Understood Betsy  by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

The New Clothes Fail

Part 2 of 2

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, 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, 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 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!

"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 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 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-bye! Good-bye! 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.