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

Betsy Starts a Sewing Society

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.

Apparently Betsy's question had brought something half forgotten and altogether neglected into their minds. They talked for some time after that about 'Lias, the teacher confirming what Betsy and Stashie had said.

"And we sitting right here with plenty to eat and never raising a hand!" cried Aunt Abigail.

"How you will  let things slip out of your mind!" said Cousin Ann remorsefully.

It struck Betsy vividly that 'Lias was not at all the one they blamed for his objectionable appearance. She felt quite ashamed to go on with the other things she and the little girls had said, and fell silent, pretending to be very much absorbed in her game of checkers.

"Do you know," said Aunt Abigail suddenly, as though an inspiration had just struck her, "I wouldn't be a bit surprised if that Elmore Pond might adopt 'Lias if he was gone at the right way."

"Who's Elmore Pond?" asked the schoolteacher.

"Why, you must have seen him—that great, big, red-faced, good-natured-looking man that comes through here twice a year, buying stock. He lives over Digby way, but his wife was a Hillsboro girl, Matey Pelham—an awfully nice girl she was, too. They never had any children, and Matey told me the last time she was back for a visit that she and her husband talked quite often about adopting a little boy. Seems that Mr. Pond has always wanted a little boy. He's such a nice man! 'Twould be a lovely home for a child."

"But goodness!" said the teacher. "Nobody would want to adopt such an awful-looking little ragamuffin as that 'Lias. He looks so meeching, too. I guess his stepfather is real mean to him, when he's been drinking, and it's got 'Lias so he hardly dares hold his head up."

The clock struck loudly. "Well, hear that!" said Cousin Ann. "Nine o'clock and the children not in bed! Molly's most asleep this minute. Trot along with you, Betsy! Trot along, Molly. And, Betsy, be sure Molly's nightgown is buttoned up all the way."

So it happened that, although the grown-ups were evidently going on to talk about 'Lias Brewster, Betsy heard no more of what they said.

She herself went on thinking about 'Lias while she was undressing and answering absently little Molly's chatter. She was thinking about him even after they had gone to bed, had put the light out, and were lying snuggled up to each other, back to front, their four legs, crooked at the same angle, fitting in together neatly like two spoons in a drawer. She was thinking about him when she woke up, and as soon as she could get hold of Cousin Ann she poured out a new plan. She had never been afraid of Cousin Ann since the evening Molly had fallen into the Wolf Pit and Betsy had seen that pleased smile on Cousin Ann's firm lips. "Cousin Ann, couldn't we girls at school get together and sew—you'd have to help us some—and make some nice, new clothes for little 'Lias Brewster, and fix him up so he'll look better, and maybe that Mr. Pond will like him and adopt him?"

Cousin Ann listened attentively and nodded her head. "Yes, I think that would be a good idea," she said. "We were thinking last night we ought to do something for him. If you'll make the clothes, Mother'll knit him some stockings and Father will get him some shoes. Mr. Pond never makes his spring trip till late May, so we'll have plenty of time."

Betsy was full of importance that day at school and at recess time got the girls together on the rocks and told them all about the plan. "Cousin Ann says she'll help us, and we can meet at our house every Saturday afternoon till we get them done. It'll be fun! Aunt Abigail telephoned down to the store right away, and Mr. Wilkins says he'll give the cloth if we'll make it up."

Betsy spoke very grandly of "making it up," although she had hardly held a needle in her life, and when the Saturday afternoon meetings began she was ashamed to see how much better Ellen and even Eliza could sew than she. To keep her end up, she was driven to practising her stitches around the lamp in the evenings, with Aunt Abigail keeping an eye on her.

Cousin Ann supervised the sewing on Saturday afternoons and taught those of the little girls whose legs were long enough how to use the sewing machine. First they made a little pair of trousers out of an old gray woolen skirt of Aunt Abigail's. This was for practice, before they cut into the piece of new blue serge that the storekeeper had sent up. Cousin Ann showed them how to pin the pattern on the goods and they each cut out one piece. Those flat, queer-shaped pieces of cloth certainly did look less like a pair of trousers to Betsy than anything she had ever seen. Then one of the girls read aloud very slowly the mysterious-sounding directions from the wrapper of the pattern about how to put the pieces together. Cousin Ann helped here a little, particularly just as they were about to put the sections together wrong-side-up. Stashie, as the oldest, did the first basting, putting the notches together carefully, just as they read the instructions aloud, and there, all of a sudden, was a rough little sketch of a pair of knee trousers, without any hem or any waist-band, of course, but just the two-legged, complicated shape they ought to be! It was like a miracle to Betsy! Cousin Ann helped them sew the seams on the machine, and they all turned to for the basting of the facings and the finishing. They each made one buttonhole. It was the first one Betsy had ever made, and when she got through she was as tired as though she had run all the way to school and back. Tired, but very proud, although when Cousin Ann inspected that buttonhole, she covered her face with her handkerchief for a minute, as though she were going to sneeze, although she didn't sneeze at all.

