By The Shores Of Silver Lake (Chapter 14)
By The Shores Of Silver Lake
Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Surveyors’ House
There was no need to pack anything, for the surveyors’ house stood on the north shore of the lake not half a mile from the shanty. Laura could hardly wait to see it. When she had helped to put everything neatly into the wagon, and Mary and Carrie and Ma and Grace were in it, Laura said to Pa, “Please, can’t I run ahead?”
“‘May’ Laura,” Ma said. “Really, Charles, don’t you think—”
“Nothing can hurt her,” Pa said. “We’ll have her in sight all the way. Follow the lake shore, Flutterbudget, and don’t worry, Caroline; we’ll be there in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”
So Laura ran ahead. Straight against the steady wind she ran. Her shawl flapped in the wind behind her and the cold of the wind poured through her. She felt her blood thin and chill in the wind, and then she felt it warm and pulsing strong, and her breath throbbed hard in her chest.
She passed the spoiled spots where the camp had been. The earth was hard under her pounding feet, and rough with dead grass. No one else was anywhere near. Everybody had gone now. The prairie, the whole vast prairie, and the great sky and the wind were clear and free.
Even the wagon was left behind now. But it was coming. Laura looked back, and Pa waved to her. When she stopped running she could hear the sound of the wind in the grasses and the lippety-lapping of the lake water. She hoppity-skipped on the short dry grass along the shore. She could shout if she wanted to. No one else was there. She shouted, “It’s ours! All ours!”
The shout seemed loud in her throat, but in the air it was thin. The wind took it away perhaps. Or the stillness of the empty land and sky would not be disturbed.
The surveyors’ boots had worn a path through the grasses. It was smooth and soft to Laura’s feet. She bent her shawled head to the wind and padded along the path, hurrying. It would be fun to see the surveyors’ house all by herself.
It stood up in front of her suddenly. It was a big house, a real house with two stories, and glass windows. Its up-and-down boards were weathering from yellow to gray, and every crack was battened, as Pa had said. The door had a china knob. It opened into the lean-to over the back door.
Laura opened the door and peeped in. Then she pushed the door back, along the curved mark it had worn in the board floor, and she went in. This house had board floors; not as comfortable to bare feet as the earth floor of the shanty, but not so much work to keep clean.
The largeness of the empty house seemed to wait and listen. It seemed to know that Laura was there, but it had not made up its mind about her. It would wait and see. Against its walls the wind made a lonely sound, but that was outside the house. She tiptoed across the lean-to and opened a door on its farther side.
Laura looked at the large front room. Its board walls were still yellow inside, and sunshine from its west window slanted yellow on the floor. A cool light came in from the window to the east beside the front door. The surveyors had left their stove! It was a larger stove than the one that Ma had brought from Plum Creek; it had six lids on top and two oven doors, and it stood all set up with its stovepipe in place.
Spaced on the wall beyond it were three doors. All of them were shut.
Laura tiptoed across the wide floor, and softly opened one door. There was a small room, with a bedstead in it. This room had a window, too.
Softly Laura opened the middle door. She was surprised. Steeply up in front of her went a stair, just the width of the door. She looked up, and saw the underside of a slanting roof high overhead. She went up a few steps, and a big attic opened out on both sides of the stairs. It was twice as big as the large room downstairs. A window in each gable end lighted the whole empty place under the roof.
That made three rooms already, and still there was another door. Laura thought that there must have been a great many surveyors to need so much space. This would be by far the largest house she had ever lived in.
She opened the third door. A squeal of excitement came out of her mouth and startled the listening house. There before her eyes was a little store. All up the walls of that small room were shelves, and on the shelves were dishes, and pans and pots, and boxes, and cans. All around under the shelves stood barrels and boxes.
The first barrel was nearly full of flour. The second held corn meal. The third had a tight lid, and it was full of pieces of fat, white pork held down in brown brine. Laura had never seen so much salt pork at one time. There was a wooden box full of square soda crackers, and a box full of big slabs of salted fish. There was a large box of dried apples, and two sacks full of potatoes, and another big sack nearly full of beans.
The wagon was at the door. Laura ran out, shouting, “Oh, Ma, come quick and see! There’s so many things—And a big attic, Mary! And a stove, and crackers, soda crackers!”
Ma looked at everything and she was pleased. “It’s very nice, I’m sure,” she said. “And so clean. We can get settled here in a jiffy. Bring me the broom, Carrie.”
Pa didn’t even have to set up a stove. He put Ma’s stove in the lean-to outside the back door, where the coal was. Then while Pa built a fire they arranged the table and chairs in the large front room. Ma set Mary’s rocking chair by the open oven door. Already that good stove was giving off heat, and in the warm corner Mary sat holding Grace and amusing her, to keep her out of the way while Ma and Laura and Carrie were busy.
