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Margaret and the moth tr.., p.8

Margaret and the Moth Tree, page 8

 

Margaret and the Moth Tree
 


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  Then in one swift movement, she grabbed Helen’s braid. And with sudden, violent snips, she chopped off all of Helen’s lovely hair, right to the scalp.

  “That’s much better,” she said, nudging Helen toward the mirror. “Much more suitable for a dreg.”

  Helen cried out as she caught a look at her reflection. All that was left of her lovely hair were a few spiky tufts that stuck out in all directions.

  Lacey, whose hair was rather stringy, and who had always secretly envied the dreg, shrieked with delight.

  Miss Switch smiled the smile of a bully happy to be back in practice.

  “Dregs really don’t know much about fashion, do they?” she said in her sweetest purr, handing Helen the limp braid.

  “No, Miss Switch,” whispered Helen through her tears.

  The debraiding of Helen Ravish had just the effect on the other orphans that Switch wanted. The giggles hushed, the smiles faded away and the atmosphere of fear returned. Things were just as dreadful as they had been before.

  But Margaret wasn’t fearful. Just as soon as she could, she raced out to the moth tree to tell Pip what had happened.

  “That wallyscag!” Pip cried angrily as Margaret finished her tale.

  Margaret nodded in agreement.

  Some people, when faced with a series of defeats, might choose to turn tail and put thoughts of victory behind them. But whether it was Pip’s indignation or an anger all her own, Margaret was determined not to let Switch get away with the things she had done.

  If your parents have any taste in bedtime stories, you may have heard of a green-capped bandit called Robin Hood, and how he stole things from rich people to give them away to the poor. On the surface, Robin Hood was just a very famous robber. But since those he stole from were thieves themselves, most people thought he deserved a pat on the back rather than a prison sentence.

  Like stealing from thieves, whether it is right or wrong to seek revenge against a bully really depends on how you look at it. And as Margaret crept down the basement stairs that night, with Pip on her shoulder and a new plan brewing in her mind, she looked at her task as a very noble one indeed.

  With Pip flying ahead to check that the coast was clear, she made her way down the stairs to a storage room deep under the orphanage.

  “Just a little should do it,” said Margaret to Pip, as they peered into the large sack of powder that was used to mix dyes for the orphans’ clothes.

  Then, reaching her hand into the sack, she drew out a handful of fine gray powder.

  CHAPTER 21

  A Touch of Gray

  Apart from thinking up creative new ways to terrorize dregs, Switch spent her days in a very particular way.

  The thing she was most particular about was making her toilette, which is a French word for spending a ridiculous amount of time in front of a mirror trying to make yourself look attractive.

  Switch made her toilette in an enormous bathroom with mirrors from floor to ceiling, which was full of hundreds of combs, brushes, bottles, vials, tubes, jars and pots. All morning long, a procession of Pets went in and out, working to prink and preen and prettify her. Her creamy skin was rinsed and powdered, her golden hair was lathered and brushed, her makeup alone took over two hours. Every single inch of her, from the top of her head to the tips of her toenails, had its own special treatment. What she looked like without the many layers of powder and makeup, no one knew.

  On delivery days, the mailman would bring boxes of fresh beauty supplies to the orphanage, and Lacey and another Pet called Emily Darlington would unpack them in Switch’s bathroom.

  The boxes were labelled “For the Foundlings,” which made the mailman think they contained clothes and books and toys for the poor dear orphans.

  “What a very kind woman,” he always said to himself as he continued on his rounds. Little did he know that the very kind woman was having her toenails filed by a poor dear orphan while sipping on a cocktail and reading about the latest trends in handbags.

  As it happened, the day after the debraiding of Helen Ravish was a delivery day.

  “Look what you’ve done, dolt!” Lacey yelled, as she unpacked the boxes that morning.

  “Sorry! Oopsie!” chirped Emily Darlington.

