The Borrowers Avenged, Page 2Mary Norton
When Miss Menzies reached the church, she found Mrs. Whitlace and Lady Mullings in the vestry drinking tea.
"I'm so sorry to be late," said Miss Menzies hurriedly, hanging up her mackintosh.
"Don't worry, my dear," said Lady Mullings. "There was little to do today except to change the water. Bring up a chair and sit down. Mrs. Whitlace has brought us some drop scones."
"How delicious," exclaimed Miss Menzies, taking a seat between them. She looked a little flushed from her walk.
Lady Mullings was large and statuesque (and given to floating veils). She was a widow and lived alone, having lost her two sons in the Boer War. She had a sweet, sad face, always heavily powdered (a habit that in those days was considered rather worldly). Miss Menzies, on occasion, had even suspected a touch of lipstick, but one could never be sure. All the same, Miss Menzies was devoted to Lady Mullings, who was kindness itself and who some years before had cured Miss Menzies's arthritic hip.
For Lady Mullings was a faith healer. She took no credit for it: "Something or someone works through me," she would say. "I am only the channel." She was also, Miss Menzies remembered suddenly, a "finder": she could locate lost objects or, rather, visualize in her mind the surroundings in which such objects might be found. "I see it in a dark place..." she had said of Mrs. Crabtree's ring, "sunk sideways. There's kind of mud ... no, more like jelly ... something is moving now ... yes, it's a spider. Now, there's water ... oh, the poor spider!" The ring had been found in the S-trap of the sink.
"I came a little early," Lady Mullings was saying now, reaching for her gloves, "and must leave a little early, I'm afraid, because someone is coming to see me at six-thirty ... someone in trouble, I'm afraid—so I'd better hurry. Oh, dear, oh, dear, what about these tea things...?"
"Oh, I'll see to those," said Miss Menzies, "and Mrs. Whitlace will help me—won't you, Mrs. Whitlace?"
"I will, of course!" exclaimed Mrs. Whitlace, jumping up from her seat. She began to collect the plates, and Miss Menzies, in spite of her present worries, found herself smiling. Why, she wondered, did Mrs. Whitlace always seem so happy? Well, perhaps not always, but nearly always...
Miss Menzies had a very warm regard for Kitty Whitlace, who, before her marriage, had been a Kitty O'Donovan who had come over from Ireland at the age of fifteen to be kitchenmaid at Firbank Hall—in the good old days, as they were called now. Lonely and homesick as she had been at first, her winning ways and eagerness to please had gradually won over the sour old cook, Mrs. Driver. After several years, these
same winning ways had also won the heart of Bertie Whitlace, an undergardener. Whitlace later left to become sole gardener at the rectory, and after their marriage, Kitty had followed him and became cook-general in the same old house.
Alas, the Old Rectory was empty now, but the Whitlaces had stayed on as caretakers. The Tudor rectory was listed as an historic building to be preserved by the parish, as was the church, with its famous rood screen. Mr. Whitlace was appointed verger and Mrs. Whitlace cleaner of the church. They lived very happily in the deserted old house—in the kitchen annex, which was almost a cottage in itself.
There was a sink for the flower arrangers in the far corner of the vestry. As she filled the battered kettle, which stood on the drain board, lit the somewhat rusty gas ring, which for safety's sake stood on the stone flags beneath it, Miss Menzies had a sudden thought: should she,dare she, confide in Lady Mullings, who after all was meant to be a "finder"? Waiting for the kettle to boil, she washed out a few spare flower vases in cold water, still thinking hard. But how, she wondered unhappily, could she explain the borrowers to Lady Mullings? She was still smarting from that embarrassing interview with Mr. Pomfret. He had clearly thought her quite mad. Perhaps not quite mad, but he had obviously been very puzzled. What, she wondered, had he said afterwards to Mrs. Pomfret? Up until now—and she knew it well—Miss Menzies had been a much respected member of the village community. And yet, and yet ... should any stone be left un-turned?
"Perhaps," thought Miss Menzies, as she dried up the crockery, "we are all a little 'touched'?" Lady Mullings with her "findings," Mr. Pott with his model village, herself with her borrowers. Even sensible Mrs. Whitlace, brought up as she had been on the far coast of West Cork, was apt to go on about "fairies."
