The Borrowers AfieldMary Norton
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
Books by Mary Norton
Copyright © 1955 by Mary Norton
Copyright renewed 1983 by Mary Norton
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First Harcourt Young Classics edition 1998
First Odyssey Classics edition 1990
First published 1955
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The Borrowers afield/Mary Norton; illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush.
"An Odyssey/Harcourt Young Classic."
Sequel to: The Borrowers.
Summary: The further adventures of the family of miniature people
who, after losing their home under the kitchen floor of an old
English house, are forced to move out to the fields.
[1. Fantasy.] I. Krush, Beth, ill. II. Krush, Joe, ill. III. Title.
PZ7.N8248Bi 1986 [Fic] 86-4741
ISBN 0-15-210166-7 ISBN 0-15-204732-8 (pb)
Printed in the United States of America
BB DD FF GG EE CC
C E G H F D (pb)
"What has been, may be."
First recorded eclipse of the moon, 721 B.C.
[Extract from Arrietty's Diary and
Proverb Book, March 19th]
IT WAS KATE who, long after she was grown up, completed the story of the borrowers. She wrote it all out, many years later, for her four children, and compiled it as you compile a case-history or a biographical novel from all kinds of evidence—things she remembered, things she had been told and one or two things, we had better confess it, at which she just guessed. The most remarkable piece of evidence was a miniature Victorian notebook with gilt-edged pages, discovered by Kate in a game-keeper's cottage on the Studdington estate near Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire.
Old Tom Goodenough, the game-keeper, had never wanted the story put in writing but as he had been dead now for so many years and as Kate's children were so very much alive, she thought perhaps that wherever he might be (and with a name like Goodenough it was bound to be Heaven) he would have overcome this kind of prejudice and would by now, perhaps, forgive her and understand. Anyway, Kate, after some thought, decided to take the risk.
When Kate had been a child herself and was living with her parents in London, an old lady shared their home (she was, I think, some kind of relation): her name was Mrs. May. And it was Mrs. May, on those long winter evenings beside the fire when she was teaching Kate to crochet, who had first told Kate about the borrowers.
At the time, Kate never doubted their existence—a race of tiny creatures, as like to humans as makes no matter, who live their secret lives under the floors and behind the wainscots of certain quiet old houses. It was only later that she began to wonder (and how wrong she was she very soon found out: there were still to be, had she only known it, developments more unlooked for and extraordinary than any Mrs. May had dreamed of).
The original story had smacked a little of hearsay: Mrs. May admitted—in fact, had been at some pains to convince Kate—that she, Mrs. May, had never actually seen a borrower herself; any knowledge of such beings she had gained at second-hand from her younger brother, who, she admitted, was a little boy with not only a vivid imagination but well known to be a tease. So there you were, Kate decided—thinking it over afterwards—you could take it or leave it.
And, truth to tell, in the year or so which followed she tended rather to leave it: the story of the borrowers became pushed away in the back of Kate's mind with other childish fantasies. During this year she changed her school, made new friends, acquired a dog, took up skating and learned to ride a bicycle. And there was no thought of borrowers in Kate's mind (nor did she notice the undercurrent of excitement in Mrs. May's usually calm voice) when, one morning at breakfast in early spring, Mrs. May passed a letter across the table, saying, "This will interest you, Kate, I think."
It didn't interest Kate a bit (she was about eleven years old at the time): she read it through twice in a bewildered kind of way but could make neither head nor tail of it. It was a lawyer's letter from a firm called Jobson, Thring, Beguid and Beguid. Not only was it full of long words like "beneficiary" and "disentailment" but even the medium-sized words were arranged in such a manner that, to Kate, they made no sense at all. (What for instance could "vacant possession" mean? However much you thought about it, it could only describe a state of affairs which was manifestly quite impossible.) Names there were in plenty—Studdington, Goodenough, Amberforce, Pocklinton—and quite a family of people who spelled their name "deceased" with a small "d."
"Thank you very much," Kate had said politely, passing it back.
"I thought, perhaps," said Mrs. May (and her cheeks, Kate noticed, seemed slightly flushed as though with shyness), "you might like to go down with me."
"Go down where?" asked Kate, in her vaguest manner.
"My dear Kate," exclaimed Mrs. May, "what was the point of showing you the letter? To Leighton Buzzard, of course."
Leighton Buzzard? Years afterwards, when Kate described this scene to her children, she would tell them how, at these words, her heart began to thump long before her mind took in their meaning. Leighton Buzzard ... she knew the name, of course: the name of an English country town ... somewhere in Bedfordshire, wasn't it?
"Where Great Aunt Sophy's house was," said Mrs. May, prompting her. "Where my brother used to say he saw the borrowers." And before Kate could get back her breath she went on, in a matter-of-fact voice, "I have been left a little cottage, part of the Studdington estate, and"—her color deepened as though what she was about to say now might sound slightly incredible—"three hundred and fifty-five pounds. Enough," she added, in happy wonderment, "to do it up."
