The Borrowers Collection, Page 2Mary Norton
That was the day when Arrietty, rolling the potato before her from the storehouse down the dusty lane under the floor boards, kicked it ill-temperedly so that it rolled rather fast into their kitchen, where Homily was stooping over the stove.
“There you go again,” exclaimed Homily, turning angrily; “nearly pushed me into the soup. And when I say ‘potato’ I don’t mean the whole potato. Take the scissor, can’t you, and cut off a slice.”
“Didn’t know how much you wanted,” mumbled Arrietty, and Homily, snorting and sniffing, unhooked the blade and handle of half a pair of manicure scissors from a nail on the wall, and began to cut through the peel.
“You’ve ruined this potato,” she grumbled. “You can’t roll it back now in all that dust, not once it’s been cut open.”
“Oh, what does it matter?” said Arrietty. “There are plenty more.”
“That’s a nice way to talk. Plenty more. Do you realize,” Homily went on gravely, laying down the half nail scissor, “that your poor father risks his life every time he borrows a potato?”
“I meant,” said Arrietty, “that there are plenty more in the storeroom.”
“Well, out of my way now,” said Homily, bustling around again, “whatever you meant—and let me get the supper.”
Arrietty wandered through the open door into the sitting room. Ah, the fire had been lighted and the room looked bright and cozy. Homily was proud of her sitting room: the walls had been papered with scraps of old letters out of waste-paper baskets, and Homily had arranged the handwriting sideways in vertical stripes which ran from floor to ceiling. On the walls, repeated in various colors, hung several portraits of Queen Victoria as a girl; these were postage stamps, borrowed by Pod some years ago from the stamp box on the desk in the morning room. There was a lacquer trinket box, padded inside and with the lid open, which they used as a settle; and that useful stand-by—a chest of drawers made of match boxes. There was a round table with a red velvet cloth, which Pod had made from the wooden bottom of a pill box supported on the carved pedestal of a knight from the chess set. (This had caused a great deal of trouble upstairs when Aunt Sophy’s eldest son, on a flying mid-week visit, had invited the vicar for “a game after dinner.” Rosa Pickhatchet, who was housemaid at the time, gave in her notice. After she had left other things were found to be missing, and no one was engaged in her place. From that time onwards Mrs. Driver ruled supreme.) The knight itself—its bust, so to speak—stood on a column in the corner, where it looked very fine, and lent that air to the room which only statuary can give.
Beside the fire, in a tilted wooden bookcase, stood Arrietty’s library. This was a set of those miniature volumes which the Victorians loved to print, but which to Arrietty seemed the size of very large church Bibles. There was Bryce’s Tom Thumb Gazetteer of the World, including the last census; Bryce’s Tom Thumb Dictionary, with short explanations of scientific, philosophical, literary, and technical terms; Bryce’s Tom Thumb Edition of the Comedies of William Shakespeare, including a foreword on the author; another book, whose pages were all blank, called Memoranda; and, last but not least, Arrietty’s favorite Bryce’s Tom Thumb Diary and Proverb Book, with a saying for each day of the year and, as a preface, the life story of a little man called General Tom Thumb, who married a girl called Mercy Lavinia Bump. There was an engraving of their carriage and pair, with little horses—the size of mice. Arrietty was not a stupid girl. She knew that horses could not be as small as mice, but she did not realize that Tom Thumb, nearly two feet high, would seem a giant to a Borrower.
Arrietty had learned to read from these books, and to write by leaning sideways and copying out the writings on the walls. In spite of this, she did not always keep her diary, although on most days she would take the book out for the sake of the saying which sometimes would comfort her. Today it said: “You may go farther and fare worse,” and, underneath: “Order of the Garter, instituted 1348.” She carried the book to the fire and sat down with her feet on the hob.
“What are you doing, Arrietty?” called Homily from the kitchen.
“Writing my diary.”
“Oh,” exclaimed Homily shortly.
