Little House in the Big Woods (Chapter 8)
Little House in the Big Woods
Laura Ingalls Wilder
DANCE AT GRANDPA’S.
Monday morning everybody got up early, in a hurry to get started to Grandpa’s. Pa wanted to be there to help with the work of gathering and boiling the sap. Ma would help Grandma and the aunts make good things to eat for all the people who were coming to the dance.
Breakfast was eaten and the dishes washed and the beds made by lamplight. Pa packed his fiddle carefully in its box and put it in the big sled that was already waiting at the gate.
The air was cold and frosty and the light was gray, when Laura and Mary and Ma with Baby Carrie were tucked in snug and warm under the robes on the straw in the bottom of the sled.
The horses shook their heads and pranced, making the sleigh bells ring merrily, and away they went on the road through the Big Woods to Grandpa’s.
The snow was damp and smooth in the road, so the sled slipped quickly over it, and the big trees seemed to be hurrying by on either side.
After awhile there was sunshine in the woods and the air sparkled. The long streaks of yellow light lay between the shadows of the tree trunks, and the snow was colored faintly pink. All the shadows were thin and blue, and every little curve of snowdrifts and every little track in the snow had a shadow.
Pa showed Laura the tracks of the wild creatures in the snow at the sides of the road. The small, leaping tracks of cottontail rabbits, the tiny tracks of field mice, and the feather-stitching tracks of snowbirds. There were larger tracks, like dogs’ tracks, where foxes had run, and there were the tracks of a deer that had bounded away into the woods.
The air was growing warmer already and Pa said that the snow wouldn’t last long.
It did not seem long until they were sweeping into the clearing at Grandpa’s house, all the sleigh bells jingling. Grandma came to the door and stood there smiling, calling to them to come in.
She said that Grandpa and Uncle George were already at work out in the maple woods. So Pa went to help them, while Laura and Mary and Ma, with Baby Carrie in her arms, went into Grandma’s house and took off their wraps.
Laura loved Grandma’s house. It was much larger than their house at home. There was one great big room, and then there was a little room that belonged to Uncle George, and there was another room for the aunts, Aunt Docia and Aunt Ruby. And then there was the kitchen, with a big cookstove.
It was fun to run the whole length of the big room, from the large fireplace at one end all the way to Grandma’s bed, under the window in the other end. The floor was made of wide, thick slabs that Grandpa had hewed from the logs with his ax. The floor was smoothed all over, and scrubbed clean and white, and the big bed under the window was soft with feathers.
The day seemed very short while Laura and Mary played in the big room and Ma helped Grandma and the aunts in the kitchen. The men had taken their dinners to the maple woods, so for dinner they did not set the table, but ate cold venison sandwiches and drank milk. But for supper Grandma made hasty pudding.
She stood by the stove, sifting the yellow corn meal from her fingers into a kettle of boiling, salted water. She stirred the water all the time with a big wooden spoon, and sifted in the meal until the kettle was full of a thick, yellow, bubbling mass. Then she set it on the back of the stove where it would cook slowly.
It smelled good. The whole house smelled good, with the sweet and spicy smells from the kitchen, and the smell of the hickory logs burning with clear, bright flames in the fireplace, and the smell of a clove-apple beside Grandma’s mending basket on the table. The sunshine came in through the sparkling window panes, and everything was large and spacious and clean.
At supper time Pa and Grandpa came from the woods. Each had on his shoulders a wooden yoke that Grandpa had made. It was cut to fit around their necks in the back, and hollowed out to fit over their shoulders. From each end hung a chain with a hook, and on each hook hung a big wooden bucket full of hot maple syrup.
Pa and Grandpa had brought the syrup from the big kettle in the woods. They steadied the buckets with their hands, but the weight hung from the yokes on their shoulders.
Grandma made room for a huge brass kettle on the stove. Pa and Grandpa poured the syrup into the brass kettle, and it was so large that it held all the syrup from the four big buckets.
Then Uncle George came with a smaller bucket of syrup, and everybody ate the hot hasty pudding with maple syrup for supper.
Uncle George was home from the army. He wore his blue army coat with the brass buttons, and he had bold, merry blue eyes. He was big and broad and he walked with a swagger.
