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Understood Betsy by  Dorothy Canfield
Table of Contents


 

 

A SHORT MORNING

[52] AUNT ABIGAIL was gone, Eleanor was gone. The room was quite empty except for the bright sunshine pouring in through the small-paned windows. Elizabeth Ann stretched and yawned and looked about her. What funny wall-paper it was—so old-fashioned looking! The picture was of a blue river and a brown mill, with green willow-trees over it, and a man with sacks on his horse's back stood in front of the mill. This picture was repeated a great many times, all over the paper; and in the corner, where it hadn't come out even, they had had to cut it right down the middle of the horse. It was very curious-looking. She stared at it a long time, waiting for somebody to tell her when to get up. At home Aunt Frances always told her, and helped her get [53] dressed. But here nobody came. She discovered that the heat came from a hole in the floor near the bed, which opened down into the room below. From it came a warm breath of baking bread and a muffled thump once in a while.

The sun rose higher and higher, and Elizabeth Ann grew hungrier and hungrier. Finally it occurred to her that it was not absolutely necessary to have somebody tell her to get up. She reached for her clothes and began to dress. When she had finished she went out into the hall, and with a return of her aggrieved, abandoned feeling (you must remember that her stomach was very empty) she began to try to find her way downstairs. She soon found the steps, went down them one at a time, and pushed open the door at the foot. Cousin Ann, the brown-haired one, was ironing near the stove. She nodded and smiled as the child came into the room, and said, "Well, you must feel rested!"

"Oh, I haven't been asleep!" explained [54] Elizabeth Ann. "I was waiting for somebody to tell me to get up."

"Oh," said Cousin Ann, opening her black eyes a little. "Were you?" She said no more than this, but Elizabeth Ann decided hastily that she would not add, as she had been about to, that she was also waiting for somebody to help her dress and do her hair. As a matter of fact, she had greatly enjoyed doing her own hair—the first time she had ever tried it. It had never occurred to Aunt Frances that her little baby-girl had grown up enough to be her own hairdresser, nor had it occurred to Elizabeth Ann that this might be possible. But as she struggled with the snarls she had had a sudden wild idea of doing it a different way from the pretty fashion Aunt Frances always followed. Elizabeth Ann had always secretly envied a girl in her class whose hair was all tied back from her face, with one big knot in her ribbon at the back of her neck. It looked so grown-up. And this morning she had done hers that way, turning her neck till it ached, [55] so that she could see the coveted tight effect at the back. And still—aren't little girls queer?—although she had enjoyed doing her own hair, she was very much inclined to feel hurt because Cousin Ann had not come to do it for her.

Cousin Ann set her iron down with the soft thump which Elizabeth Ann had heard upstairs. She began folding a napkin, and said: "Now reach yourself a bowl off the shelf yonder. The oatmeal's in that kettle on the stove and the milk is in the blue pitcher. If you want a piece of bread and butter, here's a new loaf just out of the oven, and the butter's in that brown crock."

Elizabeth Ann followed these instructions and sat down before this quickly assembled breakfast in a very much surprised silence. At home it took the girl more than half an hour to get breakfast and set the table, and then she had to wait on them besides. She began to pour the milk out of the pitcher and stopped suddenly. "Oh, I'm afraid I've taken [56] more than my share!" she said apologetically.

Cousin Ann looked up from her rapidly moving iron, and said, in an astonished voice: "Your share? What do you mean?"

"My share of the quart," explained Elizabeth Ann. At home they bought a quart of milk and a cup of cream every day, and they were all very conscientious about not taking more than their due share.

"Good land, child, take all the milk you want!" said Cousin Ann, as though she found something shocking in what the little girl had just said. Elizabeth Ann thought to herself that she spoke as though milk ran out of a faucet, like water.

She was fond of milk, and she made a very good breakfast as she sat looking about the low-ceilinged room. It was unlike any room she had ever seen.

It was, of course, the kitchen, and yet it didn't seem possible that the same word could be applied to that room and the small, dark [57] cubby-hole which had been Grace's asthmatical kingdom. This room was very long and narrow, and all along one side were windows with white, ruffled curtains drawn back at the sides, and with small, shining panes of glass, through which the sun poured a golden flood of light on a long shelf of potted plants that took the place of a window-sill. The shelf was covered with shining white oil-cloth, the pots were of clean reddish brown, the sturdy, stocky plants of bright green with clear red-and-white flowers. Elizabeth Ann's eyes wandered all over the kitchen from the low, white ceiling to the clean, bare wooden floor, but they always came back to those sunny windows. Once, back in the big brick school-building, as she had sat drooping her thin shoulders over her desk, some sort of a procession had gone by with a brass band playing a lively air. For some queer reason, every time she now glanced at that sheet of sunlight and the bright flowers she had a little of the same thrill which had straightened her back and gone up and down [58] her spine while the band was playing. Possibly Aunt Frances was right, after all, and Elizabeth Ann was a very impressionable child. I wonder, by the way, if anybody ever saw a child who wasn't.