"I've never seen one myself," she would explain. "But they're all about, mostly after dark. And, say you offend them, like, there's not a dirty trick they wouldn't stoop to."
"I'll be coming down the village with ye," she was saying now. "Whitlace will be wanting his evening paper." Mrs. Whitlace always called her husband Whitlace: it was the name he had been known by at Firbank. She had tried calling him Bertie a few times after they had first married, but somehow it wouldn't fit. He had always been called Whitlace, and Whitlace he seemed to remain.
"Oh, good—" said Miss Menzies, putting a small piece of net edged with blue beads over the top of the milk jug, which she placed in a bowl of cold water. This was for Mrs. Whitlace's elevenses next morning, after she had cleaned the church.
Mrs. Whitlace gathered up the leaves and flower stalks and put them into the wastepaper basket, with a half-eaten drop scone. These she would transfer to the larger dustbin next morning. She tidied up the piles of prayer books, which stood on top of the unused harmonium. The sugar bowl she put in the cupboard among the chalices, candlesticks, and offertory plate. She turned the key of the great oaken cupboard and locked the vestry door.
As the two women walked down the aisle to let themselves out through the main entrance, Miss Menzies was struck by the beauty of the little church (and again by the cleverness with which Mr. Pott had constructed its exact replica in his model village), especially the way the light fell through the intricate carving of the famous rood screen, making patterns on the pale flagstones of the aisle. Their footsteps struck hollow sounds into the silence; the door groaned loudly as they opened it and clanged to when they shut it behind them with a sound that sent its echoes crashing down the nave. Even the turning of the key in the lock seemed to grate on the silence.
Before they reached the lychgate, they felt the first few drops of rain. Mrs. Whitlace hesitated, her hand to her new straw hat trimmed with velvet violets. "My umbrella," she exclaimed, "I've left it in the vestry." Selecting the vestry key from the bunch she carried, she sped away around the church.
"I'll wait for you here by the lychgate," Miss Menzies called after her.
The rain became heavier as Miss Menzies stood under the thatch of the lychgate, and she was glad of its shelter. Pensively, she watched the puddles filling in the rutted lane beyond. She thought of Lady Mullings and of how she might approach her. Not again would she betray herself as she had with Mr. Pomfret. But she knew that for this interview she must take some intimate belongings for Lady Mullings to get her "feeling." She could not take clothes, for their size would arouse wonder: Lady Mullings would, of course, mistake them for dolls' clothes. She must take something that a human being might have used. She thought suddenly of bedclothes—their sheets: these could be taken for handkerchiefs (and one was, she remembered). Yes, that was what she should take. But should she go at all? Was it wise? Was it fair to Lady Mullings to seek her help and hold back so much vital information? Yet, if she told all, might she not (in some way unforeseen) betray her little people? Would Lady Mullings even believe her? Might she not see, in Lady Mullings's face, the same odd blank expression she had seen on Mr. Pomfret's? No, she thought, that would be beyond bearing. And supposing Lady Mullings did believe her, might not she get too excited, too involved, too enthusiastic? Taking over the search herself, for instance? A search that, for the sake of the borrowers, should be quiet, methodical, and secret?
Miss Menzies sighed and looked towards the church. From the lychgate, she could not see the door of the vestry, only the main door under the porch. Mrs. Whitlace seemed to be taking her time. Had she slipped through the small wicket gate that led stra
ight into the rectory? Perhaps she had left her umbrella there? Ah, here she was at last...
Mrs. Whitlace hurried down the path. She seemed a little upset, and the umbrella wobbled slightly in the speed of her advance. When she reached Miss Menzies, she did not open the gate but closed her umbrella and stared into Miss Menzies's face. "Miss Menzies," she said, "there's something after happening you might call odd." Miss Menzies noticed the usually rosy face looked strangely pale.
"What was it, Mrs. Whitlace?"
"Well..." Kitty Whitlace hesitated. "I mean—" Again she hesitated, then went on with a rush, "You wouldn't call me fanciful?"
"No, indeed," Miss Menzies assured her. "Anything but that!" (Except, Miss Menzies reminded herself suddenly, about fairies.)