Laura looked at him all the time she was eating her hasty pudding, because she had heard Pa say to Ma that he was wild.
“George is wild, since he came back from the War,” Pa had said, shaking his head as if he were sorry, but it couldn’t be helped. Uncle George had run away to be a drummer boy in the army, when he was fourteen years old.
Laura had never seen a wild man before. She did not know whether she was afraid of Uncle George or not.
When supper was over, Uncle George went outside the door and blew his army bugle, long and loud. It made a lovely, ringing sound, far away through the Big Woods. The woods were dark and silent and the trees stood still as though they were listening. Then from very far away the sound came back, thin and clear and small, like a little bugle answering the big one.
“Listen,” Uncle George said, “isn’t that pretty?” Laura looked at him but she did not say anything, and when Uncle George stopped blowing the bugle she ran into the house.
Ma and Grandma cleared away the dishes and washed them, and swept the hearth, while Aunt Docia and Aunt Ruby made themselves pretty in their room.
Laura sat on their bed and watched them comb out their long hair and part it carefully. They parted it from their foreheads to the napes of their necks and then they parted it across from ear to ear. They braided their back hair in long braids and then they did the braids up carefully in big knots.
They had washed their hands and faces and scrubbed them well with soap, at the wash-basin on the bench in the kitchen. They had used store soap, not the slimy, soft, dark brown soap that Grandma made and kept in a big jar to use for common every day.
They fussed for a long time with their front hair, holding up the lamp and looking at their hair in the little looking-glass that hung on the log wall. They brushed it so smooth on each side of the straight white part that it shone like silk in the lamplight. The little puff on each side shone, too, and the ends were coiled and twisted neatly under the big knot in the back.
Then they pulled on their beautiful white stockings, that they had knit of fine cotton thread in lacy, openwork patterns, and they buttoned up their best shoes. They helped each other with their corsets. Aunt Docia pulled as hard as she could on Aunt Ruby’s corset strings, and then Aunt Docia hung on to the foot of the bed while Aunt Ruby pulled on hers.
“Pull, Ruby, pull!” Aunt Docia said, breathless. “Pull harder,” so Aunt Ruby braced her feet and pulled harder. Aunt Docia kept measuring her waist with her hands, and at last she gasped, “I guess that’s the best you can do.”
She said, “Caroline says Charles could span her waist with his hands, when they were married.”
Caroline was Laura’s Ma, and when she heard this Laura felt proud.
Then Aunt Ruby and Aunt Docia put on their flannel petticoats and their plain petticoats and their stiff, starched white petticoats with knitted lace all around the flounces. And they put on their beautiful dresses.
Aunt Docia’s dress was a sprigged print, dark blue, with sprigs of red flowers and green leaves thick upon it. The basque was buttoned down the front with black buttons which looked so exactly like juicy big blackberries that Laura wanted to taste them.
Aunt Ruby’s dress was wine-colored calico, covered all over with a feathery pattern in lighter wine color. It buttoned with gold-colored buttons, and every button had a little castle and a tree carved on it.
Aunt Docia’s pretty white collar was fastened in front with a large round cameo pin, which had a lady’s head on it. But Aunt Ruby pinned her collar with a red rose made of sealing wax. She had made it herself, on the head of a darning needle which had a broken eye, so it couldn’t be used as a needle any more.
They looked lovely, sailing over the floor so smoothly with their large, round skirts. Their little waists rose up tight and slender in the middle, and their cheeks were red and their eyes bright, under the wings of shining, sleek hair.
Ma was beautiful, too, in her dark green delaine, with the little leaves that looked like strawberries scattered over it. The skirt was ruffled and flounced and draped and trimmed with knots of dark green ribbon, and nestling at her throat was a gold pin. The pin was flat, as long and as wide as Laura’s two biggest fingers, and it was carved all over, and scalloped on the edges. Ma looked so rich and fine that Laura was afraid to touch her.
People had begun to come. They were coming on foot through the snowy woods, with their lanterns, and they were driving up to the door in sleds and in wagons. Sleigh bells were jingling all the time.