It took them two Saturdays to finish up that trial pair of trousers, and when they showed the result to Aunt Abigail she was delighted. "Well, to think of that being my old skirt!" she said, putting on her spectacles to examine the work. She did not laugh, either, when she saw those buttonholes, but she got up hastily and went into the next room, where they soon heard her coughing.

Then they made a little blouse out of some new blue gingham. Cousin Ann happened to have enough left over from a dress she was making. This thin material was ever so much easier to manage than the gray flannel, and they had the little garment done in no time, even to the buttons and buttonholes. When it came to making the buttonholes, Cousin Ann sat right down with each one and supervised every stitch. You may not be surprised to know that they were a great improvement over the first batch.

Then, making a great ceremony of it, they began on the store material, working twice a week now, because May was slipping along very fast, and Mr. Pond might be there at any time. They knew pretty well how to go ahead on this one, after the experience of their first pair, and Cousin Ann was not much needed, except as adviser in hard places. She sat there in the room with them, doing some sewing of her own, so quiet that half the time they forgot she was there. It was great fun, sewing all together and chattering as they sewed.

A good deal of the time they talked about how splendid it was of them to be so kind to little 'Lias. "My! I don't believe most girls would put themselves out this way for a dirty little boy!" said Stashie, complacently.

"No, indeed!"  chimed in Betsy. "It's just like a story, isn't it?—working and sacrificing for the poor!"

"I guess he'll thank us all right for sure!" said Ellen. "He'll never forget us as long as he lives, I don't suppose."

Betsy, her imagination fired by this suggestion, said, "I guess when he's grown up he'll be telling everybody about how, when he was so poor and ragged, Stashie Monahan and Ellen Peters and Elizabeth Ann . . ."

"And Eliza!" put in that little girl hastily, very much afraid she would not be given her due share of the glory.

Cousin Ann sewed, and listened, and said nothing.

Toward the end of May two little blouses, two pairs of trousers, two pairs of stockings, two sets of underwear (contributed by the teacher), and the pair of shoes Uncle Henry gave were ready. The little girls handled the pile of new garments with inexpressible pride, and debated just which way of bestowing them was sufficiently grand to be worthy the occasion. Betsy was for taking them to school and giving them to 'Lias one by one, so that each child could have her thanks separately. But Stashie wanted to take them to the house when 'Lias's stepfather would be there, and shame him by showing that little girls had had to do what he ought to have done.

Cousin Ann broke into the discussion by asking, in her quiet, firm voice, "Why do you want 'Lias to know where the clothes come from?"

They had forgotten again that she was there, and turned around quickly to stare at her. Nobody could think of any answer to her very queer question. It had not occurred to any one that there could be  such a question.

Cousin Ann shifted her ground and asked another: "Why did you make these clothes, anyhow?"

They stared again, speechless. Why did she ask that? She knew why.

Finally little Molly said, in her honest, baby way, "Why, you  know why, Miss Ann! So 'Lias Brewster will look nice, and Mr. Pond will maybe adopt him."

"Well," said Cousin Ann, "what has that got to do with 'Lias knowing who did it?"

"Why, he wouldn't know who to be grateful to," cried Betsy.

"Oh," said Cousin Ann. "Oh, I see. You didn't do it to help 'Lias. You did it to have him grateful to you. I see. Molly is such a little girl, it's no wonder she didn't really take in what you girls were up to." She nodded her head wisely, as though now she understood.

But if she did, little Molly certainly did not. She had not the least idea what everybody was talking about. She looked from one sober, downcast face to another rather anxiously. What was the matter?

Apparently nothing was really the matter, she decided, for after a minute's silence Miss Ann got up with entirely her usual face of cheerful gravity, and said: "Don't you think you little girls ought to top off this last afternoon with a tea-party? There's a new batch of cookies, and you can make yourselves some lemonade if you want to."