  Emily, with her bouncy blonde ringlets and rosy cheeks, was perhaps the most adorable child in the whole orphanage, but she was also one of the dimmest.

  She had been midway through refilling Switch’s shampoo bottle when she had stopped to stare at a crystal vial of perfume on the countertop. The light from the bathroom window shone onto the crystal, casting little rainbows around the room.

  “Oh, pretty!” Emily had murmured, letting the shampoo run into her lap and onto the bathroom floor.

  “You’re the most doltish dolt in this whole stinking place!” Lacey shouted.

  “I’m sorry, Lacey.”

  “Clean up this mess! And you can finish these boxes by yourself.”

  Lacey called Emily a dolt a few more times for good measure, then stomped out of the room to find a dreg to pick on. This was Lacey’s favorite way to do chores, as she preferred to take credit for other people’s work if it was done well, and punish them if it was not.

  Emily sat and looked around at all the work she had to do, biting her tongue between her teeth like a kitten. A few moments later, Margaret appeared.

  Neither Lacey nor the doltish Emily had noticed Pip keeping watch from the windowsill, waiting for a moment just like this one. And Margaret, her talented ears listening for his call, had hurried to the bathroom just as Lacey left.

  “Hello!” said Margaret, stepping in between two tall mirrors so that her reflection multiplied all around the mirrored room.

  “Hello!” said Emily, jumping to her feet. “Wait ...” She wrinkled her brow in confusion. “I’m not supposed to talk to dregs.”

  “You’re not talking to a dreg,” said Margaret.

  “I’m not?” said Emily, arching a pretty pointed eyebrow.

  “No, the dregs aren’t allowed in here. I’m your reflection.”

  “Oh ...” Emily looked around at all the Margarets. She raised her right arm above her head very slowly, and Margaret did the exact same thing with her left.

  “Fun!” laughed Emily, continuing the game with her other hand.

  Margaret mirrored the Pet’s movements for a minute or so, collapsing to the ground convincingly when Emily tried to lift both her little feet in the air at the same time.

  “Not the brightest, is she?” said Pip, and Margaret tried not to smile.

  “What are all those?” Margaret asked when she and Emily had righted themselves, pointing to the jars and bottles all over the floor.

  “These are Miss Switch’s.”

  “Yes, but what are they for?”

  “Well, this one’s hand cream, this one’s face powder, this one’s hair tonic and — ”

  But the Pet broke off.

  At a small nod from Margaret, tinkling music had started to play from a beautiful ballerina music box on the counter.

  “Oh, pretty!” said Emily. She skipped toward it, her blonde curls bobbing.

  If you had been in Switch’s bathroom, you would have seen Pip flying away from the music box lever and a quick movement of Margaret’s hand over the bottle of hair tonic at the very moment Emily turned away. But Emily, bless her, saw nothing but the graceful twirls of the clockwork ballet dancer.

  When the dancer stopped spinning a few minutes later and Emily Darlington returned to her boxes and bottles, the mysterious reflection was gone. Unconcerned, Emily went about her work and soon forgot about the whole encounter, save for the song of the music-box ballerina, which she continued to hum for the rest of the day.

  The next morning, however, the residents of the Hopeton Orphana
ge were woken by an ear-splitting, spine-chilling, blood-curdling cry of rage.

  “GRAAAAAARRRGGG!”

  The dregs heard it and sat bolt upright in their beds. The Pets heard it and sat bolt upright in theirs. The mouth of every orphan fell open and stayed frozen that way, because Switch was yelling as they had never heard her yell before. Even Margaret, with her finely tuned listening, could only make out the odd word, like “treachery!” “bottle!” and “vengeance!”

  After one long, drawn-out scream from Switch, the orphans heard the shattering sound of mirrors being smashed. Then, with angry stomps that came closer and closer, Switch came shrieking down the hall.

  As she passed the dregs’ doorway, they saw that she was wearing a giant silk scarf wrapped around her head like a massive beehive. Her shrieking continued down the stairs, and a few moments later came the slamming of the front door and the screeching of tires.

