The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter

The Tale of Holly How
by
Susan Wittig Albert

Chapter One

ISBN: 0425202747
Format: Hardcover, 320pp
Pub. Date: July 2005
Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)

Near Sawrey, July, 1906
Miss Potter Becomes a Farmer

It was high summer in the Lake District. The green meadows and hills were drowsy under the July sun, and there had been so little rain that even the nettles in the lane were limp and parched. The cloudless sky arching over the lakes and fells was the deepest blue, and the wandering breeze was laced with the fresh, sweet scent of wild rose and honeysuckle and the call of the skylark. It was the sort of warm summer day that Beatrix Potter loved, and a great relief after the chill London spring that made her nose run and her joints ache.

But this morning, Beatrix was not thinking of the lovely weather. She was surveying her pigs.

"Well, now, Miss Potter," said the farmer. "Wha' dustha think? Will they do?"

Beatrix folded her arms and regarded the newly repaired pigsty and the six recently purchased Berkshire hogs, black and white and promisingly plump. "I think," she said after a moment, "that they will do very well. And that they ought to be quite content in their new pigsty." She added dryly, "It isn't pretty, and Mr. Biddle certainly charged us enough, but I daresay it will do, too."

"At least they woan't be runnin' up and down t' Kendal road, underfoot of t' horses," John Jennings replied in a practical tone. He rubbed his brown beard. "T' auld fence was rotten reet through, top t' bottom and all round. Had to be rebuilt, like it or not."

That was undeniably true. Hill Top Farm, at the edge of the Lake District village of Near Sawrey, had been in the Preston family for half a century before Beatrix purchased it the year before. The buildings had been allowed to run down, the livestock had been sold when Mr. Preston died, and the whole place wore a sad, neglected look that seemed to beg for cleanup and fix-up. In fact, there seemed to be an endless amount of replacing, repairing, rebuilding, and restocking to do—and to pay for. Beatrix was new to farming ("nobbut a reet beginner," the Sawrey villagers liked to say with a sarcastic chuckle), and every day seemed to bring a different and more costly surprise. Beatrix loved her new farm, but the expenses were certainly beginning to add up.

"She's calculating how much those porkers are going to cost before they're bacon," said Tabitha Twitchit, the senior village cat. Tabitha, a calico with an orange-and-white bib, lived at Belle Green, but like most of the other village cats, went pretty well anywhere she pleased.

"A pretty penny, no doubt," Crumpet commented authoritatively. "Things always cost more than Big Folks expect." Crumpet, a sleek, smart-looking gray tabby with a red leather collar, was an observant cat who made it her business to know everything that happened in Sawrey and considered herself an expert in practical psychology, and the way Big Folk thought and acted.

"Wait until she finds out that pigs never stop eating," Tabitha Twitchet went on with some disdain. "That'll make her think twice." Tabitha liked most barnyard animals—horses, cows, chickens, ducks, and even sheep. But she detested pigs, who in her view were greedy, smelly, lazy lay-abouts who deserved their ultimate fate: served up at the holiday table with an apple in their mouths, or made into rashers and tasty Cumberland sausages.

Felicia Frummety daintily licked one ginger-colored paw. "Mrs. Jennings says that Miss Potter is making a mint of money from those little animal books of hers, so I doubt she'd fuss over the cost of a few pigs." Felicia lived at Hill Top, where she was supposed to be in charge of rat-and-mouse control. But although she caught one or two just often enough to make people think she was doing her job, the Hill Top rats and mice were mostly left to their own devices.

"How much money Miss Potter makes is no business of Mrs. Jennings—and certainly not yours, Felicia Frummety," Crumpet growled. It was her belief that Felicia (who had been only a ginger cat with no particular claim to distinction before Miss Potter came along and gave her a clever name) had begun to put on airs, as if being the chief cat at Hill Top had some special merit. "Especially since you don't bother to earn your keep," she added with a sniff. Cats who were derelict in their duties were beneath contempt, in her opinion.

"I do too earn my keep!" Felicia retorted, narrowing her eyes. "I caught a mouse just yesterday. And anyway, what right do you have to criticize me?"

"She has every right," Tabitha said slyly. "For one thing, she's much older than you are."

"Older!" Crumpet spat. "I am not a day older than that hussy!"

"Call me names, will you?" Felicia snarled, unsheathing her claws. "Why, I'll—"

"Hod on!" the farmer cried. "Hold that flaysome din!" He threw a dirt clod at the animals, who scampered away to the safety of the stone wall. To Beatrix, he said, "Ben Hornby is sellin' off some of his Herdwick ewes and lambs at Holly How Farm. He keeps good sheep, Ben does, and I've bought two of his ewes and their lambs, to increase t' flock here. Five, all told. Like t' drive up there wi' me tomorrow afternoon to have a look at 'em, a-fore Ben brings 'em down here?"

