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The Borrowers Afield, Page 2

Mary Norton

  "Well, in that case," began Mrs. May uncertainly, "I mustn't trouble you—" and was preparing to turn away when Kate, standing her ground, addressed the girl: "Can't we just see inside the hall?"

  "Help yourself," said the girl, looking mildly surprised and she retreated slightly into the shadows as though to make way. "It's okay by me."

  They stepped through the veil of sunlight into a dimmer coolness. Kate looked about her: it was wide and high and paneled and there were the stairs "going up and up, world upon world," as Arrietty had described them. All the same, the hall was nothing like she had imagined it. The floor was covered with burnished, dark green linoleum; there was a sourish smell of soapy water and the clean smell of wax.

  "There's a beautiful stone floor under this," said Mrs. May, touching the linoleum with her rubber-tipped walking stick.

  The girl stared at them curiously; in a moment, as though bored, she turned away and disappeared into the shadowy passage beyond the staircase, scuffling a little in her downtrodden shoes.

  Kate, about to comment, felt Mrs. May's hand on her arm. "Listen," said Mrs. May sharply; and Kate, holding her breath to complete the silence, heard a curious sound, a cross between a sigh and moan. Mrs. May smiled. "That's it—" she whispered, "the sound of the green baize door."

  "And where was the clock?" asked Kate.

  Mrs. May indicated a piece of wall, now studded with a row of coat pegs. "There; Pod's hole must have been just behind where that radiator is now. A radiator, they'd have liked that...." She pointed to a door across the hall, now labeled, in neat white lettering, "Headmaster's Study." "That was the morning room," she said.

  "Where the Overmantels lived? And Pod got the blotting paper?" Kate stared a moment and then, before Mrs. May could stop her, ran across and tried the door.

  "No, Kate, you mustn't. Come back."

  "It's locked," said Kate. "Could we just peep upstairs? I'd love to see the night-nursery. I could go terribly quietly...."

  "No, Kate, come along: we must go now. We've no business to be here at all," and Mrs. May walked firmly toward the door.

  "Couldn't I just peep in the kitchen window?" begged Kate when they stood once again in the sunshine.

  "No, Kate," said Mrs. May.

  "Just to see where they lived? Where that hole was under the stove which Pod used as a chute—please."

  "Quickly, then," said Mrs. May. She threw a nervous glance in each direction as Kate sped off along the path.

  This, too, was a disappointment. Kate knew where the kitchen was because of the grating, and making blinkers of her cupped hands against the reflected sunshine, she pushed her face up close against the glass. Dimly the room came into view but it was nothing like a kitchen: shelves of bottles, gleaming retorts, heavy bench-like tables, rows of bunsen-burners. The kitchen was now a lab.

  And that was that. On the way home, Kate picked a very small bunch of dog-violets; there was veal and ham pie for luncheon, with salad; with the choice of plums and junket or baked jam-roll; and, after luncheon, Mr. Beguid arrived with car and chauffeur to take them to see the cottage.

  At first Kate did not want to go; she had a secret plan of walking up to the field called Perkin's Beck and mooching about by herself, looking for badgers' sets. But when Mrs. May explained to her that the field was just behind the cottage, and by the time Mr. Beguid had stared long enough and pointedly enough out of the window with a bored, dry, if-this-were-my-child kind of expression on his face, Kate decided to go in the car after all, just to spite him. And it was a good thing (as she so often told her own children years afterwards) that she did: otherwise, she might never have talked to or (which was more important) made friends with—Thomas Goodenough.

  Chapter Three

  "Wink at small faults."

  Anna Seward died 1809

  [Extract from Arrietty's Diary and

  Proverb Book, March 25th]

  "AND ABOUT vacant possession," Mrs. May asked in the car, "he really is going, this old man? I've forgotten his name—"

  "Old Tom Goodenough? Yes, he's going all right; we've got him an almshouse. Not," Mr. Beguid added, with a short laugh, "that he deserves it."

  "Why not?" asked Kate in her blunt way.

  Mr. Beguid glanced at her, a little put out, as though the dog had spoken. "Because," he said, ignoring Kate and addressing Mrs. May, "he's a tiresome old humbug, that's why." He laughed again, his complacent, short laugh. "The biggest liar in five counties—they call him down in the village."