  The dregs sprang from their beds to the windows just in time to see a small convertible speed away from the house. And as the car took off down the dusty road, Switch’s silk scarf came loose and flew off.

  Of course, you have probably already guessed what it was hiding. Streaming from Switch’s head, whipping through the air, was a headful of frizzled gray hair.

  “Oh!” gasped Judy.

  “Hee hee!” chuckled Phoebe.

  “HA!” snickered Vickram.

  Sarah Pottley rubbed her eyes.

  Margaret just smiled, watching the scarf flutter down to land in the dust.

  It is not, generally speaking, very nice to be pleased about someone else’s misfortunes. But when that someone is a horrible and vain bully, it can be very hard to stop yourself.

  PART THREE

  THE DREAMS

  CHAPTER 22

  Fury Foiled

  Nine times out of ten, the saying “Better late than never” makes very little sense. Most of the time, doing something too late is just as bad as never doing it at all.

  There is very little point, for example, in stepping on the brakes after you’ve driven your car off the edge of a cliff. It is also rather pointless to show up for your wedding two years after the date written on the invitations. And if you were delivering a pardon from the king for someone on their way to the gallows, arriving late would be just as bad as never coming at all.

  Some people, though, put a lot of stock in this phrase.

  Great-aunt Linda, for instance, had used it every Tuesday when her backgammon tournament ran late and Margaret had to wait an extra three hours for supper.

  And Miss Switch, who preferred to punish dregs in a timely manner whenever possible, was saying it over and over to herself as she sat in a beauty parlor with her head slathered in thick purple goop.

  When she finally reappeared in the doorway of the orphanage seven hours later, her hair had been restored to a beautiful, silky blonde, and her face was as composed and flawless as ever. But her glittering eyes were seething with fury. And her mind was made up that when it came to punishments, they were most definitely better late than never.

  As Switch began her interrogations, however, it soon became clear that her fury had nowhere to go.

  Lacey explained that she had taken the boxes straight from the mailman and left the task of unpacking them with doltish Emily Darlington.

  Little Emily, on persistent questioning, said it must have been the mirror who tampered with the bottles, or perhaps the music-box ballerina.

  “Oh — yes! The ballerina!” gasped Emily. And she began to hum softly to herself and twirl around.

  Switch rolled her eyes, then turned her attention to the rest of the orphans, who were cowering around the room in terror.

  “So,” she said softly. “That’s it, is it? No one can tell me how this little mistake may have taken place?”

  No one spoke. Margaret, as you know, could easily have answered Switch’s question. But as she was conveniently forbidden to make any noise, she kept her mouth tightly shut.

  “Maybe … the bottle?” Lacey said. “The mailman could’ve mixed up the delivery.”

  Switch stared at Lacey carefully for several moments. Then she glared at the others, whipped around, and began ascending the stairs. She was halfway up before she turned back to face them.

  “There will be no supper tonight,” she said, “and unless I change my mind, no food in the morning, either.”

  Lacey had just flashed her wide, hyena-like smile at the dregs when the Switch continued.

  “No supper for any of you.”

  And turning again, she disappeared up the stairs.

  Lacey’s hyena grin melted off her face in disbelief.

  In the whole history of the Hopeton Orphanage, only three Pets had ever been punished by Miss Switch.

  The first was a sweet little lad called Milton Pinkrich, who had scribbled all over Switch’s magazines thinking they were coloring books. When she saw what he had done, Switch scrawled “PEST” across his face in a rage, and it didn’t wash off for a month.

  The second was a delightfully handsome boy called Henry Fitzflatterly, who made the mistake of saying that Switch must have been the most beautiful girl in the world “in her youth.” Switch taped his hands over his eyes and left them that way for three days, causing him to stumble around bumping into things.

