Gateway to the Classics: Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield
Understood Betsy by  Dorothy Canfield

Betsy Holds the Reins

You can imagine, perhaps, the dreadful terror of Elizabeth Ann as the train carried her along toward Vermont and the horrible Putney Farm! It had happened so quickly—her satchel packed, the telegram sent, the train caught—that she had not had time to get her wits together, assert herself, and say that she would not  go there! Besides, she had a sinking notion that perhaps they wouldn't pay any attention to her if she did. The world had come to an end now that Aunt Frances wasn't there to take care of her! Even in the most familiar air she could only half breathe without Aunt Frances! And now she was not even being taken to Putney Farm! She was being sent!

She shrank together in her seat, more and more frightened as the end of her journey came nearer, and looked out dismally at the winter landscape, thinking it hideous with its brown bare fields, its brown bare trees, and the quick-running little streams hurrying along, swollen with the January thaw which had taken all the snow from the hills. She had heard her elders say about her so many times that she could not stand the cold, that she shivered at the very thought of cold weather, and certainly nothing could look colder than that bleak country into which the train was now slowly making its way.

The engine puffed and puffed with great laboring breaths that shook Elizabeth Ann's diaphragm up and down, but the train moved more and more slowly. Elizabeth Ann could feel under her feet how the floor of the car was tipped up as it crept along the steep incline. "Pretty stiff grade here?" said a passenger to the conductor.

"You bet!" he assented. "But Hillsboro is the next station and that's at the top of the hill. We go down after that to Rutland." He turned to Elizabeth Ann—"Say, little girl, didn't your uncle say you were to get off at Hillsboro? You'd better be getting your things together."

Poor Elizabeth Ann's knees knocked against each other with fear of the strange faces she was to encounter, and when the conductor came to help her get off, he had to carry the white, trembling child as well as her satchel. But there was only one strange face there,—not another soul in sight at the little wooden station. A grim-faced old man in a fur cap and heavy coat stood by a lumber wagon.

"This is her, Mr. Putney," said the conductor, touching his cap, and went back to the train, which went away shrieking for a nearby crossing and setting the echoes ringing from one mountain to another.

There was Elizabeth Ann alone with her much-feared Great-uncle Henry. He nodded to her, and drew out from the bottom of the wagon a warm, large cape, which he slipped over her shoulders. "The women folks were afraid you'd git cold drivin'," he explained. He then lifted her high to the seat, tossed her satchel into the wagon, climbed up himself, and clucked to his horses. Elizabeth Ann had always before thought it an essential part of railway journeys to be much kissed at the end and asked a great many times how you had "stood the trip."

She sat very still on the high lumber seat, feeling very forlorn and neglected. Her feet dangled high above the floor of the wagon. She felt herself to be in the most dangerous place she had ever dreamed of in her worst dreams. Oh, why wasn't Aunt Frances there to take care of her! It was just like one of her bad dreams—yes, it was horrible! She would fall, she would roll under the wheels and be crushed to . . . She looked up at Uncle Henry with the wild, strained eyes of nervous terror which always brought Aunt Frances to her in a rush to "hear all about it," to sympathize, to reassure.

Uncle Henry looked down at her soberly, his hard, weather-beaten old face quite unmoved. "Here, you drive, will you, for a piece?" he said briefly, putting the reins into her hands, hooking his spectacles over his ears, and drawing out a stubby pencil and a bit of paper. "I've got some figgering to do. You pull on the left-hand rein to make 'em go to the left and t'other way for t'other way, though 'tain't likely we'll meet any teams."

Elizabeth Ann had been so near one of her wild screams of terror that now, in spite of her instant absorbed interest in the reins, she gave a queer little yelp. She was all ready with the explanation, her conversations with Aunt Frances having made her very fluent in explanations of her own emotions. She would tell Uncle Henry about how scared she had been, and how she had just been about to scream and couldn't keep back that one . . . But Uncle Henry seemed not to have heard her little howl, or, if he had, didn't think it worth conversation, for he . . . oh, the horses were certainly  going to one side! She hastily decided which was her right hand (she had never been forced to know it so quickly before) and pulled furiously on that rein. The horses turned their hanging heads a little, and, miraculously, there they were in the middle of the road again.

