Understood Betsy  by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Betsy Has a Birthday

Part 1 of 3

Betsy's birthday was the ninth day of September, and the Necronsett Valley Fair is always held from the eighth to the twelfth. So it was decided that Betsy should celebrate her birthday by going up to Woodford, where the Fair was held. The Putneys weren't going that year, but the people on the next farm, the Wendells, said they could make room in their surrey for the two little girls; for, of course, Molly was going, too. In fact, she said the Fair was held partly to celebrate her being six years old. This would happen on the seventeenth of October. Molly insisted that that was plenty  close enough to the ninth of September to be celebrated then. This made Betsy feel like laughing out, but observing that the Putneys only looked at each other with the faintest possible quirk in the corners of their serious mouths, she understood that they were afraid that Molly's feelings might be hurt if they laughed out loud. So Betsy tried to curve her young lips to the same kind and secret mirth.

And, I can't tell you why, this effort not to hurt Molly's feelings made her have a perfect spasm of love for Molly. She threw herself on her and gave her a great hug that tipped them both over on the couch on top of Shep, who stopped snoring with his great gurgling snort, wriggled out from under them, and stood with laughing eyes and wagging tail, looking at them as they rolled and giggled among the pillows.

"What dress are you going to wear to the Fair, Betsy?" asked Cousin Ann. "And we must decide about Molly's, too."

This stopped their rough-and-tumble fun in short order, and they applied themselves to the serious question of a toilet.

When the great day arrived and the surrey drove away from the Wendells' gate, Betsy was in a fresh pink-and-white gingham which she had helped Cousin Ann make, and plump Molly looked like something good to eat in a crisp white little dimity, one of Betsy's old dresses, with a deep hem taken in to make it short enough for the little butter-ball. Because it was Betsy's birthday, she sat on the front seat with Mr. Wendell, and part of the time, when there were not too many teams on the road, she drove, herself. Mrs. Wendell and her sister filled the back seat solidly full from side to side and made one continuous soft lap on which Molly happily perched, her eyes shining, her round cheeks red with joyful excitement. Betsy looked back at her several times and thought how very nice Molly looked. She had, of course, little idea how she herself looked, because the mirrors at Putney Farm were all small and high up, and anyhow they were so old and greenish that they made everybody look very queer-colored. You looked in them to see if your hair was smooth, and that was about all you could stand.

So it was a great surprise to Betsy later in the morning, as she and Molly wandered hand in hand through the wonders of Industrial Hall, to catch sight of Molly in a full-length mirror as clear as water. She was almost startled to see how faithfully reflected were the yellow of the little girl's curls, the clear pink and white of her face, and the blue of her soft eyes. An older girl was reflected there also near Molly, a dark-eyed, red-cheeked, sturdy little girl, standing very straight on two strong legs, holding her head high and free, her dark eyes looking out brightly from her tanned face. For an instant Betsy gazed into those clear eyes and then . . . why, gracious goodness! That was herself she was looking at! How changed she was! How very, very different she looked from the last time she had seen herself in a big mirror! She remembered it well—out shopping with Aunt Frances in a department store, she had caught sight of a pale little girl with a thin neck, and spindling legs half-hidden in the folds of Aunt Frances's skirts. But she didn't look even like the sister of this browned, muscular, upstanding child who held Molly's hand so firmly.

All this came into her mind and went out again in a moment, for Molly caught sight of a big doll in the next aisle and they hurried over to inspect her clothing. The mirror was forgotten in the many exciting sights and sounds and smells of their first county fair.

The two little girls were to wander about as they pleased until noon, when they were to meet the Wendells in the shadow of Industrial Hall and eat their picnic lunch together. The two parties arrived together from different directions, having seen very different sides of the Fair. The children were full of the merry-go-rounds, the balloon-seller, the toy-venders, and the pop-corn stands, while the Wendells exchanged views on the shortness of a hog's legs, the dip in a cow's back, and the thickness of a sheep's wool. The Wendells, it seemed, had met some cousins they didn't expect to see, who, not knowing about Betsy and Molly, had hoped that they might ride home with the Wendells.

"Don't you suppose," Mrs. Wendell asked Betsy, "that you and Molly could go home with the Vaughans? They're here in their big wagon. You could sit on the floor with the Vaughan children."

Betsy and Molly thought this would be great fun, and agreed enthusiastically.

