About a month after Betsy's birthday, one October day when the leaves were all red and yellow, two very momentous events occurred, and, in a manner of speaking, at the very same time. Betsy had noticed that her kitten Eleanor (she still thought of her as a kitten, although she was now a big, grown-up cat) spent very little time around the house. She came into the kitchen two or three times a day, mewing loudly for milk and food, but after eating very fast she always disappeared at once. Betsy missed the purring, contented ball of fur on her lap in the long evenings as she played checkers, or read aloud, or sewed, or played guessing games. She felt rather hurt, too, that Eleanor paid her so little attention, and several times she tried hard to make her stay, trailing in front of her a spool tied to a string or rolling a worsted ball across the floor. But Eleanor seemed to have lost all her taste for the things she had liked so much. Invariably, the moment the door was opened, she darted out and vanished.
One afternoon Betsy ran out after her, determined to catch her and bring her back. When the cat found she was being followed, she bounded along in great leaps, constantly escaping from Betsy's outstretched hand. They came thus to the horse-barn, into the open door of which Eleanor whisked like a little gray shadow, Betsy close behind. The cat flashed up the steep, ladder-like stairs that led to the hay-loft. Betsy scrambled rapidly up, too. It was dark up there, compared to the gorgeous-colored October day outside, and for a moment she could not see Eleanor. Then she made her out, a dim little shape, picking her way over the hay, and she heard her talking. Yes, it was real talk, quite, quite different from the loud, imperious "miauw!" with which Eleanor asked for her milk. This was the softest, prettiest kind of conversation, all little murmurs and chirps and sing-songs. Why, Betsy could almost understand it! She could understand it enough to know that it was love-talk, and then, breaking into this, came a sudden series of shrill, little, needle-like cries that fairly filled the hay-loft. Eleanor gave a bound forward and disappeared. Betsy, very much excited, scrambled and climbed up over the hay as fast as she could go.
It was all silent now—the piercing, funny little squalls had stopped as suddenly as they began. On the top in a little nest lay Eleanor, purring so loudly you could hear her all over the big mow, and so proud and happy she could hardly contain herself. Her eyes glistened, she arched her back, rolled over and spread out her paws, disclosing to Betsy's astounded, delighted eyes—no, she wasn't dreaming—two dear little kittens, one all gray, just like its mother; one gray with a big bib on his chest.
Oh! How dear they were! How darling, and cuddly, and fuzzy! Betsy put her fingers very softly on the gray one's head and thrilled to feel the warmth of the little living creature. "Oh, Eleanor!" she asked eagerly. "Can I pick one up?" She lifted the gray one gently and held it up to her cheek. The little thing nestled down in the warm hollow of her hand. She could feel its tiny, tiny little claws pricking softly into her palm. "Oh, you sweetness! You little, little baby-thing!" she said over and over in a whisper.
Eleanor did not stop purring, and she looked up with friendly, trusting eyes as her little mistress made the acquaintance of her children, but Betsy could feel somehow that Eleanor was anxious about her kitten, was afraid that, although the little girl meant everything that was kind, her great, clumsy, awkward human hands weren't clever enough to hold a baby-cat the proper way. "I don't blame you a bit, Eleanor," said Betsy. "I should feel just so in your place. There! I won't touch it again!" She laid the kitten down carefully by its mother. Eleanor at once began to wash its face very vigorously, knocking it over and over with her strong tongue. "My!" said Betsy, laughing. "You'd scratch my eyes out, if I were as rough as that!"
Eleanor didn't seem to hear. Or rather she seemed to hear something else. For she stopped short, her head lifted, her ears pricked up, listening very hard to some distant sound. Then Betsy heard it, too, somebody coming into the barn below, little, quick, uneven foot steps. It must be little Molly, tagging along, as she always did. What fun to show Molly the kittens!
"Betsy!" called Molly from below.
"Molly!" called Betsy from above. "Come up here quick! I've got something up here."
