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Understood Betsy by  Dorothy Canfield
Table of Contents


 

 

BETSY GOES TO SCHOOL

[74] ELIZABETH ANN was very much surprised to hear Cousin Ann's voice calling, "Dinner!" down the stairs. It did not seem possible that the whole morning had gone by. "Here," said Aunt Abigail, "just put that pat on a plate, will you, and take it upstairs as you go. I've got all I can do to haul my own two hundred pounds up, without any half-pound of butter into the bargain." The little girl smiled at this, though she did not exactly know why, and skipped up the stairs proudly with her butter.

Dinner was smoking on the table, which was set in the midst of the great pool of sunlight. A very large black-and-white dog, with a great bushy tail, was walking around and around the table, sniffing the air. He looked as big as a bear to Elizabeth Ann; and as he walked his [75] great red tongue hung out of his mouth and his white teeth gleamed horribly. Elizabeth Ann shrank back in terror, clutching her plate of butter to her breast with tense fingers. Cousin Ann said, over her shoulder: "Oh, bother! There's old Shep, got up to pester us begging for scraps! Shep! You go and lie down this minute!"

To Elizabeth Ann's astonishment and immense relief, the great animal turned, drooping his head sadly, walked back across the floor, got upon the couch again, and laid his head down on one paw very forlornly, turning up the whites of his eyes meekly at Cousin Ann.

Aunt Abigail, who had just pulled herself up the stairs, panting, said, between laughing and puffing: "I'm glad I'm not an animal on this farm. Ann does boss them around so." "Well, somebody has to!" said Cousin Ann, advancing on the table with a platter. This proved to have chicken fricassee on it, and Elizabeth Ann's heart melted in her at the smell. She [76] loved chicken gravy on hot biscuits beyond anything in the world, but chickens are so expensive when you buy them in the market that Aunt Harriet hadn't had them very often for dinner. And there was a plate of biscuits, golden brown, just coming out of the oven! She sat down very quickly, her mouth watering, and attacked with extreme haste the big plateful of food which Cousin Ann passed her.

At Aunt Harriet's she had always been aware that everybody watched her anxiously as she ate, and she had heard so much about her light appetite that she felt she must live up to her reputation, and had a very natural and human hesitation about eating all she wanted when there happened to be something she liked very much. But nobody here knew that she "only ate enough to keep a bird alive," and that her "appetite was so capricious!" Nor did anybody notice her while she stowed away the chicken and gravy and hot biscuits and currant jelly and baked potatoes and ap- [77] ple pie—when did Elizabeth Ann ever eat such a meal before? She actually felt her belt grow tight.

In the middle of the meal Cousin Ann got up to answer the telephone, which was in the next room. The instant the door had closed behind her Uncle Henry leaned forward, tapped Elizabeth Ann on the shoulder, and nodded toward the sofa. His eyes were twinkling, and as for Aunt Abigail she began to laugh silently, shaking all over, her napkin at her mouth to stifle the sound. Elizabeth Ann turned wonderingly and saw the old dog cautiously and noiselessly letting himself down from the sofa, one ear cocked rigidly in the direction of Cousin Ann's voice in the next room. "The old tyke!" said Uncle Henry. "He always sneaks up to the table to be fed if Ann goes out for a minute. Here, Betsy, you're nearest, give him this piece of skin from the chicken neck." The big dog padded forward across the room, evidently in such a state of terror about Cousin Ann that Eliza- [78] beth Ann felt for him. She had a fellow-feeling about that relative of hers. Also it was impossible to be afraid of so abjectly meek and guilty an animal. As old Shep came up to her, poking his nose inquiringly on her lap, she shrinkingly held out the big piece of skin, and though she jumped back at the sudden snap and gobbling gulp with which the old dog greeted the tidbit, she could not but sympathize with his evident enjoyment of it. He waved his bushy tail gratefully, cocked his head on one side, and, his ears standing up at attention, his eyes glistening greedily, he gave a little, begging whine. "Oh, he's asking for more!" cried Elizabeth Ann, surprised to see how plainly she could understand dog-talk. "Quick, Uncle Henry, give me another piece!"

