By The Shores Of Silver Lake (Chapter 23)
By The Shores Of Silver Lake
Laura Ingalls Wilder
On The Pilgrim Way
One Sunday evening Pa’s fiddle was singing a Sunday tune and they were all singing heartily with it,
“When cheerful we meet in our pleasant home
And the song of joy is swelling,
Do we pause to think of the tears that flow
In sorrow’s lonely dwelling?
Let us lend a hand—”
The fiddle stopped suddenly. Outdoors a strong voice was singing:
“—to those who are faint and weary,
Let us lend a hand to those on the pilgrim way.”
The fiddle squawked in amazement as Pa dropped it on the table and hurried to the door. The cold burst in and the door slammed behind him. Outside it there was an outburst of voices; then the door flung open and two snowy men stumbled in while Pa said behind them, “I’ll see to putting up your team, be with you right away.”
One of the men was tall and thin. Between his cap and muffler Laura saw blue, kind eyes. Before she knew what she was doing she heard herself screaming, “Reverend Alden! Reverend Alden!”
“Not Brother Alden!” Ma exclaimed. “Why, Brother Alden!”
He had taken off his cap and now they could all see his pleasant eyes and his dark brown hair.
“We are pleased to see you, Brother Alden,” Ma said. “Come to the fire. This is a surprise!”
“You are no more surprised than I am, Sister Ingalls,” said the Reverend Alden. “I left you folks settled on Plum Creek. I had no idea you were ’way out west. And here are my little country girls grown into women!”
Laura could not say a word. Her throat was choked with the joy of seeing Reverend Alden again. But Mary said politely, “We are glad to see you again, sir.” Mary’s face was shining with gladness; only her sightless eyes were blank. They startled Reverend Alden. He looked quickly at Ma, and then at Mary again.
“Mr. and Mrs. Boast, our neighbors, Reverend Alden,” said Ma.
Reverend Alden said, “You were all doing some fine singing when we drove up,” and Mr. Boast said, “You did some fine singing yourself, sir.”
“Oh, I wasn’t the one who joined in,” said Reverend Alden. “That was Scotty, here. I was too cold, but his red hair keeps him warm. Reverend Stuart, these are old, good friends of mine, and their friends, so we are all friends together.”
Reverend Stuart was so young that he was not much more than a big boy. His hair was flaming red, his face was red with cold, and his eyes were a sparkling cold gray.
“Set the table, Laura,” Ma said quietly, tying on her apron. Mrs. Boast put on an apron too, and they were all busy, poking up the fire, setting the kettle to boil for tea, making biscuits, frying potatoes, while Mr. Boast talked to the visitors who stood in the way, thawing themselves by the stove. Pa came from the stable with two more men, who owned the team. They were homesteaders, going out to settle on the Jim River.
Laura heard Reverend Alden say, “We two are just passengers. We hear there’s a settlement on the Jim, a town named Huron. The Home Missionary Society sent us out to look over the ground and make ready to start a church there.”
“I guess there’s a townsite marked out on the railroad grade,” said Pa. “But I never heard of any building there, except a saloon.”
“All the more reason we should get a church started,” Reverend Alden answered cheerfully.
After the travelers had eaten supper, he came to the door of the pantry where Ma and Laura were washing the dishes. He thanked Ma for the good supper and then he said, “I am sorry indeed, Sister Ingalls, to see the affliction that has come to Mary.”
“Yes, Brother Alden,” Ma answered sadly. “Sometimes it is hard to be resigned to God’s will. We all had scarlet fever in our place on Plum Creek, and for a while it was hard to get along. But I’m thankful that all the children were spared to us. Mary is a great comfort to me, Brother Alden. She has never once repined.”
“Mary is a rare soul, and a lesson to all of us,” said Reverend Alden. “We must remember that whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth, and a brave spirit will turn all our afflictions to good. I don’t know whether you and Brother Ingalls know that there are colleges for the blind. There is one in Iowa.”
Ma took tight hold of the edge of the dishpan. Her face startled Laura. Her gentle voice sounded choked and hungry. She asked, “How much does it cost?”
“I don’t know, Sister Ingalls,” Reverend Alden answered. “I will make inquiries for you if you like.”
Ma swallowed and went on washing dishes. She said, “We can’t afford it. But perhaps, later—if it doesn’t cost too much, we might somehow manage, sometime. I always wanted Mary to have an education.”
Laura’s heart beat hard and thick. She could feel its beating in her throat, and wild thoughts fluttered so fast in her mind that she did not know what any of them were.
“We must trust in the Lord to do all things for our best good,” said Reverend Alden. “Shall we have a short prayer meeting, all of us together, when you’ve finished the dishes?”
“Yes, Brother Alden, I should like that,” said Ma. “I am sure we all would.”
When the dishes were done and their hands washed, Ma and Laura took off their aprons and smoothed their hair. Reverend Alden and Mary were talking together earnestly while Mrs. Boast held Grace, and Mr. Boast and the two homesteaders were talking to Reverend Stuart and Pa about the wheat and oats he intended to raise as soon as he could get his sod broken. When Ma came in, Reverend Alden stood up and said they would all have the refreshment of prayer together before saying good night.
They all knelt down by their chairs, and Reverend Alden asked God, Who knew their hearts and their secret thoughts, to look down on them there, and to forgive their sins and help them to do right. A quietness was in the room while he spoke. Laura felt as if she were hot, dry, dusty grass parching in a drought, and the quietness was a cool and gentle rain falling on her. It truly was a refreshment. Everything was simple now that she felt so cool and strong, and she would be glad to work hard and go without anything she wanted herself, so that Mary could go to college.