  The stone cottage stood in a field; it stood high, its back to the woods; it had a derelict look, Kate thought, as they toiled up the slope toward it, but the thatch seemed good. Beside the front door stood a water-butt leaking a little at the seams and green with moss; there was slime on the brick path and a thin trickle of moisture which lost itself among the dock and thistles. Against the far end was a wooden out-house on the walls of which Kate saw the skins of several small mammals nailed up to dry in the sun.

  "I didn't realize it was quite so remote," panted Mrs. May, as Mr. Beguid knocked sharply on the blistered paint of the front door. She waved her rubber-tipped stick toward the sunken lane below the sloping field of meadow grass. "We'll have to make some kind of proper path up here."

  Kate heard a shuffling movement within and Mr. Beguid, rapping again, called out impatiently, "Come on, old Tom. Open up."

  There were footsteps and, as the door creaked open, Kate saw an old man—tall, thin, but curiously heavy about the shoulders. He carried his head sunk a little onto his chest, and inclined sideways; and when he smiled (as he did at once), this gave him a sly look. He had bright, dark, strangely luminous eyes which he fixed immediately on Kate.

  "Well, Tom," said Mr. Beguid briskly, "how are you keeping? Better, I hope. Here is Mrs. May, the lady who owns your cottage. May we come in?"

  "There's naught to hide," said the old man, backing slightly, to let them pass, but smiling only at Kate. It was, Kate thought, as though he could not see Mr. Beguid.

  They filed past him into the principal room. It was bareish but neat enough, except for a pile of wood shavings on the stone floor and a stack of something Kate took to be kindling beside the window embrasure. A small fire smoldered in a blackened grate which seemed to be half oven.

  "You've tidied up a bit, I see," said Mr. Beguid, looking about him. "Not that it matters much," he added, speaking aside to Mrs. May, but barely lowering his voice. "Before the builders come in, if I were you I'd get the whole place washed through and thoroughly fumigated."

  "I think it looks lovely," cried Kate warmly, shocked by this want of manners, and Mrs. May hastened to agree with her, addressing a friendly look toward the old man.

  But old Tom gave no sign of having noticed; quietly he stood, looking down at Kate, smiling his secret smile.

  "The stairs are through here," said Mr. Beguid, leading the way to a farther door. "And here," they heard him say, "is the scullery." Mrs. May, about to follow, hesitated on the threshold. "Don't you want to come, Kate, and see round the cottage?"

  Kate stood stolidly where she was; she threw a quick glance at the old man, and back again to Mrs. May. "No, thanks," she said shortly. And as Mrs. May, a little surprised, followed Mr. Beguid into the scullery, Kate moved toward the pile of peeled sticks. There was a short silence.

  "What are you making?" Kate asked at last, a little shyly The old man came back from his dream. "Them?" he said in his soft voice. "Them's sprays—for thatching." He picked up a knife, tested the blade on his horny thumb and pulled up a lowish stool. He sat down. "Come you here," he said, "by me, and I'll show 'ee."

  Kate drew up a chair beside him and watched him in silence as he split a length of hazel which at first she had taken for kindling. After a moment, he said softly, without looking up, "You don't want to take no notice of him."

  "Mr. Beguid?" said Kate. "I don't. Be Good! It's a silly kind of name. Compared to yours, I mean," she added warmly. "Whatever you
did wouldn't matter really with a name like Good Enough."

  The old man half turned his head in a warning gesture toward the scullery. He listened a moment and then he said, "They're going upstairs," and Kate, listening too, heard clumping footsteps on wooden treads. "You know how long I bin in this cottage?" the old man asked, his head still cocked as though listening while the footsteps crossed and recrossed what must have been his bedroom. "Nigh on eighty years," he added after a moment. He took up a peeled sapling, grasping it firmly at either end.

  "And now you've got to go?" said Kate, watching his hands as he took a firmer grip on the wood.

  The old man laughed as though she had made a joke: he laughed quite silently, Kate noticed, shaking his head. "So they make out," he said in an amused voice, and with a twist of his two wrists he wrung the tough sapling as you

  wring out a wet cloth, and in the same movement doubled it back on itself. "But I bain't going," he added and he threw the bent stick on the pile.

  "But they wouldn't want to turn you out," said Kate, "not if you don't want to go. At least," she added cautiously, "I don't think Mrs. May would."

  "Her-r-r?" he said, rolling the "r's" and looking up at the ceiling. "She's hand in glove with him."