They had these refreshments out on the porch, in the sunshine, with their dolls for guests and a great deal of chatter for sauce. Nobody said another word about how to give the clothes to 'Lias, till, just as the girls were going away, Betsy said, walking along with the two older ones, "Say, don't you think it'd be fun to go some evening after dark and leave the clothes on 'Lias's doorstep, and knock and run away quick before anybody comes to the door?" She spoke in an uncertain voice and smoothed Deborah's carved wooden curls.

"Yes, I do!" said Ellen, not looking at Betsy but down at the weeds by the road. "I think it would be lots of fun!"

Little Molly, playing with Annie and Eliza, did not hear this; but she was allowed to go with the older girls on the great expedition.

It was a warm, dark evening in late May, with the frogs piping their sweet, high note, and the first of the fireflies wheeling over the wet meadows near the tumble-down house where 'Lias lived. The girls took turns in carrying the big paper-wrapped bundle, and stole along in the shadow of the trees, full of excitement, looking over their shoulders at nothing and pressing their hands over their mouths to keep back the giggles. There was, of course, no reason on earth why they should giggle, which is, of course, the very reason why they did. If you've ever been a little girl you know about that.

One window of the small house was dimly lighted, they found, when they came in sight of it, and they thrilled with excitement and joyful alarm. Suppose 'Lias's dreadful stepfather should come out and yell at them! They came forward on tiptoe, making a great deal of noise by stepping on twigs, rustling bushes, crackling gravel under their feet and doing all the other things that make such a noise at night and never do in the daytime. But nobody stirred inside the room with the lighted window. They crept forward and peeped cautiously inside . . . and stopped giggling. The dim light coming from the little kerosene lamp with a smoky chimney fell on a dismal, cluttered room, a bare, greasy wooden table, and two broken-backed chairs, with little 'Lias in one of them. He had fallen asleep with his head on his arms, his pinched, dirty, sad little figure showing in the light from the lamp. His feet dangled high above the floor in their broken, muddy shoes. One sleeve was torn to the shoulder. A piece of dry bread had slipped from his bony little hand and a tin dipper stood beside him on the bare table. Nobody else was in the room, nor evidently in the darkened, empty, fireless house.


He had fallen asleep with his head on his arms.

As long as she lives Betsy will never forget what she saw that night through that window. Her eyes grew very hot and her hands very cold. Her heart thumped hard. She reached for little Molly and gave her a great hug in the darkness. Suppose it were little Molly asleep there, all alone in the dirty, dismal house, with no supper and nobody to put her to bed. She found that Ellen, next her, was crying quietly into the corner of her apron.

Nobody said a word. Stashie, who had the bundle, walked around soberly to the front door, put it down, and knocked loudly. They all darted away noiselessly to the road, to the shadow of the trees, and waited until the door opened. A square of yellow light appeared, with 'Lias's figure, very small, at the bottom of it. They saw him stoop and pick up the bundle and go back into the house. Then they went quickly and silently back, separating at the cross-roads with no good-night greetings.

Molly and Betsy began to climb the hill to Putney Farm. It was a very warm night for May, and little Molly began to puff for breath. "Let's sit down on this rock awhile and rest," she said.

They were half-way up the hill now. From the rock they could see the lights in the farmhouses scattered along the valley road and on the side of the mountain opposite them, like big stars fallen from the multitude above. Betsy lay down on the rock and looked up at the stars. After a silence little Molly's chirping voice said, "Oh, I thought you said we were going to march up to 'Lias in school and give him his clothes. Did you forget about that?"

Betsy gave a wriggle of shame as she remembered that plan. "No, we didn't forget it," she said. "We thought this would be a better way."

"But how'll 'Lias know who to thank?" asked Molly.

"That's no matter," said Betsy. Yes, it was Elizabeth-Ann-that-was who said that. And meant it, too. She was not even thinking of what she was saying. Between her and the stars, thick over her in the black, soft sky, she saw again that dirty, disordered room and the little boy, all alone, asleep with a piece of dry bread in his bony little fingers.

She looked hard and long at that picture, all the time seeing the quiet stars through it. And then she turned over and hid her face on the rock. She had said her "Now I lay me" every night since she could remember, but she had never prayed till she lay there with her face on the rock, saying over and over, "Oh, God, please, please, please  make Mr. Pond adopt 'Lias."

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