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Understood Betsy by  Dorothy Canfield
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THE NEW CLOTHES FAIL

[186] ALL the little girls went early to school the next day, eager for the first glimpse of 'Lias in his new clothes. They now quite enjoyed the mystery about who had made them, and were full of agreeable excitement as the little figure was seen approaching down the road. He wore the gray trousers and the little blue shirt; the trousers were a little too long, the shirt a perfect fit. The girls gazed at him with pride as he came on the playground, walking briskly along in the new shoes, which were just the right size. He had been wearing all winter a pair of cast-off women's shoes.

From a distance he looked like another child. But as he came closer. . . oh! his face! his hair! his hands! his finger-nails! The little [187] fellow had evidently tried to live up to his beautiful new raiment, for his hair had been roughly put back from his face, and around his mouth and nose was a small area of almost clean skin, where he had made an attempt at washing his face. But he had made practically no impression on the layers of encrusted dirt, and the little girls looked at him ruefully. Mr. Pond would certainly never take a fancy to such a dreadfully grimy child! His new, clean clothes made him look all the worse, as though dirty on purpose!

The little girls retired to their rock-pile and talked over their bitter disappointment, Ralph and the other boys absorbed in a game of marbles near them. 'Lias had gone proudly into the schoolroom to show himself to Miss Benton.

It was the day before Decoration Day and a good deal of time was taken up with practising on the recitations they were going to give at the Decoration Day exercises in the village. Several of the children from each school in the township were to speak pieces in the Town Hall. [188] Betsy was to recite Barbara Frietchie, her first love in that school, but she droned it over with none of her usual pleasure, her eyes on little 'Lias's smiling face, so unconscious of its dinginess.

At noon time the boys disappeared down toward the swimming-hole. They often took a swim at noon and nobody thought anything about it on that day. The little girls ate their lunch on their rock, mourning over the failure of their plans, and scheming ways to meet the new obstacle. Stashie suggested, "Couldn't your Aunt Abigail invite him up to your house for supper and then give him a bath afterward?" But Betsy, although she had never heard of treating a supper-guest in this way, was sure that it was not possible. She shook her head sadly, her eyes on the far-off gleam of white where the boys jumped up and down in their swimming-hole. That was not a good name for it, because there was only one part of it deep enough to swim in. Mostly it was a shallow bay in an arm of the river, where the water was [189] only up to a little boy's knees and where there was almost no current. The sun beating down on it made it quite warm, and even the first-graders' mothers allowed them to go in. They only jumped up and down and squealed and splashed each other, but they enjoyed that quite as much as Frank and Harry, the two seventh-graders, enjoyed their swooping dives from the spring-board over the pool. They were late in getting back from the river that day and Miss Benton had to ring her bell hard in that direction before they came trooping up and clattered into the schoolroom, where the girls already sat, their eyes lowered virtuously to their books, with a prim air of self-righteousness. They were never late!

Betsy was reciting her arithmetic. She was getting on famously with that. Weeks ago, as soon as Miss Benton had seen the confusion of the little girl's mind, the two had settled down to a serious struggle with that subject. Miss Benton had had Betsy recite all by herself, so she wouldn't be flurried by the others; and to [190] begin with had gone back, back, back to bedrock, to things Betsy absolutely knew, to the 2 x 2's and the 3 x 3's. And then, very cautiously, a step at a time, they had advanced, stopping short whenever Betsy felt a beginning of that bewildered "guessing" impulse which made her answer wildly at random.

After a while, in the dark night which arithmetic had always been to her, Betsy began to make out a few definite outlines, which were always there, facts which she knew to be so without guessing from the expression of her teacher's face. From that moment her progress had been rapid, one sure fact hooking itself on to another, and another one on to that. She attacked a page of problems now with a zest and self-confidence which made her arithmetic lessons among the most interesting hours at school. On that day she was standing up at the board, a piece of chalk in her hand, chewing her tongue and thinking hard how to find out the amount of wall-paper needed for a room 12 feet square with two doors and two [191] windows in it, when her eyes fell on little 'Lias, bent over his reading book. She forgot her arithmetic, she forgot where she was. She stared and stared, till Ellen, catching the direction of her eyes, looked and stared too. Little 'Lias was clean, preternaturally, almost wetly clean. His face was clean and shining, his ears shone pink and fair, his hands were absolutely spotless, even his hay-colored hair was clean and, still damp, brushed flatly back till it shone in the sun. Betsy blinked her eyes a great many times, thinking she must be dreaming, but every time she opened them there was 'Lias, looking white and polished like a new willow whistle.