There was a sound of scrambling, rapid feet on the rough stairs, and Molly's yellow curls appeared, shining in the dusk. "I've got a . . ." she began, but Betsy did not let her finish.
"Come here, Molly, quick! quick!" she called, beckoning eagerly, as though the kittens might evaporate into thin air if Molly didn't get there at once.
Molly forgot what she was going to say, climbed madly up the steep pile of hay, and in a moment was lying flat on her stomach beside the little family in a spasm of delight that satisfied even Betsy and Eleanor, both of them convinced that these were the finest kittens the world had ever seen.
"See, there are two," said Betsy. "You can have one for your very own. And I'll let you choose. Which one do you like best?"
She was hoping that Molly would not take the little all-gray one, because she had fallen in love with that the minute she saw it.
"Oh, this one with the white on his breast," said Molly, without a moment's hesitation. "It's lots the prettiest! Oh, Betsy! For my very own?"
Something white fell out of the folds of her skirt on the hay. "Oh, yes," she said indifferently. "A letter for you. Miss Ann told me to bring it out here. She said she saw you streaking it for the barn."
It was a letter from Aunt Frances. Betsy opened it, one eye on Molly to see that she did not hug her new darling too tightly, and began to read it in the ray of dusty sunlight slanting in through a crack in the side of the barn. She could do this easily, because Aunt Frances always made her handwriting very large and round and clear, so that a little girl could read it without half trying.
And as she read, everything faded away from before her . . . the barn, Molly, the kittens . . . she saw nothing but the words on the page.
When she had read the letter through she got up quickly, oh ever so quickly! and went away down the stairs. Molly hardly noticed she had gone, so absorbing and delightful were the kittens.
Betsy went out of the dusky barn into the rich, October splendor and saw none of it. She went straight away from the house and the barn, straight up into the hill-pasture toward her favorite place beside the brook, the shady pool under the big maple-tree. At first she walked, but after a while she ran, faster and faster, as though she could not get there soon enough. Her head was down, and one arm was crooked over her face. . . .
And do you know, I'm not going to follow her up there, nor let you go. I'm afraid we would all cry if we saw what Betsy did under the big maple-tree. And the very reason she ran away so fast was so that she could be all by herself for a very hard hour, and fight it out, alone.
So let us go back soberly to the orchard where the Putneys are, and wait till Betsy comes walking listlessly in, her eyes red and her cheeks pale. Cousin Ann was up in the top of a tree, a basket hung over her shoulder half full of striped red Northern Spies; Uncle Henry was on a ladder against another tree, filling a bag with the beautiful, shining, yellow-green Pound Sweets, and Aunt Abigail was moving around, picking up the parti-colored windfalls and putting them into barrels ready to go to the cider-mill.
Something about the way Betsy walked, and as she drew closer something about the expression of her face, and oh! as she began to speak, something about the tone of her voice, stopped all this cheerful activity as though a bomb had gone off in their midst.
"I've had a letter from Aunt Frances," said Betsy, biting her lips, "and she says she's coming to take me away, back to them, tomorrow."
There was a big silence; Cousin Ann stood, perfectly motionless up in her tree, staring down through the leaves at Betsy. Uncle Henry was turned around on his ladder, one hand on an apple as though it had frozen there, staring down at Betsy. Aunt Abigail leaned with both fat hands on her barrel, staring hard at Betsy. Betsy was staring down at her shoes, biting her lips and winking her eyes. The yellow, hazy October sun sank slowly down toward the rim of Hemlock Mountain, and sent long, golden shafts of light through the branches of the trees upon this group of people, all so silent, so motionless. Betsy was the first to speak, and I'm very proud of her for what she said. She said, loyally, "Dear Aunt Frances! She was always so sweet to me! She always tried so hard to take care of me!"
