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Margaret and the moth tr.., p.4

Margaret and the Moth Tree, page 4

 

Margaret and the Moth Tree
 


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  By the time Margaret arrived at the orphanage, wide-eyed and hopeful, it seemed to Switch as though every child was a pin stuck in her side, poking and pricking and needling her by their very presence. It was only when she crushed the spirit right out of the children that she felt a moment’s ease. But no matter how terrible Switch made life in the orphanage, it was never terrible enough.

  CHAPTER 9

  Teaspoons and Treachery

  At the end of Margaret’s first week, Miss Switch ordered her to polish all the silverware in the scullery, which was a small room behind the kitchen. The Pet assigned to guard her was a girl called Agatha Spink.

  Agatha had shining dark hair that fell almost to her waist, a rather bulbous nose and, as it happened, a very short attention span. This turned out to be a lucky thing for Margaret, because the only thing duller than polishing silverware is keeping watch over someone else who is polishing silverware.

  As Margaret polished the teaspoons, Agatha sighed and tapped her foot. As Margaret polished the dessert forks, Agatha rapped her fingers on the scullery door. And as the hours passed, Agatha twitched and fidgeted and wriggled and squirmed.

  “Listen, dreg!” she said at last. “Don’t even think of doing anything funny. If you’re not finished by the time I get back, I’ll put pepper in your mush for a week.”

  “Yes, Agatha,” Margaret said, giving her a fearful, obedient look.

  Agatha narrowed her eyes like a rat, then stepped aside and let the scullery door swing shut with Margaret inside.

  As soon as she was gone, Margaret dropped to the ground. Through the crack under the door, she saw the dark-haired Pet disappearing into the pantry where all the cookies and treats were kept.

  And in that moment, Margaret knew her chance had come. For the first time since arriving at the orphanage, she knew that no one was watching her. For the first time, she was alone.

  Sneaking around in places you don’t belong is called trespassing, and it is usually a very rude thing to do. Imagine, for example, jumping into your bed one night and finding a strange banker tucked up under the covers. Not only would you have to discuss economics as you shooed the banker outside, but you would probably find that he had arranged your pillows in exactly the wrong way. No one enjoys having a stranger puttering about uninvited, which is why trespassing is such an impolite habit.

  But after a week at the Hopeton Orphanage, Margaret knew that a stint of impoliteness would be the least of her problems.

  As quietly as she could, Margaret pushed the scullery door open and slipped through it. She listened to Agatha munching away on cookies for a few seconds, then tiptoed out of the kitchen and into the hallway.

  Along with Switch’s bedroom, her sitting room and her private bathroom, Switch’s study was right up there with the den of a hungry lion as one of the worst places on earth to go trespassing. But this is just where Margaret was headed. Because even though the study was off limits, it had the one thing she needed more than anything: a telephone.

  The Matron’s study was at the far end of the hallway, and when Margaret reached the door, she put her ear against the keyhole to check if any Pets were inside. There wasn’t a peep, so she turned the handle and crept through the door.

  The room inside was a cozy one, lined with bookshelves and marble sculptures of famous people’s heads. The first Master of Hopeton had stacked the shelves with leather-bound books, but Switch had filled them with her enormous collection of glossy fashion magazines instead.

  Ignoring both the magazines and the marble heads, Margaret made straight for the telephone on the wide oak desk. With shaking hands, she picked up the receiver and dialed.

  “Operator,” said a nasal voice on the other end of the line.

  “Concerned Ladies’ Club, please,” breathed Margaret, afraid to speak too loudly.

  “Thank you,” said the operator. There were three beeps on the other end of the line, then silence.

  “Hello?” said a sweet voice at last, and Margaret felt a surge of hope. It was Hannah.

  “Hannah! It’s Margaret! Do you remember me?”

  “Of course I remember you, Margaret. What’s wrong?”

