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The Borrowers Afloat, Page 2

Mary Norton

  Chapter Two

  But Mrs. May was not quite right: she had underestimated their sudden sense of security—the natural joy a borrower feels when safely under cover. It is true that, as they filed in through the Gothic-shaped hole in the skirting, they had felt a little nervous, a little forlorn; this was because, at first glance, the cavelike space about them seemed disappointingly uninhabited: empty, dark and echoing, it smelled of dust and mice....

  "Oh, dear," Homily had muttered incredulously, "they can't live here!" But as her eyes became used to the dimness, she had stooped suddenly to pick up some object from the floor. "My goodness," she whispered excitedly to Pod, "do you know what this is?"

  "Yes," Pod had told her. "It's a bit of quill pipe-cleaner. Put it down, Homily, and come on, do. Spiller's waiting."

  "It's the spout of our old oak-apple teapot," Homily had persisted. "I'd know it anywhere and it's no good telling me any different. So they are here..." she mused wonderingly as she followed Pod into the shadows, "...and from somewhere, somehow, they've got hold of some of our things."

  "We go up here," said Spiller, and Homily saw that he stood with his hand on a ladder. Glancing up to where the rungs soared away above them into dimness, she gave a slight shudder. The ladder was made of matchsticks, neatly glued and spliced to two lengths of split cane such as florists use to support potted plants.

  "I'll go first," said Pod. "We better take it one at a time."

  Homily watched fearfully until she heard his voice from above.

  "It's all right," he whispered from some invisible eyrie. "Come on up."

  Homily followed, her knees trembling, and emerged at last onto the dim-lit platform beside Pod—an aerial landing stage, that was what it seemed like—which creaked a little when she stepped on it and almost seemed to sway. Below lay hollow darkness, ahead an open door. "Oh, my goodness," she muttered, "I do hope it's safe.... Don't look down," she advised Arrietty, who came up next.

  But Arrietty had no temptation to look down: her eyes were on the lighted doorway and the moving shadows within; she heard the faint sound of voices and a sudden high-pitched laugh.

  "Come on," said Spiller, slipping past and making toward the door.

  Arrietty never forgot her first sight of that upstairs room: the warmth, the sudden cleanliness, the winking candlelight, and the smell of home-cooked food.

  And so many voices ... so many people...

  Gradually, in a dazed way, she began to sort them out. That must be Aunt Lupy embracing her mother—Aunt Lupy so round and glowing, her mother so smudged and lean. Why did they cling and weep, she wondered, and squeeze each other's hands? They had never liked each other—all the world knew that. Homily had thought Lupy stuck-up because, back in the big house, Lupy had lived in the drawing room and (she had heard it rumored) changed for dinner at night. And Lupy despised Homily for living under the kitchen and for pronouncing parquet "parkett."

  And here was Uncle Hendreary, his beard grown thinner, telling her father that this could not be Arrietty, and her father, with pride, telling Uncle Hendreary it could. Those must be the three boy cousins—whose names she had not caught—graduated in size but as like as peas in a pod. And this thin, tall, fairylike creature, neither old nor young, who hovered shyly in the background with a faint uneasy smile, who was she? Could it be Eggletina? Yes, she supposed it could.

  And there was something strangely unreal about the room—furnished with dollhouse furniture of every shape and size, none of it matching or in proportion. There were chairs upholstered in rep or velvet, some of them too small to sit in and some too steep and large; there were chiffoniers that were too tall and occasional tables far too low; and a toy fireplace with colored plaster coals and its fire irons stuck down all-of-a-piece with the fender; there were two make-believe windows with curved pelmets and red satin curtains, each hand-painted with an imitation view—one looked out on a Swiss mountain scene, the other on a Highland glen ("Eggletina did them," Aunt Lupy boasted in her rich society voice. "We're going to have a third when we get the curtains—a view of Lake Como from Monte'S. Primo"); there were table lamps and standard lamps, flounced, festooned, and tasseled, but the light in the room, Arrietty noticed, came from humble dips like those they had made at home.

