Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Borrowers Collection, Page 3

Mary Norton

  “Yes. I couldn’t get up or down.”

  “Oh, Pod,” wailed Homily, “I should never have let you go. Not at your age!”

  “Now, look here,” said Pod, “don’t mistake me. I got up all right. Got up like a bird, as you might say, bobbles or no bobbles. But”—he leaned toward her—“afterwards—with the cup in me hand, if you see what I mean. . . .” He picked it up off the table. “You see, it’s heavy like. You can hold it by the handle, like this . . . but it drops or droops, as you might say. You should take a cup like this in your two hands. A bit of cheese off a shelf, or an apple—well, I drop that . . . give it a push and it falls and I climbs down in me own time and picks it up. But with a cup—you see what I mean? And coming down, you got to watch your feet. And, as I say, some of the bobbles was missing. You didn’t know what you could hold on to, not safely. . . .”

  “Oh, Pod,” said Homily, her eyes full of tears, “what did you do?”

  “Well,” said Pod, sitting back again, “he took the cup.”

  “What do you mean?” exclaimed Homily, aghast.

  Pod avoided her eyes. “Well, he’d been sitting up in bed there watching me. I’d been on that curtain a good ten minutes, because the hall clock had just struck the quarter—”

  “But how do you mean—‘he took the cup’?”

  “Well, he’d got out of bed and there he was standing, looking up. ‘I’ll take the cup,’ he said.”

  “Oh!” gasped Homily, her eyes staring, “and you give it him?”

  “He took it,” said Pod, “ever so gentle. And then, when I was down, he give it me.” Homily put her face in her hands. “Now don’t take on,” said Pod uneasily.

  “He might have caught you,” shuddered Homily in a stifled voice.

  “Yes,” said Pod, “but he just give me the cup. ‘Here you are,’ he said.”

  Homily raised her face. “What are we going to do?” she asked.

  Pod sighed. “Well, there isn’t nothing we can do. Except—”

  “Oh, no,” exclaimed Homily, “not that. Not emigrate. Not that, Pod, now I’ve got the house so nice and a clock and all.”

  “We could take the clock,” said Pod.

  “And Arrietty? What about her? She’s not like those cousins. She can read, Pod, and sew a treat—”

  “He don’t know where we live,” said Pod.

  “But they look,” exclaimed Homily. “Remember Hendreary! They got the cat and—”

  “Now, now,” said Pod, “don’t bring up the past.”

  “But you’ve got to think of it! They got the cat and—”

  “Yes,” said Pod, “but Eggletina was different.”

  “How different? She was Arrietty’s age.”

  “Well, they hadn’t told her, you see. That’s where they went wrong. They tried to make her believe that there wasn’t nothing but was under the floor. They never told her about Mrs. Driver or Crampfurl. Least of all about cats.”

  “There wasn’t any cat,” Homily pointed out, “not till Hendreary was ‘seen.’”

  “Well, there was, then,” said Pod. “You got to tell them, that’s what I say, or they try to find out for themselves.”

  “Pod,” said Homily solemnly, “we haven’t told Arrietty.”

  “Oh, she knows,” said Pod; he moved uncomfortably. “She’s got her grating.”

  “She doesn’t know about Eggletina. She doesn’t know about being ‘seen.’”

  “Well,” said Pod, “we’ll tell her. We always said we would. There’s no hurry.”

  Homily stood up. “Pod,” she said, “we’re going to tell her now.”

  Chapter Five

  ARRIETTY had not been asleep. She had been lying under her knitted coverlet staring up at the ceiling. It was an interesting ceiling. Pod had built Arrietty’s bedroom out of two cigar boxes, and on the ceiling lovely painted ladies dressed in swirls of chiffon blew long trumpets against a background of blue sky; below there were feathery palm trees and small white houses set about a square. It was a glamorous scene, above all by candlelight, but tonight Arrietty had stared without seeing. The wood of a cigar box is thin and Arrietty, lying straight and still under the quilt, had heard the rise and fall of worried voices. She had heard her own name; she had heard Homily exclaim: “Nuts and berries, that’s what they eat!” and she had heard, after a while the heart-felt cry of “What shall we do?”