"I could have sworn on my sacred oath that we'd left the church empty—"
"Yes, of course we did," said Miss Menzies.
"Well, when I turned the key in the lock and began to open the door, didn't I hear voices...?"
"Voices?" echoed Miss Menzies. She thought a moment. "Those jackdaws in the belfry sometimes make an awful racket. Perhaps that was what you heard."
"No. This was in the vestry itself. I stood there quite silent at the door. And somebody seemed to say something. Quite clear, it was. You know how sound carries in that church?"
"What did they seem to say?" asked Miss Menzies.
"They seemed to say, 'What?' "
"What?" repeated Miss Menzies.
"Yes—'What?', just like that."
"How odd," said Miss Menzies.
"And the curtain, you know the one, between the vestry and the Lady chapel, was moving slightly, as though someone had touched it. And there was a rustle of paper. Or something."
"Perhaps," said Miss Menzies, "it was the draft from the open door."
"Perhaps," agreed Mrs. Whitlace uncertainly. "Anyway, I gave the church a good going-over. Except the belfry. Whatever I heard was quite close. I mean, it—whatever it was—couldn't have got up into the belfry. Not in that time."
"You should have come back for me. I'd have helped you."
"I thought of mice. I mean, the paper rustling and that. I went all through the wastepaper basket."
"There are mice in that church, you know," said Miss Menzies. "Field mice. They come in from the long grass in the churchyard. You remember that time of the Harvest Festival?"
"Strong mice, then," said Mrs. Whitlace. "I threw half a drop scone into that basket. Everything else was there, but devil a bit of a scone."
"You mean it had gone?"
"You're sure you threw it in?"
"Sure as I stand here!"
"That is odd," agreed Miss Menzies. "Would you like me to go back with you? Perhaps we could get Mr. Pomfret—" Miss Menzies blushed as she said his name, at the thought of her recent embarrassment. No, she would not like, quite as soon as this, to enlist his help again. "You know what I think, Mrs. Whitlace?" she said after a moment. "That since the robbery—those candlesticks on the altar were very valuable, Mrs. Whitlace, more valuable than any of us really knew—we have all become a little nervous. Not alarmed exactly, but a little nervous. And things do speak, you know—inanimate things. I had a fret saw once which every time I used it seemed to say, 'Poor Freddie.' You couldn't mistake it—'Poor Freddie, poor Freddie'...It was quite uncanny. And there was a tap that dripped which seemed to say, 'But that... But that...' With a terrific emphasis on the 'that.' I mean to say," explained Miss Menzies, "that a tap—that tap over the sink in the vestry, for instance—could easily say 'what.' "
"Maybe," said Mrs. Whitlace, opening her umbrella again (she still looked preoccupied). "Well, if you'll excuse me, Miss Menzies, we'd better be getting on. Whitlace will be awaiting for his tea."
Later that evening, after tea, when Whitlace was ensconced by the stove with his evening paper, Mrs. Whitlace told her story again. She told it more fully, as he barely listened when working out the racing odds, and she was free-as it were—to think aloud. "I told her," she said in a worried, slightly hurt voice, "that I heard something, or somebody, say, 'What?'. The thing I didn't tell her—because nobody, least of all you, Whitlace, would deny I'm a good cook, and, as you might say, you can't have too much of a good thing—what I didn't tell her was what the other voice said."
"What other voice?" asked Mr. Whitlace, absently.
"I told you, Whitlace, that I heard voices, not just one voice."
"What did it say, then?" asked Mr. Whitlace, laying down his paper.
"It said, 'Not drop scones again!'"
In February, Miss Menzies went away to stay with her sister in Cheltenham, returning on the second of March. She found Mr. Pott very busy with his model village, preparing for the summer season. The snows of winter had inflicted a certain amount of damage to the little houses so that most of her spare time was spent in helping to put things right.
