Mrs. Walker's Betsey

by Helen B. Bostwick

It is now ten years since I spent a summer in the little village of Cliff Spring, as teacher in one of the public schools.

The village itself had no pretensions to beauty, natural or architectural; but all its surroundings were romantic and lovely. On one side was a winding river, bordered with beautiful willows; and on the other a lofty hill, thickly wooded. These woods, in spring and summer, were full of flowers and wild vines; and a clear, cold stream, that had its birth in a cavernous recess among the ledges, dashed over the rocks, and after many windings and plungings found its way to the river.

At the foot of the hill wound the railroad track, at some points nearly filling the space between the brook and the rocks, in others almost overhung by the latter. Some of the most delightful walks I ever knew were in this vicinity, and here the whole school would often come in the warm weather, for the Saturday's ramble.

It was on one of these summer rambles I first made the acquaintance of Mrs. Walker's Betsey. Not that her unenviable reputation had been concealed from my knowledge, by any means; but as she was not a member of my department, and was a very irregular attendant of any class, she had never yet come under my observation. I gathered that her parents had but lately come to live in Cliff Spring; that they were both ignorant and vicious; and that the girl was a sort of goblin sprite,—such a compound of mischief and malice as was never known before since the days of witchcraft. Was there an ugly profile drawn upon the anteroom wall, a green pumpkin found in the principal's hat, or an ink-bottle upset in the water-bucket? Mrs. Walker's Betsey was the first and constant object of suspicion. Did a teacher find a pair of tongs astride her chair, her shawl extra-bordered with burdocks, her gloves filled with some ill-scented weed, or her india-rubbers cunningly nailed to the floor? half a hundred juvenile tongues were ready to proclaim poor Betsey as the undoubted delinquent; and this in spite of the fact that very few of these misdemeanors were actually proved against her. But whether proved or not, she accepted their sponsorship all the same, and laughed at or defied her accusers, as her mood might be.

That the girl was a character in her way, shrewd and sensible, though wholly uncultured, I was well satisfied, from all I heard; that she was sly, intractable, and revengeful I believed, I am sorry to say, upon very insufficient evidence.

One warm afternoon in July, the sun, which at morning had been clouded, blazed out fiercely at the hour of dismissal. Shrinking from the prospect of an unsheltered walk, I looked around the shelves of the anteroom for my sunshade, but it was nowhere to be found. I did not recollect having it with me in the morning, and believed it had been left at the school-house over night. The girls of my class constituted themselves a committee of search and inquiry, but to no purpose. The article was not in the house or yard, and then my committee resolved themselves into a jury, and, without a dissenting voice, pronounced Mrs. Walker's Betsey guilty of cribbing my little, old-fashioned, but vastly useful sunshade. She had been seen loitering in the anteroom, and afterward running away in great haste. The charge seemed reasonable enough, but as I could not learn that Betsey had ever been caught in a theft, or convicted of one, I requested the girls to keep the matter quiet, for a few days at least: to which they unwillingly consented.

"Remember, Miss Burke," said Alice Way, as we parted at her father's gate, "you promised us a nice walk after tea, to the place in the wood where you found the beautiful phlox yesterday. We want you to guide us straight to the spot, please."

"Yes," added Mary Graham, "and we will take our Botanies in our baskets, and be prepared to analyze the flowers, you know."

My assent was not reluctantly given; and when the sun was low in the west we set forth, walking nearly the whole distance in the shade of the hill. We climbed the ridge, rested a few moments, and then started in search of the beautiful patch of Lichnidia—white, pink, and purple—that I had found the afternoon previous in taking a "short cut" over the hill to the house of a friend I was wont to visit.

"Stop, Miss Burke!" came in suppressed tones from half my little group, as, emerging from a thicket, we came in sight of a queer object perched upon a little mound, among dead stick and leaves. It was a diminutive child, who, judging from her face alone, might be ten or eleven years of age. A little brown, weird face it was, with keen eyes peering out from a stringy mass of hair, that straggled about distractedly from the confinement of an old comb.

"There," whispered Matty Holmes, "there's Mrs. Walker's Betsey, I do declare! She often goes home from school this way, which is shorter; and now she is playing truant. She'll get a whipping if her mother finds it out."

"Miss Burke, Miss Burke!" cried Alice, "see what she has in her hand!" I looked, and there, to be sure, was my lost parasol.

"There, now! Didn't we say so!" "Don't she look guilty?" "Weren't we right?" "Impudent thing!" were the whispered ejaculations of my vigilance committee; but in truth the girl's appearance was unconcerned and innocent enough. She sat there, swaying herself about, opening and shutting the wonderful "instrument," holding it between her eyes and the light to ascertain the quality of the silk, and sticking a pin in the handle to try if it were real ivory or mere painted wood.

"Let's dash in upon her and see her scamper," was the next benevolent suggestion whispered in my ear.

"No," I said. "I wish to speak to her alone, first. All of you stay here, out of sight, and I will return presently." They fell back, dissatisfied, and contented themselves with peeping and listening, while I advanced toward the forlorn child. She started a little as I approached, thrust the parasol behind her, and then pleasantly made room for me on the little hillock where she sat.

"Well, this is a nice place for a lounge," said I, dropping down beside her; "just large enough for two, and softer than any tête-à-tête in Mrs. Graham's parlor. Now I should like to know your name?"—for I thought it best to feign ignorance of her antecedents.

"Bets," was the ready reply.

"Betsey what?"

"Bets Walker, mother says, but I say Hamlin. That was father's name. 'T ain't no difference, though; it's Bets any way."

"Well, Betsey, what do you suppose made this little mound we are sitting upon?" I asked, merely to gain time to think how best to approach the other topic.

"I don' know," she answered, looking up at me keenly. "Maybe a rock got covered up and growed over, ever so far down. Maybe an Injun's buried there."

I told her I had seen larger mounds that contained Indian remains, but none so small as this.

"It might 'a' ben a baby, though," she returned, digging her brown toes among the leaves and winking her eyelids roguishly. "A papoose, you know; a real little Injun! I wish it had 'a' ben me, and I'd 'a' ben buried here; I'd 'a' liked it first-rate! Only I wouldn't 'a' wanted the girls should come and set over me. If I didn't want so bad to get to read the books father left, I'd never go to school another day." And her brow darkened again with evil passions.

"Did your own father leave you books?"

"Yes, real good ones; only they're old, and tore some. Mother couldn't sell 'em for nothin', so she lets me keep 'em. She sold everything else." Then suddenly changing her tone, she asked, slyly, "You hain't lost anything,—have you?"

"Yes," I answered; "I see you have my sunshade."

She held it up, laughing with boisterous triumph. "You left it hanging in that tree yonder," she said, pointing to a low-branching beech at a little distance. "It was kind o' careless, I think. S'posing it had rained!"

Astonishment kept me silent. How could I have forgotten, what I now so clearly recalled, my hanging the shade upon a tree, the previous afternoon, while I descended a ravine for flowers? I felt humiliated in the presence of the poor little wronged and neglected child.

For many days after this the girl did not come to school, nor did I once see her, though I thought of her daily with increasing interest.

During this time the principal of the school planned an excursion by railroad to a station ten miles distant, to be succeeded by a picnic on the lake shore. Great was the delight of the little ones, grown weary of their unvaried routine through the exhausting heats of July. Many were the councils called among the boys, many the enthusiastic discussions held among the girls, and seldom did they break up without leaving one or more subjects of controversy unsettled. But upon one point perfect harmony of opinion prevailed, and it was the only one against which I felt bound strongly to protest: this was the decision that Mrs. Walker's Betsey was quite unnecessary to the party, and consequently was to receive no notice.

"Why, Miss Burke! that looking girl!" cried Amy Pease, as I remonstrated. "She hasn't a thing fit to wear,—if there were no other reason!" I reminded her that Betsey had a very decent basque, given her by the minister's wife, and that an old lawn skirt of mine could be tucked for her with very little trouble. "But she is such an awkward, uncouth creature! She would mortify us to death!" interposed Hattie Dale.

"She could carry no biscuits, nor cake, for she has no one to bake them for her," said another. "She would eat enormously, and make herself sick," objected little Nellie Day, a noted glutton.

In vain I combated these arguments, offering to take crackers and lemons enough for her share, and even urging the humanity of allowing her to make herself sick upon good things for once in her poverty-stricken life. Some other teachers joined me; but when the question was put to vote among the scholars, it received a hurried negative, as unanimous as it was noisy.

"And now I think of it," added Mattie Price, the principal's daughter, "the Walkers are out of the corporation, and so Betsey has no real right among us at all." This ended the matter.

All the night previous to the great excursion, I suffered severely from headache, which grew no better upon rising, and, as usual, increased in violence as the sun mounted higher upon its cloudless course. At half past nine, as the long train with its freight of smiling and expectant little ones moved from the depot, I was lying in a darkened room, with ice-bandages about my forehead, and my feverish pillow saturated with camphor and hartshorn.

The disappointment in itself was not much. I needed rest, and the utter stillness was very grateful to my overtasked nerves. Besides, the slight put upon poor Betsey had destroyed much of the pleasure of anticipation. I lay patiently until two o'clock, when, as I expected, the pain abated. At five, I was entirely free, and feeling much in need of a walk in the fresh air, which a slight shower had cooled and purified.

Choosing the shaded route, I walked out upon the hill, ascending by a gentle slope, and, book in hand, sat down under a tree, alternately reading and gazing upon the sweet rural picture that lay before me. Soon a pleasant languor crept over me. Dense wood and craggy hill, green valley and gushing brook, faded from sight and hearing, and I was asleep!

Probably half an hour elapsed before I opened my eyes and saw sitting beside me the same elfish little figure I had once before encountered in the wood. The same stringy hair, the same sunburned forehead and neck, the same tattered dress, the same wild, weird-looking eyes. In one hand she held my parasol, opened in a position to shade my face from a slanting sunbeam; with a small bush in the other she was protecting me from mosquitoes and other insect dangers.

"Well done, little Genius of the Wood; am I to be always indebted to you for finding what I lose!" I said, jumping up and shaking my dress free from leaves.

She laughed immoderately. "First you lose your shade in the woods, and now you've gone and lost yourself! I guess you'll have to keep me always," she giggled, trotting along beside me. "I was mighty scared when I see you lying there, and the sun creeping round through the trees, like a great red lion, going to spring at you and eat you up. I thought you'd gone to the ride."

I explained the cause of my detention, and saw that she looked rather pleased; for, as I soon drew from her, she had been bitterly disappointed in the affair, and felt her rejection very keenly. She had come to this spot now for the sole purpose of peeping from behind some rock or tree at the return of the merry company, which would be at six o'clock.

"I coaxed old Walker and his wife to let me have some green corn and cucumbers, and I put on my best spencer and went to the depot this morning, but none of 'em asked me to get in. Hal Price kicked my basket over, too! I s'pose I wasn't dressed fine enough. They all wore their Sunday things. I wish 't would rain and spile 'em. I do—so!"

I tried to console her, but she refused to listen, and went on with a fierce tirade, enumerating sundry disastrous events which she "wished would happen: she did so!" and giving vent to many very unchristian but very childlike denunciations.

All on a sudden she stopped, and we simultaneously raised our heads and listened. It was a deep, grinding, crashing sound, as of rocks sliding over and past each other; then a crackling, as of roots and branches twisted and wrenched from their places; then a jar, heavy and terrible, that reverberated through the forest, making the earth quake beneath our feet, and all the leafy branches tremble above us. We knew it instantly; there had been a heavy fall of rock not far from us; and with one exclamation, we started in the direction of the sound.

The place was reached in a moment; an enormous mass of rock and earth, in which many small trees were growing, had fallen directly upon the railroad track, and that too at a point where the stream wound nearest, and its bank made a steep descent upon the other side.

Dreadful as the spectacle was to me through apprehension for the coming train, I could only notice at that moment the wonderful change in Mrs. Walker's Betsey. She leaped about among the rocks, shrieking and wringing her hands; she grasped the uprooted trees, tugging wildly at them till the veins swelled purple in her forehead, and her flying hair looked as if every separate fibre writhed with horror. I had imagined before what the aspect of that strange little face might be in terror; now I saw it, and knew what a powerful nature lay hidden in that cramped, undeveloped form.

This lasted but a moment, however. Then came to both the soberer thought, What is to be done? It appeared that we were sole witnesses of the accident; and though the crash might have been heard at the village, who would think of a land slide? and upon the railroad!

Ten minutes must have elapsed before we could give the alarm, and in less time than that the cars were due. In that speechless breathless moment, before my duller ear perceived it, Betsey caught the sound of the approaching train, deadened as it was by the hill that lay between us. It was advancing at great speed; rushing on,—all that freight of joyous human life,—rushing on to certain destruction, into the very jaws of Death!

I was utterly paralyzed! Not so Mrs. Walker's Betsey.

"I'm agoin' to run and yell," she said, and was off upon the instant. Screaming at the top of her voice, keeping near the edge of the bank, where she could be soonest seen from the approaching train, plunging through the underbrush, leaping over rocks, she dashed on to meet the cars. "Fire! Fire! Murder! Stop thieves! Hollo the house! Thieves! Mad dogs! Get out of the way, Old Dan Tucker!" were only a few of the variations of her warning voice.

I followed as I could, seemingly in a sort of nightmare; wondering why I did not scream, yet incapable of making a sound; expecting every moment to fall upon the rocks, yet taking my steps with a sureness and rapidity that astonished me even then.

Betsey's next move was to run back to me and tear my shawl from my shoulders,—a light crape of a bright crimson color. Then bending down a small sapling by throwing her whole weight upon it, she spread the shawl upon its top and allowed it to rebound. She called me to shake the tree, which I did vigorously. It stood at an angle of the road, upon a bank which commanded a long view, and was a most appropriate place to erect a signal. Then leaping upon the track, she bounded on like a deer, shouting and gesticulating with redoubled energy now that the train appeared in sight.

It was soon evident that the engineer was neither blind nor deaf, for the brakes were speedily applied, and the engine was reversed. Still it dashed on at fearful velocity, and Betsey turned and ran back toward the obstructed place in an agony of excitement. Gradually the speed lessened, the wheels obeyed their checks, and when at last they came to a full stop the cow-catcher was within four feet of the rock.

Many, seeing the danger, had already leaped off; many more, terrified, and scarcely conscious of the real nature of the danger, crowded the platforms, and pushed off those before them. It was a scene of wildest confusion, in the midst of which my heart sent up only the quivering cry of joy, "Saved, saved!" Betsey had climbed half-way up the bank, and thrown herself exhausted upon the loose gravel, with her apron drawn over her head. I picked my way down to the train to assist the frightened children. Mr. Price, the principal, was handing out his own three children, and teachers and pupils followed in swarms.

"Now, Miss Burke," said the principal, in a voice that grew strangely tremulous as he looked at the frightful mass before him, "I want to hear who it was that gave the alarm, and saved us from this hideous fate. Was it you?" I believe I never felt a glow of truer pleasure than then, as I answered quickly: "I had nothing to do with saving you, Mr. Price. I take no credit in the matter. The person to whom your thanks are due sits on the bank yonder,—Mrs. Walker's Betsey!"

Every eye wandered toward the crouching figure, who, with head closely covered, appeared indifferent to everything. Mr. Price opened his portemonnaie. "Here are ten dollars," he said, "which I wish you to give the girl for myself and children. Tell her that, as a school, she will hear from us again."

I went to Betsey's side, put the money in her hand, and tried to make her uncover her face. But she resolutely refused to do more than peep through one of the rents in her apron, as the whole school slowly and singly defiled past her in the narrow space between the train and the bank. A more crestfallen multitude I never saw, and the eyes that ventured to look upon the prostrate figure as they passed within a few feet of her had shame and contrition in their glances. Once only she whispered, as a haughty-looking boy went past, "That's the boy that kicked over my basket. I wish I'd 'a' let him gone to smash! I do—so!"

The children climbed over the rocks and went to their homes sadder and wiser for their lesson, and in twenty-four hours the track was again free from all obstruction.

The principal, though a man but little inclined to look for the angel side of such unprepossessing humanity as Mrs. Walker's Betsey, had too strong a sense of justice, and too much gratitude for his children's spared lives, not to make a very affecting appeal to the assembled school on the day following. A vote to consider her a member of the school, and entitled to all its privileges, met with no opposition; and a card of thanks, drawn up in feeling terms, received the signature of every pupil and teacher. A purse was next made up for her by voluntary contributions, amounting to twenty dollars; and to this were added a new suit, a quantity of books, and a handsome red shawl, in which her brunette skin and nicely combed jetty hair appeared to great advantage.

Betsey bore her honors meekly, and, no longer feeling that she was regarded as an intruder, came regularly to school, learned rapidly, and in her neat dress and improved manners gradually became an attractive, as she certainly was a most intelligent child.

In less than a year her mother died, and her drunken step-father removed to the far West, leaving her as a domestic in a worthy and wealthy family in Cliff Spring.

The privileges of school were still granted her, and amid the surroundings of comfort and refinement the change from Mrs. Walker's Betsey to Lizzie Hamlin became still more apparent. She rapidly rose from one class to another, and is now employed in the very school, and teaches the youngest brothers and sisters of the very scholars who, ten years ago, voted her a "nuisance" and a plague.

There is truth in the old rhyme,—

"It isn't all in bringing up,
Let men say what they will;
Neglect may dim a silver cup,—
It will be silver still!"