  So when Homily appeared beside her bed, she wrapped herself obediently in her quilt and, padding in her bare feet along the dusty passage, she joined her parents in the warmth of the kitchen. Crouched on her little stool she sat clasping her knees, shivering a little, and looking from one face to another.

  Homily came beside her and, kneeling on the floor, she placed an arm round Arrietty’s skinny shoulders. “Arrietty,” she said gravely, “you know about upstairs?”

  “What about it?” asked Arrietty.

  “You know there are two giants?”

  “Yes,” said Arrietty, “Great-Aunt Sophy and Mrs. Driver.”

  “That’s right,” said Homily, “and Crampfurl in the garden.” She laid a roughened hand on Arrietty’s clasped ones. “You know about Uncle Hendreary?”

  Arrietty thought awhile. “He went abroad?” she said.

  “Emigrated,” corrected Homily, “to the other side of the world. With Aunt Lupy and all the children. To a badger’s set—a hole in a bank under a hawthorn hedge. Now why do you think he did this?”

  “Oh,” said Arrietty, her face alight, “to be out of doors . . . to lie in the sun . . . to run in the grass . . . to swing on twigs like the birds do . . . to suck honey . . .”

  “Nonsense, Arrietty,” exclaimed Homily sharply, “that’s a nasty habit! And your Uncle Hendreary’s a rheumatic sort of man. He emigrated,” she went on, stressing the word, “because he was ‘seen.’”

  “Oh,” said Arrietty.

  “He was ‘seen’ on the 23rd of April 1892, by Rosa Pickhatchet, on the drawing-room mantelpiece. Of all places . . .” she added suddenly in a wondering aside.

  “Oh,” said Arrietty.

  “I have never heard nor no one has never seen fit to tell why he went on the drawing-room mantelpiece in the first place. There’s nothing on it, your father assures me, which cannot be seen from the floor or by standing sideways on the handle of the bureau and steadying yourself on the key. That’s what your father does if he ever goes into the drawing room—”

  “They said it was a liver pill,” put in Pod.

  “How do you mean?” asked Homily, startled.

  “A liver pill for Lupy.” Pod spoke wearily. ‘Someone started a rumor,” he went on, “that there were liver pills on the drawing-room mantelpiece. . . .”

  “Oh,” said Homily and looked thoughtful, “I never heard that. All the same,” she exclaimed, “it was stupid and foolhardy. There’s no way down except by the bell-pull. She dusted him, they say, with a feather duster, and he stood so still, alongside a cupid, that she might never have noticed him if he hadn’t sneezed. She was new, you see, and didn’t know the ornaments. We heard her screeching right here under the kitchen. And they could never get her to clean anything much after that that wasn’t chairs or tables—least of all the tiger-skin rug.”

  “I don’t hardly never bother with the drawing room,” said Pod. “Everything’s got its place like and they see what goes. There might be a little something left on a table or down the side of a chair, but not without there’s been company, and there never is no company—not for the last ten or twelve year. Sitting here in this chair, I can tell you by heart every blessed thing that’s in that drawing room, working round from the cabinet by the window to the—”

  “There’s a mint of things in that cabinet,” interrupted Homily, “solid silver some of them. A solid silver violin, they got there, strings and all—just right for our Arrietty.”

  “What’s the good,” asked Pod, “of things behind glass?”

  “Couldn’t you break it?”
suggested Arrietty. “Just a corner, just a little tap, just a . . .” Her voice faltered as she saw the shocked amazement on her father’s face.

  “Listen here, Arrietty,” began Homily angrily, and then she controlled herself and patted Arrietty’s clasped hands. “She don’t know much about borrowing,” she explained to Pod. “You can’t blame her.” She turned again to Arrietty. “Borrowing’s a skilled job, an art like. Of all the families who’ve been in this house, there’s only us left, and do you know for why? Because your father, Arrietty, is the best borrower that’s been known in these parts since—well, before your grandad’s time. Even your Aunt Lupy admitted that much. When he was younger I’ve seen your father walk the length of a laid dinner table, after the gong was rung, taking a nut or sweet from, every dish, and down by a fold in the tablecloth as the first people came in at the door. He’d do it just for fun, wouldn’t you, Pod?”

  Pod smiled wanly. “There weren’t no sense in it,” he said.