  Everybody looked extraordinarily clean, and Arrietty became even shier. She threw a quick glance at her father and mother and was not reassured: none of their clothes had been washed for weeks nor, for some days, had their hands and faces. Pod's trousers had a tear in one knee and Homily's hair hung down in snakes. And here was Aunt Lupy, plump and polite, begging Homily please to take off her things in the kind of voice, Arrietty imagined, usually reserved for feather boas, opera cloaks, and freshly cleaned kid gloves.

  "Poor dear Lupy," Homily was saying, glancing wearily about, "what a lot of furniture! Whoever helps you with the dusting?" And swaying a little, she sank on a chair.

  They rushed to support her, as she hoped they might. Water was brought and they bathed her face and hands. Hendreary stood with the tears in his brotherly eyes. "Poor valiant soul," he muttered, shaking his head. "Your mind kind of reels when you think of what she's been through...."

  Then, after a quick wash and brush up all round and a brisk bit of eye-wiping, they all sat down to supper. This they ate in the kitchen, which was rather a comedown except that, in here, the fire was real: a splendid cooking-range made of a large, black door-lock; they poked the fire through the keyhole, which glowed handsomely, and the smoke, they were told, went out through a series of pipes to the cottage chimney behind.

  The long, white table was richly spread: it was an eighteenth-century finger-plate off some old drawing-room door—white-enameled and painted with forget-me-nots—supported firmly on four stout pencil stubs where once the screws had been; the points of the pencils emerged slightly through the top of the table; one was copying ink, and they were warned not to touch it in case it stained their hands.

  There was every kind of dish and preserve—both real and false; pies, puddings, and bottled fruits out of season—all cooked by Lupy, and an imitation leg of mutton and a dish of plaster tarts borrowed from the dollhouse. There were three real tumblers as well as acorn cups and a couple of green glass decanters.

  Talk, talk, talk.... Arrietty, listening, felt dazed. "Where is Spiller?" she asked suddenly.

  "Oh, he's gone off," said Hendreary vaguely. He seemed a little embarrassed and sat there frowning and tapping the table with a pewter spoon (one of a set of six, Homily remembered angrily; she wondered how many were left).

  "Gone off where?" asked Arrietty.

  "Home, I reckon," Hendreary told her.

  "But we haven't thanked him," cried Arrietty. "Spiller saved our lives!"

  Hendreary threw off his gloom. "Have a drop of blackberry cordial," he suggested suddenly to Pod. "Lupy's own make. Cheer us all up...."

  "Not for me," said Homily firmly, before Pod could speak. "No good never comes of it, as we've found out to our cost."

  "We haven't even thanked him," persisted Arrietty, and there were tears in her eyes.

  Hendreary looked at her, surprised. "Spiller? He don't hold with thanks. He's all right..." and he patted Arrietty's arm.

  "Why didn't he stay for supper?"

  "He don't ever," Hendreary told her. "Doesn't like company. He'll cook something on his own."


  "In his stove."

  "But that's miles away!"

  "Not for Spiller—he's used to it. Goes part way by water."

  "And it must be getting dark," Arrietty went on unhappily.

  "Now don't you fret about Spiller," her uncle told her. "You eat up your pie...."

  Arrietty looked down at her plate (pink celluloid, it was, part of a tea service that she seemed to remember); somehow she had no appetite. She raised her eyes. "And when will he be back?" she asked anxiously.

  "He don't come back much. Once a year for his new clothes. Or if young To
m sends 'im special."

  Arrietty looked thoughtful. "He must be lonely," she ventured at last.

  "Spiller? No, I wouldn't say he was lonely. Some borrowers is made like that. Solitary. You get 'em now and again." He glanced across the room to where his daughter, having left the table, was sitting alone by the fire. "Eggletina's a bit like that.... Pity, but you can't do nothing about it. Them's the ones as gets this craze for humans—kind of man-eaters, they turns out to be..."

  Very dark it was, this strange new home, almost as dark as under the floorboards at Firbank, and lit by wax dips fixed to upturned drawing pins (how many human dwellings must be burned down, Arrietty realized suddenly, through the carelessness of borrowers running about with lighted candles). In spite of Lupy's polishings, the compartments smelled of soot and always in the background a pervading odor of cheese.

  The cousins all slept in the kitchen—for warmth, Lupy explained. The ornate drawing room was only rarely used. Outside the drawing room was the shadowed platform with its perilous matchstick ladder leading down below.

