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

If You Don't Like Conversation in a Book Skip This Chapter!

Betsy opened the door and was greeted by her kitten, who ran to her, purring and arching her back to be stroked.

"Well," said Aunt Abigail, looking up from the pan of apples in her lap, "I suppose you're starved, aren't you! Get yourself a piece of bread and butter, why don't you? and have one of these apples."

As the little girl sat down by her, munching fast on this provender, she asked: "What desk did you get?"

Elizabeth Ann thought for a moment, cuddling Eleanor up to her face. "I think it is the third from the front in the second row." She wondered why Aunt Abigail cared. "Oh, I guess that's your Uncle Henry's desk. It's the one his father had, too. Are there a couple of H. P.'s carved on it?"

Betsy nodded.

"His father carved the H. P. on the lid, so Henry had to put his inside. I remember the winter he put it there. It was the first season Mother let me wear real hoop skirts. I sat in the first seat on the third row."

Betsy ate her apple more and more slowly, trying to take in what Aunt Abigail had said. Uncle Henry and his father—why Moses or Alexander the Great didn't seem any further back in the mists of time to Elizabeth Ann than did Uncle Henry's father!  And to think he had been a little boy, right there at that desk! She stopped chewing altogether for a moment and stared into space. Although she was only nine years old, she was feeling a little of the same rapt wonder, the same astonished sense of the reality of the people who have gone before, which make a first visit to the Roman Forum such a thrilling event for grown-ups. That very desk!

After a moment she came to herself, and finding some apple still in her mouth, went on chewing meditatively. "Aunt Abigail," she said, "how long ago was that?"

"Let's see," said the old woman, peeling apples with wonderful rapidity. "I was born in 1844. And I was six when I first went to school. That's sixty-six years ago."

Elizabeth Ann, like all little girls of nine, had very little notion how long sixty-six years might be. "Was George Washington alive then?" she asked.

The wrinkles around Aunt Abigail's eyes deepened mirthfully, but she did not laugh as she answered, "No, that was long after he died, but the schoolhouse was there when he was alive."

"It was!"  said Betsy, staring, with her teeth set deep in an apple.

"Yes, indeed. It was the first house in the valley built of sawed lumber. You know, when our folks came up here, they had to build all their houses of logs to begin with."

"They did!"  cried Betsy, with her mouth full of apple.

"Why, yes, child, what else did you suppose they had to make houses out of? They had to have something to live in, right off. The sawmills came later."

"I didn't know anything about it," said Betsy. "Tell me about it."

"Why you knew, didn't you—your Aunt Harriet must have told you—about how our folks came up here from Connecticut in 1763, on horseback? Connecticut was an old settled place then, compared to Vermont. There wasn't anything here but trees and bears and wood-pigeons. I've heard 'em say that the wood-pigeons were so thick you could go out after dark and club 'em out of the trees, just like hens roosting in a hen-house. There always was cold pigeon-pie in the pantry, just the way we have doughnuts. And they used bear-grease to grease their boots and their hair, bears were so plenty. It sounds like good eating, don't it! But of course that was just at first. It got quite settled up before long, and by the time of the Revolution, bears were getting pretty scarce, and soon the wood-pigeons were all gone."

"And the schoolhouse—that schoolhouse where I went today—was that built then?"  Elizabeth Ann found it hard to believe.

"Yes, it used to have a great big chimney and fireplace in it. It was built long before stoves were invented, you know."

"Why, I thought stoves were always  invented!" cried Elizabeth Ann. This was the most startling and interesting conversation she had ever taken part in.

Aunt Abigail laughed. "Mercy, no, child! Why, I  can remember when only folks that were pretty well off had stoves and real poor people still cooked over a hearth fire. I always thought it a pity they tore down the big chimney and fireplace out of the schoolhouse and put in that big, ugly stove. But folks are so daft over new-fangled things. Well, any how, they couldn't take away the sun-dial on the window-sill. You want to be sure to look at that. It's on the sill of the middle window on the right hand as you face the teacher's desk."

"Sun-dial," repeated Betsy. "What's that?"

"Why, to tell the time by, when—"

"Why didn't they have a clock?" asked the child.