  “Maybe,” said Homily, “but you did it! Who else would dare?”

  “I were younger then,” said Pod. He sighed and turned to Arrietty. “You don’t break things, lass. That’s not the way to do it. That’s not borrowing. . . .”

  “We were rich then,” said Homily. “Oh, we did have some lovely things! You were only a tot, Arrietty, and wouldn’t remember. We had a whole suite of walnut furniture out of the doll’s house and a set of wineglasses in green glass, and a musical snuffbox, and the cousins would come and we’d have parties. Do you remember, Pod? Not only the cousins. The Harpsichords came. Everybody came—except those Overmantels from the morning room. And we’d dance and dance and the young people would sit out by the grating. Three tunes that snuffbox played—Clementine, God Save the Queen, and the Post-Chaise Gallop. We were the envy of everybody—even the Overmantels. . . .”

  “Who were the Overmantels?” asked Arrietty.

  “Oh, you must’ve heard me talk of the Overmantels,” exclaimed Homily, “that stuck-up lot who lived in the wall high up—among the lath and plaster behind the mantelpiece in the morning room. And a queer lot they were. The men smoked all the time because the tobacco jars were kept there; and they’d climb about and in and out the carvings of the overmantel, sliding down pillars and showing off. The women were a conceited lot too, always admiring themselves in all those bits of overmantel looking-glass. They never asked anyone up there and I, for one, never wanted to go. I’ve no head for heights, and your father never liked the men. He’s always lived steady, your father has, and not only the tobacco jars, but the whisky decanters too, were kept in the morning room and they say those Overmantel men would suck up the dregs in the glasses through those quill pipe-cleaners they keep there on the mantelpiece. I don’t know whether it’s true but they do say that those Overmantel men used to have a party every Tuesday after the bailiff had been to talk business in the morning room. Laid out, they’d be, dead drunk—or so the story goes—on the green plush tablecloth, all among the tin boxes and the account books—”

  “Now, Homily,” protested Pod, who did not like gossip, “I never see’d ’em.”

  “But you wouldn’t put it past them, Pod. You said yourself when I married you not to call on the Overmantels.”

  “They lived so high,” said Pod, “that’s all.”

  “Well, they were a lazy lot—that much you can’t deny. They never had no kind of home life. Kept themselves warm in winter by the heat of the morning-room fire and ate nothing but breakfast food; breakfast, of course, was the only meal served in the morning room.”

  “What happened to them?” asked Arrietty.

  “Well, when the Master died and She took to her bed, there was no more use for the morning room. So the Overmantels had to go. What else could they do? No food, no fire. It’s a bitter cold room in winter.”

  “And the Harpsichords?” asked Arrietty.

  Homily looked thoughtful. “Well, they were different. I’m not saying they weren’t stuck-up too, because they were. Your Aunt Lupy, who married your Uncle Hendreary, was a Harpsichord by marriage and we all know the airs she gave herself.”

  “Now, Homily—” began Pod.

  “Well, she’d no right to. She was only a Rain-Pipe from the stables before she married Harpsichord.”

  “Didn’t she marry Uncle Hendreary?” asked Arrietty.

  “Yes, later. She was a widow with two children and he was a widower with three. It’s no good looking at me like that, Pod. You can’t deny she took it out of poor Hendreary: she thought it was a come-down to marry a Clock.”

  “Why?” asked Arrietty.

  “Because we Clocks live under the kitchen, that’s why. Because we don’t talk fancy grammar and eat anchovy toast. But to live under the kitchen doesn’t say we aren’t educated. The Clocks are just as old a family as the Harpsichords. You remember that, Arrietty, and don’t let anyone tell you different. Your grandfather could count and write down the numbers up to—what was it, Pod?”

  “Fifty-seven,” said Pod.

  “There,” said Homily, “fifty-seven! And your father can count, as you know, Arrietty; he can count and write down the numbers, on and on, as far as it goes. How far does it go, Pod?”

  “Close on a thousand,” said Pod.

  “There!” exclaimed Homily, “and he knows the alphabet because he taught you, Arrietty, didn’t he? And he would have been able to read—wouldn’t you, Pod?—if he hadn’t had to start borrowing so young. Your Uncle Hendreary and your father had to go out borrowing at thirteen—your age, Arrietty, think of it!”