  “Please come quickly and bring the police!” Margaret whispered. “It’s all a fraud. All the furniture and the food and the clothes — Miss Switch put it all away as soon as you left. She uses the money for herself. We aren’t looked after at all, we’re worked all day long and — ”

  “What?” interrupted Hannah. “Margaret, is this true?”

  “Yes. Oh, Hannah, please come!”

  “I’ll be there as fast as I can.”

  “Oh, thank you! I — ” Margaret froze. For a moment, she thought she had heard a small noise outside the study door.

  “I have to go!” she said in a rush, and hung up the phone.

  Trembling, she crossed back to the door and peered through the keyhole. There was no one there.

  Weak with relief, Margaret slipped back to the scullery. And as she sat, polishing away at the soupspoons, wonderful thoughts began swimming through her mind.

  Soon Hannah would come to the rescue, and all the orphans would be freed from their lives of drudgery and, best of all, they would never have to lay eyes on Miss Switch again.

  All this would no doubt have happened, had it not been for one thing that poor Margaret knew nothing about.

  CHAPTER 10

  The Dreggish Pet

  As you know, the Matron of the Hopeton Orphanage had a habit of dividing her orphans into two groups based on their looks. What you may not know is that she always acted on first impressions.

  This meant that if you arrived at the orphanage with messy hair and dark circles under your eyes from traveling, Miss Switch would sneer and shove a broom into your hands. It didn’t matter if days or years afterwards you became a great beauty. “Once a dreg, always a dreg,” was one of Miss Switch’s favorite sayings.

  The girl named Agatha Spink had arrived on the orphanage steps only a few weeks before Margaret on what happened to be a beautiful and sunny afternoon. The first time Miss Switch laid eyes on the new arrival, warm sunlight was bouncing off her lovely dark hair, so the Matron’s first impression was one of shining ravenlocks that tumbled over the girl’s shoulders in a very becoming way. Naturally, Switch smiled and offered her a strawberry tart.

  It was not until the following morning that Miss Switch got a good look at the girl’s large and bulbous nose.

  “Who are you?” Switch snapped when Agatha brought in a jug of cucumber water.

  “I’m Agatha Spink,” Agatha replied, suddenly nervous.

  Miss Switch stared at the girl in confusion. Then her look changed to one of disgust, and Agatha felt her knees buckle. Disgust was a look the Matron gave only to dregs.

  “Go,” Switch said, snatching the jug from her hands. “Send in someone else to help me dress. Send in one of the others.”

  As she scurried from the room, Agatha realized the mistake that had been made. She oughtn’t to have been a Pet at all.

  From that moment on, Agatha wasn’t allowed in the Matron’s private rooms, but neither could Miss Switch assign her to chores. The Matron’s decisions in these matters were always final, and to admit that she’d made a mistake would be unthinkable. Instead, Agatha was given the least desirable of the Pets’ tasks.

  “Miss Switch really ought to just boot her out,” Agatha overheard Lacey telling the other Pets one day. “She can’t stand the sight of her — she’s so dreggish. I’m telling you, one of these days we’ll wake up and that big schnoz will be gone. Miss Switch’ll see to that.”

  Agatha tried her very best to get back on Switch’s good side, but this only seemed to make the Matron more annoyed. As time went on, Agatha grew more and more certain that her days in the orphanage were numbered.

>   On the day of the silverware polishing, as she stood in the scullery watching Margaret shining spoon after spoon, these were the thoughts going round in Agatha’s head.

  What was the point, she asked herself, of doing what she was told, if she was going to be booted out no matter how hard she tried? She might as well enjoy herself while she still had a place to sleep at night.

  Having reached this conclusion, she left Margaret and the silverware, dashed over to the pantry and began stuffing her mouth with cookies.

  Desperate people, you see, will often try to distract themselves from their worries. Some of the dregs threw themselves into their chores until they could no longer think clearly. Others tried to convince themselves that they were in the middle of a long and unpleasant dream from which they would soon wake up. Unfortunately, neither of these strategies could keep their troubles at bay for long. And as satisfying as it was to stuff her mouth with sugary treats, Agatha’s method was no better.