"All right then," said Mrs. Wendell. She called to a young man who stood inside the building, near an open window: "Oh, Frank, Will Vaughan is going to be in your booth this afternoon, isn't he?"

"Yes, ma'am," said the young man. "His turn is from two to four."

"Well, you tell him, will you, that the two little girls who live at Putney Farm are going to go home with them. They can sit on the bottom of the wagon with the Vaughan young ones."

"Yes, ma'am," said the young man, with a noticeable lack of interest in how Betsy and Molly got home.

"Now, Betsy," said Mrs. Wendell, "you go round to that booth at two and ask Will Vaughan what time they're going to start and where their wagon is, and then you be sure not to keep them waiting a minute."

"No, I won't," said Betsy. "I'll be sure to be there on time."

She and Molly still had twenty cents to spend out of the forty they had brought with them, twenty-five earned by berry-picking and fifteen a present from Uncle Henry. They now put their heads together to see how they could make the best possible use of their four nickels. Cousin Ann had put no restrictions whatever on them, saying they could buy any sort of truck or rubbish they could find, except the pink lemonade. She said she had been told the venders washed their glasses in that, and their hands, and for all she knew their faces. Betsy was for merry-go-rounds, but Molly yearned for a big red balloon; and while they were buying that a man came by with toy dogs, little brown dogs with curled-wire tails. He called out that they would bark when you pulled their tails, and seeing the little girls looking at him he pulled the tail of the one he held. It gave forth a fine loud yelp, just like Shep when his tail got stepped on. Betsy bought one, all done up neatly in a box tied with blue string. She thought it a great bargain to get a dog who would bark for five cents. (Later on, when they undid the string and opened the box, they found the dog had one leg broken off and wouldn't make the faintest squeak when his tail was pulled; but that is the sort of thing you must expect to have happen to you at a county fair.)

Now they had ten cents left and they decided to have a ride apiece on the merry-go-round. But, glancing up at the clock-face in the tower over Agricultural Hall, Betsy noticed it was half-past two and she decided to go first to the booth where Will Vaughan was to be and find out what time they would start for home. She found the booth with no difficulty, but William Vaughan was not in it. Nor was the young man she had seen before. There was a new one, a strange one, a careless, whistling young man, with very bright socks, very yellow shoes, and very striped cuffs. He said, in answer to Betsy's inquiry: "Vaughan? Will Vaughan? Never heard the name," and immediately went on whistling and looking up and down the aisle over the heads of the little girls, who stood gazing up at him with very wide, startled eyes. An older man leaned over from the next booth and said: "Will Vaughan? He from Hillsboro? Well, I heard somebody say those Hillsboro Vaughans had word one of their cows was awful sick, and they had to start right home that minute."

Betsy came to herself out of her momentary daze and snatched Molly's hand. "Hurry! quick! We must find the Wendells before they get away!"

In her agitation (for she was really very much frightened) she forgot how easily terrified little Molly was. Her alarm instantly sent the child into a panic. "Oh, Betsy! Betsy! What will we do!" she gasped, as Betsy pulled her along the aisle and out of the door.

"Oh, the Wendells can't be gone yet," said Betsy reassuringly, though she was not at all sure she was telling the truth. She ran as fast as she could drag Molly's fat legs, to the horse-shed where Mr. Wendell had tied his horses and left the surrey. The horse-shed was empty, quite empty.

Betsy stopped short and stood still, her heart seeming to be up in her throat so that she could hardly breathe. After all, she was only ten that day, you must remember. Molly began to cry loudly, hiding her weeping face in Betsy's dress. "What will we do, Betsy! What can we do!"  she wailed.

Betsy did not answer. She did not know what they would  do! They were eight miles from Putney Farm, far too much for Molly to walk, and anyhow neither of them knew the way. They had only ten cents left, and nothing to eat. And the only people they knew in all that throng of strangers had gone back to Hillsboro.

"What will we do, Betsy?" Molly kept on crying out, horrified by Betsy's silence and evident consternation.

The other child's head swam. She tried again the formula which had helped her when Molly fell into the Wolf Pit, and asked herself, desperately, "What would Cousin Ann do if she were here?" But that did not help her much now, because she could not possibly imagine what Cousin Ann would do under such appalling circumstances. Yes, one thing Cousin Ann would be sure to do, of course; she would quiet Molly first of all.

