Understood Betsy  by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Betsy Goes to School

Part 1 of 2

Elizabeth Ann was very much surprised to hear Cousin Ann's voice calling, "Dinner!" down the stairs. It did not seem possible that the whole morning had gone by. "Here," said Aunt Abigail, "just put that pat on a plate, will you, and take it upstairs as you go. I've got all I can do to haul my own two hundred pounds up, without any half-pound of butter into the bargain." The little girl smiled at this, though she did not exactly know why, and skipped up the stairs proudly with her butter.

Dinner was smoking on the table, which was set in the midst of the great pool of sunlight. A very large black-and-white dog, with a great bushy tail, was walking around and around the table, sniffing the air. He looked as big as a bear to Elizabeth Ann; and as he walked his great red tongue hung out of his mouth and his white teeth gleamed horribly. Elizabeth Ann shrank back in terror, clutching her plate of butter to her breast with tense fingers. Cousin Ann said, over her shoulder: "Oh, bother! There's old Shep, got up to pester us begging for scraps! Shep!  You go and lie down this minute!"

To Elizabeth Ann's astonishment and immense relief, the great animal turned, drooping his head sadly, walked back across the floor, got upon the couch again, and laid his head down on one paw very forlornly, turning up the whites of his eyes meekly at Cousin Ann.

Aunt Abigail, who had just pulled herself up the stairs, panting, said, between laughing and puffing: "I'm glad I'm not an animal on this farm. Ann does boss them around so." "Well, somebody has to!" said Cousin Ann, advancing on the table with a platter. This proved to have chicken fricassee on it, and Elizabeth Ann's heart melted in her at the smell. She loved chicken gravy on hot biscuits beyond anything in the world, but chickens are so expensive when you buy them in the market that Aunt Harriet hadn't had them very often for dinner. And there was a plate of biscuits, golden brown, just coming out of the oven! She sat down very quickly, her mouth watering, and attacked with extreme haste the big plateful of food which Cousin Ann passed her.

At Aunt Harriet's she had always been aware that everybody watched her anxiously as she ate, and she had heard so much about her light appetite that she felt she must live up to her reputation, and had a very natural and human hesitation about eating all she wanted when there happened to be something she liked very much. But nobody here knew that she "only ate enough to keep a bird alive," and that her "appetite was so  capricious!" Nor did anybody notice her while she stowed away the chicken and gravy and hot biscuits and currant jelly and baked potatoes and apple pie—when did Elizabeth Ann ever eat such a meal before? She actually felt her belt grow tight.

In the middle of the meal Cousin Ann got up to answer the telephone, which was in the next room. The instant the door had closed behind her Uncle Henry leaned forward, tapped Elizabeth Ann on the shoulder, and nodded toward the sofa. His eyes were twinkling, and as for Aunt Abigail she began to laugh silently, shaking all over, her napkin at her mouth to stifle the sound. Elizabeth Ann turned wonderingly and saw the old dog cautiously and noiselessly letting himself down from the sofa, one ear cocked rigidly in the direction of Cousin Ann's voice in the next room. "The old tyke!" said Uncle Henry. "He always sneaks up to the table to be fed if Ann goes out for a minute. Here, Betsy, you're nearest, give him this piece of skin from the chicken neck." The big dog padded forward across the room, evidently in such a state of terror about Cousin Ann that Elizabeth Ann felt for him. She had a fellow-feeling about that relative of hers. Also it was impossible to be afraid of so abjectly meek and guilty an animal. As old Shep came up to her, poking his nose inquiringly on her lap, she shrinkingly held out the big piece of skin, and though she jumped back at the sudden snap and gobbling gulp with which the old dog greeted the tidbit, she could not but sympathize with his evident enjoyment of it. He waved his bushy tail gratefully, cocked his head on one side, and, his ears standing up at attention, his eyes glistening greedily, he gave a little, begging whine. "Oh, he's asking for more!" cried Elizabeth Ann, surprised to see how plainly she could understand dog-talk. "Quick, Uncle Henry, give me another piece!"


"Oh, he's asking for more!" cried Elizabeth Ann.

Uncle Henry rapidly transferred to her plate a wing-bone from his own, and Aunt Abigail, with one deft swoop, contributed the neck from the platter. As fast as she could, Elizabeth Ann fed these to Shep, who woofed them down at top speed, the bones crunching loudly under his strong, white teeth. How he did enjoy it! It did your heart good to see his gusto!

There was the sound of the telephone receiver being hung up in the next room—and everybody acted at once. Aunt Abigail began drinking innocently out of her coffee-cup, only her laughing old eyes showing over the rim; Uncle Henry buttered a slice of bread with a grave face, as though he were deep in conjectures about who would be the next President; and as for old Shep, he made one plunge across the room, his toe-nails clicking rapidly on the bare floor, sprang up on the couch, and when Cousin Ann opened the door and came in he was lying in exactly the position in which she had left him, his paw stretched out, his head laid on it, his brown eyes turned up meekly so that the whites showed.

I've told you what these three did, but I haven't told you yet what Elizabeth Ann did. And it is worth telling. As Cousin Ann stepped in, glancing suspiciously from her sober-faced and abstracted parents to the lamb-like innocence of old Shep, little Elizabeth Ann burst into a shout of laughter. It's worth telling about, because, so far as I know, that was the first time she had ever laughed out heartily in all her life. For my part, I'm half surprised to know that she knew how.

Of course, when she laughed, Aunt Abigail had to laugh too, setting down her coffee-cup and showing all the funny wrinkles in her face screwed up hard with fun; and that made Uncle Henry laugh, and then Cousin Ann laughed and said, as she sat down, "You are bad children, the whole four of you!" And old Shep, seeing the state of things, stopped pretending to be meek, jumped down, and came lumbering over to the table, wagging his tail and laughing too; you know that good, wide dog-smile! He put his head on Elizabeth Ann's lap again and she patted it and lifted up one of his big black ears. She had quite forgotten that she was terribly afraid of big dogs.

After dinner Cousin Ann looked up at the clock and said: "My goodness! Betsy'll be late for school if she doesn't start right off." She explained to the child, aghast at this sudden thunderclap, "I let you sleep this morning as long as you wanted to, because you were so tired from your journey. But of course there's no reason for missing the afternoon session."