At one end, the end where Cousin Ann was ironing, stood the kitchen stove, gleaming black, with a tea-kettle humming away on it, a big hot-water boiler near it, and a large kitchen cabinet with lots of drawers and shelves and hooks and things. Beyond that, in the middle of the room, was the table where they had had supper last night, and at which the little girl now sat eating her very late breakfast; and beyond that, at the other end of the room, was another table with an old dark-red cashmere shawl on it for a cover. A large lamp stood in the middle of this, a bookcase near it, two or three rocking-chairs around it, and back of it, against the wall, was a wide sofa covered with bright cretonne, with three bright pillows. Something big and black and woolly was lying on this sofa, snoring loudly. As Cousin Ann saw the [59] little girl's fearful glance alight on this she explained: "That's Shep, our old dog. Doesn't he make an awful noise! Mother says, when she happens to be alone here in the evening, it's a real company to hear Shep snore—as good as having a man in the house."

Although this did not seem at all a sensible remark to Elizabeth Ann, who thought soberly to herself that she didn't see why snoring made a dog as good as a man, still she was acute enough (for she was really quite an intelligent little girl) to feel that it belonged in the same class of remarks as one or two others she had noted as "queer" in the talk at Putney Farm last night. This variety of talk was entirely new to her, nobody in Aunt Harriet's conscientious household ever making anything but plain statements of fact. It was one of the "queer Putney ways" which Aunt Harriet had forgotten to mention. It is possible that Aunt Harriet had never noticed it.

When Elizabeth Ann finished her breakfast, Cousin Ann made three suggestions, using ex- [60] actly the same accent for them all. She said: "Wouldn't you better wash your dishes up now before they get sticky? And don't you want one of those red apples from the dish on the side table? And then maybe you'd like to look around the house so's to know where you are." Elizabeth Ann had never washed a dish in all her life, and she had always thought that nobody but poor, ignorant people, who couldn't afford to hire girls, did such things. And yet (it was odd) she did not feel like saying this to Cousin Ann, who stood there so straight in her gingham dress and apron, with her clear, bright eyes and red cheeks. Besides this feeling, Elizabeth Ann was overcome with embarrassment at the idea of undertaking a new task in that casual way. How in the world did you wash dishes? She stood rooted to the spot, irresolute, horribly shy, and looking, though she did not know it, very clouded and sullen. Cousin Ann said briskly, holding an iron up to her cheek to see if it was hot enough: "Just take them over to the sink there and hold them [61] under the hot-water faucet. They'll be clean in no time. The dish-towels are those hanging on the rack over the stove."

Elizabeth Ann moved promptly over to the sink, as though Cousin Ann's words had shoved her there, and before she knew it, her saucer, cup, and spoon were clean and she was wiping them on a dry checked towel. "The spoon goes in the side-table drawer with the other silver, and the saucer and cup in those shelves there behind the glass doors where the china belongs," continued Cousin Ann, thumping hard with her iron on a napkin and not looking up at all, "and don't forget your apple as you go out. Those Northern Spies are just getting to be good about now. When they first come off the tree in October you could shoot them through an oak plank."

Now Elizabeth Ann knew that this was a foolish thing to say, since of course an apple never could go through a board; but something that had always been sound asleep in her brain woke up a little, little bit and [62] opened one eye. For it occurred dimly to Elizabeth Ann that this was a rather funny way of saying that Northern Spies were very hard when you first pick them in the autumn. She had to figure it out for herself very slowly, because it was a new idea to her, and she was halfway through her tour of inspection of the house before there glimmered on her lips, in a faint smile, the first recognition of humor in all her life. She felt a momentary impulse to call down to Cousin Ann that she saw the point, but before she had taken a single step toward the head of the stairs she had decided not to do this. Cousin Ann, with her bright, dark eyes, and her straight back, and her long arms, and her way of speaking as though it never occurred to her that you wouldn't do just as she said—Elizabeth Ann was not very sure that she liked Cousin Ann, and she was very sure that she was afraid of her.

