Understood Betsy  by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Betsy Starts a Sewing Society

Part 1 of 3

Betsy and Molly had taken Deborah to school with them. Deborah was the old wooden doll with brown, painted curls. She had lain in a trunk almost ever since Aunt Abigail's childhood, because Cousin Ann had never cared for dolls when she was a little girl. At first Betsy had not dared to ask to see her, much less to play with her, but when Ellen, as she had promised, came over to Putney Farm that first Saturday she had said right out, as soon as she landed in the house, "Oh, Mrs. Putney, can't we play with Deborah?" And Aunt Abigail had answered: "Why, yes,  of course! I knew  there was something I've kept forgetting!" She went up with them herself to the cold attic and opened the little hair-trunk under the eaves. There lay a doll, flat on her back, looking up at them brightly out of her blue eyes.

"Well, Debby dear," said Aunt Abigail, taking her up gently. "It's a good long time since you and I played under the lilac bushes, isn't it? I expect you've been pretty lonesome up here all these years. Never you mind, you'll have some good times again, now." She pulled down the doll's full, ruffled skirt, straightened the lace at the neck of her dress, and held her for a moment, looking down at her silently. You could tell by the way she spoke, by the way she touched Deborah, by the way she looked at her, that she had loved the doll very dearly, and maybe still did, a little.

When she put Deborah into Betsy's arms, the child felt that she was receiving something very precious, almost something alive. She and Ellen looked with delight at the yards and yards of picot-edged ribbon, sewed on by hand to the ruffles of the skirt, and lifted up the silk folds to admire the carefully made, full petticoats and frilly drawers, the pretty, soft old kid shoes and white stockings. Aunt Abigail looked at them with an absent smile on her lips, as though she were living over old scenes.


Betsy and Ellen and the old doll.

Finally, "It's too cold to play up here," she said, coming to herself with a long breath. "You'd better bring Deborah and the trunk down into the south room." She carried the doll, and Betsy and Ellen each took an end of the old trunk, no larger than a modern suitcase. They settled themselves on the big couch, back of the table with the lamp. Old Shep was on it, but Betsy coaxed him off by putting down some bones Cousin Ann had been saving for him. When he finished those and came back for the rest of his snooze, he found his place occupied by the little girls, sitting cross-legged, examining the contents of the trunk, all spread out around them. Shep sighed deeply and sat down with his nose resting on the couch near Betsy's knee, following all their movements with his kind, dark eyes. Once in a while Betsy stopped hugging Deborah or exclaiming over a new dress long enough to pat Shep's head and fondle his ears. This was what he was waiting for, and every time she did it he wagged his tail thumpingly against the floor.

After that Deborah and her trunk were kept downstairs where Betsy could play with her. And often she was taken to school. You never heard of such a thing as taking a doll to school, did you? Well, I told you this was a queer, old-fashioned school that any modern School Superintendent would sniff at. As a matter of fact, it was not only Betsy who took her doll to school; all the little girls did, whenever they felt like it. Miss Benton, the teacher, had a shelf for them in the entry-way where the wraps were hung, and the dolls sat on it and waited patiently all through lessons. At recess time or nooning each little mother snatched her own child and began to play. As soon as it grew warm enough to play outdoors without just racing around every minute to keep from freezing to death, the dolls and their mothers went out to a great pile of rocks at one end of the bare, stony field which was the playground. There they sat and played in the spring sunshine, warmer from day to day. There were a great many holes and shelves and pockets and little caves in the rocks which made lovely places for playing keep-house. Each little girl had her own particular cubby-holes and "rooms," and they "visited" their dolls back and forth all around the pile. And as they played they talked very fast about all sorts of things, being little girls and not boys who just yelled and howled inarticulately as they played ball or duck-on-a-rock or prisoner's goal, racing and running and wrestling noisily all around the rocks.

There was one child who neither played with the girls nor ran and whooped with the boys. This was little six-year-old 'Lias, one of the two boys in Molly's first grade. At recess time he generally hung about the school door by himself, looking moodily down and knocking the toe of his ragged, muddy shoe against a stone. The little girls were talking about him one day as they played. "My! Isn't that 'Lias Brewster the horridest-looking child!" said Eliza, who had the second grade all to herself, although Molly now read out of the second reader with her.

"Mercy, yes! So ragged!" said Anastasia Monahan, called Stashie for short. She was a big girl, fourteen years old, who was in the seventh grade.

"He doesn't look as if he ever  combed his hair!" said Betsy. "It looks just like a wisp of old hay."

"And sometimes," little Molly proudly added her bit to the talk of the other girls, "he forgets to put on any stockings and just has his dreadful old shoes on over his dirty, bare feet."

"I guess he hasn't got   any stockings half the time," said big Stashie scornfully. "I guess his stepfather drinks 'em up."

"How can   he drink up stockings?" asked Molly, opening her round eyes very wide.

"Sh! You mustn't ask. Little girls shouldn't know about such things, should they, Betsy?"

"No, indeed,"  said Betsy, looking mysterious. As a matter of fact, she herself had no idea what Stashie meant, but she looked wise and said nothing.

Some of the boys had squatted down near the rocks for a game of marbles now.

"Well, anyhow," said Molly resentfully, "I don't care what his stepfather does to his stockings. I wish 'Lias would wear 'em to school. And lots of times he hasn't anything on under those horrid old overalls either! I can see his bare skin through the torn places."

"I wish he didn't have to sit so near me," said Betsy complainingly. "He's so   dirty."

"Well, I don't want him near me,  either!" cried all the other little girls at once. Ralph glanced up at them frowning, from where he knelt with his middle finger crooked behind a marble ready for a shot. He looked as he always did, very rough and half-threatening. "Oh, you girls make me sick!" he said. He sent his marble straight to the mark, pocketed his opponent's, and stood up, scowling at the little mothers. "I guess if you had to live the way he does, you'd be dirty! Half the time he don't get anything to eat before he comes to school, and if my mother didn't put up some extra for him in my box he wouldn't get any lunch either. And then you go and jump on him!"

"Why doesn't his own mother put up his lunch?" Betsy challenged their critic.

"He hasn't got any mother. She's dead," said Ralph, turning away with his hands in his pockets. He yelled to the boys, "Come on, fellers, beat-che to the bridge and back!" and was off, with the others racing at his heels.

"Well, anyhow, I don't care; he is   dirty and horrid!" said Stashie emphatically, looking over at the drooping, battered little figure, leaning against the school door, listlessly kicking at a stone.

But Betsy did not say anything more just then.

The teacher, who "boarded 'round," was staying at Putney Farm at that time, and that evening, as they all sat around the lamp in the south room, Betsy looked up from her game of checkers with Uncle Henry and asked, "How can anybody drink up stockings?"

"Mercy, child! what are you talking about?" asked Aunt Abigail.

Betsy repeated what Anastasia Monahan had said, and was flattered by the instant, rather startled attention given her by the grown-ups. "Why, I didn't know that Bud Walker had taken to drinking again!" said Uncle Henry. "My! That's too bad!"

"Who takes care of that child anyhow, now that poor Susie is dead?" Aunt Abigail asked of everybody in general.

"Is he just living there alone,  with that good-for-nothing stepfather? How do they get enough to eat?"  said Cousin Ann, looking troubled.