The big room filled with tall boots and swishing skirts, and ever so many babies were lying in rows on Grandma’s bed. Uncle James and Aunt Libby had come with their little girl, whose name was Laura Ingalls, too. The two Lauras leaned on the bed and looked at the babies, and the other Laura said her baby was prettier than Baby Carrie.
“She is not, either!” Laura said. “Carrie’s the prettiest baby in the whole world.”
“No, she isn’t,” the other Laura said.
“Yes, she is!”
“No, she isn’t!”
Ma came sailing over in her fine delaine, and said severely: “Laura!”
So neither Laura said anything more.
Uncle George was blowing his bugle. It made a loud, ringing sound in the big room, and Uncle George joked and laughed and danced, blowing the bugle. Then Pa took his fiddle out of its box and began to play, and all the couples stood in squares on the floor and began to dance when Pa called the figures.
“Grand right and left!” Pa called out, and all the skirts began to swirl and all the boots began to stamp. The circles went round and round, all the skirts going one way and all the boots going the other way, and hands clasping and parting high up in the air.
“Swing your partners!” Pa called, and “Each gent bow to the lady on the left!”
They all did as Pa said. Laura watched Ma’s skirt swaying and her little waist bending and her dark head bowing, and she thought Ma was the loveliest dancer in the world. The fiddle was singing:
“Oh, you Buffalo gals,
Aren’t you coming out tonight,
Aren’t you coming out tonight,
Aren’t you coming out tonight,
Oh, you Buffalo gals,
Aren’t you coming out tonight,
To dance by the light of the moon?”
The little circles and the big circles went round and round, and the skirts swirled and the boots stamped, and partners bowed and separated and met and bowed again.
In the kitchen Grandma was all by herself, stirring the boiling syrup in the big brass kettle. She stirred in time to the music. By the back door was a pail of clean snow, and sometimes Grandma took a spoonful of syrup from the kettle and poured it on some of the snow in a saucer.
Laura watched the dancers again. Pa was playing “The Irish Washerwoman” now. He called:
“Doe see, ladies, doe see doe,
Come down heavy on your heel and toe!”
Laura could not keep her feet still. Uncle George looked at her and laughed. Then he caught her by the hand and did a little dance with her, in the corner. She liked Uncle George.
Everybody was laughing, over by the kitchen door. They were dragging Grandma in from the kitchen. Grandma’s dress was beautiful, too; a dark blue calico with autumn-colored leaves scattered over it. Her cheeks were pink from laughing, and she was shaking her head. The wooden spoon was in her hand.
“I can’t leave the syrup,” she said.
But Pa began to play “The Arkansas Traveler,” and everybody began to clap in time to the music. So Grandma bowed to them all and did a few steps by herself. She could dance as prettily as any of them. The clapping almost drowned the music of Pa’s fiddle.
Suddenly Uncle George did a pigeon wing, and bowing low before Grandma he began to jig. Grandma tossed her spoon to somebody. She put her hands on her hips and faced Uncle George, and everybody shouted. Grandma was jigging.
Laura clapped her hands in time to the music, with all the other clapping hands. The fiddle sang as it had never sung before. Grandma’s eyes were snapping and her cheeks were red, and underneath her skirts her heels were clicking as fast as the thumping of Uncle George’s boots.
Everybody was excited. Uncle George kept on jigging and Grandma kept on facing him, jigging too. The fiddle did not stop. Uncle George began to breathe loudly, and he wiped sweat off his forehead. Grandma’s eyes twinkled.
“You can’t beat her, George!” somebody shouted.
Uncle George jigged faster. He jigged twice as fast as he had been jigging. So did Grandma. Everybody cheered again. All the women were laughing and clapping their hands, and all the men were teasing George. George did not care, but he did not have breath enough to laugh. He was jigging.
Pa’s blue eyes were snapping and sparking. He was standing up, watching George and Grandma, and the bow danced over the fiddle strings. Laura jumped up and down and squealed and clapped her hands.
Grandma kept on jigging. Her hands were on her hips and her chin was up and she was smiling. George kept on jigging, but his boots did not thump as loudly as they had thumped at first. Grandma’s heels kept on clickety-clacking gaily. A drop of sweat dripped off George’s forehead and shone on his cheek.