Almost her first action in the garden had been to lift the roof off the borrowers' house and sadly stare inside. All was more or less as it had been when she had last seen it, except the damp had got in and a family of wood lice had taken shelter in the kitchen. The little clothes laid out on beds and chairs were soaking wet. Miss Menzies took the clothes indoors and dried them, then she cleaned up the house and prevented further damp by digging a small channel to carry off the rain water that had collected in puddles on many of the miniature roads. If—oh, if! —her little people ever returned, they must find their toylike house as neat and dry as when they had left it. This was the least she could do. The roof, when she put it back, seemed sound and firm. Yes, she had done her best: even to the extent (in an embarrassed and roundabout way) of reporting the loss to the police. That, perhaps, had been the greatest ordeal of all!
By mid-March, in spite of several days of rain, the model village began to look more like itself. Once she had cleaned it out, it did not occur to Miss Menzies to examine the little house again: it had been deserted for so long, and if they were to open in time for Easter, there was so much else to do: new figures to make, old ones to refurbish, rolling stock to be oiled and painted, roofs to mend, gardens to be weeded ... Mr. Pott had been clever with his drainpipes, and such water as there was now flowed smoothly into the stream. Miss Menzies was especially proud of her oak trees—stout stalks of curly parsley dipped in glue and varnished over.
It was Miss Menzies, too, who persuaded Mr. Pott to put up the pig-wire fence along the riverbank. She felt sure that whoever had stolen the borrowers had approached the model village from the water. "Don't seem much point to me," Mr. Pott had protested, "seeing as they've gone now..." But he hammered in the stakes all the same and wired them up securely. He had never quite believed in the borrowers himself but realized, in his quiet way, that the idea of these creatures had meant a great deal to Miss Menzies.
And so the long winter passed. Until—at last, at last!—came the first intimations of spring. And (for all the characters concerned) a strange spring it turned out to be...
At a house called Ballyhoggin, at Went-le-Cray, Mr. and Mrs. Platter sat staring at each other across their kitchen table. They appeared to be in a state of shock—they were in a state of shock. Words had now utterly deserted them.
Mr. Platter was a builder and decorator who sometimes acted (under certain conditions) as the village undertaker. He had a dry, shriveled, somewhat ratlike face and rimless glasses through which, when the light caught them, one could not see his eyes. Mrs. Platter was large and florid, but at this moment florid no longer. Her heavy, rather lumpy face had turned to a curious shade of beige.
On the table three small saucers were set out in a row. They contained something gooey. It looked like overcooked rice, but Mrs. Platter called it kedgeree.
At long last, Mr. Platter spoke. He spoke very slowly and deliberately in his dry, cold, rasping voice. "I shall take this whole house to pieces brick by brick," he said. "Even," he went on, "if I have to hi
re a couple of extra men!"
"Oh, Sidney," gasped Mrs. Platter. Two tears rolled down her pendulous cheeks. With a fumbling hand, she reached for a dishtowel and wiped them away.
"Brick by brick," repeated Mr. Platter. Mrs. Platter could see his eyes now: they were round and hard, like blue pebbles.
"Oh, Sidney," gasped Mrs. Platter again.
"It's the only way," said Mr. Platter.
"Oh, Sidney—" Mrs. Platter had covered her face with the towel. She was really crying now. "It's the nicest house you ever built..." Her sobs were barely muffled by the towel. "It's our home, Sidney."
"...considering what's at stake," went on Mr. Platter stonily. He hardly seemed to notice his wife's distress. "We had a fortune in our hands. A fortune!"
"Yes, Sidney, I know..."
"Houses!" exclaimed Mr. Platter. "We could have built all the houses we should ever want. Bigger and better houses. Houses such as you have never even dreamed of! We could have shown those creatures all over the world. And for any money. And now"—his pupils became pinpoints—"they've gone!"
"It's not my fault, Sidney." Mrs. Platter wiped her eyes.
"I know it's not your fault, Mabel. But the fact remains—they've gone!"
"It was I who gave you the idea of getting hold of them in the first place."
"I know that, Mabel. Don't think I'm not grateful. We committed a felony. It was very brave of you. But now—"
His face was still stony. "Someone or something has stolen them back."
"But nobody knew they were here. No one, Sidney, except us." She gave her face a final cleanup with the towel. "And we always went up to the attic together, didn't we, Sidney? To check on the locking of the door. In case one of us forgot. And there was that piece of zinc at the bottom of the door, in case they bored through, like—"