Aunt Abigail laughed. "Good gracious, there was only one clock in the valley for years and years, and that belonged to the Wardons, the rich people in the village. Everybody had sun-dials cut in their window-sills. There's one on the window-sill of our pantry this minute. Come on, I'll show it to you." She got up heavily with her pan of apples, and trotted briskly, shaking the floor as she went, over to the stove. "But first just watch me put these on to cook so you'll know how." She set the pan on the stove, poured some water from the tea-kettle over the apples, and put on a cover. "Now come on into the pantry."

They entered a sweet-smelling, spicy little room, all white paint, and shelves which were loaded with dishes and boxes and bags and pans of milk and jars of preserves.

"There!" said Aunt Abigail, opening the window. "That's not so good as the one at school. This only tells when noon is."

Elizabeth Ann stared stupidly at the deep scratch on the window-sill.

"Don't you see?" said Aunt Abigail. "When the shadow got to that mark it was noon. And the rest of the time you guessed by how far it was from the mark. Let's see if I can come anywhere near it now." She looked at it hard and said: "I guess it's half-past four." She glanced back into the kitchen at the clock and said: "Oh, pshaw! It's ten minutes past five! Now my grandmother could have told that within five minutes, just by the place of the shadow. I declare! Sometimes it seems to me that every time a new piece of machinery comes into the door some of our wits fly out at the window! Now I couldn't any more live without matches than I could fly! And yet they all used to get along all right before they had matches. Makes me feel foolish to think I'm not smart enough to get along, if I wanted  to, without those little snips of pine and brimstone. Here, Betsy, take a cooky. It's against my principles to let a child leave the pantry without having a cooky. My! it does seem like living again to have a young one around to stuff!"

Betsy took the cooky, but went on with the conversation by exclaiming, "How  could anybody  get along without matches? You have  to have matches."

Aunt Abigail didn't answer at first. They were back in the kitchen now. She was looking at the clock again. "See here," she said; "it's time I began getting supper ready. We divide up on the work. Ann gets the dinner and I get the supper. And everybody gets his own breakfast. Which would you rather do, help Ann with the dinner, or me with the supper?"

Elizabeth Ann had not had the slightest idea of helping anybody with any meal, but, confronted unexpectedly with the alternative offered, she made up her mind so quickly that she didn't want to help Cousin Ann, and declared so loudly, "Oh, help you  with the supper!" that her promptness made her sound quite hearty and willing. "Well, that's fine," said Aunt Abigail. "We'll set the table now. But first you would better look at that apple sauce. I hear it walloping away as though it was boiling too fast. Maybe you'd better push it back where it won't cook so fast. There are the holders, on that hook."

Elizabeth Ann approached the stove with the holder in her hand and horror in her heart. Nobody had ever dreamed of asking her to handle hot things. She looked around dismally at Aunt Abigail, but the old woman was standing with her back turned, doing something at the kitchen table. Very gingerly the little girl took hold of the handle of the saucepan, and very gingerly she shoved it to the back of the stove. And then she stood still a moment to admire herself. She could do that as well as anybody!

"Why," said Aunt Abigail, as if remembering that Betsy had asked her a question, "Any man could strike a spark from his flint and steel that he had for his gun. And he'd keep striking it till it happened to fly out in the right direction, and you'd catch it in some fluff where it would start a smoulder, and you'd blow on it till you got a little flame, and drop tiny bits of shaved-up dry pine in it, and so, little by little, you'd build your fire up."

"But it must have taken forever  to do that!"

"Oh, you didn't have to do that more than once in ever so long," said Aunt Abigail, briskly. She interrupted her story to say: "Now you put the silver around, while I cream the potatoes. It's in that drawer—a knife, a fork, and two spoons for each place—and the plates and cups are up there behind the glass doors. We're going to have hot cocoa again tonight." And as the little girl, hypnotized by the other's casual, offhand way of issuing instructions, began to fumble with the knives and forks she went on: "Why, you'd start your fire that way, and then you'd never let it go out. Everybody that amounted to anything knew how to bank the hearth fire with ashes at night so it would be sure to last. And the first thing in the morning, you got down on your knees and poked the ashes away very carefully till you got to the hot coals. Then you'd blow with the bellows and drop in pieces of dry pine—don't forget the water-glasses—and you'd blow gently till they flared up and the shavings caught, and there your fire would be kindled again. The napkins are in the second drawer."