At this thought Betsy sat down on the ground and took the panic-stricken little girl into her lap, wiping away the tears and saying, stoutly, "Now, Molly, stop crying this minute. I'll take care of you, of course. I'll get you home all right."

"How'll you ever do it?" sobbed Molly. "Everybody's gone and left us. We can't walk!"

"Never you mind how," said Betsy, trying to be facetious and mock-mysterious, though her own under lip was quivering a little. "That's my surprise party for you. Just you wait. Now come on back to that booth. Maybe Will Vaughan didn't go home with his folks."

She had very little hope of this, and only went back there because it seemed to her a little less dauntingly strange than every other spot in the howling wilderness about her; for all at once the Fair, which had seemed so lively and cheerful and gay before, seemed now a horrible, frightening, noisy place, full of hurried strangers who came and went their own ways, with not a glance out of their hard eyes for two little girls stranded far from home.

The bright-colored young man was no better when they found him again. He stopped his whistling only long enough to say, "Nope, no Will Vaughan anywhere around these diggings yet."

"We were going home with the Vaughans," murmured Betsy, in a low tone, hoping for some help from him.

"Looks as though you'd better go home on the cars," advised the young man casually. He smoothed his black hair back straighter than ever from his forehead and looked over their heads.

"How much does it cost to go to Hillsboro on the cars?" asked Betsy with a sinking heart.

"You'll have to ask somebody else about that," said the young man. "What I don't know about this Rube state! I never was in it before." He spoke as though he were very proud of the fact.

Betsy turned and went over to the older man who had told them about the Vaughans.

Molly trotted at her heels, quite comforted, now that Betsy was talking so competently to grown-ups. She did not hear what they said, nor try to. Now that Betsy's voice sounded all right she had no more fears. Betsy would manage somehow. She heard Betsy's voice again talking to the other man, but she was busy looking at an exhibit of beautiful jelly glasses, and paid no attention. Then Betsy led her away again out of doors, where everybody was walking back and forth under the bright September sky, blowing on horns, waving plumes of brilliant tissue-paper, tickling each other with peacock feathers, and eating pop-corn and candy out of paper bags.

That reminded Molly that they had ten cents yet. "Oh, Betsy," she proposed, "let's take a nickel of our money for some pop-corn."

She was startled by Betsy's fierce sudden clutch at their little purse and by the quaver in her voice as she answered: "No, no, Molly. We've got to save every cent of that. I've found out it costs thirty cents for us both to go home to Hillsboro on the train. The last one goes at six o'clock."

"We haven't got but ten," said Molly.

Betsy looked at her silently for a moment and then burst out, "I'll earn the rest! I'll earn it somehow! I'll have to! There isn't any other way!"

"All right," said Molly quaintly, not seeing anything unusual in this. "You can, if you want to. I'll wait for you here."

"No you won't!" cried Betsy, who had quite enough of trying to meet people in a crowd. "No, you won't! You just follow me every minute! I don't want you out of my sight!"

They began to move forward now, Betsy's eyes wildly roving from one place to another. How could  a little girl earn money at a county fair! She was horribly afraid to go up and speak to a stranger, and yet how else could she begin?

"Here, Molly, you wait here," she said. "Don't you budge till I come back."

But alas! Molly had only a moment to wait that time, for the man who was selling lemonade answered Betsy's shy question with a stare and a curt, "Lord, no! What could a young one like you do for me?"

The little girls wandered on, Molly calm and expectant, confident in Betsy; Betsy with a very dry mouth and a very gone feeling. They were passing by a big shed-like building now, where a large sign proclaimed that the Woodford Ladies' Aid Society would serve a hot chicken dinner for thirty-five cents. Of course the sign was not accurate, for at half-past three, almost four, the chicken dinner had long ago been all eaten and in place of the diners was a group of weary women moving languidly about or standing saggingly by a great table piled with dirty dishes. Betsy paused here, meditated a moment, and went in rapidly so that her courage would not evaporate.

The woman with gray hair looked down at her a little impatiently and said, "Dinner's all over."

"I didn't come for dinner," said Betsy, swallowing hard. "I came to see if you wouldn't hire me to wash your dishes. I'll do them for twenty-five cents."

The woman laughed, looked from little Betsy to the great pile of dishes, and said, turning away, "Mercy, child, if you washed from now till morning, you wouldn't make a hole in what we've got to do."

Betsy heard her say to the other women, "Some young one wanting more money for the side-shows."