“What did you want?” asked Arrietty. She felt quite safe; Homily liked her to write; Homily encouraged any form of culture. Homily herself, poor ignorant creature, could not even say the alphabet. “Nothing. Nothing,” said Homily crossly, banging away with the pan lids; “it’ll do later.”
Arrietty took out her pencil. It was a small white pencil, with a piece of silk cord attached, which had come off a dance program, but, even so, in Arrietty’s hand, it looked like a rolling-pin.
“Arrietty!” called Homily again from the kitchen.
“Put a little something on the fire, will you?”
Arrietty braced her muscles and heaved the book off her knees, and stood it upright on the floor. They kept the fuel, assorted slack and crumbled candle-grease, in a pewter mustard-pot, and shoveled it out with the spoon. Arrietty trickled only a few grains, tilting the mustard spoon, not to spoil the blaze. Then she stood there basking in the warmth. It was a charming fireplace, made by Arrietty’s grandfather, with a cogwheel from the stables, part of an old cider-press. The spokes of the cogwheel stood out in starry rays, and the fire itself nestled in the center. Above there was a chimney-piece made from a small brass funnel, inverted. This, at one time, belonged to an oil lamp which matched it, and which stood, in the old days, on the hall table upstairs. An arrangement of pipes, from the spout of the funnel, carried the fumes into the kitchen flues above. The fire was laid with match-sticks and fed with assorted slack and, as it burned up, the iron would become hot, and Homily would simmer soup on the spokes in a silver thimble, and Arrietty would broil nuts. How cozy those winter evenings could be. Arrietty, her great book on her knees, sometimes reading aloud; Pod at his last (he was a shoemaker, and made button-boots out of kid gloves—now, alas, only for his family); and Homily, quiet at last, with her knitting.
Homily knitted their jerseys and stockings on black-headed pins, and, sometimes, on darning needles. A great reel of silk or cotton would stand, table high, beside her chair, and sometimes, if she pulled too sharply, the reel would tip up and roll away out of the open door into the dusty passage beyond, and Arrietty would be sent after it, to re-wind it carefully as she rolled it back.
The floor of the sitting room was carpeted with deep red blotting paper, which was warm and cozy, and soaked up the spills. Homily would renew it at intervals when it became available upstairs, but since Aunt Sophy had taken to her bed Mrs. Driver seldom thought of blotting paper unless, suddenly, there were guests. Homily liked things which saved washing because drying was difficult under the floor; water they had in plenty, hot and cold, thanks to Pod’s father who had tapped the pipes from the kitchen boiler. They bathed in a small tureen, which once had held pâté de foie gras. When you had wiped out your bath you were supposed to put the lid back, to stop people putting things in it. The soap, too, a great cake of it, hung on a nail in the scullery, and they scraped pieces off. Homily liked coal tar, but Pod and Arrietty preferred sandalwood.
“What are you doing now, Arrietty?” called Homily from the kitchen.
“Still writing my diary.”
Once again Arrietty took hold of the book and heaved it back on to her knees. She licked the lead of her great pencil, and stared a moment, deep in thought. She allowed herself (when she did remember to write) one little line on each page because she would never—of this she was sure—have another diary, and if she could get twenty lines on each page the diary would last her twenty years. She had kept it for nearly two years already, and today, 22nd March, she read last year’s entry: “Mother cross.” She thought a while longer then, at last, she put ditto marks under “mother,” and “worried” under “cross.”
“What did you say you were doing, Arrietty?” called Homily from the kitchen.
Arrietty closed the book. “Not
hing,” she said.
“Then chop me up this onion, there’s a good girl. Your father’s late tonight. . . .”
SIGHING, Arrietty put away her diary and went into the kitchen. She took the onion ring from Homily, and slung it lightly round her shoulders, while she foraged for a piece of razor blade. “Really, Arrietty,” exclaimed Homily, “not on your clean jersey! Do you want to smell like a bit-bucket? Here, take the scissor—”
Arrietty stepped through the onion ring as though it were a child’s hoop, and began to chop it into segments.
