Understood Betsy  by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

"Understood Aunt Frances"

Part 2 of 4

They read it there, looking over each other's shoulders, with grave faces. Then, still silently, they all turned and went back into the house, leaving their forgotten bags and barrels and baskets out under the trees. When they found themselves in the kitchen—"Well, it's supper-time, anyhow," said Cousin Ann hastily, as if ashamed of losing her composure, "or almost time. We might as well get it now."

"I'm a-going out to milk," said Uncle Henry gruffly, although it was not nearly his usual time. He took up the milk pails and marched out toward the barn, stepping heavily, his head hanging.

Shep woke up with a snort and, getting off the couch, gamboled clumsily up to Betsy, wagging his tail and jumping up on her, ready for a frolic. That was almost too much for Betsy! To think that after tomorrow she would never see Shep again—nor Eleanor! Nor the kittens! She choked as she bent over Shep and put her arms around his neck for a great hug. But she mustn't cry, she mustn't hurt Aunt Frances's feelings, or show that she wasn't glad to go back to her. That wouldn't be fair, after all Aunt Frances had done for her!

That night she lay awake after she and Molly had gone to bed and Molly was asleep. They had decided not to tell Molly until the last minute, so she had dropped off peacefully, as usual. But poor Betsy's eyes were wide open. She saw a gleam of light under the door. It widened; the door opened. Aunt Abigail stood there, in her night cap, mountainous in her long white gown, a candle shining up into her serious old face.

"You awake, Betsy?" she whispered, seeing the child's dark eyes gleaming at her over the covers. "I just—I just thought I'd look in to see if you were all right." She came to the edge of the bed and set the candle down on the little stand. Betsy reached her arms up longingly and the old woman stooped over her. Neither of them said a single word during the long embrace which followed. Then Aunt Abigail straightened up hastily, took her candle very quickly and softly, and heavily padded out of the room.

Betsy turned over and flung one arm over Molly—no Molly, either, after tomorrow!

She gulped hard and stared up at the ceiling, dimly white in the starlight. A gleam of light shone under the door. It widened, and Uncle Henry stood there, a candle in his hand, peering into the room. "You awake, Betsy?" he said cautiously.

"Yes. I'm awake, Uncle Henry."

The old man shuffled into the room. "I just got to thinking," he said, hesitating, "that maybe you'd like to take my watch with you. It's kind of handy to have a watch on the train. And I'd like real well for you to have it."

He laid it down on the stand, his own cherished gold watch, that had been given him when he was twenty-one.

Betsy reached out and took his hard, gnarled old fist in a tight grip. "Oh, Uncle Henry!" she began, and could not go on.

"We'll miss you, Betsy," he said in an uncertain voice. "It's been . . . it's been real nice to have you here. . . . "

And then he too snatched up his candle very quickly and almost ran out of the room.

Betsy turned over on her back. "No crying, now!" she told herself fiercely. "No crying, now!" She clenched her hands together tightly and set her teeth.

Something moved in the room. Somebody leaned over her. It was Cousin Ann, who didn't make a sound, not one, but who took Betsy in her strong arms and held her close and closer, till Betsy could feel the quick pulse of the other's heart beating all through her own body.

Then she was gone—as silently as she came.

But somehow that great embrace had taken away all the burning tightness from Betsy's eyes and heart. She was very, very tired, and soon after this she fell sound asleep, snuggled up close to Molly.

In the morning, nobody spoke of last night at all. Breakfast was prepared and eaten, and the team hitched up directly afterward. Betsy and Uncle Henry were to drive to the station together to meet Aunt Frances's train. Betsy put on her new wine-colored cashmere that Cousin Ann had made her, with the soft white collar of delicate old embroidery that Aunt Abigail had given her out of one of the trunks in the attic.

She and Uncle Henry said very little as they drove to the village, and even less as they stood waiting together on the platform. Betsy slipped her hand into his and he held it tight as the train whistled in the distance and came slowly and laboriously puffing up to the station.

Just one person got off at the little station, and that was Aunt Frances, looking ever so dressed up and citified, with a fluffy ostrich-feather boa and kid gloves and a white veil over her face and a big blue one floating from her gay-flowered velvet hat. How pretty she was! And how young—under the veil which hid so kindly all the little lines in her sweet, thin face. And how excited and fluttery! Betsy had forgotten how fluttery Aunt Frances was! She clasped Betsy to her, and then started back crying—she must see to her suit-case—and then she clasped Betsy to her again and shook hands with Uncle Henry, whose grim old face looked about as cordial and welcoming as the sourest kind of sour pickle, and she fluttered back and said she must have left her umbrella on the train. "Oh, Conductor! Conductor! My umbrella—right in my seat—a blue one with a crooked-over—oh, here it is in my hand! What am I thinking of!"