"Yes, indeed," Beatrix replied promptly. Mr. Hornby was reputed to breed the best Herdwicks in the district. Having Ben Hornby's Herdwicks in her flock would mean a fine crop of lambs next spring.

Hearing the clang of milk pails, she turned to look toward the farmhouse, where Mrs. Jennings was rinsing buckets under the outdoor pump. The seventeenth-century house was built of Lake District stone, in traditional Lake District style, with a slate roof and slate-capped chimneys, eight-over-eight mullioned windows, and a simple porch—a plain, rather austere little house, some might think, but pure in its simplicity and already very dear to Beatrix. When the new extension was finished—a handsome two-story wing that replaced the old lean-to kitchen and added quite a bit of room to the house—the five Jenningses would live there. And she would finally have the farmhouse all to herself.

If it was finished, Beatrix thought glumly. Mr. Biddle, the building contractor who was handling the work, seemed determined to create all sorts of delays and distractions. He liked to pretend that the delays were caused by problems in the drawings she had given him, but Beatrix thought it more likely that he simply didn't like the idea of taking orders from a woman. They had already had several rows, each one worse than the one before. The very worst was yesterday, when he told her that he wanted to tear out the cupboards and the old staircase in the main room of the old house—the only way to keep out the rats, he claimed. Beatrix agreed that the rats were a serious problem. But the cupboards and closets and hidden staircase were among the many things she loved about the old house, and she was not having them torn out! And if Mr. Biddle didn't follow her instructions, she would dismiss him, although it would mean another delay in finishing the house.

But even when the house was finally done, Beatrix knew that she wouldn't be able to live there all year round. Her mother and father expected her to be with them, either at the family home in Bolton Gardens, or on their various holiday excursions, and Beatrix did her best to be a dutiful daughter. Like it or not, she had to spend most of her time in London, where she managed the servants, looked after her mother, and tried to squeeze her own work into whatever time was left over—not a very happy arrangement, but that's how it was, and she did her best to endure it.

It had been on one of their family holidays that Mr. and Mrs. Potter had rented a large house called Lakefield and Beatrix had discovered the twin hamlets of Near and Far Sawrey, nestled between two lakes: Windermere, the largest and deepest lake in England, and Esthwaite Water, which Beatrix thought the prettiest. The names of the two Sawreys always confused casual visitors, for they seemed entirely backward. The hotel, Sawrey School, St. Peter's church, and the vicarage were located in Far Sawrey, which lay at the top of Ferry Hill, just a mile from Lake Windermere. Near Sawrey, on the other hand, was smaller and less important and farther away, another half-mile further on. But the confusion was cleared up when visitors glanced at a map and realized that "far" and "near" described the distance to the ancient market town of Hawkshead, for centuries the most important settlement in the area. Near Sawrey (sawrey was an Anglo-Saxon word for the rushes that flourished along the shore of Esthwaite Water) was only three miles from Hawkshead, whilst Far Sawrey was a half-mile farther away.

Beatrix had immediately felt at home in this little bit of England, which some people called the Land Between the Lakes. She loved the fells that thrust skyward beyond blue Esthwaite Water, the velvety green valleys dotted with fluffy white tufts of grazing sheep, the craggy hills strong and unmoving under the dancing clouds, the sparkling becks laughing in the sun. Sawrey was only a day's railway ride from London and less than that from the densely populated Midlands, but the village seemed to Beatrix to be on the other side of the moon. The only way across Lake Windermere was an unreliable steam ferry, whilst the roads over the fells were steep and treacherous. And because Sawrey was isolated, it seemed to Beatrix to be somehow unchanging and unchangeable. This was a welcome thought in the first decade of a new century that had already brought with it more changes than most sensible people welcomed: speeding motorcars, shrill telephones, harsh electric lights, titanic steamships, a new and untried king, and a Liberal government.

From her very first visit, Beatrix had felt comfortable with the quaint, old-fashioned ways of the village, and she was delighted when her parents rented Lakefield for another holiday season. She spent many happy hours wandering along the shore of the lake and sketching in the village. And when she learnt that Hill Top Farm was for sale, she didn't hesitate. She knew she wanted it, and she had the money to buy it: the royalties from her children's books and a small legacy from her aunt. She had paid twice what the farm was worth, the villagers said. She suspected that they were right, for her father's solicitors had arranged the purchase, and she hadn't been permitted to bargain for a lower price. But the cost hadn't mattered, except as a matter of pride, for Beatrix had the feeling that everything in her life had led up to the moment that Hill Top Farm finally belonged to her, and that buying the farm was the single most important thing she had ever done. From that moment on, she knew, her life would be different.