So she went on, walking from one room to another, industriously eating the red apple, the biggest she had ever seen. It was the best, too, [63] with its crisp, white flesh and the delicious, sour-sweet juice which made Elizabeth Ann feel with each mouthful like hurrying to take another. She did not think much more of the other rooms in the house than she had of the kitchen. There were no draped "throws" over anything; there were no lace curtains at the windows, just dotted Swiss like the kitchen; all the ceilings were very low; the furniture was all of dark wood and very old-looking; what few rugs there were were of bright-colored rags; the mirrors were queer and old, with funny old pictures at the top; there wasn't a brass bed in any of the bedrooms, just old wooden ones with posts, and curtains round the tops; and there was not a single plush portière in the parlor, whereas at Aunt Harriet's there had been two sets for that one room.

She was relieved at the absence of a piano and secretly rejoiced that she would not need to practise. In her heart she had not liked her music lessons at all, but she had never dreamed of not accepting them from Aunt Frances as [64] she accepted everything else. Also she had liked to hear Aunt Frances boast about how much better she could play than other children of her age.

She was downstairs by this time, and, opening a door out of the parlor, found herself back in the kitchen, the long line of sunny windows and the bright flowers giving her that quick little thrill again. Cousin Ann looked up from her ironing, nodded, and said: "All through? You'd better come in and get warmed up. Those rooms get awfully cold these January days. Winters we mostly use this room so's to get the good of the kitchen stove." She added after a moment, during which Elizabeth Ann stood by the stove, warming her hands: "There's one place you haven't seen yet—the milk-room. Mother's down there now, churning. That's the door—the middle one."

Elizabeth Ann had been wondering and wondering where in the world Aunt Abigail was. So she stepped quickly to the door, and went [65] down the cold dark stairs she found there. At the bottom was a door, locked apparently, for she could find no fastening. She heard steps inside, the door was briskly cast open, and she almost fell into the arms of Aunt Abigail, who caught her as she stumbled forward, saying: "Well, I've been expectin' you down here for a long time. I never saw a little girl yet who didn't like to watch butter-making. Don't you love to run the butter-worker over it? I do, myself, for all I'm seventy-two!"

"I don't know anything about it," said Elizabeth Ann. "I don't know what you make butter out of. We always bought ours."

"Well,  for goodness' sakes!" said Aunt Abigail. She turned and called across the room. "Henry, did you ever! Here's Betsy saying she don't know what we make butter out of! She actually never saw anybody making butter!"

Uncle Henry was sitting down, near the window, turning the handle to a small barrel [66] swung between two uprights. He stopped for a moment and considered Aunt Abigail's remark with the same serious attention he had given to Elizabeth Ann's discovery about left and right. Then he began to turn the churn over and over again and said, peaceably: "Well, Mother, you never saw anybody laying asphalt pavement, I'll warrant you! And I suppose Betsy knows all about that."

Elizabeth Ann's spirits rose. She felt very superior indeed. "Oh, yes," she assured them, "I know all about that! Didn't you ever see anybody doing that? Why, I've seen them hundreds of times! Every day as we went to school they were doing over the whole pavement for blocks along there."

Aunt Abigail and Uncle Henry looked at her with interest, and Aunt Abigail said: "Well, now, think of that! Tell us all about it!"

"Why, there's a big black sort of wagon," began Elizabeth Ann, "and they run it up and down and pour out the black stuff on the road. And that's all there is to it." She stopped, [67] rather abruptly, looking uneasy. Uncle Henry inquired: "Now there's one thing I've always wanted to know. How do they keep that stuff from hardening on them? How do they keep it hot?"

The little girl looked blank. "Why, a fire, I suppose," she faltered, searching her memory desperately and finding there only a dim recollection of a red glow somewhere connected with the familiar scene at which she had so often looked with unseeing eyes.

"Of course a fire," agreed Uncle Henry. "But what do they burn in it, coke or coal or wood or charcoal? And how do they get any draft to keep it going?"

Elizabeth Ann shook her head. "I never noticed," she said.

Aunt Abigail asked her now, "What do they do to the road before they pour it on?"

"Do?" said Elizabeth Ann. "I didn't know they did anything."

"Well, they can't pour it right on a dirt [68] road, can they?" asked Aunt Abigail. "Don't they put down cracked stone or something?"

Elizabeth Ann looked down at her toes. "I never noticed," she said.

"I wonder how long it takes for it to harden?" said Uncle Henry.

"I never noticed," said Elizabeth Ann, in a small voice.