For that was what Betsy had found up by the brook under the big red maple-tree. She had found there a certainty that, whatever else she did, she must not hurt Aunt Frances's feelings—dear, gentle, sweet Aunt Frances, whose feelings were so easily hurt and who had given her so many years of such anxious care. Something up there had told her—perhaps the quiet blue shadow of Windward Mountain creeping slowly over the pasture toward her, perhaps the silent glory of the great red-and-gold tree, perhaps the singing murmur of the little brook—perhaps all of them together had told her that now had come a time when she must do more than what Cousin Ann would do—when she must do what she herself knew was right. And that was to protect Aunt Frances from hurt.
When she spoke, out there in the orchard, she broke the spell of silence. Cousin Ann climbed hastily down from her tree, with her basket only partly filled. Uncle Henry got stiffly off his ladder, and Aunt Abigail advanced through the grass. And they all said the same thing—"Let me see that letter."
They read it there, looking over each other's shoulders, with grave faces. Then, still silently, they all turned and went back into the house, leaving their forgotten bags and barrels and baskets out under the trees. When they found themselves in the kitchen—"Well, it's supper-time, anyhow," said Cousin Ann hastily, as if ashamed of losing her composure, "or almost time. We might as well get it now."
"I'm a-going out to milk," said Uncle Henry gruffly, although it was not nearly his usual time. He took up the milk pails and marched out toward the barn, stepping heavily, his head hanging.
Shep woke up with a snort and, getting off the couch, gamboled clumsily up to Betsy, wagging his tail and jumping up on her, ready for a frolic. That was almost too much for Betsy! To think that after tomorrow she would never see Shep again—nor Eleanor! Nor the kittens! She choked as she bent over Shep and put her arms around his neck for a great hug. But she mustn't cry, she mustn't hurt Aunt Frances's feelings, or show that she wasn't glad to go back to her. That wouldn't be fair, after all Aunt Frances had done for her!
That night she lay awake after she and Molly had gone to bed and Molly was asleep. They had decided not to tell Molly until the last minute, so she had dropped off peacefully, as usual. But poor Betsy's eyes were wide open. She saw a gleam of light under the door. It widened; the door opened. Aunt Abigail stood there, in her night cap, mountainous in her long white gown, a candle shining up into her serious old face.
"You awake, Betsy?" she whispered, seeing the child's dark eyes gleaming at her over the covers. "I just—I just thought I'd look in to see if you were all right." She came to the edge of the bed and set the candle down on the little stand. Betsy reached her arms up longingly and the old woman stooped over her. Neither of them said a single word during the long embrace which followed. Then Aunt Abigail straightened up hastily, took her candle very quickly and softly, and heavily padded out of the room.
Betsy turned over and flung one arm over Molly—no Molly, either, after tomorrow!
She gulped hard and stared up at the ceiling, dimly white in the starlight. A gleam of light shone under the door. It widened, and Uncle Henry stood there, a candle in his hand, peering into the room. "You awake, Betsy?" he said cautiously.
"Yes. I'm awake, Uncle Henry."
The old man shuffled into the room. "I just got to thinking," he said, hesitating, "that maybe you'd like to take my watch with you. It's kind of handy to have a watch on the train. And I'd like real well for you to have it."
He laid it down on the stand, his own cherished gold watch, that had been given him when he was twenty-one.
Betsy reached out and took his hard, gnarled old fist in a tight grip. "Oh, Uncle Henry!" she began, and could not go on.
"We'll miss you, Betsy," he said in an uncertain voice. "It's been . . . it's been real nice to have you here. . . ."
And then he too snatched up his candle very quickly and almost ran out of the room.
Betsy turned over on her back. "No crying, now!" she told herself fiercely. "No crying, now!" She clenched her hands together tightly and set her teeth.
Something moved in the room. Somebody leaned over her. It was Cousin Ann, who didn't make a sound, not one, but who took Betsy in her strong arms and held her close and closer, till Betsy could feel the quick pulse of the other's heart beating all through her own body.
Then she was gone—as silently as she came.
But somehow that great embrace had taken away all the burning tightness from Betsy's eyes and heart. She was very, very tired, and soon after this she fell sound asleep, snuggled up close to Molly.