Uncle Henry rapidly transferred to her plate a wing-bone from his own, and Aunt Abigail, with one deft swoop, contributed the neck from the platter. As fast as she could, Elizabeth Ann fed these to Shep, who woofed them down at top speed, the bones crunching loudly under [79] his strong, white teeth. How he did enjoy it! It did your heart good to see his gusto!

There was the sound of the telephone receiver being hung up in the next room—and everybody acted at once. Aunt Abigail began drinking innocently out of her coffee-cup, only her laughing old eyes showing over the rim; Uncle Henry buttered a slice of bread with a grave face, as though he were deep in conjectures about who would be the next President; and as for old Shep, he made one plunge across the room, his toe-nails clicking rapidly on the bare floor, sprang up on the couch, and when Cousin Ann opened the door and came in he was lying in exactly the position in which she had left him, his paw stretched out, his head laid on it, his brown eyes turned up meekly so that the whites showed.

I've told you what these three did, but I haven't told you yet what Elizabeth Ann did. And it is worth telling. As Cousin Ann stepped in, glancing suspiciously from her sober-faced and abstracted parents to the lamb-like inno- [80] cent of old Shep, little Elizabeth Ann burst into a shout of laughter. It's worth telling about, because, so far as I know, that was the first time she had ever laughed out heartily in all her life. For my part, I'm half surprised to know that she knew how.

Of course, when she laughed, Aunt Abigail had to laugh too, setting down her coffee-cup and showing all the funny wrinkles in her face screwed up hard with fun; and that made Uncle Henry laugh, and then Cousin Ann laughed and said, as she sat down, "You are bad children, the whole four of you!" And old Shep, seeing the state of things, stopped pretending to be meek, jumped down, and came lumbering over to the table, wagging his tail and laughing too; you know that good, wide dog-smile! He put his head on Elizabeth Ann's lap again and she patted it and lifted up one of his big black ears. She had quite forgotten that she was terribly afraid of big dogs.

After dinner Cousin Ann looked up at the clock and said: "My goodness! Betsy'll be late [81] for school if she doesn't start right off." She explained to the child, aghast at this sudden thunderclap, "I let you sleep this morning as long as you wanted to, because you were so tired from your journey. But of course there's no reason for missing the afternoon session."

As Elizabeth Ann continued sitting perfectly still, frozen with alarm, Cousin Ann jumped up briskly, got the little coat and cap, helped her up, and began inserting the child's arms into the sleeves. She pulled the cap well down over Elizabeth Ann's ears, felt in the pocket and pulled out the mittens. "There," she said, holding them out, "you'd better put them on before you go out, for it's a real cold day." As she led the stupefied little girl along toward the door Aunt Abigail came after them and put a big sugar-cookie into the child's hand. "Maybe you'll like to eat that for your recess time," she said. "I always did when I went to school."

Elizabeth Ann's hand closed automatically about the cookie, but she scarcely heard what [82] was said. She felt herself to be in a bad dream. Aunt Frances had never, no never, let her go to school alone, and on the first day of the year always took her to the new teacher and introduced her and told the teacher how sensitive she was and how hard to understand; and then she stayed there for an hour or two till Elizabeth Ann got used to things! She could not face a whole new school all alone—oh, she couldn't, she wouldn't! She couldn't! Horrors! Here she was in the front hall—she was on the porch! Cousin Ann was saying: "Now run along, child. Straight down the road till the first turn to the left, and there in the cross-roads, there you are." And now the front door closed behind her, the path stretched before her to the road, and the road led down the hill the way Cousin Ann had pointed. Elizabeth Ann's feet began to move forward and carried her down the path, although she was still crying out to herself, "I can't! I won't! I can't!"

Are you wondering why Elizabeth Ann didn't turn right around, open the front door, [83] walk in, and say, "I can't! I won't! I can't!" to Cousin Ann?