Betsy went on setting the table, deep in thought, reconstructing the old life. As she put the napkins around she said, "But sometimes  it must have gone out . . ."

"Yes," said Aunt Abigail, "sometimes it went out, and then one of the children was sent over to the nearest neighbor to borrow some fire. He'd take a covered iron pan fastened on to a long hickory stick, and go through the woods—everything was woods then—to the next house and wait till they had their fire going and could spare him a pan full of coals; and then—don't forget the salt and pepper—he would leg it home as fast as he could streak it, to get there before the coals went out. Say, Betsy, I think that apple sauce is ready to be sweetened. You do it, will you? I've got my hands in the biscuit dough. The sugar's in the left-hand drawer in the kitchen cabinet."

"Oh, my!"  cried Betsy, dismayed. "I  don't know how to cook!"

Aunt Abigail laughed and put back a strand of curly white hair with the back of her floury hand. "You know how to stir sugar into your cup of cocoa, don't you?"

"But how much  shall I put in?" asked Elizabeth Ann, clamoring for exact instruction so she wouldn't need to do any thinking for herself.

"Oh, till it tastes right," said Aunt Abigail, carelessly. "Fix it to suit yourself, and I guess the rest of us will like it. Take that big spoon to stir it with."

Elizabeth Ann took off the lid and began stirring in sugar, a teaspoonful at a time, but she soon saw that made no impression. She poured in a cupful, stirred it vigorously, and tasted it. Better, but not quite enough. She put in a tablespoonful more and tasted it, staring off into space under bended brows as she concentrated her attention on the taste. It was quite a responsibility to prepare the apple sauce for a family. It was ever so good, too. But maybe a little  more sugar. She put in a teaspoonful and decided it was just exactly right!

"Done?" asked Aunt Abigail. "Take it off, then, and pour it out in that big yellow bowl, and put it on the table in front of your place. You've made it; you ought to serve it."

"It isn't done, is it?" asked Betsy. "That isn't all  you do to make apple sauce!"

"What else could you do?" asked Aunt Abigail.

"Well . . . !" said Elizabeth Ann, very much surprised. "I didn't know it was so easy to cook!"

"Easiest thing in the world," said Aunt Abigail gravely, with the merry wrinkles around her merry old eyes all creased up with silent fun.

When Uncle Henry came in from the barn, with old Shep at his heels, and Cousin Ann came down from upstairs, where her sewing-machine had been humming like a big bee, they were both duly impressed when told that Betsy had set the table and made the apple sauce. They pronounced it very good apple sauce indeed, and each sent his saucer back to the little girl for a second helping. She herself ate three saucerfuls. Her own private opinion was that it was the very best apple sauce ever made.

After supper was over and the dishes washed and wiped, Betsy helping with the putting-away, the four gathered around the big lamp on the table with the red cover. Cousin Ann was making some buttonholes in the shirtwaist she had constructed that afternoon, Aunt Abigail was darning socks, and Uncle Henry was mending a piece of harness. Shep lay on the couch and snored until he got so noisy they couldn't stand it, and Cousin Ann poked him in the ribs and he woke up snorting and gurgling and looking around sheepishly. Every time this happened it made Betsy laugh. She held Eleanor, who didn't snore at all, but made the prettiest little tea-kettle-singing purr deep in her throat, and opened and sheathed her needle-like claws in Betsy's dress.

"Well, how'd you get on at school?" asked Uncle Henry.

"I've got your desk," said Elizabeth Ann, looking at him curiously, at his gray hair and wrinkled, weather-beaten face, and trying to think what he must have looked like when he was a little boy like Ralph.

"So?" said Uncle Henry. "Well, let me tell you that's a mighty good desk! Did you notice the deep groove in the top of it?"

Betsy nodded. She had wondered what that was used for.

"Well, that was the lead-pencil desk in the old days. When they couldn't run down to the store to buy things, because there wasn't any store to run to, how do you suppose they got their lead-pencils?"

Elizabeth Ann shook her head, incapable even of a guess. She had never thought before but that lead-pencils grew in glass show-cases in stores.