In the morning, nobody spoke of last night at all. Breakfast was prepared and eaten, and the team hitched up directly afterward. Betsy and Uncle Henry were to drive to the station together to meet Aunt Frances's train. Betsy put on her new wine-colored cashmere that Cousin Ann had made her, with the soft white collar of delicate old embroidery that Aunt Abigail had given her out of one of the trunks in the attic.
She and Uncle Henry said very little as they drove to the village, and even less as they stood waiting together on the platform. Betsy slipped her hand into his and he held it tight as the train whistled in the distance and came slowly and laboriously puffing up to the station.
Just one person got off at the little station, and that was Aunt Frances, looking ever so dressed up and citified, with a fluffy ostrich-feather boa and kid gloves and a white veil over her face and a big blue one floating from her gay-flowered velvet hat. How pretty she was! And how young—under the veil which hid so kindly all the little lines in her sweet, thin face. And how excited and fluttery! Betsy had forgotten how fluttery Aunt Frances was! She clasped Betsy to her, and then started back crying—she must see to her suit-case—and then she clasped Betsy to her again and shook hands with Uncle Henry, whose grim old face looked about as cordial and welcoming as the sourest kind of sour pickle, and she fluttered back and said she must have left her umbrella on the train. "Oh, Conductor! Conductor! My umbrella—right in my seat—a blue one with a crooked-over—oh, here it is in my hand! What am I thinking of!"
The conductor evidently thought he'd better get the train away as soon as possible, for he now shouted, "All aboard!" to nobody at all, and sprang back on the steps. The train went off, groaning over the steep grade, and screaming out its usual echoing warning about the next road crossing.
Uncle Henry took Aunt Frances's suit-case and plodded back to the surrey. He got into the front seat and Aunt Frances and Betsy in the back; and they started off.
And now I want you to listen to every single word that was said on the back seat, for it was a very, very important conversation, when Betsy's fate hung on the curl of an eyelash and the flicker of a voice, as fates often do.
Aunt Frances hugged Betsy again and again and exclaimed about her having grown so big and tall and fat—she didn't say brown too, although you could see that she was thinking that, as she looked through her veil at Betsy's tanned face and down at the contrast between her own pretty, white fingers and Betsy's leather-colored, muscular little hands. She exclaimed and exclaimed and kept on exclaiming! Betsy wondered if she really always had been as fluttery as this. And then, all of a sudden it came out, the great news, the reason for the extra flutteriness.
Aunt Frances was going to be married!
Yes! Think of it! Betsy fell back open-mouthed with astonishment.
"Did Betsy think her Aunt Frances a silly old thing!"
"Oh, Aunt Frances, no!" cried Betsy fervently. "You look just as young, and pretty! Lots younger than I remembered you!"
Aunt Frances flushed with pleasure and went on, "You'll love your old Aunt Frances just as much, won't you, when she's Mrs. Plimpton!"
Betsy put her arms around her and gave her a great hug. "I'll always love you, Aunt Frances!" she said.
"You'll love Mr. Plimpton, too. He's so big and strong, and he just loves to take care of people. He says that's why he's marrying me. Don't you wonder where we are going to live!" she asked, answering her own question quickly. "We're not going to live anywhere. Isn't that a joke? Mr. Plimpton's business keeps him always moving around from one place to another, never more than a month anywhere."
"What'll Aunt Harriet do?" asked Betsy wonderingly.
"Why, she's ever and ever so much better," said Aunt Frances happily. "And her own sister, my Aunt Rachel, has come back from China, where she's been a missionary for ever so long, and the two old ladies are going to keep house together out in California, in the dearest little bungalow, all roses and honeysuckle. But you're going to be with me. Won't it be jolly fun, darling, to go traveling all about everywhere, and see new places all the time!"
Now those are the words Aunt Frances said, but something in her voice and her face suggested a faint possibility to Betsy that maybe Aunt Frances didn't really think it would be such awfully jolly fun as her words said.
