By The Shores Of Silver Lake (Chaprer 21)

By The Shores Of Silver Lake

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Chapter 21
Merry Christmas

When Laura heard the door shut as Pa and Mr. Boast went out to do the morning chores, she dressed chattering in the cold and hurried downstairs to help Ma get breakfast.

But Mrs. Boast was helping Ma. The room was warm from the glowing stove. Mush was frying on the long griddle. The teakettle was boiling and the table was set.

“Merry Christmas!” Ma and Mrs. Boast said together.

“Merry Christmas,” Laura answered but she was staring at the table. At each place, the plate was turned bottom-up over the knife and fork, as usual. But on the plates’ bottoms were packages, small packages and larger packages, some wrapped in colored tissue paper and others in plain wrapping paper tied with colored string.

“You see, Laura, we didn’t hang up stockings last night,” said Ma, “so we will take our presents off the table at breakfast.”

Laura went back upstairs, and told Mary and Carrie about the Christmas breakfast table. “Ma knew where we hid all the presents but hers,” she said. “They are all on the table.”

“But we can’t have presents!” Mary wailed horrified. “There isn’t anything for Mr. and Mrs. Boast!”

“Ma will fix it,” Laura answered. “She told me so last night.”

“How can she?” Mary asked. “We didn’t know they were coming! There isn’t anything we could give them.”

“Ma can fix anything,” said Laura. She took Ma’s present from Mary’s box and held it behind her when they all went downstairs together. Carrie stood between her and Ma while quickly Laura put the package on Ma’s plate. There was a little package on Mrs. Boast’s plate, and another on Mr. Boast’s.

“Oh, I can’t wait!” Carrie whispered, squeezing her thin hands together. Her peaked face was white and her eyes were big and shining.

“Yes, you can. We’ve got to,” said Laura. It was easier for Grace, who was so little that she did not notice the Christmas table. But even Grace was so excited that Mary could hardly button her up.

“Mewy Cwismas! Mewy Cwismas!” Grace shouted, wriggling, and when she was free she ran about, shouting, until Ma told her gently that children must be seen and not heard.

“Come here, Grace, and you can see out,” said Carrie. She had blown and wiped a clear space in the frost on the windowpane, and there they stayed, taking turns at looking out, till at last Carrie said, “Here they come!”

After a loud stamping-off of snow in the lean-to, Pa and Mr. Boast came in.

“Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!” they all cried.

Grace ran behind Ma and clung to her skirts, peeping around them at the strange man. Pa picked her up and tossed her, just as he used to toss Laura when Laura was little. And Grace screamed with laughter just as Laura used to. Laura had to remember hard that she was a big girl now or she would have laughed out loud too. They were all so happy in the warmth full of good smells of cooking, and with company there for Christmas in the snug house. The light from the frost-furred windows was silvery, and just as they all sat down to that exciting Christmas table, the eastern window turned golden; outdoors the stillness of the whole vast snowy prairie was full of sunshine.

“You first, Mrs. Boast,” said Ma, for Mrs. Boast was company. So Mrs. Boast opened her package. In it was a lawn handkerchief edged with narrow crocheted lace. Laura recognized it; it was Ma’s best Sunday handkerchief. Mrs. Boast was delighted, and so surprised that there was a gift for her.

So was Mr. Boast. His present was wristlets, knitted in stripes of red and gray. They fitted him perfectly. They were the wristlets that Ma had knitted for Pa. But she could knit some more for Pa, and the company must have Christmas presents.

Pa said his new socks were exactly what he needed; the cold from the snow had been going right through his boots. And he admired the necktie that Laura had made. “I’ll put this on, right after breakfast!” he said. “By George, now I’ll be all dressed up for Christmas!”

Everyone exclaimed when Ma unwrapped her pretty apron. She put it on at once, and stood up for them all to see. She looked at the hem, and smiled at Carrie. “You hem very nicely, Carrie,” she said, then she smiled at Laura, “And Laura’s gathers are even, and well sewed. It is a nice apron.”

“There’s more, Ma!” Carrie cried out. “Look in the pocket!”

Ma took out the handkerchief. She was so surprised. And to think that the very morning she gave away her Sunday best handkerchief, she was given another one; it was as if this had been planned, though none of them had planned it. But of course this could not be said in Mrs. Boast’s hearing. Ma only looked at the handkerchief’s tiny hem and said, “Such a pretty handkerchief too! Thank you, Mary.”

Then everyone admired Mary’s bed shoes, and how they had been made of the ends of a worn-out blanket. Mrs. Boast said she was going to make some for herself, as soon as any of her blankets wore out.

Carrie put on her mittens and softly clapped her hands. “My Fourth of July mittens! Oh, see my Fourth of July mittens!” she said.