Elizabeth Ann drew a long breath of relief and pride, and looked to Uncle Henry for praise. But he was busily setting down figures as though he were getting his 'rithmetic lesson for the next day and had not noticed . . . Oh, there they were going to the left again! This time, in her flurry, she made a mistake about which hand was which and pulled wildly on the left line! The horses docilely walked off the road into a shallow ditch, the wagon tilted . . . help! Why didn't Uncle Henry help! Uncle Henry continued intently figuring on the back of his envelope.

Elizabeth Ann, the perspiration starting out on her forehead, pulled on the other line. The horses turned back up the little slope, the wheel grated sickeningly against the wagon-box—she was sure  they would tip over! But there! somehow there they were in the road, safe and sound, with Uncle Henry adding up a column of figures. If he only knew, thought the little girl, if he only knew  the danger he had been in, and how he had been saved . . . ! But she must think of some way to remember, for sure, which her right hand was, and avoid that hideous mistake again.

And then suddenly something inside Elizabeth Ann's head stirred and moved. It came to her, like a clap, that she needn't know which was right or left at all. If she just pulled the way she wanted them to go—the horses would never know whether it was the right or the left rein!

It is possible that what stirred inside her head at that moment was her brain, waking up. She was nine years old, and she was in the third A grade at school, but that was the first time she had ever had a whole thought of her very own. At home, Aunt Frances had always known exactly what she was doing, and had helped her over the hard places before she even knew they were there; and at school her teachers had been carefully trained to think faster than the scholars. Somebody had always been explaining things to Elizabeth Ann so industriously that she had never found out a single thing for herself before. This was a very small discovery, but an original one. Elizabeth Ann was as excited about it as a mother-bird over the first egg that hatches.

She forgot how afraid she was of Uncle Henry, and poured out to him her discovery. "It's not right or left that matters!" she ended triumphantly; "it's which way you want to go!" Uncle Henry looked at her attentively as she talked, eyeing her sidewise over the top of one spectacle-glass. When she finished—"Well, now, that's so," he admitted, and returned to his arithmetic.


Uncle Henry looked at her, eyeing her sidewise over the top of one spectacle-glass.

It was a short remark, shorter than any Elizabeth Ann had ever heard before. Aunt Frances and her teachers always explained matters at length. But it had a weighty, satisfying ring to it. The little girl felt the importance of having her statement recognized. She turned back to her driving.

The slow, heavy plow horses had stopped during her talk with Uncle Henry. They stood as still now as though their feet had grown to the road. Elizabeth Ann looked up at the old man for instructions. But he was deep in his figures. She had been taught never to interrupt people, so she sat still and waited for him to tell her what to do.

But, although they were driving in the midst of a winter thaw, it was a pretty cold day, with an icy wind blowing down the back of her neck. The early winter twilight was beginning to fall, and she felt rather empty. She grew very tired of waiting, and remembered how the grocer's boy at home had started his horse. Then, summoning all her courage, with an apprehensive glance at Uncle Henry's arithmetical silence, she slapped the reins up and down on the horses' backs and made the best imitation she could of the grocer's boy's cluck. The horses lifted their heads, they leaned forward, they put one foot before the other . . . they were off! The color rose hot on Elizabeth Ann's happy face. If she had started a big red automobile she would not have been prouder. For it was the first thing she had ever done all herself . . . every bit . . . every smitch! She had thought of it and she had done it. And it had worked!

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!

They still did not ask her how she had "stood the trip." They did not indeed ask her much of anything or pay very much attention to her beyond filling her plate as fast as she emptied it. In the middle of the meal Eleanor came, jumped into her lap, and curled down, purring. After this Elizabeth Ann kept one hand on the little soft ball, handling her fork with the other.

After supper—well, Elizabeth Ann never knew what did happen after supper until she felt somebody lifting her and carrying her upstairs. It was Cousin Ann, who carried her as lightly as though she were a baby, and who said, as she sat down on the floor in a slant-ceilinged bedroom, "You went right to sleep with your head on the table. I guess you're pretty tired."

Aunt Abigail was sitting on the edge of a great wide bed with four posts, and a curtain around the top. She was partly undressed, and was undoing her hair and brushing it out. It was very curly and all fluffed out in a shining white fuzz around her fat, pink face, full of soft wrinkles; but in a moment she was braiding it up again and putting on a tight white nightcap, which she tied under her chin.

