Phoebe's Revolt

Natalie Babbitt

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Phoebe's Revolt
Phoebe Euphemia1 Brandon Brown Lived in a fancy house in town. She lived there quite alone unless You count Miss Trout, her governess, The butler, cook, and maids in force, And Mr. and Mrs. Brown, of course, And Phoebe's kitten Elihu 2 And her Aunt Celeste, who lived there too. Good fortune smiled on Phoebe Brown, But revolution brought her down.
The times (the year was nineteen-four), The clothes that everybody wore, The way that people like the Browns Were living, in our larger towns, And Phoebe's way of being prone To having notions of her own--All these were more or less to blame For Phoebe's crime and Phoebe's shame.
In nineteen-four, at any rate, Phoebe Euphemia Brown was eight. The trouble all began in June While getting dressed one afternoon. For Phoebe, who was mostly good And often did the things she should, Stepped forward in her underwear With mingled passion and despair And loudly said she hated bows And roses on her slipper toes And dresses made of fluff and lace With frills and ruffles every place And ribbons, stockings, sashes, curls And everything to do with girls.
She said she had just one request: To dress the way her father dressed, In simple white and sober black Unornamented front and back.
And yet the clothes that Phoebe wore Were normal back in nineteen-four And other little girls in fluff All seemed to be content enough. Unhampered by the current styles, They went about with happy smiles To picnics, teas, parades and such And did not seem to mind it much.
Now Phoebe's mother tried her best And so did Phoebe's Aunt Celeste. They both maintained that little girls Looked sweet with ribbons in their curls. They often spoke of one such child Who dressed correctly, yet who smiled. They spoke, while Phoebe made a face, Of Phoebe's little cousin Grace--How mild she was, and how polite, How charming in her pink and white. But "Prissy Prig" was Phoebe's name For little Grace, and when she came To visit as she often did, Then Phoebe often ran and hid.
Well, Phoebe's mother was distressed And so was Phoebe's Aunt Celeste. And poor Miss Trout, who had to stay With Phoebe every single day And get her dressed and fix her hair, Was nearly driven to despair. But Phoebe's father only smiled And said she was a novel child.
One morning at their breakfast tea They all were trying manfully To disregard the wails of gloom That filtered down from Phoebe's room. (Like "Do I have to put on that?" And "I don't want to wear a hat!" With Miss Trout's voice, a little shrill: "Now, Phoebe, please! You must hold still!") That morning, though her nerves were taut, Poor Phoebe's mother had a thought.
 
"We'll give a party! Every chum of Phoebe's will be sure to come In pretty clothes. Why, then she'll see She's acting very foolishly. She'll change her mind, I'm sure, Celeste, And want to be like all the rest."
 
But Phoebe's father shook his head. "I'm not so sure ..." was all he said.
They planned the party anyway And sent out notes that very day. The maids put flowers everywhere And Phoebe's mother hired a bear That danced when certain tunes were played, And Cook made cakes and lemonade.
 
The time came round. Eight little girls Arrived, all ribbons, lace and curls. And Mrs. Brown and Aunt Celeste Stood greeting every little guest.
But where was Phoebe? Minutes passed. They knew the awful truth at last When came the voice of poor Miss Trout: "She's in the tub and won't get out!"
 
"She's in the tub and won't get out!" The news was whispered all about. Phoebe's mother clutched her hair, Turned pale, and hurried up the stair, And Aunt Celeste went running too, In hopes it wasn't really true.
 
But in the bathtub Phoebe sat. She would not move, and that was that.
There hung her dress, all pink chiffon. She said she would not put it on. They told her how her friends were dressed, But Phoebe Brown was not impressed. They told about the dancing bear. She answered that she didn't care. They mentioned shame and protocol But Phoebe Brown was deaf to all. She said, "I will not wear that dress. I won't come down at all unless ..." She stirred the water with her toes--"Unless I wear my father's clothes."
At this her mother's patience died. "I do not trust myself!" she cried. She turned away and went to bed And wrapped cold cloths around her head, While Auntie, with an angry cough, Went down and called the party off. The guests went home without their play. The dancing bear was sent away.
 
And in the bathtub, unconsoled, The water slowly turning cold, With wrinkling toes and fingertips, Miss Phoebe sat and chewed her lips.
The afternoon had come and gone, The lamps were lit, the curtains drawn, When Phoebe's father, walking in, Was told about his daughter's sin. He was a most resourceful man And right away he had a plan. He fetched an armload from his room And went to work his daughter's doom Where in the bathtub, cold and wet, That stubborn child was sitting yet. "Hop out," he said. "The storm has passed. I've come to save the day at last. You say you want to wear my clothes? It is surprising, I suppose, But still, I've got some things to spare That I'd be more than glad to share." And there they were, her just deserts:3 One of his own fine evening shirts, A starchy collar, white cravat, And last of all, a tall silk hat.
 
Her father's clothes! And yet--somehow--They didn't seem so lovely now. The charm had paled. The lure was gone. But Phoebe had to put them on.
Yes, Phoebe had to put them on. Too late for lace and pink chiffon. She had her father's clothes instead--For seven days, her father said. He had so nicely said she could, She knew she must, she felt she should. She couldn't spurn that hat and shirt And have him get his feelings hurt.
 
So Phoebe wore her father's clothes. They looked peculiar, heaven knows, But those amused by this array Would kindly look the other way Or step behind a potted fern Till feeling more controlled and stern.
And when the seven days had passed And she could take them off at last, Miss Phoebe left her father's clothes And reassumed her lace and bows And never said a single word (At least, that anybody heard).
But Phoebe's father poked around In trunks and boxes till he found A faded picture framed in pearl, The picture of a little girl; A little girl dressed head to toe In funny clothes from long ago And on her face an awful frown. That little girl was Mrs. Brown And eighteen-eighty was the date, The year that Mrs. Brown was eight. He brought it down and let it stand Demurely on the parlor grand.4
And what did Mrs. Brown do then ? She turned away and took her pen And wrote her seamstress on the spot: "Please come at once--I quite forgot--My daughter Phoebe needs a dress, In broadcloth or in serge, 5 I guess--A simple sailor dress or two In sober, modest navy blue. And when you're done, and if you're free, You might make one or two for me."
Phoebe Euphemia Brandon Brown Lived in a fancy house in town. She dressed in ruffles, chin to hem, When circumstance demanded them, But otherwise and normally She dressed much more informally.
Copyright © 1989 by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.