Her heart gave a big jump up, and she had to hold tight to the arm of the surrey before she could ask, in a quiet voice, "But, Aunt Frances, won't I be awfully in your way, traveling around so?"
Now, Aunt Frances had ears of her own, and though that was what Betsy's words said, what Aunt Frances heard was a suggestion that possibly Betsy wasn't as crazy to leave Putney Farm as she had supposed of course she would be.
They both stopped talking for a moment and peered at each other through the thicket of words that held them apart. I told you this was a very momentous conversation. One sure thing is that the people on the back seat saw the inside of the surrey as they traveled along, and nothing else. Red sumac and bronzed beech-trees waved their flags at them in vain. They kept their eyes fixed on each other intently, each in an agony of fear lest she hurt the other's feelings.
After a pause Aunt Frances came to herself with a start, and said, affectionately putting her arm around Betsy, "Why, you darling, what does Aunt Frances care about trouble if her own dear baby-girl is happy?"
And Betsy said, resolutely, "Oh, you know, Aunt Frances, I'd love to be with you!" She ventured one more step through the thicket. "But honestly, Aunt Frances, won't it be a bother . . .?"
Aunt Frances ventured another step to meet her, "But dear little girls must be somewhere . . ."
And Betsy almost forgot her caution and burst out, "But I could stay here! I know they would keep me!"
Even Aunt Frances's two veils could not hide the gleam of relief and hope that came into her pretty, thin, sweet face. She summoned all her courage and stepped out into the clearing in the middle of the thicket, asking right out, boldly, "Why, do you like it here, Betsy? Would you like to stay?"
And Betsy—she never could remember afterward if she had been careful enough not to shout too loudly and joyfully—Betsy cried out, "Oh, I love it here!" There they stood, face to face, looking at each other with honest and very happy eyes.
Aunt Frances threw her arm around Betsy and asked again, "Are you sure, dear?" and didn't try to hide her relief. And neither did Betsy.
"I could visit you once in a while, when you are somewhere near here," suggested Betsy, beaming.
"Oh, yes, I must have some of the time with my darling!" said Aunt Frances. And this time there was nothing in their hearts that contradicted their lips.
They clung to each other in speechless satisfaction as Uncle Henry guided the surrey up to the marble stepping-stone. Betsy jumped out first, and while Uncle Henry was helping Aunt Frances out, she was dashing up the walk like a crazy thing. She flung open the front door and catapulted into Aunt Abigail just coming out. It was like flinging herself into a feather-bed. . . .
"Oh! Oh!" she gasped out. "Aunt Frances is going to be married. And travel around all the time! And she doesn't really want me at all! Can't I stay here? Can't I stay here?"
Cousin Ann was right behind Aunt Abigail, and she heard this. She looked over their shoulders toward Aunt Frances, who was approaching from behind, and said, in her usual calm and collected voice: "How do you do, Frances? Glad to see you, Frances. How well you're looking! I hear you are in for congratulations. Who's the happy man?"
Betsy was overcome with admiration for her coolness in being able to talk so in such an exciting moment. She knew Aunt Abigail couldn't have done it, for she had sat down in a rocking-chair, and was holding Betsy on her lap. The little girl could see her wrinkled old hand trembling on the arm of the chair.
"I hope that means," continued Cousin Ann, going as usual straight to the point, "that we can keep Betsy here with us."
"Oh, would you like to!" asked Aunt Frances, fluttering, as though the idea had never occurred to her before that minute. "Would Elizabeth Ann really like to stay?"
"Oh, I'd like to, all right!" said Betsy, looking confidently up into Aunt Abigail's face.
Aunt Abigail spoke now. She cleared her throat twice before she could bring out a word. Then she said, "Why, yes, we'd kind of like to keep her. We've sort of got used to having her round."