  Above this landing, high among the shadows, were the two small rooms allotted them by Lupy. There was no way up to them as yet, except by climbing hand over hand from lath to lath and scrabbling blindly for footholds, to emerge at length on a rough piece of flooring made by Hendreary from the lid of a cardboard shoe box.

  "Do those rooms good to be used," Lupy had said (she knew Pod was a handyman), "and we'll lend you furniture to start with."

  "To start with," muttered Homily that first morning as, foot after hand, she followed Pod up the laths. Unlike most borrowers, she was not very fond of climbing. "What are we meant to do after?"

  She dared not look down. Beneath her, she knew, was the rickety platform below which again were further depths and the matchstick ladder gleaming like a fishbone. "Anyway," she comforted herself, feeling clumsily for footholds, "steep it may be, but at least it's a separate entrance.... What's it like, Pod?" she asked as her head emerged suddenly at floor level through the circular trap door—very startling it looked, as though decapitated.

  "It's dry," said Pod, noncommittally; he stamped about a bit on the floor as though to test it.

  "Don't stamp so, Pod," Homily complained, seeking a foothold on the quivering surface. "It's only cardboard."

  "I know," said Pod. "Mustn't grumble," he added as Homily came toward him.

  "At least," said Homily, looking about her, "back home under the kitchen, we was on solid ground...."

  "You've lived in a boot since," Pod reminded her, "and you've lived in a hole in a bank. And nearly starved. And nearly frozen. And nearly been captured by the gypsies. Mustn't grumble," he said again.

  Homily looked about her. Two rooms? They were barely that: a sheet of cardboard between two sets of laths, divided by a cloth-covered book cover, on which the words "Pig Breeders' Annual, 1896" were stamped in tarnished gold. In this dark purple wall, Hendreary had cut a door. Ceilings there were none, and an eerie light came down from somewhere far above—a crack, Homily supposed, between the floorboards and the whitewashed walls of the gamekeeper's bedroom.

  "Who sleeps up there," she asked Pod. "That boy's father?"

  "Grandfather," said Pod.

  "He'll be after us, I shouldn't wonder," said Homily, "with traps and what-not."

  "Yes, you've got to be quiet," said Pod, "especially

  with gamekeepers. Out most of the day, though, and the young boy with him. Yes, it's dry," he repeated, looking about him, "and warm."

  "Not very," said Homily. As she followed him through the doorway, she saw that the door was hung by the canvas binding that Hendreary had not cut through. "Soon fray, that will," she remarked, swinging the panel to and fro, "and then what?"

  "I can stitch it," said Pod, "with me cobbler's thread. Easy." He laid his hands on the great stones of the farther wall. "'Tis the chimney casing," he explained. "Warm, eh?"

  "Um," said Homily, "if you lean against it."

  "What about if we sleep here—right against the chimney?"

  "What in?" asked Homily.

  "They're going to lend us beds."

  "No, better keep the chimney for cooking." Homily ran her hands across the stones and from a vertical crevice began to pick out the plaster. "Soon get through here to the main flue...."

  "But we're going to eat downstairs with them," Pod explained. "That's what's been arranged—so that it's all one cooking."

  "All one cooking and all one borrowing," said Homily. "There won't be no borrowing for you, Pod."

  "Rubbish," said Pod. "Whatever makes you say a thing like that?"

  "Because," explained Homily, "in a cottage like this with only two human beings, a man and a boy, there aren't the pickings there were back at Firbank. You mark my words: I been talking to Lupy. Hendreary and the two elder boys can manage the lot. They won't be wanting competition."

  "Then what'll I do?" said Pod. A borrower deprived of borrowing—especially a borrower of Pod's standing? His eyes became round and blank.

  "Get on with the furniture, I suppose."

  "But they're going to lend us that."

  "Lend us!" hissed Homily. "Everything they've got was ours!"

  "Now, Homily—" began Pod.

  Homily dropped her voice, speaking in a breathless whisper. "Every single blessed thing. That red velvet chair, the dresser with the painted plates, all that stuff the boy brought us from the dollhouse..."