Beatrix also knew that the farm would not have assumed such an enormous importance if it hadn't been for what happened to Norman. The previous July, just a year ago, Norman Warne, her editor at Frederick Warne & Company, had asked her to marry him. Norman was a kind, gentle man who had encouraged her to keep on drawing and writing her "little books." First, of course, there was The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and after that, The Tailor of Gloucester, and then several more, very quickly, until they had produced seven books together. She visited his office in Bedford Street frequently, and the two of them exchanged almost daily letters as they worked out the various problems that always seemed to crop up.

But her parents, who had very little enthusiasm for her literary efforts, made sure that Beatrix was always chaperoned on the trips to Bedford Street and refused to allow her to accept even a luncheon invitation from Norman's mother. When she told them that Norman had proposed, they objected, loudly and angrily. Beatrix was a gentleman's daughter, her mother pointed out, and Norman and his family were "in trade" and socially beneath them. Couldn't she see that a Potter could never marry a Warne? Couldn't she see how much she was hurting her mother and flaunting her father's wishes? But Beatrix knew her own heart. She wrote to Norman to tell him yes and to accept his engagement ring. Even though her parents forbade them to tell anyone other than their immediate families about their engagement and although they could not marry straightaway—not for years, perhaps—Beatrix was determined to make her own happiness. Someday, somehow, she would become the wife of the friend she had grown to love.

But the happiness that she hugged to herself like a sweet, warm hope had quickly turned to a bleak and chilly grief. Norman fell ill with an acute form of leukemia and died a month after their engagement. Beatrix was desolated, whilst her father and mother could scarcely hide their relief that the marriage they dreaded was no longer a threat. Not even the thought of her work could lift Beatrix out of her despair. In fact, drawing and writing now seemed utterly impossible. Norman had not only been her friend and her editor, he had been her best audience, for he seemed to know instinctively what children would like. He had encouraged and guided her at every step along the way. Without him, she was lost. Without him, how could she go on? But go on she did, and perhaps she was saved by the energy she put into saving Hill Top Farm. To keep the house for herself and yet keep a farmer who could tend the place whilest she was absent, she needed to design an extension and oversee its construction—in spite of Mr. Biddle and all his objections and delays.

And if the old, run-down place were to become a real farm, there had to be farm animals: sheep, cows, pigs, horses, chickens. This were certainly a challenge for a lady who had never thought to become a farmer, but it was a challenge that Beatrix welcomed, for it gave her new things to think about, and a new future to look forward to.

Yes, Beatrix needed Hill Top, and Hill Top needed her. And although her parents complained that her new hobby would distract her from her family duties, even they had to admit that buying a farm was preferable to the awful prospect of a daughter's marrying into trade!

The purchase of Hill Top had been completed in the autumn of the previous year, and Beatrix had come to Sawrey as often as she could get away from her parents. With each trip, she felt more at home in the village, although she wasn't sure she would ever be accepted by the villagers themselves. The men seemed to resent her for buying a farm that might have been bought by a real farmer, and the women couldn't understand why an unmarried lady from a wealthy family wanted to live in such a rural place, away from the intrigues and excitements of London. But with each trip, there was more to do: overseeing the expansion of the house, rebuilding the dairy and pigsty, redirecting the farm track that went past the door, and acquiring a small herd of cows and the beginnings of a flock of sheep. And pigs.

She turned to look once more at the Berkshires rooting enthusiastically in the mud, and smiled to herself. Yes, the pigs would do, and the Herdwick ewes and lambs from Holly How, if they could be got. Yes. It would all do, she thought contentedly. It would do very well.

On the stone wall, Tabitha was the first to speak. "Ben Hornby's Herdwicks, coming to Hill Top," she remarked reflectively. "Wonder if Tibbie and Queenie will be in the lot."

"Now, that would be nice," Crumpet said. "I'm not over-fond of sheep, but Tibbie is certainly pleasant."

"Sheep," Felicia said in a scornful tone, "are the stupidist creatures on God's green earth. Not even smart enough to come in out of the rain. And they are always in need of grooming. They have no idea how to take care of themselves." She licked her right paw and smoothed her whiskers, of which she was very proud.

"They do their jobs, at least," Crumpet retorted smartly, "which is more than some of us can say."

Felicia's sharp claws shot out, and Crumpet danced backward, squalling. Tabitha shrieked at the top of her lungs.

"Stop it, I say!" the farmer roared. He threw another clod of dirt, and the animals leapt off the wall and scattered into the rockery.

Miss Potter burst into laughter. "What pickles," she said. "I think I shall have to make a book about them."


Excerpted from The Tale of Holly How by Susan Wittig Albert Copyright ©2005 by Susan Wittig Albert. Excerpted by permission of Berkley Prime Crime. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.



Text and graphics ©2007-2017 Susan Wittig Albert. Do not use without written permission.

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