Uncle Henry said, "Oh!" and stopped asking questions. Aunt Abigail turned away and put a stick of wood in the stove. Elizabeth Ann did not feel very superior now, and when Aunt Abigail said, "Now the butter's beginning to come. Don't you want to watch and see everything I do, so's you can answer if anybody asks you how butter is made?" Elizabeth Ann understood perfectly what was in Aunt Abigail's mind, and gave to the process of butter-making a more alert and aroused attention than she had ever before given to anything. It was so interesting, too, that in no time she forgot why she was watching, and was absorbed [69] in the fascinations of the dairy for their own sake.

She looked in the churn as Aunt Abigail unscrewed the top, and saw the thick, sour cream separating into buttermilk and tiny golden particles. "It's gathering," said Aunt Abigail, screwing the lid back on. "Father'll churn it a little more till it really comes. And you and I will scald the wooden butter things and get everything ready. You'd better take that apron there to keep your dress clean."

Wouldn't Aunt Frances have been astonished if she could have looked in on Elizabeth Ann that very first morning of her stay at the hateful Putney Farm and have seen her wrapped in a gingham apron, her face bright with interest, trotting here and there in the stone-floored milk-room! She was allowed the excitement of pulling out the plug from the bottom of the churn, and dodged back hastily to escape the gush of buttermilk spouting into the pail held by Aunt Abigail. And she poured the water in to wash the butter, and screwed [70] on the top herself, and, again all herself (for Uncle Henry had gone off as soon as the butter had "come"), swung the barrel back and forth six or seven times to swish the water all through the particles of butter. She even helped Aunt Abigail scoop out the great yellow lumps—her imagination had never conceived of so much butter in all the world! Then Aunt Abigail let her run the curiously shaped wooden butter-worker back and forth over the butter, squeezing out the water, and then pile it up again with her wooden paddle into a mound of gold. She weighed out the salt needed on the scales, and was very much surprised to find that there really is such a thing as an ounce. She had never met it before outside the pages of her arithmetic book and she didn't know it lived anywhere else.

After the salt was worked in she watched Aunt Abigail's deft, wrinkled old hands make pats and rolls. It looked like the greatest fun, and too easy for anything; and when Aunt Abigail asked her if she wouldn't like to make [71] up the last half-pound into a pat for dinner, she took up the wooden paddle confidently. And then she got one of the surprises that Putney Farm seemed to have for her. She discovered that her hands didn't seem to belong to her at all, that her fingers were all thumbs, that she didn't seem to know in the least beforehand how hard a stroke she was going to give nor which way her fingers were going to go. It was, as a matter of fact, the first time Elizabeth Ann had tried to do anything with her hands except to write and figure and play on the piano, and naturally she wasn't very well acquainted with them. She stopped in dismay, looking at the shapeless, battered heap of butter before her and holding out her hands as though they were not part of her.

Aunt Abigail laughed, took up the paddle, and after three or four passes the butter was a smooth, yellow ball. "Well, that brings it all back to me!" she said—­"when I was a little girl, when my grandmother first let me try to make a pat. I was about five years old— [72] my! what a mess I made of it! And I remember—doesn't it seem funny—that she laughed and said her Great-aunt Elmira had taught her how to handle butter right here in this very milk-room. Let's see, Grandmother was born the year the Declaration of Independence was signed. That's quite a while ago, isn't it? But butter hasn't changed much, I guess, nor little girls either."

Elizabeth Ann listened to this statement with a very queer, startled expression on her face, as though she hadn't understood the words. Now for a moment she stood staring up in Aunt Abigail's face, and yet not seeing her at all, because she was thinking so hard. She was thinking! "Why! There were real people living when the Declaration of Independence was signed—real people, not just history people—old women teaching little girls how to do things—right in this very room, on this very floor—and the Declaration of Independence just signed!"

To tell the honest truth, although she had [73] passed a very good examination in the little book on American history they had studied in school, Elizabeth Ann had never to that moment had any notion that there ever had been really and truly any Declaration of Independence at all. It had been like the ounce, living exclusively inside her schoolbooks for little girls to be examined about. And now here Aunt Abigail, talking about a butter-pat, had brought it to life!

Of course all this only lasted a moment, because it was such a new idea! She soon lost track of what she was thinking of; she rubbed her eyes as though she were coming out of a dream, she thought, confusedly: "What did butter have to do with the Declaration of Independence? Nothing, of course! It couldn't!" and the whole impression seemed to pass out of her mind. But it was an impression which was to come again and again during the next few months.


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