The answer to that question is that she didn't do it because Cousin Ann was Cousin Ann. And there's more in that than you think! In fact, there is a mystery in it that nobody has ever solved, not even the greatest scientists and philosophers, although, like all scientists and philosophers, they think they have gone a long way toward explaining something they don't understand by calling it a long name. The long name is "personality," and what it means nobody knows, but it is perhaps the very most important thing in the world for all that. And yet we know only one or two things about it. We know that anybody's personality is made up of the sum total of all the actions and thoughts and desires of his life. And we know that though there aren't any words or any figures in any language to set down that sum total accurately, still it is one of the first things that everybody knows about anybody else. And that is really all we know!

[84] So I can't tell you why Elizabeth Ann did not go back and cry and sob and say she couldn't and she wouldn't and she couldn't, as she would certainly have done at Aunt Harriet's. You remember that I could not even tell you why it was that, as the little fatherless and motherless girl lay in bed looking at Aunt Abigail's old face, she should feel so comforted and protected that she must needs break out crying. No, all I can say is that it was because Aunt Abigail was Aunt Abigail. But perhaps it may occur to you that it's rather a good idea to keep a sharp eye on your "personality," whatever that is! It might be very handy, you know, to have a personality like Cousin Ann's which sent Elizabeth Ann's feet down the path; or perhaps you would prefer one like Aunt Abigail's. Well, take your choice.


You must not, of course, think for a moment that Elizabeth Ann had the slightest intention of obeying Cousin Ann. No indeed! Nothing was farther from her mind as her feet carried [85] her along the path and into the road. In her mind was nothing but rebellion and fear and anger and oh, such hurt feelings! She turned sick at the very thought of facing all the staring, curious faces in the playground turned on the new scholar as she had seen them at home! She would never, never do it! She would walk around all the afternoon, and then go back and tell Cousin Ann that she couldn't! She would explain to her how Aunt Frances never let her go out of doors without a loving hand to cling to. She would explain to her how Aunt Frances always took care of her! . . . it was easier to think about what she would say and do and explain, away from Cousin Ann, than it was to say and do it before those black eyes. Aunt Frances's eyes were soft, light blue.

Oh, how she wanted Aunt Frances to take care of her! Nobody cared a thing about her! Nobody understood her but Aunt Frances! She wouldn't go back at all to Putney Farm. She would just walk on and on till she was lost, and the night would come and she would lie [86] down and freeze to death, and then wouldn't Cousin Ann feel . . . Someone called to her, "Isn't this Betsy?"

She looked up astonished. A young girl in a gingham dress and a white apron like those at Putney Farm stood in front of a tiny, square building, like a toy house. "Isn't this Betsy?" asked the young girl again. "Your Cousin Ann said you were coming to school today and I've been looking out for you. But I saw you going right by, and I ran out to stop you."

"Why, where is the school?" asked Betsy, staring around for a big brick, four-story building.

The young girl laughed and held out her hand. "This is the school," she said, "and I am the teacher, and you'd better come right in, for it's time to begin."

She led Betsy into a low-ceilinged room with geraniums at the windows, where about a dozen children of different ages sat behind their desks. At the first sight of them Betsy [87] blushed crimson with fright and shyness, and hung down her head; but, looking out the corners of her eyes, she saw that they, too, were all very red-faced and scared-looking and hung down their heads, looking at her shyly out of the corners of their eyes. She was so surprised by this that she forgot all about herself and looked inquiringly at the teacher.

"They don't see many strangers," the teacher explained, "and they feel very shy and scared when a new scholar comes, especially one from the city."

"Is this my grade?" asked Elizabeth, thinking it the very smallest grade she had ever seen.

"This is the whole school," said the teacher. "There are only two or three in each class. You'll probably have three in yours. Miss Ann said you were in the third grade. There, that's your seat."

Elizabeth sat down before a very old desk, much battered and hacked up with knife marks. There was a big H.P. carved just over the ink- [88] well, and many other initials scattered all over the top.

The teacher stepped back to her desk and took up a violin that lay there. "Now, children, we'll begin the afternoon session by singing 'America,' " she said. She played the air over a little very sweetly and stirringly, and then as the children stood up she came down close to them, standing just in front of Betsy. She drew the bow across the strings in a big chord, and said, "Now," and Betsy burst into song with the others. The sun came in the windows brightly, the teacher, too, sang as she played, and all the children, even the littlest ones, opened their mouths wide and sang lustily.


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