The conductor evidently thought he'd better get the train away as soon as possible, for he now shouted, "All aboard!" to nobody at all, and sprang back on the steps. The train went off, groaning over the steep grade, and screaming out its usual echoing warning about the next road crossing.

Uncle Henry took Aunt Frances's suit-case and plodded back to the surrey. He got into the front seat and Aunt Frances and Betsy in the back; and they started off.

And now I want you to listen to every single word that was said on the back seat, for it was a very, very important conversation, when Betsy's fate hung on the curl of an eyelash and the flicker of a voice, as fates often do.

Aunt Frances hugged Betsy again and again and exclaimed about her having grown so big and tall and fat—she didn't say brown too, although you could see that she was thinking that, as she looked through her veil at Betsy's tanned face and down at the contrast between her own pretty, white fingers and Betsy's leather-colored, muscular little hands. She exclaimed and exclaimed and kept on exclaiming! Betsy wondered if she really always had been as fluttery as this. And then, all of a sudden it came out, the great news, the reason for the extra flutteriness.

Aunt Frances was going to be married!

Yes! Think of it! Betsy fell back open-mouthed with astonishment.

"Did Betsy think her Aunt Frances a silly old thing?"

"Oh, Aunt Frances, no!"  cried Betsy fervently. "You look just as young,  and pretty! Lots younger than I remembered you!"

Aunt Frances flushed with pleasure and went on, "You'll love your old Aunt Frances just as much, won't you, when she's Mrs. Plimpton?"

Betsy put her arms around her and gave her a great hug. "I'll always love you, Aunt Frances!" she said.

"You'll love Mr. Plimpton, too. He's so big and strong, and he just loves to take care of people. He says that's why he's marrying me. Don't you wonder where we are going to live?" she asked, answering her own question quickly. "We're not going to live anywhere. Isn't that a joke? Mr. Plimpton's business keeps him always moving around from one place to another, never more than a month anywhere."

"What'll Aunt Harriet do?" asked Betsy wonderingly.

"Why, she's ever and ever so much better," said Aunt Frances happily. "And her own sister, my Aunt Rachel, has come back from China, where she's been a missionary for ever so long, and the two old ladies are going to keep house together out in California, in the dearest little bungalow, all roses and honeysuckle. But you're  going to be with me. Won't it be jolly fun, darling, to go traveling all about everywhere, and see new places all the time!"

Now those are the words Aunt Frances said, but something in her voice and her face suggested a faint possibility to Betsy that maybe Aunt Frances didn't really think it would be such awfully jolly fun as her words said.

Her heart gave a big jump up, and she had to hold tight to the arm of the surrey before she could ask, in a quiet voice, "But, Aunt Frances, won't I be awfully in your way, traveling around so?"

Now, Aunt Frances had ears of her own, and though that was what Betsy's words said, what Aunt Frances heard was a suggestion that possibly Betsy wasn't as crazy to leave Putney Farm as she had supposed of course she would be.

They both stopped talking for a moment and peered at each other through the thicket of words that held them apart. I told you this was a very momentous conversation. One sure thing is that the people on the back seat saw the inside of the surrey as they traveled along, and nothing else. Red sumac and bronzed beech-trees waved their flags at them in vain. They kept their eyes fixed on each other intently, each in an agony of fear lest she hurt the other's feelings.

After a pause Aunt Frances came to herself with a start, and said, affectionately putting her arm around Betsy, "Why, you darling, what does Aunt Frances care about trouble if her own dear baby-girl is happy?"

And Betsy said, resolutely, "Oh, you know, Aunt Frances, I'd love  to be with you!" She ventured one more step through the thicket. "But honestly, Aunt Frances, won't  it be a bother . . . ?"

Aunt Frances ventured another step to meet her, "But dear little girls must be somewhere  . . . "

And Betsy almost forgot her caution and burst out, "But I could stay here! I know they would keep me!"

Even Aunt Frances's two veils could not hide the gleam of relief and hope that came into her pretty, thin, sweet face. She summoned all her courage and stepped out into the clearing in the middle of the thicket, asking right out, boldly, "Why, do you like it here, Betsy? Would you like to stay?"

And Betsy—she never could remember afterward if she had been careful enough not to shout too loudly and joyfully—Betsy cried out, "Oh, I love  it here!" There they stood, face to face, looking at each other with honest and very happy eyes.

Aunt Frances threw her arm around Betsy and asked again, "Are you sure,  dear?" and didn't try to hide her relief. And neither did Betsy.

"I could visit you once in a while, when you are somewhere near here," suggested Betsy, beaming.

"Oh, yes,  I must have some  of the time with my darling!" said Aunt Frances. And this time there was nothing in their hearts that contradicted their lips.