"Well, sir," said Uncle Henry, "I'll tell you. They took a piece off the lump of lead they made their bullets of, melted it over the fire in the hearth down at the schoolhouse till it would run like water, and poured it in that groove. When it cooled off, there was a long streak of solid lead, about as big as one of our lead-pencils nowadays. They'd break that up in shorter lengths, and there you'd have your lead-pencils, made while you wait. Oh, I tell you in the old days folks knew how to take care of themselves more than now."

"Why, weren't there any stores?" asked Elizabeth Ann. She could not imagine living without buying things at stores.

"Where'd they get the things to put in a store in those days?" asked Uncle Henry, argumentatively. "Every single thing had to be lugged clear from Albany or from Connecticut on horseback."

"Why didn't they use wagons?" asked Elizabeth Ann.

"You can't run a wagon unless you've got a road to run it on, can you?" asked Uncle Henry. "It was a long, long time before they had any roads. It's an awful chore to make roads in a new country all woods and hills and swamps and rocks. You were lucky if there was a good path from your house to the next settlement."

"Now, Henry," said Aunt Abigail, "do stop going on about old times long enough to let Betsy answer the question you asked her. You haven't given her a chance to say how she got on at school."

"Well, I'm awfully  mixed up!" said Betsy, complainingly. "I don't know what I am! I'm second-grade arithmetic and third-grade spelling and seventh-grade reading and I don't know what in writing or composition. We didn't have those."

Nobody seemed to think this very remarkable, or even very interesting. Uncle Henry, indeed, noted it only to say, "Seventh-grade reading!" He turned to Aunt Abigail. "Oh, Mother, don't you suppose she could read aloud to us evenings?"

Aunt Abigail and Cousin Ann both laid down their sewing to laugh! "Yes, yes, Father, and play checkers with you too, like as not!" They explained to Betsy: "Your Uncle Henry is just daft on being read aloud to when he's got something to do in the evening, and when he hasn't he's as fidgety as a broody hen if he can't play checkers. Ann hates checkers and I haven't got the time, often."

"Oh, I love  to play checkers!" said Betsy.

"Well, now  . . ." said Uncle Henry, rising instantly and dropping his half-mended harness on the table. "Let's have a game."

"Oh, Father!" said Cousin Ann, in the tone she used for Shep. "How about that piece of breeching! You know that's not safe. Why don't you finish that up first?"

Uncle Henry sat down again, looking as Shep did when Cousin Ann told him to get up on the couch, and took up his needle and awl.

"But I could read something aloud," said Betsy, feeling very sorry for him. "At least I think I could. I never did, except at school."

"What shall we have, Mother?" asked Uncle Henry eagerly.

"Oh, I don't know. What have we got in this bookcase?" said Aunt Abigail. "It's pretty cold to go into the parlor to the other one." She leaned forward, ran her fat forefinger over the worn old volumes, and took out a battered, blue-covered book. "Scott?"

"Gosh, yes!" said Uncle Henry, his eyes shining. "The staggit eve!"

At least that was the way it sounded to Betsy, but when she took the book and looked where Aunt Abigail pointed she read it correctly, though in a timid, uncertain voice. She was proud to think she could please a grown-up so much as she was evidently pleasing Uncle Henry, but the idea of reading aloud for people to hear, not for a teacher to correct, was unheard-of.

The Stag at eve had drunk his fill

Where danced the moon on Monan's rill,

she began, and it was as though she had stepped into a boat and was swept off by a strong current. She did not know what all the words meant, and she could not pronounce a good many of the names, but nobody interrupted to correct her, and she read on and on, steadied by the strongly-marked rhythm, drawn forward swiftly from one clanging, sonorous rhyme to another. Uncle Henry nodded his head in time to the rise and fall of her voice and now and then stopped his work to look at her with bright, eager, old eyes. He knew some of the places by heart evidently, for once in a while his voice would join the little girl's for a couplet or two. They chanted together thus:

A moment listened to the cry

That thickened as the chase drew nigh,

Then, as the headmost foes appeared,

With one brave bound, the copse he cleared.

At the last line Uncle Henry flung his arm out wide, and the child felt as though the deer had made his great leap there, before her eyes.

"I've seen 'em jump just like that," broke in Uncle Henry. "A two-three-hundred-pound stag go up over a four-foot fence just like a piece of thistledown in the wind."

"Uncle Henry," asked Elizabeth Ann, "what is a copse?"