  After a few minutes in the pantry, Agatha’s stomach was pleasantly full, but her worries were as real as ever. Wiping the crumbs from her mouth, she shuffled back to the scullery to check on Margaret …

  And you already know what she discovered. The polishing had been abandoned, and the little brown-haired dreg had disappeared.

  Agatha’s knees began to shake. Pet or not, a slip-up like this would be the last straw for her.

  Which is why, in a sudden panic, she took off down the hall to search for the missing girl. It is also why, when she overheard the dreg’s telephone call through the very same keyhole Margaret had peered through only moments before, she ran immediately to Miss Switch and told her every word of it.

  Surely, thought Agatha, warning Miss Switch of such a plot would bring her back into the Matron’s good graces.

  And when Miss Switch, who hated the very sight of the big-nosed child gasping in her doorway, heard what the girl had to say, she smiled a very sinister smile indeed.

  CHAPTER 11

  Nothing Worse Than a Thief

  Margaret had been polishing for what felt like a very long time. She was just beginning to wonder how much longer the raven-haired Pet would stay in the pantry when she heard the sound of approaching footsteps. She started polishing a little faster just in case the Pet was in a scolding mood, but it wasn’t Agatha who pulled open the door.

  It was Miss Switch, wearing a turquoise satin dressing gown.

  The Matron stared down at Margaret with a look of pure sweetness, her golden hair shining. “It’s Margaret, isn’t it?” she said, and her voice reminded Margaret of a purring cat.

  “Yes, Miss Switch,” said Margaret, who was beginning to have a very bad feeling in the pit of her stomach.

  “My,” purred Miss Switch, “what a nice job you’ve done with the polishing.”

  “Thank you,” said Margaret.

  “Why don’t you take a little break?” Stepping to one side, Miss Switch swept her arm in a wide gesture to the kitchen, and Margaret, not knowing what else to do, stepped slowly forward.

  Glancing around, she saw that Lacey was standing near the hallway door, smiling the hyena-like smile that made Margaret feel more like a lamb chop than a little girl.

  “Perhaps,” Miss Switch said softly, “you wouldn’t mind helping Lacey fetch my silk scarf from upstairs? I have a bit of a chill.”

  Margaret frowned slightly, certain the Matron would never ask a dreg to perform such a personal task. But she took a deep breath and said, “No, I wouldn’t mind.”

  “Marvelous,” said Miss Switch.

  “Follow me,” said Lacey.

  Margaret followed her up the stairs. When they reached the top, Lacey led the way to a large closet and pulled open the door.

  “It’s in here,” Lacey said. “Near the back. Go on.”

  Margaret hesitated. She knew there was a good chance Lacey was up to something, and a very good chance it was something cruel. But she also knew that help couldn’t be far away, and that she need only play along until it arrived. So, with a nod, she stepped into the closet.

  Not surprisingly, the door slammed shut behind her and locked with a click. But what was surprising was the sound that echoed through the house only seconds later.

  Tweeeeeeeeet!

  The whistle!

  “No!” Margaret cried, banging on the closet door. Now she knew what was happening. The only possible thing that could ruin her hopes of rescue: Miss Switch had ordered the switch once again. Even now, the orphans were covering the house in fine things and changing into their colorful coveralls and hiding all evidence of Miss Switch’s treachery.

  “Stop!” cried Margaret. “Don’t do it!”

  But it was no use. Soon the commotion had stopped, and Margaret knew that the truth had been hidden once again. A few minutes passed, and then she heard the sounds of a car approaching and a hard knock at the front door.

  “Good evening, Miss Switch.” A man’s voice drifted up from the entryway.

  “Sheriff, how nice to see you,” came Miss Switch’s voice at its most charming. “I do hope all is well? Hello, ladies.”

  “I’m dreadfully sorry about the disturbance,” came Gertrude’s sharp voice, sounding annoyed. “This is completely against procedure.”

  “Yes, indeed,” said Prudie’s voice. “We never visit without calling ahead. It’s impolite.”