Kate was silent. She stared at Mrs. May, her clasped hands pressed against her middle as though to still the beating of her heart.
"Could we see the house?" she said at last, a kind of croak in her voice.
"Of course, that's why we're going."
"I mean the big house, Aunt Sophy's house?"
"Oh, that house? Firbank Hall, it was called." Mrs. May seemed a little taken aback. "I don't know. We could ask, perhaps; it depends of course on whoever is living there now."
"I mean," Kate went on, with controlled eagerness, "even if we couldn't go inside, you could show me the grating, and Arrietty's bank; and even if they opened the front door only ever so little, you could show
me where the clock was. You could kind of point with your finger, quickly—" And, as Mrs. May still seemed to hesitate, Kate added suddenly on a note of anguish, "You did believe in them, didn't you? Or was it"—her voice faltered—"only a story?"
"And what if it were only a story?" said Mrs. May quickly, "so long as it was a good story? Keep your sense of wonder, child, and don't be so literal. Anything we haven't experienced for ourselves sounds like a story. All we can ever do is sift the evidence."
Sift the evidence? There was, Kate realized, calming down a little, a fair amount of that. Even before Mrs. May had spoken of such creatures, Kate had suspected their existence. How else to explain the steady, but inexplicable, disappearance of certain small objects about the house?
Not only safety pins, needles, pencils, blotting paper, match-boxes and those sorts of things. But, even in Kate's short life, she had noticed that if you did not use a drawer for any length of time you would never find it quite as you had left it: something was always missing—your best handkerchief, your only bodkin, your carnelian heart, your lucky sixpence. "But I know I put it in this drawer"—how often had she said these words herself, and how often had she heard them said? As for attics—! "I am absolutely certain," Kate's mother had wailed only last week, on her knees before an open trunk searching vainly for a pair of shoe buckles, "that I put them in this box with the ostrich-fan. They were wrapped in a piece of black wadding and I slipped them here, just below the handle...." And the same thing with writing-desks, sewing baskets, button-boxes. There was never as much tea next day as you had seen in the caddy the evening before. Nor rice, for that matter, nor lump sugar. Yes, Kate decided, there was evidence, if only she knew how to sift it.
"I suppose," she remarked thoughtfully, as she began to fold up her napkin, "some houses are more apt to have them than others."
"Some houses," said Mrs. May, "do not have them at all. And according to my brother," she went on, "it's the tidier houses, oddly enough, which attract them most. Borrowers, he used to say, are nervous people; they must know where things are kept and what each human being is likely to be doing at any hour of the day. In untidy, noisy, badly-run houses, oddly enough, you can leave your belongings about with impunity—as far as borrowers are concerned, I mean." And she gave a short laugh.
"Could borrowers live out of doors?" asked Kate suddenly.
"Not easily, no," said Mrs. May. "They need human beings; they live by the same things human beings live by."
"I was thinking," went on Kate, "about Pod and Homily and little Arrietty. I mean—when they were smoked out from under the floor, how do you think they managed?"
"I often wonder," said Mrs. May.
"Do you think," asked Kate, "that Arrietty did become the last living borrower? Like your brother said she would?"
"Yes, he said that, didn't he—the last of her race? I sincerely hope not. It was unkind of him," Mrs. May added reflectively.
"I wonder, though, how they got across those fields? Do you think they ever did find the badger's set?"
"We can't tell. I told you about the pillow case incident—when I took all the doll-house furniture up there in a pillow case?"
"And you smelled something cooking? But that doesn't say our family ever got there—Pod and Homily and Arrietty. The cousins lived in the badger's set too, didn't they—the Hendrearys? It might have been their cooking."
"It might, of course," said Mrs. May.
Kate was silent awhile, lost in reflection; suddenly her whole face lit up and she swiveled round in her chair.
"If we do go—" she cried (and there was an awed look in her eyes as though vouchsafed by some glorious vision), "where shall we stay? In an INN?"
"Without pains, no gains."
British Residency at Manipur attacked 1891
[Extract from Arrietty's Diary and
Proverb Book, March 24th]
BUT NOTHING turns out in fact as you have pictured it; the "inn" was a case in point—and so, alas, was Great Aunt Sophy's house. Neither of these, to Kate, were at all as they should be.
An inn, of course, was a place you came to at night (not at three o'clock in the afternoon), preferably a rainy night—wind, too, if it could be managed; and it should be situated on a moor ("bleak," Kate knew, was the adjective here). And there should be scullions; mine host should be gravy-stained and broad in the beam with a tousled apron pulled across his stomach; and there should be a tall, dark stranger—the one who speaks to nobody—warming thin hands before the fire. And the fire should be a fire—crackling and blazing, laid with an impossible size log and roaring its great heart out up the chimney. And there should be some sort of cauldron, Kate felt, somewhere about—and, perhaps, a couple of mastiffs thrown in for good measure.
But here were none of these things: there was a quiet-voiced young woman in a white blouse who signed them in at the desk; there was a waitress called Maureen (blonde) and one called Margaret (mousey, with pebble glasses) and an elderly waiter, the back part of whose hair did not at all match the front; the fire was not made out of logs but of bored-looking coals tirelessly licked by an abject electric flicker; and (worst of all) standing in front of it, instead of a tall, dark stranger, was Mr. Beguid, the lawyer (pronounced "Be good")—plump, pink but curiously cool-looking, with silvery hair and a steel-gray eye.
But outside Kate saw the bright spring sunshine and she liked her bedroom with its view over the market-place, its tall mahogany wardrobe and its constant hot and cold water coming from taps marked H and C. And she knew that tomorrow they would see the house—this legendary, mysterious house which now so surprisingly had become real, built no longer of airy fantasy but, she gathered, of solid bricks and mortar, standing firmly in its own grounds two miles along the road. Close enough, Kate realized, if only Mrs. May had not talked so much with Mr. Beguid, for them to have walked there after tea.
But when, next morning, they did walk there (Mrs. May in her long, slightly deer-stalker-looking coat and with her rubber-tipped walking stick made of cherry wood), Kate was disappointed. The house looked nothing at all like she had imagined it. A barrack of red brick, it appeared to her, with rows of shining windows staring blankly through her, as though they were blind.
"They've taken the creeper down," said Mrs. May (she too sounded a little surprised), but after a moment, as they stood there at the head of the drive, she rallied slightly and added on a brisker note, "And quite right too—there's nothing like creeper for damaging brick work," and, as they began to walk on down the driveway, she went on to explain to Kate that this house had always been considered a particularly pure example of early Georgian architecture.
"Was it really here?" Kate kept asking in an incredulous voice as though Mrs. May might have forgotten.
"Of course, my dear, don't be so silly. This is where the apple tree was, the russet apple by the gate ... and the third window on the left, the one with bars across, used to be my bedroom the last few times I slept here. The night-nursery of course looks out over the back. And there's the kitchen garden. We used to jump off that wall, my brother and I, and on to the compost heap. Ten feet high, it's supposed to be—I remember one day Crampfurl scolding us and measuring it with his besom."
(Crampfurl? So there had been such a person....)
The front door stood open (as it must have stood, Kate realized suddenly, years ago on that never-to-be-forgotten day for Arrietty when she first saw the "great out-doors") and the early spring sunshine poured across the newly-whitened step, into the high dark hall beyond; it made a curtain of light through which it was hard to see. Beside the step, Kate noticed, was an iron shoe-scraper. Was this the one down which Arrietty had climbed? Her heart began to beat a little faster, "Where's the grating?" she whispered, as Mrs. May pulled the bell. They heard it jangle far off in the dim distance, miles away it seemed.
"The grating?" said Mrs. May, stepping backwards on the gravel path and looking along the house fron
t. "There," she pointed out, with a slight nod—keeping her voice low. "It's been repaired but it's the same one."
Kate wandered toward it: yes, there it was, the actual grating through which they had escaped—Pod, Homily and little Arrietty; there was the greenish stain and a few bricks which looked newer than the others. It stood higher than she had imagined; they must have had a bit of a jump to get down. Going up to it, she stooped, trying to see inside; dank darkness, that was all. So this had been their home....
"Kate!" called Mrs. May softly, from beside the doorstep (as Pod must have called that day to Arrietty, when she ran off down the path) and Kate, turning, saw suddenly a sight she recognized, something which at last was as she had imagined it—the primrose bank. Tender, blue-green blades among the faded winter grasses—sown, spattered, almost drenched, they seemed, with palest gold. And the azalea bush, Kate saw, had become a tree.
After a moment, Mrs. May called again and Kate came back to the front door. "We'd better ring again," she said, and once more they heard the ghostly jangle. "It rings near the kitchen," explained Mrs. May, in a whisper, "just beyond the green baize door."
At last they saw a figure through the sunbeams; it was a slatternly girl in a wet, sack-cloth apron, her bare feet in run-down sandals.
"Yes?" she said, staring at them and frowning against the sun.
Mrs. May stiffened. "I wonder," she said, "if I could see the owner of the house?"
"You mean Mr. Dawsett-Poole?" said the girl, "or the headmaster?" She raised her forearm, shading her eyes, a wet floor cloth, dripping slightly, clasped in a grimy hand.
"Oh," exclaimed Mrs. May. "Is it a school?" Kate caught her breath—that, then, explained the barrack-y appearance.
"Well, it always has been, hasn't it?" said the girl.
"No," replied Mrs. May, "not always. When I was a child I used to stay here. Perhaps, then, I might speak to whoever is in charge?"
"There's only my mum," said the girl. "She's the caretaker. They're all away over Easter—the masters and that."