That's what she said, but, as you have noticed before on this exciting day, what people said didn't matter as much as what they looked; and as her old lips pronounced these words so quietly the corners of Aunt Abigail's mouth were twitching, and she was swallowing hard. She said, impatiently, to Cousin Ann, "Hand me that handkerchief, Ann!" And as she blew her nose, she said, "Oh, what an old fool I am!"
Then, all of a sudden, it was as though a great, fresh breeze had blown through the house. They all drew a long breath and began to talk loudly and cheerfully about the weather and Aunt Frances's trip and how Aunt Harriet was and which room Aunt Frances was to have and would she leave her wraps down in the hall or take them upstairs—and, in the midst of this, Betsy, her heart ready to burst, dashed out of doors, followed by Shep. She ran madly toward the barn. She did not know where she was going. She only knew that she must run and jump and shout, or she would explode.
Shep ran and jumped because Betsy did.
To these two wild creatures, careering through the air like bright-blown autumn leaves, appeared little Molly in the barn door.
"Oh, I'm going to stay! I'm going to stay!" screamed Betsy.
But as Molly had not had any notion of the contrary, she only said, "Of course, why not?" and went on to something really important, saying, in a very much capitalized statement, "My kitten can walk! It took three steps just now."
After Aunt Frances got her wraps off, Betsy took her for a tour of inspection. They went all over the house first, with special emphasis laid on the living-room. "Isn't this the loveliest place?" said Betsy, fervently, looking about her at the white curtains, the bright flowers, the southern sunshine, the bookcases, and the bright cooking utensils. It was all full to the brim to her eyes with happiness, and she forgot entirely that she had thought it a very poor, common kind of room when she had first seen it. Nor did she notice that Aunt Frances showed no enthusiasm over it now.
She stopped for a few moments to wash some potatoes and put them into the oven for dinner. Aunt Frances opened her eyes at this. "I always see to the potatoes and the apples, the cooking of them, I mean," explained Betsy proudly. "I've just learned to make apple-pie and brown betty."
Then down into the stone-floored milk-room, where Aunt Abigail was working over butter, and where Betsy, swelling with pride, showed Aunt Frances how deftly and smoothly she could manipulate the wooden paddle and make rolls of butter that weighed within an ounce or two of a pound.
"Mercy, child! Think of your being able to do such things!" said Aunt Frances, more and more astonished.
They went out of doors now, Shep bounding by their side. Betsy was amazed to see that Aunt Frances drew back, quite nervously, whenever the big dog frisked near her. Out in the barn Betsy had a disappointment. Aunt Frances just balked absolutely at those ladder-like stairs—"Oh, I couldn't! I couldn't, dear. Do you go up there? Is it quite safe?"
"Why, Aunt Abigail went up there to see the kittens!" cried Betsy, on the edge of exasperation. But her heart softened at the sight of Aunt Frances's evident distress of mind at the very idea of climbing into the loft, and she brought the kittens down for inspection, Eleanor mewing anxiously at the top of the stairs.
On the way back to the house they had an adventure, a sort of adventure, and it brought home to Betsy once for all how much she loved dear, sweet Aunt Frances, and just what kind of love it was.
As they crossed the barnyard the calf approached them playfully, leaping stiff-legged into the air, and making a pretense of butting at them with its hornless young head.
Betsy and Shep often played with the calf in this way by the half-hour, and she thought nothing of it now; hardly noticed it, in fact.
But Aunt Frances gave a loud, piercing shriek, as though she were being cut into pieces. "Help! Help!" she screamed. "Betsy! Oh, Betsy!"
She had turned as white as a sheet and could not take a single step forward. "It's nothing! It's nothing!" said Betsy, rather impatiently. "He's just playing. We often play with him, Shep and I."
The calf came a little nearer, with lowered head. "Get away!" said Betsy indifferently, kicking at him.
At this hint of masterfulness on Betsy's part, Aunt Frances cried out, "Oh, yes, Betsy, do make him go away! Do make him go away!"