"I don't know," said Uncle Henry indifferently. "Something in the woods, must be. Underbrush most likely. You can always tell words you don't know by the sense of the whole thing. Go on."

And stretching forward, free and far,

The child's voice took up the chant again. She read faster and faster as it got more exciting. Uncle Henry joined in on

For, jaded now and spent with toil,

Embossed with foam and dark with soil,

While every gasp with sobs he drew,

The laboring stag strained full in view.

The little girl's heart beat fast. She fled along through the next lines, stumbling desperately over the hard words but seeing the headlong chase through them clearly as through tree-trunks in a forest. Uncle Henry broke in in a triumphant shout:

The wily quarry shunned the shock

And turned  him from the opposing rock;

Then dashing down a darksome glen,

Soon lost to hound and hunter's ken,

In the deep Trossach's wildest nook

His solitary refuge took.

"Oh, my!"  cried Elizabeth Ann, laying down the book. "He got away, didn't he? I was so afraid he wouldn't!"

"I can just hear those dogs yelping, can't you?" said Uncle Henry.

Yelled on the view the opening pack.

"Sometimes you hear 'em that way up on the slope of Hemlock Mountain back of us, when they get to running a deer."

"What say we have some pop-corn?" suggested Aunt Abigail. "Betsy, don't you want to pop us some?"

"I never did,"  said the little girl, but in a less doubtful tone than she had ever used with that phrase so familiar to her. A dim notion was growing up in her mind that the fact that she had never done a thing was no proof that she couldn't.

"I'll show you," said Uncle Henry. He reached down a couple of ears of corn from a big yellow cluster hanging on the wall, and he and Betsy shelled them into the popper, popped it full of snowy kernels, buttered it, salted it, and took it back to the table.

It was just as she was eating her first ambrosial mouthful that the door opened and a fur-capped head was thrust in. A man's voice said: "Evenin', folks. No, I can't stay. I was down at the village just now, and thought I'd ask for any mail down our way." He tossed a newspaper and a letter on the table and was gone.

The letter was addressed to Elizabeth Ann and it was from Aunt Frances. She read it to herself while Uncle Henry read the newspaper. Aunt Frances wrote that she had been perfectly horrified to learn that Cousin Molly had not kept Elizabeth Ann with her, and that she would never forgive her for that cruelty. And when she thought that her darling was at Putney Farm . . . ! Her blood ran cold. It positively did! It was too dreadful. But it couldn't be helped, for a time anyhow, because Aunt Harriet was really very  sick. Elizabeth Ann would have to be a dear, brave child and endure it as best she could. And as soon . . . oh, as soon as ever she could,  Aunt Frances would come and take her away from them. "Don't cry too  much, darling . . . it breaks my heart to think of you there! Try  to be cheerful, dearest! Try  to bear it for the sake of your distracted, loving Aunt Frances."

Elizabeth Ann looked up from this letter and across the table at Aunt Abigail's rosy, wrinkled old face, bent over her darning. Uncle Henry laid the paper down, took a big mouthful of pop-corn, and beat time silently with his hand. When he could speak he murmured:

An hundred dogs bayed deep and strong,

Clattered an hundred steeds along.

Old Shep woke up with a snort and Aunt Abigail fed him a handful of pop-corn. Little Eleanor stirred in her sleep, stretched, yawned, and nestled down into a ball again on the little girl's lap. Betsy could feel in her own body the rhythmic vibration of the kitten's contented purr.

Aunt Abigail looked up: "Finished your letter? I hope Harriet is no worse. What does Frances say?"

Elizabeth Ann blushed a deep red and crushed the letter together in her hand. She felt ashamed and she did not know why. "Aunt Frances says, . . . Aunt Frances says, . . ." she began, hesitating. "She says Aunt Harriet is still pretty sick." She stopped, drew a long breath, and went on, "And she sends her love to you."

Now Aunt Frances hadn't done anything of the kind, so this was a really whopping fib. But Elizabeth Ann didn't care if it was. It made her feel less ashamed, though she did not know why. She took another mouthful of pop-corn and stroked Eleanor's back.

Uncle Henry got up and stretched. "It's time to go to bed, folks," he said. As he wound the clock Betsy heard him murmuring:

But when the sun his beacon red . . . .

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