Understood Betsy  by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Betsy Holds the Reins

Part 2 of 3

Now for what seemed to her a long, long time she drove, drove so hard she could think of nothing else. She guided the horses around stones, she cheered them through freezing mud-puddles of melted snow, she kept them in the anxiously exact middle of the road. She was quite astonished when Uncle Henry put his pencil and paper away, took the reins from her hands, and drove into a yard, on one side of which was a little low white house and on the other a big red barn. He did not say a word, but she guessed that this was Putney Farm.

Two women in gingham dresses and white aprons came out of the house. One was old and one might be called young, just like Aunt Harriet and Aunt Frances. But they looked very different from those aunts. The dark-haired one was very tall and strong-looking, and the white-haired one was very rosy and fat. They both looked up at the little, thin, white-faced girl on the high seat, and smiled. "Well, Father, you got her, I see," said the brown-haired one. She stepped up to the wagon and held up her arms to the child. "Come on, Betsy, and get some supper," she said, as though Elizabeth Ann had lived there all her life and had just driven into town and back.

And that was the arrival of Elizabeth Ann at Putney Farm.

The brown-haired one took a long, strong step or two and swung her up on the porch. "You take her in, Mother," she said. "I'll help Father unhitch."

The fat, rosy, white-haired one took Elizabeth Ann's skinny, cold little hand in her soft, warm, fat one, and led her along to the open kitchen door. "I'm your Aunt Abigail," she said. "Your mother's aunt, you know. And that's your Cousin Ann that lifted you down, and it was your Uncle Henry that brought you out from town." She shut the door and went on, "I don't know if your Aunt Harriet ever happened to tell you about us, and so . . . "

Elizabeth Ann interrupted her hastily, the recollection of all Aunt Harriet's remarks vividly before her. "Oh, yes, oh, yes!" she said. "She always talked about you. She talked about you a lot, she . . . " The little girl stopped short and bit her lip.

If Aunt Abigail guessed from the expression on Elizabeth Ann's face what kind of talking Aunt Harriet's had been, she showed it only by a deepening of the wrinkles all around her eyes. She said, gravely: "Well, that's a good thing. You know all about us then." She turned to the stove and took out of the oven a pan of hot baked beans, very brown and crispy on top (Elizabeth Ann detested beans), and said, over her shoulder, "Take your things off, Betsy, and hang 'em on that lowest hook back of the door. That's your  hook."

The little girl fumbled forlornly with the fastenings of her cape and the buttons of her coat. At home, Aunt Frances or Grace had always taken off her wraps and put them away for her. When, very sorry for herself, she turned away from the hook, Aunt Abigail said: "Now you must be cold. Pull a chair right up here by the stove." She was stepping around quickly as she put supper on the table. The floor shook under her. She was one of the fattest people Elizabeth Ann had ever seen. After living with Aunt Frances and Aunt Harriet and Grace the little girl could scarcely believe her eyes. She stared and stared.

Aunt Abigail seemed not to notice this. Indeed, she seemed for the moment to have forgotten all about the new-comer. Elizabeth Ann sat on the wooden chair, her feet hanging (she had been taught that it was not manners to put her feet on the rungs), looking about her with miserable, homesick eyes. What an ugly, low-ceilinged room, with only a couple of horrid kerosene lamps for light; and they didn't keep any girl, evidently; and they were going to eat right in the kitchen like poor people; and nobody spoke to her or looked at her or asked her how she had "stood the trip"; and here she was, millions of miles away from Aunt Frances, without anybody to take care of her. She began to feel the tight place in her throat which, by thinking about hard, she could always turn into tears, and presently her eyes began to water.

Aunt Abigail was not looking at her at all, but she now stopped short in one of her rushes to the table, set down the butter-plate she was carrying, and said "There!" as though she had forgotten something. She stooped—it was perfectly amazing how spry she was—and pulled out from under the stove a half-grown kitten, very sleepy, yawning and stretching, and blinking its eyes. "There, Betsy!" said Aunt Abigail, putting the little yellow and white ball into the child's lap. "There is one of old Whitey's kittens that didn't get given away last summer, and she pesters the life out of me. I've got so much to do. When I heard you were coming, I thought maybe you would take care of her for me. If you want to, enough to bother to feed her and all, you can have her for your own."

Elizabeth Ann bent her thin face over the warm, furry, friendly little animal. She could not speak. She had always wanted a kitten, but Aunt Frances and Aunt Harriet and Grace had always been sure that cats brought diphtheria and tonsilitis and all sorts of dreadful diseases to delicate little girls. She was afraid to move for fear the little thing would jump down and run away, but as she bent cautiously toward it the necktie of her middy blouse fell forward and the kitten in the middle of a yawn struck swiftly at it with a soft paw. Then, still too sleepy to play, it turned its head and began to lick Elizabeth Ann's hand with a rough little tongue. Perhaps you can imagine how thrilled the little girl was at this! She held her hand perfectly still until the kitten stopped and began suddenly washing its own face, and then she put her hands under it and very awkwardly lifted it up, burying her face in the soft fur. The kitten yawned again, and from the pink-lined mouth came a fresh, milky breath. "Oh!" said Elizabeth Ann under her breath. "Oh, you darling!"  The kitten looked at her with bored, speculative eyes.

Elizabeth Ann looked up now at Aunt Abigail and said, "What is its name, please?" But the old woman was busy turning over a griddle full of pancakes and did not hear. On the train Elizabeth Ann had resolved not to call these hateful relatives by the same name she had for dear Aunt Frances, but she now forgot that resolution and said, again, "Oh, Aunt Abigail, what is its name?"

Aunt Abigail faced her blankly. "Name?" she asked. "Whose . . . oh, the kitten's? Goodness, child, I stopped racking my brain for kitten names sixty years ago. Name it yourself. It's yours."

Elizabeth Ann had already named it in her own mind, the name she had always thought she would  call a kitten by, if she ever had one. It was Eleanor, the prettiest name she knew.

Aunt Abigail pushed a pitcher toward her. "There's the cat's saucer under the sink. Don't you want to give it some milk?"

Elizabeth Ann got down from her chair, poured some milk into the saucer, and called: "Here, Eleanor! Here, Eleanor!"

Aunt Abigail looked at her sharply out of the corner of her eye and her lips twitched, but a moment later her face was immovably grave as she carried the last plate of pancakes to the table.

Elizabeth Ann sat on her heels for a long time, watching the kitten lap the milk, and she was surprised, when she stood up, to see that Cousin Ann and Uncle Henry had come in, very red-cheeked from the cold air.

"Well, folks," said Aunt Abigail, "don't you think we've done some lively stepping around, Betsy and I, to get supper all on the table for you?"

Elizabeth Ann stared. What did Aunt Abigail mean? She hadn't done a thing about getting supper! But nobody made any comment, and they all took their seats and began to eat. Elizabeth Ann was astonishingly hungry, and she thought she could never get enough of the creamed potatoes, cold ham, hot cocoa, and pancakes. She was very much relieved that her refusal of beans caused no comment. Aunt Frances had always tried very hard to make her eat beans because they have so much protein in them, and growing children need protein. Elizabeth Ann had heard this said so many times she could have repeated it backward, but it had never made her hate beans any the less. However, nobody here seemed to know this, and Elizabeth Ann kept her knowledge to herself. They had also evidently never heard how delicate her digestion was, for she never saw anything like the number of pancakes they let her eat. All she wanted!  She had never heard of such a thing!