  "She used to come and stay here," Kate told him, "when she was a child. Did you know? Down at the big house. Firbank, isn't it?"

  "Aye," he said.

  "Did you know her?" asked Kate curiously. "She used to be called Miss Ada?"

  "I knew Miss Ada all right," said the old man, "and her aunty. And her brother—" He laughed again. "I knew the whole bang lot of 'em, come to that."

  As he spoke, Kate had a strange feeling. It was as though she had heard these words before spoken by just such an old man as this and, she seemed to remember, it was in some such similar place—the sunlit window of a darkish cottage on a bright but cold spring day. She looked round wonderingly at the white-washed walls—flaking a little they were, in a pattern she seemed to recognize; even the hollows and cracks of the worn brick floor also seemed curiously familiar—strange, because (of this she was certain) she had never been here before. She looked back at old Tom, getting up courage to go a step further. "Did you know Crampfurl?" she asked after a moment, and even before he answered she knew what he would say. "I knew Crampfurl all right," and the old man laughed again, nodding his grizzled head, and enjoying some secret joke.

  "And Mrs. Driver, the cook?"

  Here the joke became almost too much for old Tom. "Aye," he said, wheezing with silent laughter. "Mrs. Driver!" and he wiped the corner of his eye with his sleeve.

  "Did you know Rosa Pickhatchet," went on Kate, "that housemaid, the one who screamed?"

  "Nay," said old Tom, nodding and laughing. "But I heard tell of her—screamed the house down, so they say...."

  "But you know why?" cried Kate excitedly.

  He shook his head. "No reason at all, as I can see."

  "But didn't they tell you that she saw a little man, on the drawing room mantelshelf, about the size of the china cupid; that she thought he was an ornament and tried to dust him with a feather duster—and suddenly he sneezed? Anyone would scream," Kate concluded breathlessly.

  "For why?" said old Tom, deftly sliding the bark from the wood as though it were a glove finger. "They don't hurt you, borrowers don't. And they don't make no mess neither. Not like field mice. Beats me, always has, the fuss folk'll make about a borrower, screeching and screaming and all that caper." He ran an appreciative finger along the peeled surface. "Smoking 'em out and them kind of games. No need for it, not with borrowers. They go quiet enough, give 'em time, once they know they've been seen. Now take field mice—" The old man broke off to twist his stick, catching his breath with the effort.

  "Don't let's," cried Kate, "please! I mean, let's go on about borrowers—"

  "There's naught to go on with," said the old man, tossing his stick on the pile and selecting a fresh one. "Borrowers is as like to humans as makes no matter, and what's to tell about humans? Now you take field mice—once one of them critturs finds a way indoors, you're done and strung up as you might say. You can't leave the place not for a couple of hours but you don't get the whole lot right down on you like a flock of starlings. Mess! And it ain't a question of getting 'em out. They've come and they've gone, if you see what I mean. Plague o' locusts ain't in it. Yes," he went on, "no doubt about it—in a house like this, you're apt to get more trouble from field mice than ever you get from any borrower. In a house like this," he repeated, "set away like at the edge of the woods, borrowers can be company, like as not." He glanced up at the ceiling which creaked slightly as footsteps passed and repassed in the room above. "What you reckon they're up to?" he said.

  "Measuring," Kate said. "They'll be down soon," she went on hurriedly, "and I want to ask you something-something important. If they send me for a walk tomorrow—by myself, I mean, while they talk business—could I come up and be with you?"

  "I don't see no reason why not," said the old man, at work on his next stick. "If you brings along a sharp knife, I'll learn you to make sprays."

  "You know," went on Kate impressively, with a wary glance at the ceiling, "her brother, Mrs. May's brother—or Miss Ada's or whatever you like to call her—he saw those borrowers down at the big house!" She paused for effect, watching his face.

  "What of it?" said the old man impassively. "You only got to keep your eyes skinned. I seen stranger things in my time than them sort of critturs. Take badgers—now you come up here tomorrow and I'll tell summat about badgers that you just wouldn't credit, but that I seen it with me own two eyes—"

  "But have you ever seen a borrower?" cried Kate impatiently. "Did you ever see any of these ones down at the big house?"

  "Them as they had in the stables?"

  "No, the ones who lived under the kitchen."