Then Laura opened her package. And in it was an apron, made of the same calico as Ma’s! It was smaller than Ma’s apron, and had two pockets. A narrow ruffle was all around it. Ma had cut it out of the other curtain, Carrie had sewed all the seams, Mary had hemmed the ruffle. All that time, Ma hadn’t known and Laura hadn’t known that each was making an apron for the other from those old curtains, and Mary and Carrie had been almost bursting with the two secrets.

“Oh, thank you! Thank you all!” Laura said, smoothing down the pretty white calico with the little red flowers scattered over it. “Such tiny stitches in the ruffle, Mary! I do thank you.”

Then came the best part of all. Everyone watched while Ma put the little blue coat on Grace and smoothed the swan’s-down collar. She put the lovely white swan’s-down hood over Grace’s golden hair. A bit of the blue silk lining showed around Grace’s face and matched her shining eyes. She touched the fluffy soft swan’s-down on her wrists, and waved her hands and laughed.

She was so beautiful and so happy, blue and white and gold and alive and laughing, that they could not look at her long enough. But Ma did not want to spoil her with too much attention. So, too soon, she quieted Grace and laid away the coat and hood in the bedroom.

There was still another package beside Laura’s plate, and she saw that Mary and Carrie and Grace each had one like it. All at once, they unwrapped them, and each found a little pink cheesecloth bag full of candy.

“Christmas candy!” Carrie cried and “Christmas candy!” Laura and Mary said at the same time.

“However did Christmas candy get here?” Mary asked.

“Why, didn’t Santa Claus get here on Christmas Eve?” said Pa. So, almost all at once, they said, “Oh, Mr. Boast! Thank you! Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Boast!”

Then Laura gathered up all the paper wrappings, and she helped Ma set on the table the big platter of golden, fried mush, a plate of hot biscuits, a dish of fried potatoes, a bowl of codfish gravy and a glass dish full of dried-apple sauce.

“I’m sorry we have no butter,” said Ma. “Our cow gives so little milk that we can’t make butter anymore.”

But the codfish gravy was good on the mush and the potatoes, and nothing could taste better than hot biscuits and applesauce. Such a breakfast as that, like Christmas, came only once a year. And there was still the Christmas dinner to come, on that same day.

After breakfast, Pa and Mr. Boast went with the team to get Mr. Boast’s bobsled. They took shovels to dig the snow away so that horses could pull it out of the slough.

Then Mary took Grace on her lap in the rocking chair, and while Carrie made the beds and swept, Ma and Laura and Mrs. Boast put on their aprons, rolled up their sleeves, and washed the dishes and got dinner.

Mrs. Boast was great fun. She was interested in everything, and eager to learn how Ma managed so well.

“When you haven’t milk enough to have sour milk, however do you make such delicious biscuits, Laura?” she asked.

“Why, you just use sour dough,” Laura said.

Mrs. Boast had never made sour-dough biscuits! It was fun to show her. Laura measured out the cups of sour dough, put in the soda and salt and flour, and rolled out the biscuits on the board.

“But how do you make the sour dough?” Mrs. Boast asked.

“You start it,” said Ma, “by putting some flour and warm water in a jar and letting it stand till it sours.”

“Then when you use it, always leave a little,” said Laura. “And put in the scraps of biscuit dough, like this, and more warm water,” Laura put in the warm water, “and cover it,” she put the clean cloth and the plate on the jar, “and just set it in a warm place,” she set it in its place on the shelf by the stove. “And it’s always ready to use, whenever you want it.”

“I never tasted better biscuits,” said Mrs. Boast.

With such good company, the morning seemed to go in a minute. Dinner was almost ready when Pa and Mr. Boast came back with the bobsled. The enormous jack rabbit was browning in the oven. Potatoes were boiling, and the coffee pot bubbled on the back of the stove. The house was full of the good smells of roasting meat, hot breads, and coffee. Pa sniffed when he came in.

“Don’t worry, Charles,” said Ma. “You smell coffee, but the kettle is boiling to make your tea.”

“Good! Tea is a man’s drink in cold weather,” Pa told her.

Laura spread the clean white tablecloth, and in the center of the table she set the glass sugar bowl, the glass pitcher full of cream, and the glass spoonholder full of silver spoons all standing on their handles. Around the table Carrie laid the knives and forks, and filled the water glasses, while Laura set all the plates in a pile at Pa’s place. Then at each place, all around the table, she cheerfully put a glass sauce dish holding half a canned peach in golden syrup. The table was beautiful.

Pa and Mr. Boast had washed and combed their hair. Ma put the last empty pot and pan in the pantry, and helped Laura and Mrs. Boast whisk the last full dish to the table. Quickly she and Laura took off their work aprons and tied on their Christmas aprons.

“Come!” said Ma. “Dinner is ready.”

“Come, Boast!” said Pa. “Sit up and eat hearty! There’s plenty more down cellar in a teacup!”

Before Pa, on the big platter, lay the huge roasted rabbit with piles of bread-and-onion stuffing steaming around it. From a dish on one side stood up a mound of mashed potatoes, and on the other side stood a bowl of rich, brown gravy.

