That Little Girl of Miss Eliza’s

Thirty-year-old spinster Eliza Wells lived in a farming community that produced the area’s “best of crop of stones and stumps.” She was no farmer, for she owned just a couple acres of land, and spent much of her time tending to her flower gardens. Eliza was financially “well fixed” for she had family money great enough to provide her with fifteen dollars of interest each month.

Every three months Eliza hitched her usually-plodding horse, Old Prince, to her carriage and drove to the Bend to get her interest money and do some shopping. She would wear a black silk dress, for when you were as old as thirty it wasn’t considered proper to go out in public wearing attractive colors.

One day during a trip to town Eliza saw a woman and a small child resting by the side of the road and she offered to give them a ride. The woman barely spoke English, but she and the little girl got into Eliza’s carriage just as a train whistle frightened Old Prince and sent him racing down the road. One of the reins broke, the carriage overturned, Eliza was injured, and the woman was killed.

News of the accident traveled fast, and the closest newspaper sent an incompetent reporter to get a scoop for the next day’s paper. No one knew anything about the deceased woman, so the reporter took a guess on her ethnic origin. And since he forgot to find out the sex of the child he made another guess, and wrote about a German woman killed in an accident, and her young son being cared for by strangers.

His account was “so far removed from the truth, that people hundreds of miles away read in eager hope, only to lay the paper aside, disappointed that this was not she for whom they were searching.”

Eliza paid the woman’s burial expenses and declared she’d care for the little girl until her family can be found. It didn’t take long before she hoped no one came for the girl she called Beth.

Young Beth liked pretty things, and thought Eliza’s black silk dress was ugly, so Eliza began wearing nothing but inexpensive print dresses, which were more becoming. Beth insisted upon bedtime stories, and Eliza took to making up her own to tell. The stories pleased both Beth and Eliza, who delighted in learning she could be creative.

When Beth grew older Eliza refused to send her to the crowded local one-room school. She taught her at home for a few years, and then scrimped on her own needs to pay tuition to send Beth to a better school a few miles away.

The school had literary groups, and the students put on programs, which were sometimes attended by rich folks who stayed at a nearby resort hotel. One of the attendees was a beautiful wealthy lady who often appeared to be sad, as if she had once suffered a great loss. The beautiful lady took a special interest in Beth, who had a striking family resemblance ….

I don’t recall what book I was looking for when I went to Project Gutenberg, came upon the title That Little Girl of Miss Eliza’s and decided it sounded old fashioned enough to be of interest. I’d never heard of author Jean E. Baird, and could find no information on her other than that she lived from 1872 to 1918, and had at least thirteen novels published.

The novel is not great literature, but it kept my interest. Ms. Baird created colorful characters, and many of Eliza Wells’ neighbors had their lack of ambition pointed out in humorous ways. The lady who stayed to “help out” while Eliza was recovering from the carriage accident went about picking up bits of lint, or straightening a misplaced book, without doing any useful work. She was said to be “getting barrels of credit for a tin cup of effort.”

Alas, parts of the book defied logic. Eliza Wells owned two acres of land – much of it “wasted” on flower gardens – and yet she raised all her own vegetables, and had chickens and a milk cow. I’ve never been the owner of a cow, but I’m guessing one requires either lots of purchased grain and hay, or more pasture land than Miss Wells could provide.

And then there’s that charming tramp who spends a winter in a nearby abandoned house. He’s well educated, has plenty of money to pay Eliza for milk and vegetables, but when he lends books and magazine articles written by a famous world traveler who happens to have the same name as the mysterious tramp intelligent Eliza can only deduct that the shared name is a strange coincidence.

Despite its faults I like That Little Girl of Miss Eliza’s, even with a spelled-out moral tacked onto the end: “So wonderful good came from suffering, because those who suffered were strong, and fulfilled their duty nobly.”
There are plenty of likable characters that kept me wondering what would happen next. And there’s a satisfying happy ending.

If you’d like to read about Eliza, Beth, a mysterious tramp, and lots of other colorful characters the novel can be downloaded free of charge at:
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/35822/35822-h/35822-h.html

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