Ma made the big bed on the bedstead in the bedroom. She hung her clothes and Pa’s on nails in the wall there, and covered them neatly with a sheet. Upstairs in the large, low attic Laura and Carrie made two neat beds on the bedsteads there, one for Carrie and the other for Laura and Mary. Then they carried their clothes and their boxes upstairs; they hung the clothes on the gable wall by one window, and under it they set their boxes.
Everything was neat now, so they went downstairs to help Ma get supper. Pa came in bringing a large, shallow packing box.
“What’s that for, Charles?” Ma asked, and Pa said, “This is Grace’s trundle bed!”
“It’s the only thing we needed!” Ma exclaimed.
“The sides are high enough to hold her covers tucked in,” said Pa.
“And low enough to go under our bed in the daytime, like any trundle bed,” said Ma.
Laura and Carrie made up a little bed for Grace in the packing box, and slid it under the big bed, and pulled it out again for the night. The moving-in was done.
Supper was a feast. The surveyors’ pretty dishes made the table gay. Little sour cucumber pickles, from a jar the surveyors had left, made the warmed-over roast duck and fried potatoes taste different. And after they were eaten, Ma stepped into the pantry and brought out—“Guess what?” she said.
She set before each of them a little dish of canned peaches, and two soda crackers! “We’ll have a treat,” she said, “to celebrate living in a house again.”
It was fine to be eating in such a large place, with a board floor, and the glass windows glittering black against the night outside. Slowly, slowly they ate the smooth, cool peaches and the sweet golden juice, and carefully licked their spoons.
Then the dishes were quickly cleared away and washed in the handy pantry. The table’s leaves were dropped, the red-and-white checked cloth spread, and the bright-shining lamp set on its center. Ma settled with Grace in the rocking chair, and Pa said, “This makes a fellow feel like music. Bring me the fiddle box, Laura!”
He tightened and tuned the strings and rosined the bow. Winter evenings were coming again when Pa played the fiddle. He looked around contentedly at them all and at the good walls that would keep them comfortable.
“I must manage something for curtains,” Ma said.
Pa paused with the bow poised above the fiddle. “Don’t you realize, Caroline, that our nearest neighbor to the east is sixty miles away and our nearest west is forty miles? When winter shuts down, they might as well be farther off. We’ve got the world to ourselves! I saw only one flock of wild geese today, flying high and fast. They weren’t stopping at any lakes; not they! They were hurrying south. Looked to me like the last flock of the season. So even the geese have left us.”
His fiddle bow touched the strings and he began to play. Softly Laura began to sing:
“One night when the winds blew bitter,
Blew bitter across the wild moor,
Young Mary she came with her child,
Wandering home to her own father’s door,
Crying, Father, O pray let me in!
Take pity on me I implore
Or the child in my arms will die
From the winds that blow across the wild moor.
But her father was deaf to her cries
Not a voice nor a sound reached the door
But the watch dogs did howl
And the village bells tolled
And the winds blew across the—”
Pa stopped. “That song doesn’t fit!” he exclaimed. “What was I thinking of! Now here’s something worth singing.”
Merrily the fiddle sang and Pa sang with it. Laura and Mary and Carrie sang too, with all their might.
“I’ve traveled about a bit in my time
And of troubles I’ve seen a few
But found it better in every clime
To paddle my own canoe.
“My wants are few. I care not at all
If my debts are paid when due.
I drive away strife in the ocean of life
While I paddle my own canoe.
“Then love your neighbor as yourself
As the world you go traveling through
And never sit down with a tear or a frown
But paddle your own canoe!”
“That’s what we’ll be doing this winter,” said Pa. “And we’ve done it a good many times before. Haven’t we, Caroline?”
“Yes, Charles,” Ma agreed. “And we haven’t always been so comfortable and so well provided for.”
“Everything snug as bugs in a rug,” said Pa, tuning the fiddle. “I piled bags of oats across one end of the stable to make a small place for the cow and the team. They’ll have all they can eat, too, and they’ll be warm and cosy. Yes, we’ve got everything to be thankful for.”
Then he played the fiddle again. He played on and on, jigs and reels and hornpipes and marches. Ma laid Grace in her little trundle bed and shut the door. Then she sat idly rocking, listening to the music. Ma and Mary and Laura and Carrie listened until they were full, full of music. No one spoke of bedtime, because this was their first evening in the new house, all by themselves on the prairie.
At last Pa laid the fiddle and the bow in the fiddle box. As he shut down the lid, a long, mournful, lonely howl came from the night outside the window. Very near, it was.
Laura sprang to her feet. Ma rushed to comfort Grace’s screaming in the bedroom. Carrie sat frozen white, with big, round eyes.
“It’s—it’s only a wolf, Carrie,” Laura said.
“There, there!” said Pa. “A fellow’d think you’d never heard a wolf before. Yes, Caroline, the stable door is well fastened.”