  "Oh, them," he said, "smoked out, they were. But it ain't true—" he went on, raising his face suddenly, and Kate saw that it was a sad face when it was not smiling.

  "What isn't true?"

  "What they say: that I set the ferret on 'em. I wouldn't. Not me. Not once I knew they was borrowers."

  "Oh," exclaimed Kate, kneeling up on her chair with excitement. "You were the boy with the ferret?"

  Old Tom looked back at her—his sideways look. "I were a boy," he admitted guardedly, "and I did have a ferret."

  "But they did escape, didn't they?" Kate persisted anxiously. "Mrs. May says they escaped by the grating."

  "That's right," said old Tom. "Made off across the gravel and up the bank."

  "But you don't know for certain," said Kate, "you didn't see them go. Or could you see them from the window?"

  "I knows for certain, all right," said old Tom. "True enough I saw 'em from the window, but that ain't how—" he hesitated, looking at Kate; amused he seemed but still wary.

  "Please, tell me. Please—" begged Kate.

  The old man glanced upward at the ceiling. "You know what he is?" he said, inclining his head.

  "Mr. Beguid? A lawyer."

  The old man nodded. "That's right. And you don't want nothing put down in writing."

  "I don't understand," said Kate.

  The old man sighed and took up his whittling knife. "What I tells you, you tells her, and he puts it all down in writing."

  "Mrs. May wouldn't tell," said Kate. "She's—"

  "She's hand in glove with him, that's what I maintain. And it's no good telling me no different. Seemingly now, you can't die no more where you reckons to die. And you know for why?" he said, glaring at Kate. "Because of what's put down in writing." And with a curiously vicious twist he doubled the poor stick. Kate stared at him nonplused. "If I promised not to tell?" she said at last, in a timid voice.

  "Promises!" exclaimed the old man; staring at Kate, he jerked a thumb toward the ceiling. "Her-r-r great uncle, old Sir Montague that was, promised me this cottage. 'It's for your lifetime, Tom,' he says. Promises!" he repeated angril
y, and he almost spat the word. "Promises is piecrust."

  Kate's eyes filled with tears. "All right," she said, "then don't tell me!"

  Tom's expression changed, almost as violently. "Now don't 'ee cry, little maid," he begged, surprised and distressed.

  But Kate, to her shame, could not stop; the tears ran down her cheeks and she felt the familiar hot feeling at the tip of her nose as though it was swelling. "I was only wondering," she gasped, fumbling for a handkerchief, "if they were all right ... and how they managed ... and whether they found the badger's set..."

  "They found the badger's set all right," said old Tom. "Now, don't 'ee cry, my maiden, not no more."

  "I'll stop in a minute," Kate assured him in a stifled voice, blowing her nose.

  "Now look 'ee here," the old man went on—very upset he sounded. "You dry your eyes and stop your weeping and old Tom'll show you summat." Awkwardly he got up off his stool and hovered over her, drooping his shoulders like some great protective bird. "Something you'd like. How's that, eh?"

  "It's all right," Kate said, giving a final scrub. She stuffed away her handkerchief and smiled up at him. "I've stopped."

  Old Tom put his hand in his pocket and then, throwing a cautious glance toward the ceiling, he seemed to change his mind: for a moment it had sounded as though the footsteps had been moving toward the stairs. "It's all right," whispered Kate, after listening; and he fumbled again and drew out a battered tin box, the kind in which pipe-smokers keep tobacco, and with his knotted fingers fumbled awkwardly with the lid. At last, it was open, and breathing heavily, he turned it over and slid something out. "There—" he said, and on his calloused palm Kate saw the tiny book.

  "Oh—" she breathed, staring incredulously.

  "Take it up," said old Tom, "it won't bite you." And, as gingerly Kate put out her hand, he added, smiling, "'Tis Arrietty's diary."

  But Kate knew this, even before she saw the faded gilt lettering, Diary and Proverb Book, and in spite of the fact that it was weather-stained and time-worn, that when she opened it the bulk of its pages slipped out from between the covers, and the ink or pencil or sap—or whatever Arrietty had used to write with—had faded to various shades of brown and sepia and a curious sickly yellow. It had opened at August the 31st, and the proverb, Kate saw, was "Better to suffer ill, than do ill," and below this the bald statement "Disastrous Earthquake at Charleston, U. S., 1866" and on the page itself, in Arrietty's scratchy handwriting, were three entries for the three successive years: