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Margaret and the moth tr.., p.3

Margaret and the Moth Tree, page 3


Margaret and the Moth Tree

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  A change seemed to have come over the house, though Margaret couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was. All around the entry hall, the other children were looking at her very strangely. One small mousy-looking girl shook her head solemnly from side to side, her eyes wide.

  “Um,” said Margaret. “Miss Switch?”

  Miss Switch didn’t answer. Instead she did a very odd thing. She reached into her apron pocket and pulled out a thin, golden whistle. She put the whistle in her mouth and blew.


  At the sound, the entire house seemed to come alive.

  The children scattered in all directions. They ran into the kitchen and the dining room and the entryway, grabbing and pulling at everything around them as they went. Within moments the silver trays of cookies and tarts had disappeared into boxes, which disappeared into the kitchen. The lovely plush carpets and velvet drapes were yanked from their places and rolled up into tight little bundles that were carried away. Large white sheets were draped over the soft chairs, and splintery wooden stools were set around the table instead.

  And the orphans were changing, too. They were helping each other out of their bright coveralls to reveal shabby gray clothes that looked as if they had been made from potato sacks.

  “Hey!” Margaret cried, for several children had surrounded her and were pulling away her new shawl.

  It may be that you do not understand what was happening, and if that is the case, you know exactly how poor Margaret was feeling. Before her eyes, the orphanage was changing from a beautiful, warm home to a cold, dingy house.

  And Miss Switch! Miss Switch, who only moments before had been wearing a tattered flower-print apron, had transformed. She had pulled off her apron and unbuttoned the plain gray dress to reveal a luxurious red silk one underneath. Children had come running down the stairs carrying jewelry — strands of pearls and glittering stones — which they were draping one after the other around Miss Switch’s long neck.

  And another change had taken place, an even more terrible change. Miss Switch’s beautiful face, which moments before had been filled with tenderness and motherly affection, was now sinister and cold. Her smile had hardened and turned positively carnivorous.

  Margaret stared at her in horror. “What’s going on?”

  Miss Switch looked down at her in a way that made Margaret feel very small indeed. “I am Matron here,” she said with a sneer. “And you, dreg, will call me Miss Switch.”

  She snapped her long fingers, and a pretty blonde girl who looked about thirteen stepped forward.

  The girl was smiling at Margaret, but it was not a warm smile of welcome. It was the type of smile a hyena might give a tasty mutton chop right before devouring it.

  “Every morning, dreg,” the girl said, “you will wake up at sunrise and make your bed. You will gather the laundry and sweep the floors, then you’ll go to the kitchen and make breakfast for your superiors. After that, you get four minutes to eat your breakfast mush. Then you will scrub the bathtubs and polish the toilets.”

  The girl went on, listing chore after chore to be done, while Margaret looked around in shock. From the faces of the other children, she could see that they, too, were forced to pluck weeds and scrub floors and wash dishes every hour of the day.

  She turned desperately to Miss Switch, who was admiring her own glittery reflection in a large mirror on the wall.

  “Miss Switch,” she said, reaching out to touch the Matron’s dress. “Please, I don’t understand — ”

  Miss Switch spun around, slapping Margaret’s hand from her dress with a loud clap.

  “You will do as I tell you,” she said fiercely. “You’re a worthless dreg. Nobody wants you. Nobody likes you. And if you don’t do what I say, I’ll throw you out of your bed in the middle of the night and you will be gobbled up by rabid raccoons.”

  Margaret cradled her hand, her eyes filling with tears from the slap.

  But instead of apologizing, or kissing it better, or doing any of the things a mother should do, Miss Switch began to laugh. It was a cold, harsh sound, like the screeching of a crow. And with a last grin at Margaret’s disbelieving face, she swept out of the room.

  For you see, every story has a villain. And in case you hadn’t guessed, the villain of this story is Miss Switch.


  The Home of the Dregs

  On her first night at the Hopeton Orphanage, Margaret cried herself into a fitful sleep.

  When she awoke the next morning in her lumpy bed, several moments passed before she remembered where she was. But when a scowling boy with chestnut curls appeared and shook her roughly by the shoulders, the events of the previous day came rushing back.

  “Up, dreg!” he shouted. “Make your bed!”

  Margaret blinked around at the rows of narrow beds and yawning orphans. Across the room, other children were being kicked and poked awake by the cruel-looking blonde girl who had given the orders the day before.

  “Ouch!” Margaret cried.

  The curly-haired boy had pinched her on the arm.

  “What are you staring at? Move faster when you get an order!” he said.

  Margaret hurried to straighten her flimsy sheets, and the boy stomped off to the next bed.

  “The first few days are always the worst,” said a hushed voice, and Margaret saw the wide-eyed mousy girl who had shaken her head so solemnly the day before.

  Margaret was full of questions, but before she could whisper any of them to the mousy girl, a screeching voice filled the room.

  “You worthless little runtworm!”

  The bossy blonde girl was snarling at a tiny boy who was struggling to lift a large laundry basket.

  “You’re the most useless snizzler I’ve ever seen!” spat the girl.

  Grabbing the basket from the tiny boy’s hands and lifting it high in the air, she tipped it over his head. Rolls of grimy socks tumbled out in a wave until the boy was buried in a smelly pyramid, then the girl dropped the basket so that it landed with a thump on top of the heap. She threw her head back and laughed loudly. The curly-haired boy snickered.

  “That’s Lacey Walloper,” the mousy girl whispered. “One of Switch’s Pets. And the other’s Christopher Thrashley. You’ll have to watch out for them. My name’s Judy. Just follow me and do what I do.”

  Turning to a hamper of dirty towels, Judy grabbed hold of one side and Margaret took the other.

  “Judy,” Margaret whispered as they made their way out of the room, “what happened yesterday?”

  “The Switch,” said Judy. “That’s what we call her when she’s not around. She gets charity money from those ladies for the orphanage, but she only uses it on herself. She has to make everything look good when they come to visit, but they always telephone beforehand, so she has time to put out all the nice things.”

  “Couldn’t you tell someone?” Margaret asked. “Couldn’t you call the police?”

  Judy shook her head sadly. “Some kids have tried, but no one believes them. And the Switch can make things really terrible for anyone who gets in her way.” Judy lowered her voice. “Once, Phoebe Frizzleton forgot to smile when the C.L.C. ladies asked how she was. Switch made her stand in the middle of a field during a lightning storm. Phoebe couldn’t sleep for weeks after that. It’s best to just keep your head down and try not to get noticed.”

  Margaret and Judy filed down the hallway behind other pairs of orphans and their hampers. Then, one by one, they emptied their loads down an enormous laundry chute. Turning away from the chute, Margaret noticed a new group of children who had come from a neighboring room to join Lacey and Christopher. They were laughing with each other, and many had smug looks on their faces.

  Judy nudged her. “The rest of the Pets,” she whispered.

  “What’s a Pet?
” Margaret asked.

  Just at that moment Lacey came stalking down the line so Judy didn’t get a chance to tell her. But as that dreadful day progressed, Margaret learned the answer for herself.

  Miss Switch, it soon became clear, divided the orphans into two groups. The ones she found to be cute and adorable she called Pets, while all the others were dregs.

  The Pets were Miss Switch’s personal favorites, and it was their job to keep the dregs in line. It was also their job to brush the Matron’s hair, paint her toenails or simply follow her around and admire her. She would say things like, “My hair is less shiny today than usual,” to which the Pets would respond, “Oh, no, Miss Switch! You have the loveliest hair in the world,” and so on.

  In return she treated them a great deal better than the less attractive orphans, who were forced to chop and cook and scrub and scrape and wash and weed all day long.

  Margaret, as you already know, had become a dreg, which meant that her life was now full of just such scrubbing and scraping and washing and weeding. She had begun what is called a life of drudgery, which is the most unpleasant kind of life to have.

  On Margaret’s second day in the orphanage, Miss Switch ordered her to chop onions into perfectly square-shaped pieces for her egg-white omelet. By the time Margaret finished, her eyes were stinging and watering so much that she dropped her bowl of breakfast mush on the floor and had nothing to eat at all.

  On Margaret’s third day, Miss Switch put her on porch-scrubbing duty with a pimply-faced dreg called Bessie Blotchly. Margaret’s hands got so sore from the scrub brush that painful blisters blossomed across her palms, and when she asked for permission to stop, Lacey gave her a row of hard pinches on her arm.

  The day after that, Miss Switch discovered that a nervous dreg called Vickram Skitter had accidentally thrown away her new fashion magazines. As punishment, she threw him down the laundry chute with a rope tied around his waist, where he spent the afternoon whimpering quietly until Margaret and the others were allowed to haul him up again.

  On the fifth day, Miss Switch commanded Margaret and the very smallest dreg, a puny boy called Timothy Smealing, to climb up into the chimney and scrape it out with toothbrushes. They got soot so far up their ears and noses that they couldn’t hear or smell anything for the rest of the day, and Miss Switch sent them to bed without supper for having dirty fingernails.

  As it happened, a young couple came to the orphanage that evening looking to adopt an orphan. But Margaret, lying in her bed with soot-filled ears and an empty stomach, didn’t even get to lay eyes on them, and they took home a fetching black-haired Pet named Charlotte Ravenhurst.

  Young as she was, Margaret had already faced a great number of unpleasant things. She had accepted her life of silence with Cousin Amos. She had endured Great-aunt Linda’s bossiness. She had minded her manners and tried to make the best of things, and she had always obeyed the rules because that is what she had been taught to do.

  But Margaret could see that Miss Switch was an entirely different kind of awful. Miss Switch wasn’t going to guard her, or care for her, or help her in any way. For the first time, Margaret had fallen under the thumb of a truly cruel person.

  Dealing with cruelty is a pretty tall order, even for grown-ups. But Margaret remembered what Hannah had whispered before driving away. Call if you need anything.

  Margaret certainly needed something now. So, unused to boldness though she was, she concocted a very bold plan. And as she went about her chores, she waited patiently for a chance to act on it.


  The Truth about Bullies

  Bullies, whether big or small, are really very much alike.

  No matter how much they poke or pinch or tease, they never seem satisfied, which is a pity for whoever is being poked and pinched. The truth about bullies is that every one of them has a sore spot that pokes and pinches at them, like a bad stomachache or a pesky thorn stuck in their side. The sore spot might be caused by loneliness, or jealousy, or even fear, but every single bully has one, and it never goes away no matter how much bullying they do.

  Miss Switch, who was one of the biggest bullies of all, was no different. Though she brought orphan after terrified orphan to the brink of despair, she never seemed satisfied, and the sore spot never went away. For the thorn sticking in Miss Switch’s side was beauty.

  Though anyone would say that the Matron was beautiful now, she knew she had once been much more than that. Not so many years ago, she had been breathtaking — the type of person you would stop and stare at if you saw her walking down the street.

  One day when she was quite young, two people had stopped to stare at her who were very important indeed.

  “Rolph! Do you see zat girl?” one of them said, a woman with dark sunglasses and tall spiky heels.

  “Oh my, yes!” said Rolph, who wore a long ponytail. “Dah-ling!”

  “Excusez-moi!” cried the woman, waving a silk handkerchief at Miss Switch. “Mademoiselle, a moment!”

  And they swooped down on the young Miss Switch like hungry bees on a flower.

  “ ’Ave you ever posed for a portrait?” asked the woman.

  “Dah-ling, what a face!” cried Rolph.

  Young Miss Switch, who was unused to this sort of attention, had a feeling that a wonderful new life was about to start for her.

  As it turned out, the spiky-heeled woman was called Estella Isabella, and she owned a very successful fashion magazine. Rolph, who had no last name, was a world-famous photographer. They both found Miss Switch to be so lovely that from that point on, her only job was to sit for portraits.

  In the grand scheme of things, sitting for portraits is neither a useful nor an interesting job. But Miss Switch didn’t mind. She made a large group of stylish new friends and bought all the best clothing and jewelry to adorn herself with. Each day seemed better and more glamorous than the last, and she truly believed that she could very happily spend the rest of her life in the world of fashion.

  In that world, you see, people with beautiful faces have a lot of control over those around them. And Miss Switch, with the most beautiful face of all, controlled a great many people.

  She controlled the man who painted on her makeup and the seamstresses who hemmed her gowns. She controlled the girl who brought her lunch and the woman who cleaned her dressing room. If she didn’t like the way things were done, she could pout and hold up everyone’s day until she got her way. Her portraits were so important to everyone that no one dared refuse her anything.

  But the one thing Switch couldn’t control was time.

  Years passed, and her shiny hair became the tiniest bit duller. Her skin became just a smidgen less glowing. And one fateful day, just as Switch was about to have her portrait taken with an enormous peacock, the makeup man screamed and dropped his brush.

  “What is it?” said Miss Switch in alarm, for he looked as though he’d seen something really dreadful.

  “Nothing to worry about!” said the man. “I’ll just need some more powder.”

  But when Miss Switch checked her reflection in the mirror, she saw what had made the makeup man scream. Right in the middle of her smooth forehead was a tiny wrinkle.

  That was the last photograph ever taken of Miss Switch. Rolph stopped asking her for portraits, and Estella wouldn’t return her phone calls.

  Switch lingered near the fashionable shops and restaurants in the hope of bumping into them, but all the waiters and shopkeepers who had once been so happy to see her now seemed to turn their heads away. At last she spotted the pair of them at a sidewalk café, sitting next to a tall willowy girl with black hair.

  “Rolph!” Switch cried. “Estella!” But neither of them showed any interest at all.

  “What do you want?” asked Estella.

  “You haven’t been returning my m
essages,” Switch said.

  “Dah-ling,” said Rolph. “You’re out.”

  “What?” said Switch. “What do you mean?”

  “You’re finished,” Rolph said. “Kaput. Zippo. No one wants you.”

  Although this was an awful thing for Rolph to say, and Miss Switch felt as though she’d been struck by lightning, she turned hopefully to Estella. “Couldn’t I at least work at your magazine?” she asked.

  “Why should we want you,” Estella said, sticking up her nose, “when zere are so many ozzer girls who are so much more beautiful? So much younger. No, I don’t see zat we vill ’ave any use for you.”

  “Then,” Switch said quietly, “what am I to do?”

  “I’m afraid you vill just ’ave to go and join ze dregs of society,” said Estella with a cold smile. Then she turned back to the willowy girl beside her. “Now, if you vill excuse us, we are getting to know more about Chi-Chi ’ere.”

  “You’re going to be a star, dah-ling,” Rolph said to the willowy girl, already ignoring the devastated Miss Switch.

  From that moment on, it was as if a door had closed on Miss Switch, and she was never to be allowed back through. Her fancy friends would no longer speak to her. She couldn’t afford the extravagant clothes and jewels she had grown used to. Every part of the world she had loved quickly slipped away.

  The only thing her old life had given her was a lot of practice at ordering people around. Which is why, when she read about the retirement of the Master of Hopeton Orphanage in the newspaper, she applied to replace him.

  “I think this job will be just right for you,” said the cheerful young woman named Hannah Tender as she drove Miss Switch to the orphanage. “I’m sure you’ll liven the place right up.”

  But Miss Switch soon found that the job was not right for her. With every passing day she grew more bitter, and her heart grew colder. Every time she noticed a new wrinkle on her creamy skin, she felt fury bubble up inside her like a smoldering volcano. And the children, who seemed to her a constant reminder of her own lost youth, were what she hated most of all.

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