flow into the stream. No, you'll have to have a septic tank, I'm afraid."

  "Then what was this used for?"

  He nodded toward the washhouse. "The overflow from the sink." He glanced at his watch. "Could I give you a lift anywhere? It's getting rather late..."

  "That's very kind of you," said Mrs. May as they moved toward the front door.

  "An odd story," remarked Mr. Beguid, putting his hand to the latch.

  "Yes, very odd."

  "I mean—to go to the lengths of sending for the police. Extraordinary."

  "Yes," agreed Mrs. May, and paused to wipe her feet on a piece of torn sacking that lay beside the step.

  Mr. Beguid glanced at his own shoes and followed her example. "Your brother must have been very convincing."

  "Yes, he was."

  "And very inventive."

  "Yes, according to my brother there was quite a colony of these people. He talked about another lot, cousins of the ones at Firbank, who were supposed to live in a badger's set—up here on the edge of these woods. Uncle Hendreary and Aunt Lupy..." She looked at him sideways. "This lot had four children."

  "According to your brother," remarked Mr. Beguid, as he reached again for the latch.

  "And according to old Tom—" She laughed and lowered her voice. "Old Tom swears that the story is true. But he contends that they did not live in the badger's set at all; or that, if they did, it could not have been for long. He insists that for years and years they lived up here, in the lath and plaster beside the fireplace."

  "Which fireplace?" asked Mr. Beguid uneasily.

  "This fireplace," said Mrs. May. As the door swung open, she dropped her voice to a whisper. "Here in this very cottage."

  "Here in this very cottage..." repeated Mr. Beguid in a startled voice, and standing aside for Mrs. May to pass, he craned his neck forward to peer within, without advancing across the threshold.

  The quiet room seemed empty: all they could see at first was yellow lamplight spilling across the flagstones and dying embers in the grate. By the window stood a stack of hazel wands, split and trimmed for thatching, beyond them a wooden armchair. Then Kate emerged rather suddenly from the shadows beside the fireplace. "Hullo," she said.

  She seemed about to say more, but her gaze slid past Mrs. May to where Mr. Beguid hovered in the doorway. "I was looking up the chimney," she explained.

  "So I see—your face is black!"

  "Is it?" said Kate, without interest. Her eyes looked very bright and she seemed to be waiting—either, thought Mrs. May, for Mr. Beguid to shut the door and come in or for Mr. Beguid to shut the door and depart.

  Mrs. May glanced at the empty armchair and then past Kate toward the door of the washhouse. "Where's Tom?"

  "Gone out to feed the pig," said Kate. Again she hesitated, then, in a burst, she added, "Need we go yet? It's only a step across the fields, and there's something I terribly want to show you—"

  Mr. Beguid glanced at his watch. "Well, in that case—" he began.

  "Yes, please don't wait for us," interrupted Mrs. May impulsively. "As Kate says, it's only a step..."

  "I was only going to say," continued Mr. Beguid stolidly from his neutral position on the threshold, "that as this lane's so narrow and the ditches so full of mud, I propose to drive on ahead and turn the car at the crossroads." He began to button up his overcoat. "Perhaps you would listen for the horn?"

  "Yes, yes, indeed. Thank you ... of course. We'll be listening..."

  When the front door had closed and Mr. Beguid had gone, Kate took Mrs. May by the hand and drew her urgently toward the fireplace. "And I've heaps to tell you. Heaps and heaps..."

  "We weren't rude, were we?" asked Mrs. May. "I mean to Mr. Beguid? We didn't shoo him off?"

  "No, no, of course not. You thanked him beautifully. But look—" Kate went on. "Please look!" Loosing Mrs. May's hand, she ran forward and—with much tugging and panting—dragged out the log box from where it was jammed against the wall beside the hearth. A rat hole was revealed in the skirting—slightly Gothic in shape. "That's where they lived—" cried Kate.

  Mrs. May, in spite of herself, felt a curious sense of shock; staring down at it, she said uneasily, "We mustn't be too credulous, Kate. I mean, we can't believe quite everything we hear. And you know what they say about old Tom?"

  "In the village? Yes, I know what they say—'the biggest liar in five counties.' But all that started because of the borrowers. At first, you see, he used to talk about them. And that was his mistake. He thought people would be interested. But they weren't interested—not at all: they just didn't believe him." Kate knelt down on the hearth, and breathing rather heavily, she peered into the darkness of the hole. "There was only one other human being, I think, who really believed in the borrowers...."

  "Mrs. Driver, you mean, the cook at Firbank?"

  Kate frowned, sitting back on her heels. "No, I don't really think that Mrs. Driver did believe in them. She saw them, I know, but I don't think she trusted her eyes. No, the one I was thinking of was Mild Eye, the gypsy. I mean, he actually shook them out of his boot onto the floor of his caravan. And there they were—right under his nose—and no two ways about it. He tried to grab them, Tom says, but they got away. He wanted to put them in a cage and show them for pennies at the fair. It was Tom who rescued them. With the help of Spiller, of course."

  "Who was Spiller?" asked Mrs. May—she still stared, as though spellbound, at the r
at hole. Kate seemed amazed. "You haven't heard of Spiller?"

  "No," said Mrs. May.

  "Oh," cried Kate, throwing her head back and half closing her eyes, "Spiller was wonderful!"

  "I am sure he was," said Mrs. May. She pulled forward a rush-seated chair and rather stiffly sat down on it. "But you and Tom have been talking for days, remember.... I'm a little out of touch. What was Spiller supposed to be—a borrower?"

  "He was a borrower," corrected Kate, "but rather on the wild side—he lived in the hedgerows, and wore old moleskins, and didn't really wash...."

  "He doesn't sound so tremendously wonderful."

  "Oh, but he was: Spiller ran for Tom and Tom rushed down and rescued them; he snatched them up from under the gypsies' noses and pushed them into his pockets; he brought them up here—all four of them—Spiller, Pod, Homily, and Arrietty. And he set them down very carefully, one by one"—Kate patted the warm flagstones—"here, on this very spot. And then, poor things, they ran away into the wall through that rat hole in the skirting"—Kate lowered her head again, trying to peer in—"and up a tiny ladder just inside to where the cousins were living...." She scrambled up suddenly and, stretching one arm as far as it would go, she tapped on the plaster beside the chimney. "The cousins' house was somewhere up here. Quite high. Two floors they had—between the lath and plaster of the washhouse wall and the lath and plaster of this one. They used the chimney, Tom says, and they tapped the washhouse pipes for water. Arrietty didn't like it up there: she used to creep down in the evenings and talk to young Tom. But our lot did not stay there long. Something happened, you see—"

  "Tell me," said Mrs. May.

  "Well, there isn't really time now. Mr. Beguid will start hooting.... And old Tom's the one to tell it: he seems to know everything—even what they said and did when no one else was there...."

  "He's a born storyteller, that's why," said Mrs. May, laughing. "And he knows people. Given a struggle for life, people react very much alike—according to type, of course—whatever their size or station." Mrs. May leaned forward as though to examine the skirting. "Even I," she said, "can imagine what Homily felt, homeless and destitute, faced with that dusty hole.... And strange relations living up above who didn't know she was coming and whom she hadn't seen for years..."