Somebody poked her hard in the ribs. She started and, turning, saw Ralph, who was doing a sum beside her on the board, scowling at her under his black brows. "Quit gawking at 'Lias," he said under his breath. "You make me tired!" Something conscious and shame-faced in his manner made Betsy understand at once what had happened. Ralph had taken [192] 'Lias down to the little boys' wading place and had washed him all over. She remembered now that they had a piece of yellow soap there.

Her face broke into a radiant smile and she began to say something to Ralph about how nice that was of him, but he frowned again and said, crossly, "Aw, cut it out! Look at what you've done there! If I couldn't 9 x 8 and get it right!"

"How queer boys are!" thought Betsy, erasing her mistake and putting down the right answer. But she did not try to speak to Ralph again about 'Lias, not even after school, when she saw 'Lias going home with a new cap on his head which she recognized as Ralph's. She just looked at Ralph's bare head, and smiled her eyes at him, keeping the rest of her face sober, the way Cousin Ann did. For just a minute Ralph almost smiled back. At least he looked quite friendly. They stepped along toward home together, the first time Ralph had ever condescended to walk beside a girl.

"We got a new colt," he said.

[193] "Have you?" she said. "What color?"

"Black, with a white star, and they're going to let me ride him when he's old enough."

"My! Won't that be nice!" said Betsy.

And all the time they were both thinking of little 'Lias with his new clothes and his sweet, thin face shining with cleanliness.

"Do you like spruce gum?" asked Ralph.

"Oh, I love gum!" said Betsy.

"Well, I'll bring you down a chunk tomorrow, if I don't forget it," said Ralph, turning off at the cross-roads.

They had not mentioned 'Lias at all.

The next day they were to have school only in the morning. In the afternoon they were to go in a big hay-wagon down to the village to the "exercises." 'Lias came to school in his new blue-serge trousers and his white blouse. The little girls gloated over his appearance, and hung around him, for who was to "visit school" that morning but Mr. Pond himself! Cousin Ann had arranged it somehow. It took Cousin Ann to fix things! During recess, [194] as they were playing still-pond-no-more-moving on the playground, Mr. Pond and Uncle Henry drew up to the edge of the playground, stopped their horse, and, talking and laughing together, watched the children at play. Betsy looked hard at the big, burly, kind-faced man with the smiling eyes and the hearty laugh, and decided that he would "do" perfectly for 'Lias. But what she decided was to have little importance, apparently, for after all he would not get out of the wagon, but said he'd have to drive right on to the village. Just like that, with no excuse other than a careless glance at his watch. No, he guessed he wouldn't have time, this morning, he said. Betsy cast an imploring look up into Uncle Henry's face, but evidently he felt himself quite helpless, too. Oh, if only Cousin Ann had come! She would have marched him into the schoolhouse double-quick. But Uncle Henry was not Cousin Ann, and though Betsy saw him, as they drove away, conscientiously point out little 'Lias, resplendent and shining, Mr. Pond only nodded absently, [195] as though he were thinking of something else.

Betsy could have cried with disappointment; but she and the other girls, putting their heads together for comfort, told each other that there was time enough yet. Mr. Pond would not leave town till tomorrow. Perhaps . . . there was still some hope.

But that afternoon even this last hope was dashed. As they gathered at the schoolhouse, the girls fresh and crisp in their newly starched dresses, with red or blue hair-ribbons, the boys very self-conscious in their dark suits, clean collars, new caps (all but Ralph), and blacked shoes, there was no little 'Lias. They waited and waited, but there was no sign of him. Finally Uncle Henry, who was to drive the straw-ride down to town, looked at his watch, gathered up the reins, and said they would be late if they didn't start right away. Maybe 'Lias had had a chance to ride in with somebody else.