"We got the word about your coming so late," said Cousin Ann, "that we didn't have time to fix you up a bedroom that can be warmed. So you're going to sleep in here for a while. The bed's big enough for two, I guess, even if they are as big as you and Mother."

Elizabeth Ann stared again. What queer things they said here. She wasn't nearly  as big as Aunt Abigail!

"Mother, did you put Shep out?" asked Cousin Ann; and when Aunt Abigail said, "No! There! I forgot to!" Cousin Ann went away; and that was the last of her.  They certainly believed in being saving of their words at Putney Farm.

Elizabeth Ann began to undress. She was only half-awake; and that made her feel only about half her age, which wasn't very great, the whole of it, and she felt like just crooking her arm over her eyes and giving up! She was too forlorn! She had never slept with anybody before, and she had heard ever so many times how bad it was for children to sleep with grown-ups. An icy wind rattled the windows and puffed in around the loose old casings. On the window-sill lay a little wreath of snow. Elizabeth Ann shivered and shook on her thin legs, undressed in a hurry, and slipped into her night-dress. She felt just as cold inside as out, and never was more utterly miserable than in that strange, ugly little room with that strange, queer, fat old woman. She was even too miserable to cry, and that is saying a great deal for Elizabeth Ann!

She got into bed first, because Aunt Abigail said she was going to keep the candle lighted for a while and read. "And anyhow," she said, "I'd better sleep on the outside to keep you from rolling out."

Elizabeth Ann and Aunt Abigail lay very still for a long time, Aunt Abigail reading out of a small, worn old book. Elizabeth Ann could see its title, "Essays of Emerson." A book with that name had always laid on the center table in Aunt Harriet's house, but that copy was all new and shiny, and Elizabeth Ann had never seen anybody look inside it. It was a very dull-looking book, with no pictures and no conversation. The little girl lay on her back, looking up at the cracks in the plaster ceiling and watching the shadows sway and dance as the candle flickered in the gusts of cold air. She herself began to feel a soft, pervasive warmth. Aunt Abigail's great body was like a stove.

It was very, very quiet, quieter than any place Elizabeth Ann had ever known, except church, because a trolley-line ran past Aunt Harriet's house and even at night there were always more or less bangings and rattlings. Here there was not a single sound except the soft, whispery noise when Aunt Abigail turned over a page as she read steadily and silently forward in her book. Elizabeth Ann turned her head so that she could see the round, rosy old face, full of soft wrinkles, and the calm, steady old eyes which were fixed on the page. And as she lay there in the warm bed, watching that quiet face, something very queer began to happen to Elizabeth Ann. She felt as though a tight knot inside her were slowly being untied. She felt—what was it she felt? There are no words for it. From deep within her something rose up softly . . . she drew one or two long, half-sobbing breaths. . .

Aunt Abigail laid down her book and looked over at the child. "Do you know," she said, in a conversational tone, "do you know, I think it's going to be real nice, having a little girl in the house again."


"Do you know," said Aunt Abigail, "I think it's going to be real nice, having a little girl in the house again."

Oh, then the tight knot in the little unwanted girl's heart was loosened indeed! It all gave way at once, and Elizabeth Ann burst suddenly into hot tears—yes, I know I said I would not tell you any more about her crying; but these tears were very different from any she had ever shed before. And they were the last, too, for a long, long time.

Aunt Abigail said "Well, well!" and moving over in bed took the little weeping girl into her arms. She did not say another word then, but she put her soft, withered old cheek close to Elizabeth Ann's, till the sobs began to grow less, and then she said: "I hear your kitty crying outside the door. Shall I let her in? I expect she'd like to sleep with you. I guess there's room for three of us."

She got out of bed as she spoke and walked across the room to the door. The floor shook under her great bulk, and the peak of her nightcap made a long, grotesque shadow. But as she came back with the kitten in her arms, Elizabeth Ann saw nothing funny in her looks. She gave Eleanor to the little girl and got into bed again. "There, now, I guess we're ready for the night," she said. "You put the kitty on the other side of you so she  won't fall out of bed."

She blew the light out and moved over a little closer to Elizabeth Ann, who immediately was enveloped in that delicious warmth. The kitten curled up under the little girl's chin. Between her and the terrors of the dark room loomed the rampart of Aunt Abigail's great body.

Elizabeth Ann drew a long, long breath . . . and when she opened her eyes the sun was shining in at the window.

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