When this story begins, Elizabeth Ann, who is the heroine of it, was a little girl of nine, who lived with her Great-aunt Harriet in a medium-sized city in a medium-sized State in the middle of this country; and that's all you need to know about the place, for it's not the important thing in the story; and anyhow you know all about it because it was probably very much like the place you live in yourself.
Elizabeth Ann's Great-aunt Harriet was a widow who was not very rich or very poor, and she had one daughter, Frances, who gave piano lessons to little girls. They kept a "girl" whose name was Grace and who had asthma dreadfully and wasn't very much of a "girl" at all, being nearer fifty than forty. Aunt Harriet, who was very tender-hearted, kept her chiefly because she couldn't get any other place on account of her coughing so you could hear her all over the house.
So now you know the names of all the household. And this is how they looked: Aunt Harriet was very small and thin and old, Grace was very small and thin and middle-aged, Aunt Frances (for Elizabeth Ann called her "Aunt," although she was really, of course, a first-cousin-once-removed) was small and thin and if the light wasn't too strong might be called young, and Elizabeth Ann was very small and thin and little. And yet they all had plenty to eat. I wonder what was the matter with them?
It was certainly not because they were not good, for no womenkind in all the world had kinder hearts than they. You have heard how Aunt Harriet kept Grace (in spite of the fact that she was a very depressing person) on account of her asthma; and when Elizabeth Ann's father and mother both died when she was a baby, although there were many other cousins and uncles and aunts in the family, these two women fairly rushed upon the little baby-orphan, taking her home and surrounding her henceforth with the most loving devotion.
They had said to themselves that it was their manifest duty to save the dear little thing from the other relatives, who had no idea about how to bring up a sensitive, impressionable child, and they were sure, from the way Elizabeth Ann looked at six months, that she was going to be a sensitive, impressionable child. It is possible also that they were a little bored with their empty life in their rather forlorn, little brick house in the medium-sized city, and that they welcomed the occupation and new interests which a child would bring in.
But they thought that
they chiefly desired to save dear Edward's child from the
other kin, especially from the Putney cousins, who had written
down from their Vermont farm that they would be glad
to take the little girl into
But "anything but the Putneys!" said Aunt Harriet, a great
many times. They were related only by marriage to her,
and she had her own opinion of them as a
stiffnecked, cold-hearted, undemonstrative, and hard set of New Englanders. "I
boarded near them one summer when you were a baby,
Frances, and I shall never forget the way they were
treating some children visiting there!
Aunt Harriet never meant to say any of this when Elizabeth Ann could hear, but the little girl's ears were as sharp as little girls' ears always are, and long before she was nine she knew all about the opinion Aunt Harriet had of the Putneys. She did not know, to be sure, what "chores" were, but she took it confidently from Aunt Harriet's voice that they were something very, very dreadful.
There was certainly neither coldness nor hardness in the way Aunt Harriet and Aunt Frances treated Elizabeth Ann. They had really given themselves up to the new responsibility, especially Aunt Frances, who was very conscientious about everything. As soon as the baby came there to live, Aunt Frances stopped reading novels and magazines, and re-read one book after another which told her how to bring up children. And she joined a Mothers' Club which met once a week. And she took a correspondence course in mothercraft from a school in Chicago which teaches that business by mail. So you can see that by the time Elizabeth Ann was nine years old Aunt Frances must have known all that anybody can know about how to bring up children. And Elizabeth Ann got the benefit of it all.
She and her Aunt Frances were simply inseparable. Aunt Frances shared in all Elizabeth Ann's doings and even in all her thoughts. She was especially anxious to share all the little girl's thoughts, because she felt that the trouble with most children is that they are not understood, and she was determined that she would thoroughly understand Elizabeth Ann down to the bottom of her little mind. Aunt Frances (down in the bottom of her own mind) thought that her mother had never really understood her, and she meant to do better by Elizabeth Ann. She also loved the little girl with all her heart, and longed, above everything in the world, to protect her from all harm and to keep her happy and strong and well.
And yet Elizabeth Ann was neither very strong nor well. And as to her being happy, you can judge for yourself when you have read all this story. She was very small for her age, with a rather pale face and big dark eyes which had in them a frightened, wistful expression that went to Aunt Frances's tender heart and made her ache to take care of Elizabeth Ann better and better.
Aunt Frances was afraid of a great many
things herself, and she knew how to sympathize with timidity. She
was always quick to reassure the little girl with all
her might and main whenever there was anything to fear.
When they were out walking (Aunt Frances took her out
for a walk up one block and down another every
single day, no matter how tired the music lessons had
made her), the aunt's eyes were always on the alert
to avoid anything which might frighten Elizabeth Ann. If a
big dog trotted by, Aunt Frances always said, hastily: "There,
there, dear! That's a nice doggie, I'm sure. I don't
believe he ever bites little
Or if it thundered and lightened, Aunt Frances always dropped everything she might be doing and held Elizabeth Ann tightly in her arms until it was all over. And at night—Elizabeth Ann did not sleep very well—when the little girl woke up screaming with a bad dream, it was always dear Aunt Frances who came to her bedside, a warm wrapper over her nightgown so that she need not hurry back to her own room, a candle lighting up her tired, kind face. She always took the little girl into her thin arms and held her close against her thin breast. "Tell Aunt Frances all about your naughty dream, darling," she would murmur, "so's to get it off your mind!"
She had read in her books that you can tell a great deal about children's inner lives by analyzing their dreams, and besides, if she did not urge Elizabeth Ann to tell it, she was afraid the sensitive, nervous little thing would "lie awake and brood over it." This was the phrase she always used the next day to her mother when Aunt Harriet exclaimed about her paleness and the dark rings under her eyes. So she listened patiently while the little girl told her all about the fearful dreams she had, the great dogs with huge red mouths that ran after her, the Indians who scalped her, her schoolhouse on fire so that she had to jump from a third-story window and was all broken to bits—once in a while Elizabeth Ann got so interested in all this that she went on and made up more awful things even than she had dreamed, and told long stories which showed her to be a child of great imagination. But all these dreams and continuations of dreams Aunt Frances wrote down the first thing the next morning, and, with frequent references to a thick book full of hard words, she tried her best to puzzle out from them exactly what kind of little girl Elizabeth Ann really was.