“Your father’s late,” muttered Homily again, “and it’s my fault, as you might say. Oh dear, oh dear, I wish I hadn’t—”
“Hadn’t what?” asked Arrietty, her eyes watering. She sniffed loudly and longed to rub her nose on her sleeve.
Homily pushed back a thin lock of hair with a worried hand. She stared at Arrietty absently. “It’s that tea cup you broke,” she said.
“But that was days ago—” began Arrietty, blinking her eyelids, and she sniffed again.
“I know. I know. It’s not you. It’s me. It’s not the breaking that matters, it’s what I said to your father.”
“What did you say to him?”
“Well, I just said—there’s the rest of the service, I said—up there, where it always was, in the corner cupboard in the schoolroom.”
“I don’t see anything bad in that,” said Arrietty as, one by one, she dropped the pieces of onion into the soup.
“But it’s a high cupboard,” exclaimed Homily. “You have to get up by the curtain. And your father at his age—” She sat down suddenly on a metal-topped champagne cork. “Oh, Arrietty, I wish I’d never mentioned it!”
“Don’t worry,” said Arrietty, “Papa knows what he can do.” She pulled a rubber scent-bottle cork out of the hole in the hot-water pipe and let a trickle of scalding drops fall into the tin lid of an aspirin bottle. She added cold and began to wash her hands.
“Maybe,” said Homily. “But I went on about it so. What’s a tea cup! Your Uncle Hendreary never drank a thing that wasn’t out of a common acorn cup, and he’s lived to a ripe old age and had the strength to emigrate. My mother’s family never had nothing but a little bone thimble which they shared around. But it’s once you’ve had a tea cup, if you see what I mean. . . .”
“Yes,” said Arrietty, drying her hands on a roller towel made out of surgical bandage.
“It’s that curtain,” cried Homily. “He can’t climb a curtain at his age—not by the bobbles!”
“With his pin he could,” said Arrietty.
“His pin! I led him into that one too! Take a hat pin, I told him, and tie a bit of name-tape to the head, and pull yourself upstairs. It was to borrow the emerald watch from Her bedroom for me to time the cooking.” Homily’s voice began to tremble. “Your mother’s a wicked woman, Arrietty. Wicked and selfish, that’s what she is!”
“You know what?” exclaimed Arrietty suddenly.
Homily brushed away a tear. “No,” she said wanly, “what?”
“I could climb a curtain.”
Homily rose up. “Arrietty, you dare stand there in cold blood and say a thing like that!”
“But I could! I could! I could borrow! I know I could!”
“Oh!” gasped Homily. “Oh, you wicked heathen girl! How can you speak so!” and she crumpled up again on the cork stool. “So it’s come to this!” she said.
“Now, Mother, please,” begged Arrietty, “now, don’t take on!”
“But don’t you see, Arrietty . . .” gasped Homily; she stared down at the table at loss for words and then, at last, she raised a haggard face. “My poor child,” she said, “don’t speak like that of borrowing. You don’t know—and, thank goodness, you never will know”—she dropped her voice to a fearful whisper—“what it’s like upstairs. . . .”
Arrietty was silent. “What is it like?” she asked after a moment.
Homily wiped her face on her apron and smoothed back her hair. “Your Uncle Hendreary,” she began, “Eggletina’s father—” and then she paused. “Listen!” she said. “What’s that?”
Echoing on the wood was a faint vibration—the sound of a distant click. “Your father!” exclaimed Homily. “Oh, look at me! Where’s the comb?”
They had a comb: a little, silver, eighteenth-century eyebrow comb from the cabinet in the drawing room upstairs. Homily ran it through her hair and rinsed her poor red eyes and, when Pod came in, she was smiling and smoothing down her apron.
POD came in slowly, his sack on his back; he leaned his hat pin, with its dangling name-tape, against the wall and, on the middle of the kitchen table, he placed a doll’s tea cup; it was the size of a mixing bowl.