  "Not the keyhole stove," put in Pod, "not that dining table they've made from a doorplate. Not the—"

  "The imitation leg of mutton, that was ours," interrupted Homily, "and the dish of plaster tarts. All the beds were ours, and the sofa. And the palm in a pot.... And they got your hatpin, over behind the stove. Been poking the fire with it most likely. I wouldn't put it past them...."

  "Now listen, Homily," pleaded Pod, "we've been into all that, remember. I'll take back the hatpin—that I will take—but findings keepings, as they say. Far as they knew we was dead and gone—like as we might be lost at sea. The things all came to them in a plain white pillowcase delivered to the door. See what I mean? It's like as if they was left them in a will."

  "I would never have left anything to Lupy," remarked Homily.

  "Now, Homily, you've got to say they've been kind."

  "Yes," agreed Homily, "you've got to say it."

  Unhappily she gazed about her. The cardboard floor was scattered with lumps of fallen plaster. Absent-mindedly she began to push these toward the gaps where the floor, being straight-edged, did not fit against the rough plaster. They clattered hollowly down the hidden shaft into Lupy's kitchen.

  "Now you've done it," said Pod. "And that's the kind of noise we mustn't make, not if we value our lives. To human beings," he went on, "droppings and rollings means rats or squirrels. You know that as well as I do."

  "Sorry," said Homily.

  "Wait a minute," said Pod. He had been gazing upwards toward the crack of light, and now in a flash he was on the laths and climbing up toward it.

  "Careful, Pod," whispered Homily. He seemed to be pulling at some object that was hidden from Homily by the line of his body. She heard him grunting with the effort.

  "It's all right," said Pod in his normal voice, beginning to climb down again. "There isn't no one up there. Here you are," he went on as he landed on the floor and handed her an old bone toothbrush, slightly taller than herself. "The first borrowing," he announced modestly, and she saw that he was pleased. "Someone must have dropped it up there in the bedroom, and it wedged itself in this crack between the floorboards and the wall. We can borrow from up there," he went on, "easy; the wall's fallen away like or the floorboards have shrunk. Farther along it gets even wider.... And here you are again," he said and handed her a fair-sized cockleshell he had pulled out from the rough plaster. "You go on sweeping," he told her, "and I'll pop up again, might as well, while it's free of human beings...."

  "Now, Pod, go careful..." Homily urged
him, with a mixture of pride and anxiety. She watched him climb the laths and watched him disappear before, using the cockleshell as a dustpan, she began to sweep the floor. When Arrietty arrived to tell them a meal was ready, a fair-sized haul was laid out on the floor; the bottom of a china soap dish for baths, a crocheted table mat in red and yellow that would do as a carpet, a worn sliver of pale green soap with gray veins in it, a large darning needle—slightly rusted—three aspirin tablets, a packet of pipe cleaners, and a fair length of tarred string.

  "I'm kind of hungry," said Pod.

  Chapter Three

  They climbed down the laths onto the platform, keeping well away from the edge, through Lupy's drawing room, into the kitchen.

  "Ah, here you are," cried Lupy, in her loud, rich, aunt-like voice—very plump she looked in her dress of purple silk, and flushed from the heat of the stove. Homily, beside her, looked as thin and angular as a clothes peg. "We were just going to start without you."

  The doorplate table was lit by a single lamp; it was made from a silver salt shaker with a hole in the top, out of which protruded a wick. The flame burned stilly in that airless room, and the porcelain table top, icily white, swam in a sea of shadow.

  Eggletina, by the stove, was ladling out soup, which Timmus, the younger boy, unsteadily carried round in yellow snail shells—very pretty they looked, scoured and polished. They were rather alike—Eggletina and Timmus—Arrietty thought, quiet and pale and watchful-seeming. Hendreary and the two elder boys were already seated, tucking into their food.

  "Get up, get up," cried Lupy archly, "when your aunt comes in," and her two elder sons rose reluctantly and quickly sat down again. "Harpsichord manners..." their expressions seemed to say. They were too young to remember those gracious days in the drawing room of the big house—the Madeira cake, little sips of China tea, and music of an evening. Churlish and shy, they hardly ever spoke. "They don't much like us," Arrietty decided as she took her place at the table. Little Timmus, his hands in a cloth, brought her a shell of soup. The thin shell was piping hot, and she found it hard to hold.