It came over Betsy that Aunt Frances was really frightened, yes, really; and all at once her impatience disappeared, never to come back again. She felt toward Aunt Frances just as she did toward little Molly, and she acted accordingly. She stepped in front of Aunt Frances, picked up a stick, and hit the calf a blow on the neck with it. He moved away, startled and injured, looking at his playfellow with reproachful eyes. But Betsy was relentless. Aunt Frances must not be frightened!
"Here, Shep! Here, Shep!" she called loudly, and when the big dog came bounding to her she pointed to the calf and said sternly, "Take him into the barn! Drive him into the barn, sir!"
Shep asked nothing better than this command, and charged forward, barking furiously and leaping into the air as though he intended to eat the calf up alive. The two swept across the barnyard and into the lower regions of the barn. In a moment Shep reappeared, his tongue hanging out, his tail wagging, his eyes glistening, very proud of himself, and mounted guard at the door.
Aunt Frances hurried along desperately through the gate of the barnyard. As it fell to behind her she sank down on a rock, breathless, still pale and agitated. Betsy threw her arms around her in a transport of affection. She felt that she understood Aunt Frances as nobody else could, the dear, sweet, gentle, timid aunt! She took the thin, nervous white fingers in her strong brown hands. "Oh, Aunt Frances, dear, darling Aunt Frances!" she cried, "how I wish I could always take care of you."
The last of the red and gold leaves were slowly drifting to the ground as Betsy and Uncle Henry drove back from the station after seeing Aunt Frances off. They were not silent this time, as when they had gone to meet her. They were talking cheerfully together, laying their plans for the winter which was so near. "I must begin to bank the house to-morrow," mused Uncle Henry. "And those apples have got to go to the cider-mill, right off. Don't you want to ride over on top of them, Betsy, and see 'em made into cider?"
"Oh, my, yes!" said Betsy, "that will be fine! And I must put away Deborah's summer clothes and get Cousin Ann to help me make some warm ones, if I'm going to take her to school in cold weather."
As they drove into the yard, they saw Eleanor coming from the direction of the barn with something big and heavy in her mouth. She held her head as high as she could, but even so, her burden dragged on the ground, bumping softly against the rough places on the path. "Look!" said Betsy. "Just see that great rat Eleanor has caught!"
Uncle Henry squinted his old eyes toward the cat for a moment and laughed. "We're not the only ones that are getting ready for winter," he remarked.
Betsy did not know what he meant and climbed hastily over the wheel and ran to see. As she approached Eleanor, the cat laid her burden down with an air of relief and looked trustfully into her little mistress's face. Why, it was one of the kittens! Eleanor was bringing it to the house. Oh, of course! they mustn't stay out there in that cold hayloft now the cold weather was drawing near. Betsy picked up the little sprawling thing, trying with weak legs to get around over the rough ground. She carried it carefully toward the house, Eleanor walking sinuously by her side and "talking" in little singing, purring miauws to explain her ideas of kitten-comfort. Betsy felt that she quite understood her. "Yes, Eleanor, a nice little basket behind the stove with a warm piece of an old blanket in it. Yes, I'll fix it for you. It'll be lovely to have the whole family there. And I'll bring the other one in for you."
But evidently Eleanor did not understand little-girl talk as well as Betsy understood cat-talk, for a little later, as Betsy turned from the nest she was making in the corner behind the stove, Eleanor was missing; and when she ran out toward the barn she met her again, her head strained painfully back, dragging another fat, heavy kitten, who curled his pink feet up as high as he could in a vain effort not to have them knock against the stones. "Now, Eleanor," said Betsy, a little put out, "you don't trust me enough! I was going to get it all right!"
"Well," said Aunt Abigail, as they came into the kitchen, "now you must begin to teach them to drink."
"Goodness!" said Betsy, "don't they know how to drink already?"
"You try them and see," said Aunt Abigail with a mysterious smile.