  But then Hannah spoke, and Margaret felt a surge of hope.

  “I’m afraid I’ve just had a telephone call from one of your children,” Hannah said. “She told me some very disturbing things about — about the way you run things here ...” Hannah’s voice trailed off.

  Margaret knew she was looking around at all the beautiful things that Margaret had insisted wouldn’t be there.

  “How very odd,” said Miss Switch.

  “Everything looks fine to me,” said the Sheriff.

  “And me,” said Gertrude.

  “Yes,” said Hannah. “But where is Margaret? I’d like to speak with her.”

  “By all means. Margaret!” Miss Switch called in a singsong voice.

  On cue, the key turned in the lock and Lacey pulled Margaret from the closet. She shoved her toward the stairs with a smirk.

  Worrying about possible punishment as you climb a flight of stairs is an unpleasant feeling. Knowing that your doom awaits you at the bottom of one is even worse.

  But Margaret had no choice. As she came down the stairs, she saw that the floorboards were now richly carpeted. She saw the orphans in their bright clothes and Miss Switch in a faded gingham sundress. She saw the remains of a delicious-looking lunch spread out on the table. She saw Hannah’s kind face, looking confused, and the Concerned Ladies, looking miffed, and a mustachioed man in uniform who must be the Sheriff.

  “Oh!” said Miss Switch. “What were you doing up there, Margaret? And in your painting frock? I thought you’d be playing in the yard with the others.”

  “Yes,” said Gertrude. “From noon until one-thirty, the children play out of doors. It’s in the schedule.”

  Margaret turned to Hannah and opened her mouth to explain, but before she could get even a single word out —

  “Miss Switch!” Lacey bellowed from the top of the stairs. “Margaret has been stealing from you!”

  At these words, five gasps sounded — four genuine ones from the ladies and the Sheriff and a theatrical one from Miss Switch. Lacey rushed downstairs, and handed something to the Matron. “I found this in that ratty bag under her bed.”

  “I can’t believe it!” As though she were on a stage, Miss Switch held up a beautiful pearl necklace. “This is a treasured family heirloom!”

  “Well it certainly doesn’t belong under a child’s bed then,” said Prudie. “Jewelry belongs in a jewelry case.”

  “M
arjorie must have taken it!” cried Gertrude. “It’s the only logical explanation.”

  “There’s nothing worse than a thief,” said the Sheriff, looking stern.

  Hannah looked at Margaret very closely, a mixture of surprise and confusion on her face. “I don’t understand,” she said. “Margaret, did you do this?”

  Margaret shook her head frantically, then opened her mouth to defend herself.

  “Margaret, how could you?” Miss Switch cut in loudly, bringing her hand to her forehead and turning back to the group. Hannah was staring at Miss Switch now with a slight frown on her face.

  “I’m so sorry you had to see this, Sheriff,” Miss Switch went on. “I’m afraid the child must be starved for attention to be acting out like this. It’s a matter for a mother’s gentle touch, not the firm hand of the law.”

  “Well, all right,” said the Sheriff. “I must say you’re being very forgiving about the whole thing. And you,” he added sternly, turning to Margaret. “If I hear you’re giving Miss Switch any more trouble, I can tell you that I won’t be nearly so understanding.”

  “Nor will we,” said Prudie, her plump face pink with annoyance.

  “Please accept our apologies, Miss Switch,” said Gertrude. “If we’d known this child had criminal tendencies, we’d have sent her straight to the loony bin.”

  “You can always tell the bad ones,” added Prudie, “because they’re less adorable than the others. That is something I know to be absolutely true.”

  “It’s not!” Margaret finally managed to say, but no one was listening. Already Switch was ushering them all out to the porch and down the front steps. Only Hannah turned to look back before she climbed into the police car with the others and they set off down the dirt road.

  Margaret looked wildly around at the other orphans, but none of them would even look at her.

  It was over. Margaret had failed. And Switch, the horrible, beautiful Switch, had most definitely won.

 
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