“Why, Pod—” began Homily.
“Got the saucer too,” he said. He swung down the sack and untied the neck. “Here you are,” he said, drawing out the saucer. “Matches it.”
He had a round, currant-bunny sort of face; tonight it looked flabby.
“Oh, Pod,” said Homily, “you do look queer. Are you all right?”
Pod sat down. “I’m fair enough,” he said.
“You went up the curtain,” said Homily. “Oh, Pod, you shouldn’t have. It’s shaken you—”
Pod made a strange face, his eyes swiveled round toward Arrietty. Homily stared at him, her mouth open, and then she turned. “Come along, Arrietty,” she said briskly, “you pop off to bed, now, like a good girl, and I’ll bring you some supper.”
“Oh,” said Arrietty, “can’t I see the rest of the borrowings?”
“Your father’s got nothing now. Only food. Off you pop to bed. You’ve seen the cup and saucer.”
Arrietty went into the sitting room to put away her diary, and took some time fixing her candle on the upturned drawing pin which served as a holder.
“Whatever are you doing?” grumbled Homily. “Give it here. There, that’s the way. Now off to bed and fold your clothes, mind.”
“Good night, Papa,” said Arrietty, kissing his flat white cheek.
“Careful of the light,” he said mechanically, and watched her with his round eyes until she had closed the door.
“Now, Pod,” said Homily, when they were alone, “tell me. What’s the matter?”
Pod looked at her blankly. “I been ‘seen,’” he said.
Homily put out a groping hand for the edge of the table; she grasped it and lowered herself slowly on to the stool. “Oh, Pod,” she said.
There was silence between them. Pod stared at Homily and Homily stared at the table. After a while she raised her white face. “Badly?” she asked.
Pod moved restlessly. “I don’t know about badly. I been ‘seen.’ Ain’t that bad enough?”
“No one,” said Homily slowly, “hasn’t never been ‘seen’ since Uncle Hendreary and he was the first they say for forty-five years.” A thought struck her and she gripped the table. “It’s no good, Pod, I won’t emigrate!”
“No one’s asked you to,” said Pod.
“To go and live like Hendreary and Lupy in a badger’s set! The other side of the world, that’s where they say it is—all among the earthworms.”
“It’s two fields away, above the spinney,” said Pod.
“Nuts, that’s what they eat. And berries. I wouldn’t wonder if they don’t eat mice—”
“You’ve eaten mice yourself,” Pod reminded her.
“All draughts and fresh air and the children growing up wild. Think of Arrietty!” said Homily. “Think of the way she’s been brought up. An only child. She’d catch her death. It’s different for Hendreary.”
“Why?” asked Pod. “He’s got four.”
“That’s why,” explained Homily. “When you’ve got four, they’re brought up rough. But never mind that now. . . . Who saw you?”
“A boy,” said Pod.
“A what?” exclaimed Homily, staring.
“A boy.” Pod sketched
out a rough shape in the air with his hands. “You know, a boy.”
“But there isn’t—I mean, what sort of a boy?”
“I don’t know what you mean ‘what sort of a boy.’ A boy in a night-shirt. A boy. You know what a boy is, don’t you?”
“Yes,” said Homily, “I know what a boy is. But there hasn’t been a boy, not in this house, these twenty years.”
“Well,” said Pod, “there’s one here now.”
Homily stared at him in silence, and Pod met her eyes. “Where did he see you?” asked Homily at last.
“In the schoolroom.”
“Oh,” said Homily, “when you was getting the cup?”
“Yes,” said Pod.
“Haven’t you got eyes?” asked Homily. “Couldn’t you have looked first?”
“There’s never nobody in the schoolroom. And what’s more,” he went on, “there wasn’t today.”
“Then where was he?”
“In bed. In the night-nursery or whatever it’s called. That’s where he was. Sitting up in bed. With the doors open.”
“Well, you could have looked in the nursery.”
“How could I—halfway up the curtain!”
“Is that where you was?”
“With the cup?”