They all piled in, the horses stepped off, the wheels grated on the stones. And just at [196] that moment a dismal sound of sobbing wails reached them from the woodshed back of the schoolhouse. The children tumbled out as fast as they had tumbled in, and ran back, Betsy and Ralph at their head. There in the woodshed was little 'Lias, huddled in the corner behind some wood, crying and crying and crying, digging his fists into his eyes, his face all smeared with tears and dirt. And he was dressed again in his filthy, torn old overalls and ragged shirt. His poor little bare feet shone with a piteous cleanliness in that dark place.

"What's the matter? What's the matter?" the children asked him all at once. He flung himself on Ralph, burying his face in the other boy's coat, and sobbed out some disjointed story which only Ralph could hear . . . and then as last and final climax of the disaster, who should come looking over the shoulders of the children but Uncle Henry and Mr. Pond! And 'Lias all ragged and dirty again! Betsy sat down weakly on a pile of wood, utterly disheartened. What was the use of anything!

[197] "What's the matter?" asked the two men together.

Ralph turned, with an angry toss of his dark head, and told them bitterly, over the heads of the children: "He just had some decent clothes. . . . First ones he's ever had! And he was lotting on going to the exercises in the Town Hall. And that darned old skunk of a stepfather has gone and taken 'em and sold 'em to get whiskey. I'd like to kill him!"

Betsy could have flung her arms around Ralph, he looked so exactly the way she felt. "Yes, he is a darned old skunk!" she said to herself, rejoicing in the bad words she did not know before. It took bad words to qualify what had happened.

She saw an electric spark pass from Ralph's blazing eyes to Mr. Pond's broad face, now grim and fierce. She saw Mr. Pond step forward, brushing the children out of his way, like a giant among dwarfs. She saw him stoop and pick little 'Lias up in his great, strong arms, and, holding him close, stride furiously [198] out of the woodshed, across the playground to the buggy which was waiting for him.

"He'll go to the exercises all right!" he called back over his shoulder in a great roar. "He'll go if I have to buy out the whole town to get him an outfit! And that whelp won't get these clothes, either; you hear me say so!"

He sprang into the buggy and, holding 'Lias on his lap, took up the reins and drove rapidly forward.

They saw little 'Lias again, entering the Town Hall, holding fast to Mr. Pond's hand. He was magnificent in a whole suit of store clothes, coat and all, and he wore white stockings and neat, low shoes, like a city child!

They saw him later, up on the platform, squeaking out his little patriotic poem, his eyes, shining like stars, fixed on one broad, smiling face in the audience. When he finished he was overcome with shyness by the applause, and for a moment forgot to turn and leave the platform. He hung his head, and, looking out from under his eyebrows, gave a quaint, shy [199] little smile at the audience. Betsy saw Mr. Pond's great smile waver and grow dim. His eyes filled so full that he had to take out his handkerchief and blow his nose loudly.

And they saw little 'Lias once more, for the last time. Mr. Pond's buggy drove rapidly past their slow-moving hay-wagon, Mr. Pond holding the reins masterfully in one hand. Beside him, very close, sat 'Lias with his lap full of toys, oh, full—like Christmas! In that fleeting glimpse they saw a toy train, a stuffed dog, a candy-box, a pile of picture-books, tops, paper-bags, and even the swinging crane of the big mechanical toy dredge that everybody said the storekeeper could never sell to anybody because it cost so much!

As they passed swiftly, 'Lias looked out at them and waved his little hand flutteringly. His other hand was tightly clasped in Mr. Pond's big one. He was smiling at them all. His eyes looked dazed and radiant. He turned his head as the buggy flashed by to call out, in a shrill, exulting little shout, "Good-by! Good-by! [200] I'm going to live with . . . " They could hear no more. He was gone, only his little hand still waving at them over the back of the buggy seat.

Betsy drew a long, long breath. She found that Ralph was looking at her. For a moment, she couldn't think what made him look so different. Then she saw that he was smiling. She had never seen him smile before. He smiled at her as though he were sure she would understand, and never said a word. Betsy looked forward again and saw the gleaming buggy vanishing over the hill in front of them. She smiled back at Ralph silently.

Not a thing had happened the way she had planned; no, not a single thing! But it seemed to her she had never been so happy in her life.


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