There were plates of hot Johnny cake and of small hot biscuits. There was a dish of cucumber pickles.

Ma poured the strong brown coffee and the fragrant tea, while Pa heaped each plate with roast rabbit, stuffing, and potatoes and gravy.

“This is the first time we ever had jack rabbit for Christmas dinner,” Pa said. “The other time we lived where jack rabbits grow, they were too common, we had them every day. For Christmas we had wild turkey.”

“Yes, Charles, and that was the most we did have,” said Ma. “There was no surveyors’ pantry to get pickles and peaches out of, in Indian Territory.”

“Seems to me this is the best rabbit I ever tasted,” said Mr. Boast. “The gravy is extra good too.”

“Hunger is the best sauce,” Ma replied modestly.

But Mrs. Boast said, “I know why the rabbit’s so good. Mrs. Ingalls lays thin slices of salt pork over it when she roasts it.”

“Why, yes, I do,” Ma agreed. “I think it does improve the flavor.”

They all took big second helpings. Then Pa and Mr. Boast took big third helpings, and Mary and Laura and Carrie did not refuse, but Ma took only a bit of stuffing and Mrs. Boast just one more biscuit. “I declare, I’m so full I can’t eat another mouthful,” she said.

When Pa took up the fork from the platter again, Ma warned him. “Save some room, Charles, you and Mr. Boast.”

“You don’t mean there’s more to come?” said Pa.

Then Ma stepped into the pantry and brought out the dried-apple pie.

“Pie!” said Pa, and, “Apple pie!” said Mr. Boast. “Jumping Jehoshaphat, I wish I’d known this was coming!”

Slowly they each ate a piece of that apple pie, and Pa and Mr. Boast divided the one piece left over.

“I never hope to eat a better Christmas dinner,” said Mr. Boast, with a deep sigh of fullness.

“Well,” Pa said. “It’s the first Christmas dinner anybody ever ate in this part of the country. I’m glad it was a good one. In time to come, no doubt a good many folks will celebrate Christmas around here, and I expect they’ll have fancier fixings in some ways, but I don’t know how they can have more solid comfort than we’ve got, for a fact.”

After a while he and Mr. Boast got up reluctantly, and Ma began to clear the table. “I’ll do the dishes,” she said to Laura. “You run help Mrs. Boast get settled.”

So Laura and Mrs. Boast put on their coats and hoods, mufflers and mittens, and went out into the glittering, biting cold. Laughing, they plowed and plunged through snow, to the tiny house nearby that had been the surveyors’ office. At its door Pa and Mr. Boast unloaded the bobsled.

The little house had no floor, and it was so small that the double bedstead just fitted across one end. In the corner by the door Pa and Mr. Boast set up the stove. Laura helped Mrs. Boast carry the feather bed and quilts and make the bed. Then they set the table against the window opposite the stove, and pushed two chairs under it. Mrs. Boast’s trunk squeezed between the table and the bed and made another seat. A shelf above the stove and a box beside it held the dishes, and just room enough was left for the door to open against the table.

“There!” Pa said, when all was done. “Now you folks are settled, come on over. Not even the four of us can get in here, but there’s plenty of room at the other house, so that’s headquarters. How about a game of checkers, Boast?”

“You go along,” Mrs. Boast told them. “Laura and I will come in a minute.”

When they were gone, Mrs. Boast took a full paper bag from under the dishes. “It’s for a surprise,” she told Laura. “Popcorn! Rob doesn’t know I brought it.”

They smuggled the bag into the house and hid it in the pantry, whispering to tell Ma what it was. And later, when Pa and Mr. Boast were absorbed in checkers, quietly they heated fat in the iron kettle and poured in a handful of the shelled popcorn. At the first crackle, Pa looked around quickly.

“Popcorn!” he exclaimed. “I haven’t tasted popcorn since—If I’d known you’d brought popcorn, Boast, I’d have routed it out before now.”

“I didn’t bring popcorn,” said Mr. Boast. Then he cried out, “Nell, you rascal!”

“You two go on with your game!” Mrs. Boast told him, laughing at him with her blue eyes. “You’re much too busy to notice us.”

“Yes, Charles,” said Ma. “Don’t let us disturb your checkers.”

“I’ve got you beat anyway, Boast,” said Pa.

“Not yet you haven’t,” Mr. Boast contradicted.

Ma dipped the snowy kernels from the kettle into a milkpan, and Laura carefully salted them. They popped another kettleful, and the pan would hold no more. Then Mary and Laura and Carrie had a plateful of the crispy crackly melting-soft corn, and Pa and Ma and Mr. and Mrs. Boast sat around the pan, eating and talking and laughing, till chore-time and suppertime and the time when Pa would play the fiddle.

“Every Christmas is better than the Christmas before,” Laura thought. “I guess it must be because I’m growing up.”

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