Then Mr. and Mrs. Boast thanked Brother Alden and went home, and Laura and Carrie brought Carrie’s bed downstairs. Ma made it down on the floor by the stove.
“We’ve only the one bed,” Ma apologized, “and I’m afraid there are not covers enough for it.”
“Don’t worry, Sister Ingalls,” said Reverend Alden. “We’ll use our overcoats.”
“We’ll be very comfortable, I’m sure,” said Reverend Stuart. “And glad we are to have found you folks here. We thought we had to go all the way to Huron, until we saw your light and heard you singing.”
Upstairs, Laura helped Carrie unbutton in the dark. She tucked the hot flatiron close against Mary’s feet in the bed. As they all snuggled tight together to get warm under the icy-cold covers, they heard Pa and the travelers still talking and laughing around the fire.
“Laura,” Mary whispered, “Reverend Alden told me there are colleges for blind people.”
“What, for blind people?” Carrie whispered.
“Colleges,” whispered Laura, “where they get college educations.”
“How can they?” Carrie asked. “I thought you had to read, to study.”
“I don’t know,” Mary said. “Anyway, I couldn’t go. It must cost something. I don’t suppose there’s any chance I could.”
“Ma knows,” Laura whispered. “Reverend Alden told her too. Maybe you can, Mary. I do hope you can.” She took a deep breath and promised, “I will study hard, so I can teach school and help.”
In the morning the travelers’ voices and a clatter of dishes woke her and she sprang out of bed to dress and hurry downstairs to help Ma.
Outdoors was crisp and cold. Sunshine gilded the frosty windows, and in the house everyone was hearty and cheerful. How the travelers did enjoy that breakfast! They praised everything they ate. The biscuits were light and flaky, the fried potatoes were brown and finely hashed, the slices of fat pork were thin and crisp, and the gravy was smooth and brown and creamy. There was hot brown-sugar syrup, and plenty of fragrant steaming tea.
“This meat is delicious,” Reverend Stuart said. “I know it is just fat salt pork, but I never tasted any like it. Would you tell me how you cook it, Sister Ingalls?”
Ma was surprised, and Reverend Alden explained, “Scotty’s going to stay out here in this missionary field. I’ve only come out to get him started. He’ll be baching and doing his own cooking.”
“Do you know how to cook, Brother Stuart?” Ma asked, and he said he expected to learn by experience. He had brought supplies; beans, flour, salt, tea, and salt pork.
“The meat is easy,” said Ma. “Cut the slices thin, and set them to parboil in cold water. When the water boils, pour it off. Then roll the slices in flour and fry them brown. When they are crisp, take them out onto a platter, and pour some of the fat off. Save it to use for butter. Then brown some flour in the fat left in the frying pan, pour in some milk, and keep stirring it as it boils until the gravy is just right.”
“Would you mind writing it down?” said Reverend Stuart. “How much flour, and how much milk?”
“Goodness!” said Ma. “I never measure, but I guess I can make a stab at it.” She got a sheet of paper and her little pearl-handled pen and the ink bottle, and wrote down her receipts for fried salt pork and gravy, and for sour-dough biscuits and bean soup and baked beans, while Laura cleared the table quickly and Carrie ran to ask Mr. and Mrs. Boast to come over for a preaching service.
It seemed odd to have church on Monday morning, but the travelers were starting on the last stage of their journey to Huron, and no one wanted to lose this opportunity to hear a sermon.
Pa played the fiddle, and they all sang a hymn. Reverend Stuart, with Ma’s receipts in his pocket, made a short prayer for guidance in all their worthy endeavors. Then Reverend Alden preached the sermon. After that, Pa’s fiddle gaily and sweetly played and they all sang:
“There is a happy land, far, far away,
Where saints in glory stand, bright, bright as day,
Oh, to hear the angels sing glory to the Lord, our King…”
When the team and wagon were ready to start, Reverend Alden said, “You have had the first church service in this new town. In the spring I will be back to organize a church.” And he said to Mary and Laura and Carrie, “We will have a Sunday school too! You can all help with a Christmas tree next Christmas.”
He climbed into the wagon and went away, leaving them with that to think about and look forward to. Wrapped in shawls and coats and mufflers, they stood watching the wagon going westward on the untouched snow and leaving the marks of its wheels behind it. The cold sun shone brightly and the white world glittered in millions of tiny, sharp points of light.
“Well,” Mrs. Boast said through a fold of shawl drawn across her mouth, “it’s nice to have had the first church service here.”
“What is the name of the town that’s going to be here?” Carrie asked.
“It doesn’t have a name yet, does it, Pa?” said Laura.
“Yes,” Pa answered. “It’s De Smet. It’s named for a French priest who came pioneering out here in the early days.”
They went into the warm house. “That poor boy’ll ruin his health, most likely,” said Ma. “Baching all by himself and trying to live on his own cooking.” She meant Reverend Stuart.
“He’s Scotch,” said Pa, as if that meant that he would be all right.
“What did I tell you, Ingalls, about the spring rush?” said Mr. Boast. “Two homesteaders in here already, and March hardly begun.”
“That struck me too,” said Pa. “I’m making tracks for Brookings tomorrow morning, rain or shine”