All at once he threw up both arms and gasped, “I’m beat!” He stopped jigging.
Everybody made a terrific noise, shouting and yelling and stamping, cheering Grandma. Grandma jigged just a little minute more, then she stopped. She laughed in gasps. Her eyes sparkled just like Pa’s when he laughed. George was laughing, too, and wiping his forehead on his sleeve.
Suddenly Grandma stopped laughing. She turned and ran as fast as she could into the kitchen. The fiddle had stopped playing. All the women were talking at once and all the men teasing George, but everybody was still for a minute, when Grandma looked like that.
Then she came to the door between the kitchen and the big room, and said:
“The syrup is waxing. Come and help yourselves.”
Then everybody began to talk and laugh again. They all hurried to the kitchen for plates, and outdoors to fill the plates with snow. The Kitchen door was open and the cold air came in.
Outdoors the stars were frosty in the sky and the air nipped Laura’s cheeks and nose. Her breath was like smoke.
She and the other Laura, and all the other children, scooped up clean snow with their plates. Then they went back into the crowded kitchen.
Grandma stood by the brass kettle and with the big wooden spoon she poured hot syrup on each plate of snow. It cooled into soft candy, and as fast as it cooled they ate it.
They could eat all they wanted, for maple sugar never hurt anybody. There was plenty of syrup in the kettle, and plenty of snow outdoors. As soon as they ate one plateful, they filled their plates with snow again, and Grandma poured more syrup on it.
When they had eaten the soft maple candy until they could eat no more of it, then they helped themselves from the long table loaded with pumpkin pies and dried berry pies and cookies and cakes. There was salt-rising bread, too, and cold boiled pork, and pickles. Oo, how sour the pickles were!
They all ate till they could hold no more, and then they began to dance again. But Grandma watched the syrup in the kettle. Many times she took a little of it out into a saucer, and stirred it round and round. Then she shook her head and poured the syrup back into the kettle.
The other room was loud and merry with the music of the fiddle and the noise of the dancing.
At last, as Grandma stirred, the syrup in the saucer turned into little grains like sand, and Grandma called:
“Quick, girls! It’s graining!”
Aunt Ruby and Aunt Docia and Ma left the dance and came running. They set out pans, big pans and little pans, and as fast as Grandma filled them with the syrup they set out more. They set the filled ones away, to cool into maple sugar.
Then Grandma said:
“Now bring the patty-pans for the children.”
There was a patty-pan, or at least a broken cup or a saucer, for every little girl and boy. They all watched anxiously while Grandma ladled out the syrup. Perhaps there would not be enough. Then somebody would have to be unselfish and polite.
There was just enough syrup to go round. The last scrapings of the brass kettle exactly filled the very last patty-pan. Nobody was left out.
The fiddling and the dancing went on and on. Laura and the other Laura stood around and watched the dancers. Then they sat down on the floor in a corner, and watched. The dancing was so pretty and the music so gay that Laura knew she could never get tired of it.
All the beautiful skirts went swirling by, and the boots went stamping, and the fiddle kept on singing gaily.
Then Laura woke up, and she was lying across the foot of Grandma’s bed. It was morning. Ma and Grandma and Baby Carrie were in the bed. Pa and Grandpa were sleeping rolled up in blankets on the floor by the fireplace. Mary was nowhere in sight; she was sleeping with Aunt Docia and Aunt Ruby in their bed.
Soon everybody was getting up. There were pancakes and maple syrup for breakfast, and then Pa brought the horses and sled to the door.
He helped Ma and Carrie in, while Grandpa picked up Mary and Uncle George picked up Laura and they tossed them over the edge of the sled into the straw. Pa tucked in the robes around them, and Grandpa and Grandma and Uncle George stood calling, “Good-by! Good-by!” as they rode away into the Big Woods, going home.
The sun was warm, and the trotting horses threw up bits of muddy snow with their hoofs. Behind the sled Laura could see their footprints, and every footprint had gone through the thin snow into the mud.
“Before night,” Pa said, “we’ll see the last of the sugar snow.”