  “But I should like—” began Arrietty.

  “So he didn’t have your advantages,” went on Homily breathlessly, “and just because the Harpsichords lived in the drawing room—they moved in there, in 1837, to a hole in the wainscot just behind where the harpsichord used to stand, if ever there was one, which I doubt—and were really a family called Linen-Press or some such name and changed it to Harpsichord—”

  “What did they live on,” asked Arrietty, “in the drawing room?”

  “Afternoon tea,” said Homily, “nothing but afternoon tea. No wonder the children grew up peaky. Of course, in the old days it was better—muffins and crumpets and such, and good rich cake and jams and jellies. And there was one old Harpsichord who could remember sillabub of an evening. But they had to do their borrowing in such a rush, poor things. On wet days, when the human beings sat all afternoon in the drawing room, the tea would be brought in and taken away again without a chance of the Harpsichords getting near it—and on fine days it might be taken out into the garden. Lupy has told me that, sometimes, there were days and days when they lived on crumbs and on water out of the flower vases. So you can’t be too hard on them; their only comfort, poor things, was to show off a bit and wear evening dress and talk like ladies and gentlemen. Did you ever hear your Aunt Lupy talk?”

  “Yes. No. I can’t remember.”

  “Oh, you should have heard her say ‘Parquet’—that’s the stuff the drawing-room floor’s made of—‘Parkay . . . Parr-r-kay,’ she’d say. Oh, it was lovely. Come to think of it, your Aunt Lupy was the most stuck-up of them all. . . .”

  “Arrietty’s shivering,” said Pod. “We didn’t get the little maid up to talk about Aunt Lupy.”

  “Nor we did,” cried Homily, suddenly contrite. “You should’ve stopped me, Pod. There, my lamb, tuck this quilt right round you and I’ll get you a nice drop of piping hot soup!”

  “And yet,” said Pod as Homily, fussing at the stove, ladled soup into the tea cup, “we did in a way.”

  “Did what?” asked Homily.

  “Get her here to talk about Aunt Lupy. Aunt Lupy, Uncle Hendreary, and”—he paused—“Eggletina.”

  “Let her drink up her soup first,” said Homily.

  “There’s no call for her to stop drinking,” said Pod.

  Chapter Six

  “YOUR mother and I got you up,” said Pod, “to tell you about upstairs.”

  Arrietty, holding the great cup in both hands, looked at him over the edge.

  Pod coughed. “You said a while back that the sky was dark brown with cracks in it. Well, it isn’t.” He looked at her almost accusingly. “It’s blue.”

  “I know,” said Arrietty.

  “You know!” exclaimed Pod.

  “Yes, of course I know. I’ve got the grating.”

  “Can you see the sky through the grating?”

  “Go on,” interrupted Homily, “tell her about the gates.”

  “Well,” said Pod ponderously, “if you go outside this room, what do you see?”

  “A dark passage,” said Arrietty.

  “And what else?”

  “Other rooms.”

  “And if you go farther?”

  “More passages.”

  “And, if you go walking on and on, in all the passages under the floor, however they twist and turn, what do you find?”

  “Gates,” said Arrietty.

  “Strong gates,” said Pod, “gates you can’t open. What are they there for?”

  “Against the mice?” said Arrietty.

  “Yes,” agreed Pod uncertainly, as though he gave her half a mark, “but mice never hurt no one. What else?”

  “Rats?” suggested Arrietty.

  “We don’t have rats,” said Pod. “What about cats?”

  “Cats?” echoed Arrietty, surprised.

  “Or to keep you in?” suggested Pod.

  “To keep me in?” repeated Arrietty, dismayed.

  “Upstairs is a dangerous place,” said Pod. “And you, Arrietty, you’re all we’ve got, see? It isn’t like Hendreary—he still has two of his own and two of hers. Once,” said Pod, “Hendreary had three—three of his own.”

  “Your father’s thinking of Eggletina,” said Homily.

  “Yes,” said Pod, “Eggletina. They never told her about upstairs. And they hadn’t got no grating. They told her the sky was nailed up, like, with cracks in it—”

  “A foolish way to bring up a child,” murmured Homily. She sniffed slightly and touched Arrietty’s hair.