So when Uncle Henry brought the pails full of fragrant, warm milk into the house, Betsy poured out some in a saucer and put the kittens up to it. She and Molly squatted down on their heels to watch, and before long they were laughing so that they were rolling on the kitchen floor. At first the kittens looked every way but at the milk, seeming to see everything but what was under their noses. Then Graykin (that was Betsy's) absent-mindedly walked right through the saucer, emerging with very wet feet and a very much aggrieved and astonished expression. Molly screamed with laughter to see him shake his little pink toes and finally sit down seriously to lick them clean. Then White-bib (Molly's) put his head down to the saucer.
"There! Mine is smarter than yours!" said Molly. But White-bib went on putting his head down, down, down, clear into the milk nearly up to his eyes, although he looked very frightened and miserable. Then he jerked it up quickly and sneezed and sneezed and sneezed, such deliciously funny little baby sneezes! He pawed and pawed at his little pink nose with his little pink paw until Eleanor took pity on him and came to wash him off. In the midst of this process she saw the milk, and left off to lap it up eagerly; and in a jiffy she had drunk every drop and was licking the saucer loudly with her raspy tongue. And that was the end of the kittens' first lesson.
That evening, as they sat around the lamp, Eleanor came and got up in Betsy's lap just like old times. Betsy was playing checkers with Uncle Henry and interrupted the game to welcome the cat back delightedly. But Eleanor was uneasy, and kept stopping her toilet to prick up her ears and look restlessly toward the basket, where the kittens lay curled so closely together that they looked like one soft ball of gray fur. By and by Eleanor jumped down heavily and went back to the basket. She stayed there only a moment, standing over the kittens and licking them convulsively, and then she came back and got up in Betsy's lap again.
"What ails that cat?" said Cousin Ann, noting this pacing and restlessness.
"Maybe she wants Betsy to hold her kittens, too," suggested Aunt Abigail.
"Oh, I'd love to!" said Betsy, spreading out her knees to make her lap bigger.
"But I want my own White-bib myself!" said Molly, looking up from the beads she was stringing.
"Well, maybe Eleanor would let you settle it that way," said Cousin Ann.
The little girls ran over to the basket and brought back each her own kitten. Eleanor watched them anxiously, but as soon as they sat down she jumped up happily into Betsy's lap and curled down close to little Graykin. This time she was completely satisfied, and her loud purring filled the room with a peaceable murmur.
"There, now you're fixed for the winter," said Aunt Abigail.
By and by, after Cousin Ann had popped some corn, old Shep got off the couch and came to stand by Betsy's knee to get an occasional handful. Eleanor opened one eye, recognized a friend, and shut it sleepily. But the little kitten woke up in terrible alarm to see that hideous monster so near him, and prepared to sell his life dearly. He bristled up his ridiculous little tail, opened his absurd, little pink mouth in a soft, baby s—s—s, and struck savagely at old Shep's good-natured face with a soft little paw. Betsy felt her heart overflow with amusement and pride in the intrepid little morsel. She burst into laughter, but she picked it up and held it lovingly close to her cheek. What fun it was going to be to see those kittens grow up!
Old Shep padded back softly to the couch, his toe-nails clicking on the floor, hoisted himself heavily up, and went to sleep. The kitten subsided into a ball again. Eleanor stirred and stretched in her sleep and laid her head in utter trust on her little mistress's hand. After that Betsy moved the checkers only with her other hand.
In the intervals of the game, while Uncle Henry was pondering over his moves, the little girl looked down at her pets and listened absently to the keen autumnal wind that swept around the old house, shaking the shutters and rattling the windows. A stick of wood in the stove burned in two and fell together with a soft, whispering sound. The lamp cast a steady radiance on Uncle Henry bent seriously over the checker-board, on Molly's blooming, round cheeks and bright hair, on Aunt Abigail's rosy, cheerful, wrinkled old face, and on Cousin Ann's quiet, clear, dark eyes. . . .
That room was full to the brim of something beautiful, and Betsy knew what it was. Its name was Happiness.