  And on the third occasion, a precious little girl called Agnes Primrose had the misfortune of calling the Matron “Mother” by accident. Switch made her walk around with a bar of soap in her mouth for a week.

  But this latest punishment was entirely unprecedented.

  Along with fashion, horoscopes and egg whites, you see, Switch was a great believer in cause and effect. Every bit of punishing the Switch had ever ordered had been, in her mind, exactly fitting to the crime of the offending orphan. But starving the lot of them for something they hadn’t done wasn’t fitting in the slightest. It was, for all but one of them, an effect without a cause.

  So as the orphans stared up after their furious Matron, Pet and dreg alike wondered nervously what was going on in her head. Because each of them knew that a rule-breaking Switch was a very dangerous Switch indeed.

  CHAPTER 23

  Troubles Great and Troubles Small

  When the orphans climbed into their beds that night, not a single one of them fell asleep easily. The Pets tossed and turned with grumpiness, angry that their stomachs were growling just as much as the dregs’. The dregs tossed and turned in worry, anxious about the prospect of so many grumpy Pets. And everyone tossed and turned thinking about the furious and unpredictable Switch.

  Because she had to wait for all the tossing and turning to quiet down, Margaret was later than usual slipping away to the yard.

  And as she approached the grassy lawn, she found that things were uneasy there, too.

  Instead of the shouts and cheers of tiny playful voices, the sounds that drifted toward her were sounds of alarm, and the scene that met her eyes as she drew nearer was one she had never seen before.

  “Oh no!”

  “Not again …”

  “Moth down!”

  A cluster of moths was flying across the lawn, carrying a leaf suspended by long silken threads. On the leaf was another, twitching moth. It was Flitterwing.

  “Flit!” cried Margaret. “What’s happened?”

  She followed the moths through the tunnel and into the tree, where Flit’s leaf was laid carefully down on an exposed root. A few fuzzy caterpillars came creeping down the tree bark, and from all over the tree, moths were hurrying from their nooks. They all began talking at once.

  “He’s had a bad one,” one of them said.

  “I was winning, you know!”

  “Oh, be quiet!” said Rimblewisp, coming to land at Flit’s side. “And don’t crowd him.” He paced along the le
af, looking down at his friend.

  “Rimb, what happened?” said Margaret. “Is he very badly hurt?”

  “Hmph!” grumbled Rimb. “It’s his own fault. Silly twitterbug gobbled a bad one before smelling it properly.”

  “But what’s he gobbled?” cried Margaret.

  “A Nimbler,” said Pip with a sigh, crawling onto Margaret’s knee. “The good ones have dried up again! They’ve all gone sour.”

  The feelers of every moth drooped sadly as the moths fell to whispering, and Margaret leaned against the great wrinkled trunk, her mind whirring.

  Chances are, you’ve already guessed what Margaret was thinking, because you are thinking it, too.

  After Switch had been made ridiculous on the roof, and the children had slept happily in their beds after so many unhappy nights, the Nimblers had been suddenly sweet and good. But now, with the Switch more terrifying than ever, the dreams of the orphans had turned all to nightmares.

  When the tree began to hum with talk again, Margaret looked up to see that Flit had stopped twitching and was sleeping peacefully.

  The mood of the tree had shifted as though a storm cloud had passed overhead, and the moths were soon laughing and fluttering as though nothing had happened. They must, Margaret realized, have done this many times before.

  “Whirlawhoomps?” someone called a few minutes later.

  “Just the thing!”

  “Games afoot!”

  One by one, the moths flew off, hurrying out to the grassy lawn to begin a new game.

  You see, there are as many different ways of dealing with trouble as there are people in this world. Some people choose to bury their heads deep in the sand. Others prefer to plug their ears and sing loudly until the hardship has passed.

  But moths are different. Rather than run from trouble, or sit in a corner and mope, moths will throw themselves into their games. Moths prefer to believe that no matter what the trouble, every bad thing will come right in the end, and in the meantime you ought to try to have a good time.

 
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